The Unwritten Code of the College Walk-On

how to be a college walk on
image from the book “Wisdom of the Walk-Ons”

Every college program tries to recruit the best athletes they can and offers them great scholarships to choose their school over another. What almost never get’s talked about, is that while a college team might be driven by a coach and the star players, it runs on the unheralded walk-on. The majority of college athletes are actually walk-ons, not scholarship athletes.

With sports like DI football, there can be up to 85 scholarship athletes but almost 130 players on a roster during spring ball; that’s almost 50 walk-on players on a single team. With sports where there are fewer scholarships (Track and Field, Soccer, Baseball, etc.) these teams do not have enough scholarships to give everyone scholarship money; that means there are starters and major contributors to the team that are walk-ons.

It might sound like all you need to do is find a way to walk-on to a team and you’re set. Not so fast. The majority of walk-on athletes end up quitting before they are done with their eligibility. It’s important that before you go thinking walking-on will solve all of your problems, you are aware of some of the most misunderstood aspects of being a walk-on.

Most walk-ons will quit

This is just the unfortunate truth. Whether it is an inability to keep up the school work, tired of getting pounded at practice with no playing time or a desire to look for an opportunity to earn a scholarship; most walk-ons will not finish their four years of eligibility at the same school.

You will probably not have your magic moment televised

If the only reason you are walking-on to a team is that you want to have your moment in the sun, you will probably be one of the players that quits. Being a walk-on is about the process; enjoying being part of a team, practice and a unique club of college athletes. You will be spending a lot more time being a college athlete than getting recognized by the fans or media.

Know what type of walk-on you want to be

There are two categories of walk-ons. Recruited walk-ons are athletes who have been talking to the coach before college, got help from the coach through the admissions process and show up at the school knowing they are already on the team. Unrecruited walk-ons are athletes who get into school on their own and through an open tryout make the team. This is a much riskier way to walk-on because there is no guarantee you make the team and if you don’t, you can waste a year of eligibility.

You will not be treated like a scholarship athlete

There is a hierarchy within college teams; spoken or unspoken. First are scholarship athletes, second are recruited walk-ons and third are unrecruited walk-ons. On every college team there are politics and certain athletes will get preference over others.  Many walk-ons quit because they feel the coach and scholarship players don’t treat them like real team members. This is necessarily true, but it is important to understand this is a very common feeling for walk-ons at the college level.

All of the above points make the process of walking-on to a team sound terrible. It’s not, but it is hard and too many athletes go into the role of being a walk-on thinking the hard part is making the team. The hard part is showing up day in a day out, giving your best with no promise of a scholarship or recognition outside of your coaches and team.

I myself was an unrecruited walk-on and I’ve worked with hundreds of athletes who become walk-ons each year. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me on Google+ or by leaving your questions in the comments below. 

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