The amateur adult athlete doesn’t get paid to play. Ironically, most actually pay to play sports as adults. Quite simply, amateur adult athletes play for love of the sport and the camaraderie of a team.

The common thread that ties amateur and professional adult athletes together is sport. However, this article will highlight the unabashedly American tradition of playing sports as an adult and its contrast to the professional scene.

amateur adult soccer goalie

The Birth Of The Amateur Athlete

The word “amateur” comes from a French derivation of the Latin word “amator”, which means lover.  When applied to sports, it refers to someone who participates in a sport because they love the game and not because they are being paid for their activity. 

Although the idea of amateurism has been mistakenly attributed to the ancient Greeks, it is more likely a romanticized concept enhanced during the resurrection of the modern-day Olympics in 1896, where it was stipulated that only non-professionals could participate. 

Money Changes Everything

In recent years, the Olympics have modified their amateurs-only stance to include professional athletes’ eligibility to compete as well.  In fact, in much of elite-level sports today in the United States, there is little about the athletic experience that has not been monetized.  

Although The Masters golf tournament still reserves a spot or two for a top amateur golfer, most other elite sports competitions are strictly among professionals.

Whether it’s record-breaking transfers, multi-million dollar contracts, or the advent of NIL deals at the collegiate level, today, little separation between elite sports and money remains. This thought begs the question: where does organized sport leave the amateur athlete, the ones playing for nothing more than kinship and glory— the ones who step onto the field night after night emboldened simply by the love of the game?  Is there room for the amateur athlete in today’s sporting world?

Soccer Leads The Pack Of Amateur Adult Athletes

Few sports in the United States embrace their amateur roots as much as soccer. It would not be until the 1990s that the country saw the founding of an established professional league in the game. Despite that tenure, which continues to this day, professional soccer in the United States continues to be slower in achieving acceptance by the general population than other sports. 

By comparison, amateur soccer, at both the youth and adult levels, has enjoyed meteoric growth throughout the country, exemplified by the hundreds of new amateur teams that continue to form every year.

usasa men's soccer players

Community & Heritage Run Deep For Amateur Athletes

When you look at America’s amateur soccer teams, there is a major unifying factor—community. Initially, American soccer gained popularity largely through the play of immigrant communities in the Northeast. This can still be seen today at the adult amateur level.

Look at any adult amateur league, and you’ll find teams such as NY Pancyprian-Freedoms and RWB Adria, names that proudly proclaim their cultural heritage.  This is in stark contrast to the increasingly international and mercenary façade of professional sport.

In today’s world, people feel like they see themselves less and less in their “local” professional teams. Yet amateur sport provides a true place close to home where someone can identify and feel like they belong.

The Goal Is Different For Amateur Athletes

Additionally, amateur athletes are the antithesis of the “hustle culture” that has become increasingly popular in many online spaces, such as TikTok and Instagram. This contemporary mentality advocates that everything should be done in the pursuit of growing followers and or creating a material benefit. In this culture, hobbies cannot simply be something one does for fun. Instead, they must be a source of revenue or growing connectedness.

“Work without a tangible benefit” is derided as not “maximizing your potential.”  However, the goal of amateur athletics is purely individualized. The amateur athlete plays for other reasons, such as fitness or discipline, or simply because he or she enjoys participating as part of a team effort. Amateurs play because they love the sport and their sporting community.

Another advantage adult amateur sports offers is that it promotes diversity in skills and openness to all. In the sport of soccer, there are numerous websites, like Adults Play Sports, where one can find a team nearby, no matter what skill level one has. 

Although it is true that there are elite amateur teams and leagues that are so skilled that they can–and do– compete against professional teams, amateur soccer teams are plentiful. Most open the door to all, including beginners and those whose rusty college skills need awakening.

What motivates an amateur player, if not money? The beauty of amateurism is that every amateur athlete gets to decide what they want to get out of participation.

For some adult athletes, it’s simply a way to get out of the house for a couple of hours a week. For others, there is a defined fitness goal they are striving toward. For some, it is simply being part of their team’s community. For others, they eye participation as a means of enhancing their skills, leading to upward progression in the sport.  Everyone gets to set their own goals.

One can strive to be the best, but for most, the expectation is to be the best version of oneself and to have fun.

two women's soccer players from opposing teams goin after ball
USASA Women’s Region Free Championship Photo Credit: Sam Cohen

Love Of The Game: From Pro To Amateur Adult Athlete

The love of the game is exemplified by a story about soccer star Sacha Kljestan, who had a storied career in professional soccer. 

One day, after retiring from professional soccer, Sacha was in his gym working out when he had a chance meeting with someone who suggested that he join their amateur team. Kljestan joined the Des Moines Menace team as an amateur for their US Open Cup first-round match, where he contributed to their upset win.

Sacha said that it was his love of the game that brought him back—spoken like a true amateur.

IDA soccer cleats ad

The United States Adult Soccer Association Bridges The Gap For Adult Soccer Players

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) estimates that just 0.9 percent of collegiate athletes go on to compete professionally, which leaves the door wide open to those who would like to continue to play sports as adults.  In amateur soccer, the only barrier to entry is the ability to find a place to play.  

Although there are a number of valuable apps that help amateurs find nearby teams, the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA) is America’s largest amateur organization, with over 2000 men’s and women’s member teams throughout the U.S., encompassing all levels.  Visiting their website can help connect players to nearby compatible teams.

Amateur Sports Fans: The Unsung Heroes

I cannot write an article on amateur sports without mentioning the importance of amateur sports fans. The efforts of millions of amateur athletes around the country must be supported. Amateur teams need their local communities to stand up and support them and cheer them on from the sidelines of whatever venue they find to play at. Even just one cheering fan can make all the difference.

In today’s hyper-competitive world, the amateur athlete is more important than ever. For themselves, amateur sports provide an escape from the digital world and the 24-hour media cycle while enjoying a safe, healthy, competitive pursuit.

Amateur athletes help keep sports alive and thriving. There will always be a place for the amateur athlete.