7 Factors to Consider Before Deciding to Walk-On
“Coach, I just want an opportunity to continue playing in college.”
It was April of her high school senior year when I received an email describing a young lady’s desire to play college athletics. She was not looking for an athletic scholarship. She made it clear she knew she probably was not at the same talent level as our top student-athletes. Her email continued stating she had already been accepted into the college and was wondering if there were any walk-on positions for the upcoming fall season.
I checked with admissions and saw her academic record to be outstanding. The difficulty in my responding to this email was we typically had our recruits verbally committed to us late in their junior year of high school or right after our summer camps prior to student’s senior year. I really did not need another player for her position, but I asked for some game film. After watching some video, I invited her to come out for a try-out a few weeks later where she did pretty well. (Although I have been a NCAA Division I Head Coach, I was coaching at a Division II program at the time which allows for prospects to do try-outs prior to enrolling at the school. Not all programs and levels can do this, so check with the school you are researching.)
As she sat with her parents in my office, I made it clear that we did not have any athletic scholarship money for her. She told me she wanted to work hard to make herself better and encourage her teammates while getting a quality education. Playing time was not expected by her parents or her. She wanted an opportunity to play college athletics. I could tell her desire and positive attitude was contagious, she was an innate leader, and was disciplined in her academics. Her high school coaches echoed the same things and spoke highly of her work ethic and character. I decided to take a chance.
If you are also considering walking-on to an athletic program, make sure the college is 100% fit for you in all aspects besides athletics: academic, social, location, and financial. In research for my book, Looking For A FULL RIDE?: An Insider’s Recruiting Guide, I interviewed 65 college coaches and athletic directors. Almost every single one discussed having those areas being the right fit BEFORE even thinking about being a college student-athlete. This young lady had done exactly that prior to contacting me, which actually influenced my desire to take a chance on her! If all of those areas line-up, it’s really important to analyze a few other aspects of being a non-scholarship athlete.
Do You Have What It Takes to Be A Walk-On?
1. Time Commitment
What type of time commitment are you willing to invest even if you never enter a competition? Find out what their practice, game, film, weights, study hall, and travel schedules look like in a typical week. Are you willing to make the sacrifices to be fully committed?
2. “We” vs. “Me” Mentality
Being a walk-on typically means you won’t see the field, court, track or competition mat beyond practice. What type of support can you have for your teammates day in and day out even if you aren’t playing? Will you push teammates, especially those who play your position to get better, knowing their growth likely puts your farther away from playing time?
3. Positive Attitude
Can you still have a positive attitude and be hardworking every day, even if your Rudy moment never comes? (If you haven’t seen this movie, seriously is a MUST see if you are going to be a college student-athlete. It’s about a skinny little kid who wants to play football for Notre Dame….seriously, if you haven’t seen it, open up your Netflix or Hulu account right now as you finish reading this blog!).
4. Accept You May Not Enter a Competition, No Matter the Score
Even if you think you should be playing over someone else, can you accept the coaching staff’s decision without complaining? This may sound harsh, but if the answer is no, then don’t even think about it. For all parties involved, trust me. Just don’t do it. Period.
5. Accept You May Not Travel or Even Dress-out in Uniform on Competition Days
For some schools, they don’t always travel their whole team, especially when class time would be missed if they don’t expect you to play. For other programs, you may not even be handed a uniform on game day. This is not the case for all walk-on student-athletes, but this can become a very challenging situation if you are not mentally prepared for it.
Factors to Consider Where to Walk-On
6. Recruited Walk-on vs. “Just Come in For Preseason And We’ll See You Then”
Does the coach know anything about you and actually seen you compete prior to enrolling in the school? Will the coach still consider cutting you during preseason? Do they ever “redshirt” (meaning purposely not enter you into a game during your freshman year)? What has the coaching staff done in the past with walk-ons? Are they treated the same in practice getting the same amount of reps or does the first team get the most attention?
7. Have you researched the intramural and/or club opportunities at the school?
With less time commitment, these options would still allow you to continue being an athlete.
It’s really important to evaluate all of these areas before deciding this is the right role for you to play. From a veteran college coach’s perspective, I believe it takes a highly disciplined person with great character to be in this role. I am honored to have had many of them over the years.
Some of you are thinking, what happened with the young lady I described earlier? Fast forward a few years later, she had her Rudy moment and her teammates cheered her on as she made a huge impact in a very important game. I know she speaks fondly of her athletic career! Her teammates and I loved her to death and saw her as an amazing leader who always put others before herself. She was a key component in keeping our bench motivated. More importantly, she pushed the starting players each and every day!
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Coach Renee Lopez
As a 17 year coaching veteran, Coach Renee Lopez is a recruiting expert for high school student-athletes. She uses her NCAA Division I, II, and NAIA Head Coaching experience to help families navigate the recruiting process to be identified by college coaches and help them find the right “fit” for playing at the next level. She has produced 3 All-Americans, over 30 All-Conference athletes and Her teams have been honored with awards for team academic accomplishments, sportsmanship, and sports ministry. In addition, Coach Renee Lopez has been named Coach of the Year by her peers.
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