Becoming a professional action sports athlete – is it for me?

As youngsters we all had our sporting idols we looked up to, wondering if some day we could be just like them. Becoming a pro sportsman or woman is probably something that most of us dream of at some point. The fire tends to extinguish as we get older – other priorities coming to the fore and hopes and dreams being put on a back burner.

Tignes air timeIn pursuit of the snowboarding dream – pic Fi

But this doesn’t apply to all. In fact, a small portion of sports addicts pursue their dream to the full, although the road to professional greatness is long and arduous – only a handful make it.

The difference

The problem with outdoor sports is just how dictated to by Mother Nature we are. (Have you ever tried dropping in to a quarter pipe when it’s raining?)

For a handful of board sliding types it’s possible to escape indoors, although these facilities aren’t usually on everyone’s doorsteps. For the rest of us, and certainly those who can’t hit up spots under closed roofs, we’re reliant on good weather forecasts and having the time to make use of them.

In 90% of locations the consistency of our weather is lacking. And even if you reside in the wave and wind rich areas of the world, such as Hawaii, you’ll still find yourself sitting on the beach staring out at conditions that aren’t flicking your switch at times. Here lies the first hinge, particularly with the UK – if you want to get to pro level, you’re going to have to travel to train.

A long road

Most extreme sports athletes are put in position to achieve competition results and promote their sponsors. Their job is to win and also spotlight the companies who support them (see my previous blog post on sponsorship and what it means). There are a few fortunate enough to be paid to be ‘soul riders’ but most will be expected to enter events and prove their worth by achieving podium positions.

As a grom you’ll be starting off in youth category comps, facing off against other pre-pubescent adolescents, all frothing and no doubt equally as talented as you. It usually helps if you live somewhere close to conditions for your sport – surfers will do better residing close to waves (obviously) – although this doesn’t always have to be the case.

269765Living here could make you a great surfer?

You could end up doing extremely well, even if you live miles from the sea, although you’ll need extremely supportive parents who don’t mind shelling out for trips to the beach every weekend for this to happen. In winter, it would also be wise to head overseas to get some quality wave time under your belt – yet another burden for mommy and daddy to carry.

If you’re achieving good results in comps then you’ll probably start getting recognised by the brands and some may, even at an early age, end up with sponsorship deals. In the best of cases, these companies could help out with your costs and lessen some of the financial strain. They will though be expecting a return on investment – be under no illusions.

The next level

Making a name for yourself as a grom is difficult, but if you manage to consolidate a few good years of decent results then it might be time to step up to the next level. International competition is the obvious move but with this comes added pressure with having to perform, please sponsors and pay even more dollar for the whole exercise. It’s usually at this point dreams are put to bed and the pro-life forgotten about – finance issues being the main motivational factor for canning it.

Fi - Maui gybeGoing international; Fi windsurfing in Maui – pic Tez

Back in its heyday windsurfing was a sport that was on everyone’s lips and as such the pot of cash was a lot bigger than it is now. To make it as a fully paid up windy pro these days you’ll require an even bigger budget to expense your career.  There aren’t guarantees and every year dozens of new recruits show up to national and international windsurfing events, all armed with an arsenal of sick tricks and fluid repertoires, only to disappear after a few seasons. Windsurfing is littered with stories of those falling by the wayside – for various reasons, not just financial.

Nailing it

If you do happen to reach those upper echelons of pro superstardom then good for you – but what can you expect?

Reading autobiographies of any successfully athlete; the majority of cases prove that not only is it tough at the top, it also can be a lonely experience. Reaching the pinnacle takes a monumental amount of effort, sacrifice and bloody mindedness. In the process you’ll possibly make enemies, lose a few friends and find yourself fending off attack from all corners.

Take Sean White as a typical example. As a competition snowboarder he epitomises what it means to be at the top of the pile. Witness any of his amazing Olympic/X-Games slaying pipe runs and the talent is obvious. But it comes at a price.

shaunwhite_morph_adammoranShaun White laying down the moves – pic Transworld

Single minded and focused on winning, for the Flying Tomato, nothing else matters. He’s even had his sponsor, Red Bull, build a monster halfpipe in the back of beyond so he can practice his history making runs in private, without the glare and scrutiny of media and peers.

To me, this is a little sad, as one of the reasons sports such as snowboarding are so attractive is to enjoy the social, banter and fun of riding with mates. But you can’t fault White’s drive and determination to reach the top – after all he promotes himself as an athlete rather than hobbyist and there’s nothing wrong with this!


There are many pitfalls on the road to becoming a sponsored athlete – injury being one such danger.

Watching US pro skier Lindsey Vonn crash out of the 2013 World Champs in Schladming, Austria, makes for painful viewing and proves just how full on competition environments can be when having to perform.

vonn-crash_feLindsey Vonn crashing out

Watersports riders don’t usually have such hard surfaces to impact with although things can still go Pete Tong when under pressure. Moroccan windsurfing lunatic, Boujmaa Guilloul, proved that when aiming to score the first triple landed forward loop at Hookipa, Maui, he knocked himself unconscious after slamming into a very hard mast!

End of the line

At some point every successful pro career has to come to end. Winning streaks dry up, injuries become too frequent, wins become far less common and new school young pups surge through the ranks to take your place.

There are only so many times you can win a world championship and very few extreme sports personalities take multiple titles – Kelly Slater is a bit of a freak but even he’s considering hanging up his competition surfing jersey (again).

Realising the writing’s on the wall and knowing when to quit is a sign of maturity. If you’ve done your homework and gained extra skills then you could move on to bigger and better things after life on the pro grind.

Some start companies of their own, others move into high end brand focused roles with the businesses that once supported them  while a number are fortunate to just retire and live a quiet life. One thing’s for certain though, all professional athletes will have curated many great memories of their five minutes in the spotlight – upon reflection this in itself should be reward enough.

If you’re thinking of heading along the pro path, learn everything you can, improve as much as possible but above all, try and enjoy it – who knows how long it will last…

Parts one and two of this series about extreme sponsorship can be found here and here.

About Tez Plavenieks

Content creator - SEO - social media. Windsurf - SUP - snowboard - surf - kayak - drums - art
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3 Responses to Becoming a professional action sports athlete – is it for me?

  1. Dan Callis says:

    Or they just build mental ramps in their garden when they retire!

  2. Pingback: Getting sponsored – parts 1, 2 and 3 | Tez Plavenieks

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