When I realized I’d be going to Penn State Abington as a college freshman, I knew I wanted to be on the basketball team. I didn’t know anyone at Abington, and I didn’t think I needed to. I’d tried out for teams before, and had a good idea of how they worked: show up, play, and if you impress, you get to stay.
I assumed it would be the same way in college. Plus, I didn’t know anyone who had successfully walked on in college anyway. There was no one to ask advice of.
I found the gym at Abington easily: freshman orientation was in there. When classes started I’d come to the gym and play pickup ball with whoever was there. I’d made myself Somebody To Watch within the first week.
The returning basketball team guys eventually came in to play. After my first time playing with them, I knew I was making the team.
By the fifth game of the season, I was starting. [This is all covered in Buy A Game.]
But Abington is a D3 school; back then it wasn’t even D3 yet. The campus is smaller and there wasn’t that much competition. What if I had been at a D2 or D1 school, where 100 players try walking on? How would I have gone about things there, mentally?
- Most of the time, you’re not making the team because of your talent. When I went to my first pro basketball tryout, the head coach explained to us that a team’s scorers usually came via the draft. For us, defense — not scoring or highlight moves — would be our ticket a higher level of ball. For a walk on college player, it’s the same idea. The coaches scout and recruit for talent. Those guys get the scholarships. Yes, there are a few exceptions to everything. But every walk-on teammate I had in college got there via hustle, scrappiness and a complete lack of a sense of entitlement. That last one is the biggest problem a lot of unproven players have: believing they’re owed something that they don’t have because they’ve yet to prove it.
- Everyone thinks he’s the exception. You may feel you’ll be the one to break the mold: walk on and be the starting, top-scoring star player by the end of the season. I’m not here to convince you otherwise. I will tell you that many have believed the same to have the truth slap them in the face: there are players at that school who are simply better than you. Not accepting this will get you a nice seat in the bleachers for the season.
- That doesn’t mean you don’t need Game. You better be just as good, if not better than, all the other walk-on hopefuls. And even when you are, don’t act like you know it: you’ve only outplayed a bunch of guys who won’t be on the team anyway. And remember…
- You won’t be playing. Walk-Ons don’t get many opportunities to, you know, get in the games. Especially if the team is good. On a trash team, everyone will get a shot at some point. But teams who are competing — for tournament spots, conference championships, etc — are going to go with the players who (they assume) most contribute to winning.
- Scholarship/recruited players get all the chances. To a coach, a scholarship is money. Money out of the team’s budget for recruiting players. Money that, should this player return to school the next season, can’t go to anyone else. And when money is invested in something, from a basketball player to a car to an idea, the investor will give chance after chance to his investment to see if he can make it work. In other words, the rules that apply to you — where you have to be the perfect, no-ego, happy-to-be-here nobody player — don’t apply to them. Don’t miss a single class. Never be late for anything. Don’t draw attention to yourself in any way. Sacrifice yourself to make things easier for the player who has three times your talent but gives one-third the effort. This is your unwritten contract as a walk on.
- Walk-Ons cannot afford pride. Let me tell you what I mean. I had a teammate who walked on my sophomore year. He’d hustled and scrapped in tryouts, playing dogged defense, sacrificing his body, rebounding, and only shooting the ball if it was a layup. He wasn’t a good shooter or ball handler. He wasn’t athletic. He had no moves or flash whatsoever to his game. He never stood out in pickup runs. And that’s exactly why he made it. You see, coaches know, ahead of time, that a walk-on will likely sit the bench all season. The more game a player has (or thinks he has), the less likely he will be content being a cheerleader all year. Thus, the guys who think they’re just as good as the recruited players often don’t make it: those guys would never humble themselves enough to be positive end-of-the-bench players. That guy who walked on that season was eventually asked to stop suiting up for games, and instead record the games with the school video camera so the team could watch game film. If you’re too proud to do that or think the role is beneath you, you will have a hard time walking on at any program.
- Walking on is not your springboard to greatness. When I hire employees, I look for people who want to work for me. Now, that sounds obvious, so I’ll say it again, using the proper emphasis: I hire people who WANT to WORK FOR ME. Who don’t I hire? People who want to start their own businesses. People who want to do what I do. People who see a job with me as just a stepping-stone to what they’ll do next. I want people who know their role and are happy to be in their role. I don’t want an assistant who feels she should be a CEO. If I were a coach, I don’t want the second unit players thinking they should be starters. Yes, work hard and push your teammates — but when gametime comes, or even before that, when I tell everyone what their roles are, accept your role and play it as it should be played, not with one eye on a bigger slot. In any organization, people who don’t accept and are not happy in their roles create discontent. If you think you should be starting somewhere, go there and earn that spot. For a walk on player, thinking you’re better than the starters will be more of a Mental hindrance than an asset.
The walk-on player at a scholarship-granting program is the guy the crowd cheers for when the home team is up by 37 and everyone wants to see you score a basket. Then everyone is happy that you have two points.
Come to the tryout knowing this, accepting that you’ll be the hardest-working-yet-least-rewarded player in the program. This is the truth you’ll live with.
And you’re still owed nothing.