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Professional Sportsperson

Kaiwhakataetae Ngaio

Alternative titles for this job

Professional sportspeople take part in competitive national and international sports such as rugby, cricket, golf, horse racing, and tennis, or may be employed as lifeguards.


Pay for professional sportspeople varies depending on the sport, the individual's ability, and their performance.

Job opportunities

Chances of getting a job as a professional sportsperson are poor because competition is extremely high.


Pay for professional sportspeople varies depending on the sport, and their performance and abilities.

  • Most paid sportspeople are semi-professional, earning some money from sport, and working a second job to make a living.
  • Semi-professional and some Olympic sportspeople based in New Zealand earn varying amounts – from the minimum wage to $60,000 a year or more.
  • Top-level sportspeople in internationally popular sports, such as golf or rugby, may earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary or winnings.

Professional sportspeople may also earn money from additional contracts such as advertising.

Many sportspeople employ managers to help secure extra income from:

  • appearance fees
  • contracts
  • performance bonuses
  • sponsorship deals and performance grants.

Pay for lifeguards

Most pool/surf lifeguards work only during summer (November to March), although some year-round jobs are available. Pay varies depending on location and responsibilities.

  • New pool/surf lifeguards usually start on the minimum wage
  • Those with two or more years' experience can earn between minimum wage and $20 an hour
  • Team leaders can earn up to $24 an hour.

(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our pay information)

What you will do

Professional sportspeople may do some or all of the following:

  • follow a training programme to develop fitness and strength
  • practise the skills, drills and teamwork of their sport
  • decide on competitive plans and strategies with coaches
  • compete in national or international events
  • consult with health professionals
  • maintain their equipment
  • work with sports officials, sponsors, fans and the media
  • public speaking.

Skills and knowledge

Professional sportspeople need to have knowledge of:

  • the rules, techniques, skills and tactics of their sport
  • nutrition and exercise requirements
  • dealing with the media
  • injury prevention
  • how to care for equipment such as racquets, shoes, bikes or boats.

Knowledge of sports psychology may also be useful.

Working conditions

Professional sportspeople:

  • work irregular hours, including early mornings, evenings or weekends
  • train and compete in indoor or outdoor facilities such as gymnasiums, sports centres, rugby fields and tennis courts
  • may be required to travel to get to grounds and venues.

What's the job really like?

Lisa Allpress


No room for sentiment on the race track

According to top jockey Lisa Allpress, it pays to have a strong competitive streak. "People say it's a sport, but it's more than that to jockeys – it's our lives and our livelihoods. I'm very, very competitive on the race track, and you have to be. Some of my closest friends are the people I work with, yet you have to forget about that when you're out on the race track."

A great sense of satisfaction

And sometimes victory can be especially sweet. "I think one of the most enjoyable things is the sense of satisfaction you get when you've ridden a horse all the way through from the start of its training, and it develops into a good horse. To get it to a race, and win – that's an amazing feeling."

Hard work to make the big money

However, Lisa warns that those wins, and the big prizes that can go with them, won't just fall in your lap. Becoming a successful jockey requires hard work, determination, skill, and a little bit of luck.

"A jockey can make a lot of difference to the outcome of a race, but the horse has to have the ability to win, of course. It's a hard sport, too. I've been riding for 15 years and I've only just won a Group One [a high-stake race featuring top horses]. But if being a jockey is really what you want to do, and you keep working at it, success will come."

Entry requirements

To become a professional sportsperson you need a high level of skill and experience in your chosen sport.

Many sports have junior or development squads or leagues. If you perform well at the junior level you can qualify for elite or representative teams, and gain competition experience. If you continue to do well, you may be offered professional opportunities.

Secondary education

Participation in sport during secondary school is essential for most professional sportspeople. Useful secondary school subjects can include NCEA Level 2 biology, science, physical education and English.

Additional requirements for specialist roles:


To become a jockey you need to complete an apprenticeship under a trainer, which usually lasts for three or four years and cannot be completed before you are 20 years old.

Harness Driver

To become a harness driver you need to work as a trainee for up to four years. This training leads to the National Certificate in Equine  (Harness Racing).


To become a surf lifeguard you need to be at least 14 years old, and pass the New Zealand Surf Lifeguard Award exam.

