Can My Kid Be a Walk On for College Sports?

Published by Wendy Nelson on

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast week, I shared a great guest post from Chuck Self on Questions High Schoolers Should Ask College Coaches in the Recruiting Process.  This week, I’d like to talk about students who want to play sports in college, but are not at a skill level that would be seriously recruited.  For the purpose of this post, I am defining a “walk on” as a student athlete who did not go through the official recruiting process in high school and just has an interest in playing on a team in college, or someone who went through recruiting, but didn’t get offered a spot anywhere he or she wanted to go.

My daughter ran cross country in high school.  She was a mid-pack runner.  She wanted to continue cross country in college, but wasn’t sure if a team would want her.  Her college search focused on academic opportunities.  She figured if she chose to attend a Division 3 school, she would probably be able to run on a team.  When she chose to attend a Division I school, she figured she wouldn’t have a chance of getting on the team.  I reminded her that the first time we visited the school, our tour guide said she said she was on the swim team and not to automatically think you couldn’t be on a team there unless you were great.  I encouraged my daughter to check into whether she could be on the cross country team.  It wasn’t until late May that she decided she should fill out an interest sheet to see if she could possibly be on the team.  The response from the coach was that she could run as long as she was willing to follow a strenuous training program over the summer.  She made the commitment to do it and went off to college with a ready-made “team family” to hang around with.  She is running towards the back of the pack on her team so far, but the strenuous training is paying off in helping her to improve.

If your student is interested in a college sport, but doesn’t know if he or she would make a team, here are my suggestions:

  1. Sports that have a set number of players on the court or field will be less likely to accept walk ons – It will be harder to walk on for volleyball, basketball or football at many schools, unless your student is willing to be a “practice only” player who sits during games.  Sports like track, cross country, swimming, golf, and others that have more latitude with the number of players are more likely to open up their teams to anyone who is interested.  That being said, don’t automatically assume anything.  A particular sport may be more or less popular at a particular school and you may be surprised at what sports still have room for walk-on players and what sports don’t.
  2. Know the extent of the commitment – Your student should ask the coach a lot of questions before committing to the team.  One of the most important things to know is how much time will be involved.  My daughter’s cross country team practices five days a week and the runners are expected to run on their own a sixth day.  They have expected mileage for every week.  After my daughter arrived on campus, she learned that all the cross country runners also ran on the track team.  She felt like she would need to do this too in order to keep up her training and stay a part of the group.  That meant a large Spring semester commitment for meets.
  3. Have your student take a hard look at the number of things he or she will be juggling – To go along with #2, make sure your student doesn’t have too much on his or her plate.  We wanted our daughter to get a job on campus to earn spending money, but she didn’t find anything she could work around her other commitments.  Looking at it now, I can say that juggling a job, classes, homework and cross country would have been too much for her in her first semester of college.  You don’t want your student to feel really overwhelmed in his or her first semester.  Have your student prioritize activities.  If there is a club or fraternity/sorority he or she really wants to join, there may need to be a decision on what’s more important.
  4. Look into intramural and club sports on campus – If competing on an official school team isn’t sounding doable, have your student check into other ways to participate in the sport on campus.  These can offer a lower time commitment and a more relaxed way for a student to continue participating in a sport he or she loves.
  5. Respond to any “feeler” contacts – College coaches often reach out to any students who apply to the college and have high school sports listed in their applications. Encourage your student to respond back to see what it would take to be on the team.

College sports can be a great way to make friends, continue a favorite sport and stay fit.  My daughter would never have thought she would get the opportunity to run at a D1 school.  Tell your student – you can’t be on the team if you don’t ask and if you do ask, you may be surprised!