If running college track and field or cross country has always been your dream, but you do not have college coaches beating down your door to offer you an athletic scholarship, don't be discouraged. Getting a college scholarship today is not as easy at it was twenty years ago. In fact, the numbers of scholarships awarded in track and field has decreased through the years, and--let's face it--the competition is fierce for the few scholarships that are available.
What can you do? You can do what thousands of other athletes are doing at every level of competition and in every sport: walk-on. Walking-on simply means that you are joining the team, and often times receiving some of the same benefits, but of course you are not receiving a dime for your efforts.
Walking on may not seem as glamorous as being a highly recruited superstar that is courted by every college in the country, but if your goal is to compete in collegiate athletics, it may be your only option.
With only 12.6 scholarships for a Division I men's track and cross country program, walking-on is a reality in track and field. Even state champions walk-on at some of the top tier Division I programs, however if you prove yourself, coaches will often reward your for your efforts with some sort of financial assistance. It's not unheard for athletes to start as walk-ons and finish careers with full-scholarships.
Gary Wieneke knows a thing or two about working with walk-on athletes. Wieneke spent 36 years as the Head Cross Country and Track and Field Coach at the University of Illinois before retiring last spring. Wieneke gives the following suggestions for high school athletes interested in walking on at the collegiate level:
- Show a strong interest in the program.
- Be persistent in your communication with the coach.
- Evaluate your talent and decide if you are truly able to compete at that level of competition.
- Be honest about your accomplishments.
- Make a visit to the campus and speak to the coach in person. Call ahead, don't just stop in without an appointment.
- Don't e-mail, call or write letters every day to ask if you can be part of the team.
If a college coach has not already contacted you and you are interested in walking on a college team this spring; there are several things that you must think about before taking this step.
Here are ten of the most important things to remember when considering walking on a college team:
- Start by contacting the college coach. Call or email the coach to schedule a meeting. Be prepared to give the coach information about your previous athletic experience, academic standing, major and why you want to compete for the program.
- Express your desire—-without going over board. If you are good enough they will give you an opportunity, but remember that college athletics are a privilege and not a right.
- Be courteous. The coach is evaluating you on as much on how you will interact with other team members as on your athletic prowess.
- Tell the truth. Don't make the mistake of giving mystery statistics to the coach. For example, saying that you went 4:20 in the mile, when in reality you have only run 4:30, is the wrong approach. Coaches can find out exactly how good you were in high school with a few phone calls.
- Don't expect a warm reception. Coaches have athletes contacting them all the time and very few pan out. Let your ability and hard work do the talking. Once the coach realizes that you are in for the long haul, they will give you your respect and make you feel like you belong.
- Listen to what the coaches have to say. If they are interested they will most likely run you through a tryout process. Make sure you find out all the details on when and what you will be expected to perform during the tryout to make the squad.
- Never ask about scholarships. If you are good enough the coach will let you know. If you're able to prove yourself, you may end up earning a scholarship.
- Be realistic. If you were a marginal track athlete in high school, don't expect to have an open invitation from a major Division I college track coach. They may tell you to continue to work and tryout again next spring. Unlike football and basketball, many major universities do have open tryouts for track athletes.
- Work hard. If a coach does give you the opportunity to join the team, make sure that you put forward your best effort or you won't be around long.
- Thank the coach. Make sure you let the coach know how much you appreciate the opportunity to participate in college athletics.