To become a pool lifeguard it is preferred that you hold a Pool Lifeguard Practising Certificate (PLPC). However aquatic centres and pool management will often hire people to be lifeguards with the intention of them gaining their qualification while on the job.

Personal requirements

Professional sportspeople need to be:

  • competitive and motivated
  • observant and alert
  • disciplined and willing to work hard
  • able to remain calm and perform well under pressure
  • good at communicating with others
  • able to accept feedback and criticism
  • able to work well in a team.

Useful experience

Useful experience for professional sportspeople includes:

  • participation in junior, school or amateur sports events
  • any outdoor recreation work or experience dealing with the public
  • any other experience in their chosen sport or field.

Physical requirements

Professional sportspeople need to have excellent fitness and health.


To represent your country in a sport, you must be a registered member of your national sports organisation.

Find out more about training

Harness Racing NZ
(03) 964 1200 - webmaster@hrnz.co.nz - www.hrnz.co.nz
High Performance Sport New Zealand
0800 GOLDMEDAL - info@hpsnz.org.nz - www.hpsnz.org.nz
Primary Industry Training Organisation
(04) 801 9616 - info@primaryito.ac.nz - www.primaryito.ac.nz
Professional Golfers Association of NZ (PGA)
(09) 488 6617 - www.pga.org.nz
Surf Life Saving NZ
(04) 560 0383 - communications@surflifesaving.org.nz - www.slsnz.org.nz
Check out related courses

What are the chances of getting a job?

Limited opportunities for most professional sportspeople

Overall, opportunities for professional sportspeople tend to be limited because:

  • few professional sports leagues exist in New Zealand
  • government funding is limited
  • competition for positions is extremely high.

Consequently, most paid sportspeople are semi-professional, earning some money from sport, and working a second job to make a living.

Best chances for jockeys, team sports players and lifeguards

The roles of jockey and trackwork rider appear on Immigration New Zealand's immediate skill shortage list. This means the Government is actively encouraging skilled professional sportspeople from overseas to work in New Zealand.

Team sports with professional leagues offer the most full time, paid opportunities for professional sportspeople.

Opportunities may also be better for lifeguards who work professionally at swimming pools and beaches as well as competing in surf lifesaving events.

Career as a professional sportsperson may be short

Professional sportspeople tend to have a limited amount of time in their career. For example, the average career in rugby lasts about five years due to the physical nature of the sport. Careers in less physically intensive sports, such as golf and horse racing, are usually longer.

Types of employers varied

Professional sportspeople may be:

  • employed by professional sports teams or leagues
  • self-employed, and earn a living from a combination of competition prize money, scholarships and sponsorship/advertising.

Sports that employ significant numbers of professional sportspeople in teams or leagues include:

  • rugby
  • cricket
  • netball.

Sportspeople who participate in Olympic sports are also more likely to be semi-professional, as some of these sports receive targeted funding from government.


  • High Performance Sport New Zealand website, accessed November 2013, (www.hpsnz.org.nz).
  • Immigration New Zealand, 'Immediate Skill Shortage List', 25 June 2018, (www.immigration.govt.nz).
  • Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, '2006-2014 Occupation Data' (prepared for Careers New Zealand), 2015.
  • New Zealand Institute of Sport website, accessed November 2013, (www.nzis.co.nz).
  • Sport New Zealand website, accessed November 2013, (www.sportnz.co.nz).

(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our job opportunities information)

Progression and specialisations

Professional sportspeople follow a variety of paths when they retire from professional sport. Many go on to unrelated work, though others stay in the sports and recreation industry working as coaches, sports managers, administrators or commentators.

Professional sportspeople usually specialise in a particular sport such as rugby, rugby league, tennis or cricket. Other specialisations include:

Footballers play as part of a team in football competitions or tournaments.
Golfers compete for money and prizes in golf tournaments. They may also act as a resident professional in golf schools and clubs.
Harness Driver
Harness drivers drive a horse from a sulky (a light cart), which is towed behind the horse in harness races.
Jockeys ride racehorses at race meetings, trial meetings, jump outs and for track work.
Lifeguards are responsible for the safety of people at swimming pools and beaches. They may also educate the public on water safety.
A rugby player kicking a ball towards the goal

Professional sportspeople take part in tournaments and competitions (Photo: Skills Active Aotearoa)

Last updated 1 April 2019