A walk-on prospect can simply be defined as a recruit who either lacks the athletic skill to gain a scholarship or one who is looking for college entrance to schools that do not offer athletic scholarships (Division 3 programs and the Ivy Leagueprograms, for example, cannot offer athletic scholarships).
At face value, this may appear to be a failed option for prospects and families, but when you dig deeper into the potential gains a walk-on prospect can make, this option becomes increasingly appealing.
D-1 and D-2 programs are “capped” to 1) the number of athletic scholarships they can offer prospects and 2) a limit to the number of aggregate scholarship athletes permitted on the squad in any given year. For example, in the sport of D-1 Women’s Gymnastics, the maximum scholarship limit is 12, but typically a D-1 Women’s Gymnastics squad size is around 15 to 20 student-athletes. This means that roughly one-third of the squad are walk-on student-athletes.
Honestly, college coaches draw little if no tangible distinction between a scholarship and a walk-on student-athlete. They both have the same opportunity to impact the team and when the dust settles, a coach’s job is to win and she will simply put the best team on the field to reach that end.
Basically, there are 3 walk-on scenarios prospects and families can contemplate: 1) athletic scholarships are exhausted, 2) colleges that do not offer athletic scholarships (D-3/Ivy League) and 3) college coaches that have a clear tryout policy.
Verbal offers for athletic scholarships are becoming more popular and with increased frequency and there could be a good chance that the coaches from your top tier schools have committed their upper limit. This may appear disappointing at first, but always look at the bigger picture. Where your son or daughter may not qualify for a scholarship in her freshman year she could very well qualify during approaching college years. Athletic performance and scholarship availability will determine scholarship designees in a given recruiting cycle.
There is a small group of colleges and university that hold to a strict “non-athletic grant” policy for ALL student-athletes. All D-3 and Ivy League programs are bound to this philosophy and make the recruiting process a little more daunting. That aside, in many cases these programs are brilliant academic institutions. Not only can coaches offer potential assistance with financial aid and non-athletic grants, they may, in many cases, offer robust influence in assisting prospects through the admissions process.
You may be a prospect who is simply under the radar in college recruiting for various reasons. Perhaps you sustained a serious injury or had some personal issues that diverted you from your regimented training schedule. You have remained dedicated to the goal of impacting a college program and you are simply looking for the chance to prove yourself. Some college coaches offer a fall tryout period where student-athletes have the opportunity to impress college coaches and re-establish themselves as potentially worthy team members.
Developing a productive strategy to grab the attention of the college coaches, especially for walk-on candidates, takes a lot of work convincing the coaching staff and a strong measure of grunt work.
First, the prospect and family needs to develop a “thick skinned” approach. Feedback from coaches, for the most part, could be negative and you need to prepare for the best and expect the worst when it comes to decision time.
Second, it is critical to take a bold and “stick your foot in the door” approach in presenting your case. Remember, coaches are looking at 3 key components in prospects: Strong students, potentially impact athletes and boys and girls who bring strong character to the table. Your recruiting tactic should be vigorous, but polite.
Last, this should be a “prospect effort” and not a mom and dad approach. Our sons and daughters need to buck up and confidently push the walk-on agenda with college coaches and identify impact components that help build a strong and convincing case that will positively influence a coach’s decision to embrace the prospect.
College recruiting has evolved into a new and very competitive arena. This unique dynamic should create a catalyst for families to embrace creative strategies with their recruiting effort. Although the walk-on option may not appeal to many prospects, the end result in contributing to a worthy college athletics program can be exciting and complement a brilliant all-around college experience.
About Tom Kovic:
Tom Kovic is a former Division I college gymnastics coach (Penn) and the current director of Victory Collegiate Consulting, where he provides individual advisement for families on college recruiting. Tom is the author of “Reaching for Excellence”, an educational guide for college athletics recruiting. For further information visit: www.victoryrecruiting.com
Editor's Note: Publication of this article is not an endorsement of any recruiting service. Always check with the NCAA or your school's compliance officer for any questions regarding recruiting rules, the latest timelines, or other issues.