TB University: Levels...

I have to be honest. Being a professional track and field athlete wasn’t on my radar until I got to the University of Tennessee and my teammate Dee Dee Trotter had made the Olympic team in 2004. There was a lot of talk that she would “turn pro” and run for Adidas. 

That was the first time I realized there was a level of track and field participation beyond college.

But I wasn’t interested.

I mean, I thought her car was nice, her apartment was nice, I understood that there was money in it but it still wasn't something I wanted to pursue.

I wanted to be in college, and I wanted to graduate. 

I entered the University of Tennessee as a Forensic Anthropology major. I knew about Tennessee’s body farm and I was both fascinated and disgusted by the idea that not too far from campus there was a property that housed several corpses in differing stages of decomposition at students’ disposal for study.

Anyway…backing up a bit I need to explain why I even became a track athlete to start with. I covered this in my Paying it Forward entry but for those of us just joining in…

Long story short…

My dad said he and my mom didn’t want to pay for college, so I needed to find a way to get a scholarship.

I knew that there were two types of scholarships: academic and athletic. After taking a hard look at my basketball and volleyball skills I understood that track and field was MY best bet for securing an athletic scholarship.

I had the academics in the bag.

So I used track and field to get to, and finance college. I wanted nothing more from the sport than that.

Until I fooled around and won almost everything my sophomore year (2005) INCLUDING the IAAF World Championships in Helsinki, Finland.

Suddenly, the only question I was being asked was “are you going pro?” 

Eventually, I did opt out of continuing to compete as a collegiate athlete and became a NIKE athlete in what would have been my junior year on the team.

In reality, there are thousands of collegiate athletes in this country, and less than two percent become professional athletes in this way.

But it isn’t the only way.

Let me explain. Class is now in session.

If you ever logged on to dyestat.com back in the day you’re probably aware that high school track and field athletes are often referred to as “prep” athletes.

Athletes that are currently competing for their college are called “collegiate” athletes.

Athletes that have recently graduated and/or have no more eligibility are called “post-collegiate” athletes.

Anybody else who no longer competes for a college or university, and is still actively competing in track and field is by default a professional.

Yes I know, we are the only sport where participants beyond college are professional by default.

Which is probably part of our problem but again…blog entry for another day.

So what exactly does it mean to be a professional track and field athlete since almost anyone can be one?

A professional track and field athlete is an athlete that competes in track and field for prize money.

Yes. You are pro if you've won/earned money for participating at a competition.

However, most people think that being a professional track and field athlete means you’ve signed an endorsement contract with a shoe company, that you’re getting paid just for waking up in the morning, that you’ve got three closets full of free gear, and that the car you’ve always wanted in a model year not out yet is sitting outside your new adult apartment.


you’d be wrong. 

There are more levels to this “pro game” than a distributor flow chart at a Herbalife conference.

For the sake of making this easier to understand I’m going to identify and label some levels myself.

  • Post Collegiate
  • Gear
  • Gear and Performance Bonuses
  • Salary (sponsor/endorsement deals)

Post Collegiate: Congratulations!!! You’ve exhausted your collegiate eligibility, maybe even got a degree and now you’re done with school but you’re not done with track. You can hire an agent and that agent can find meets for you to compete in and you can earn a fairly good amount of money (depending on how often you compete and where).

Gear: You’re out of school, and someone (usually a coach or an agent) has a relationship with a shoe company and they ship you free gear to train and compete in.

Gear and Performance Bonuses: Same as above but you have a contract with the shoe company that basically says, if you do x, y, or z we will pay you this specific amount of dollars. For example, you’re getting free gear from Nike but have a contract in place that says if you make the Indoor World Championship Team they’ll pay you a $2000 bonus.

Salary: This is what most people are thinking when they talk about their dreams of going pro. This is a situation where a company pays you a salary to wear their gear (or use their products) in training and competition. You also have a performance bonus contract, but you also typically have reductions- this means they can take money away if you don’t perform to expectations set in your contract. 

Now, all four categories are professional level.

The difference between the levels is you.

Hey! What do you mean by that T?

Oh, so glad you asked.

What I mean is this... 

at this level of participation you have to start thinking about Track and Field in business terms. Successful business men and women understand both sides of the deal. 

Yes, we know why you want to get paid but you also have to understand WHY a company would PAY YOU to wear their gear. Especially when there are countless number of athletes who would rock it for free.

Which leads us to this question: what’s the goal of every business? Including yours? (Because remember Track and Field is now your business)…

The goal is to generate revenue...

Before this gets too deep and I start trying to explain revenue generation let me just say this:

a company will pay you if and only if they feel that your presence in their gear or your use of their product will help elevate their company's profile, increase their company's visibility and their company's exposure in the market, which in return can help increase their revenue.

So who do you have to be in order to attract those kinds of offers?

Good question.

You have to be a big-time performer.

You have to be a stand-out performer.

You have to have shown consistent elite level times/distances/heights consistently.

You have to prove that you are unfazed by the pressure when lining up for the final.

So if you were NCAA Champion, or maybe if you won conference, or USATF National Championships, or you’ve been turning in world list performances…you’re halfway there.

But what if you’re not?

Well, you’re still a pro.

And there are hundreds of track meets around the world where you can earn money, hone your craft, and gain experience.

Diamond League meets are the most visible in our small track world, but there are IAAF Permit meetings, IAAF World Challenge meets, and countless other meets in dozens of different countries happening on average of every other day in season.

But all of these competitions for each level of "pro" that I’ve identified are simply opportunities to do the one thing we all should be after:


Remember in the last blog that I said: asking how you can go pro is the wrong question?

I hope you see now why that is.

It’s wrong because anyone can do THAT part. 

So what’s the right question?

Asking yourself WHAT you need to do in order to become the BEST athlete that YOU can be...

is the right question.

Because of all the successful pro athletes that I know (myself included) they weren’t out looking to be pro. 

They were looking to be great.

And sometimes your pursuit of greatness will reap monetary rewards.

And of course sometimes it won’t.

But there is nothing amateur in the pursuit of greatness, and the pursuit of perfection.

So learn this sport, learn your event inside and out, build your mental strength, perfect that technique, and take your shot.

Pursue your own greatness as if you're that professional already and watch what happens.

Class dismissed.

nick steadman