Hardly Hollywood: Being a walk-on athlete at UBC

Attending an open tryout and making the team isn't the most conventional way to join a varsity team — or the easiest. But it's not unheard of.

Being a walk-on athlete sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood movie. Despite being passed over for the team during the recruiting process, an athlete shows up to a tryout and wins a roster spot. It’s a classic underdog story — one that almost seems more fiction than fact.

Yet, at UBC, that path is very real. Open tryouts are run by many varsity teams, including the baseball, soccer and track and field teams. Given the high number of potential high school recruits these teams have to sort through during scouting processes, it’s inevitable that a few talented prospects will slip through the cracks. These tryouts give the teams a chance to make up for that — by finding anyone they might have missed.

Any registered UBC student is welcome at open tryouts, making it technically possible for any of the 60,000 students on the Vancouver campus to make a varsity team. However, while the tryouts themselves are open, chances to succeed and make the team are generally low.

For instance, while there are currently 76 athletes on the UBC track and field team, according to the team head coach Laurier Primeau, very few, if any of them, joined the team through an open tryout. He said that, on average, the team takes one walk-on athlete a year.

With chances that low, it can seem almost impossible for walk-on athletes to succeed at UBC. But it’s not. Just ask Jared Knott, a former UBC student who walked on to the men’s hockey team as a goalie in the 2017/18 season.

He had given up playing junior hockey a few years earlier, instead choosing to coach hockey on the side and focus on being a student. While the door seemed closed for a return to hockey, an opportunity presented itself while Knott was coaching.

“Another guy that I was working with at the goalie school, Eric Williams, was playing for UBC. And he kind of mentioned that … he might not be going any further at UBC,” said Knott. “So from there, I just decided, maybe I’ll give it a go — it seems like the stars are kind of aligning.”

While Knott’s situation was unique — knowing of an open roster spot — it didn’t make the process of getting on the team any easier. Even just the term “walk-on” implies a sense of just showing up and making the team, but that diminishes the immense amount of work that has to be done before an athlete can even think of trying out.

Trying out isn’t just a one day process — it’s a constant marathon. According to UBC baseball head coach Chris Pritchett, there is a lot of hard work that needs to go into making the team in this fashion.

“They better be a grinder and they’ve got to be patient,” he said. “Because they weren’t recruited, they have to go and they have to prove themselves every single day.”

That idea of proving himself every day was evident in Knott’s experience.

“It was pretty intensive training. I was on ice every day for basically two months with just a couple days off,” he said. “I was training pretty full-on, working with some high-level coaches, training with a lot of other high-level goalies who really pushed me to meet their level.”

On top of the physical strain of training, trying out for a team can also be a very mentally challenging process to endure. For Knott, it was often isolating to have to fight as hard as he did for a roster spot.

“[I was] coming into a room where [I was] the only guy who’s not already on the team,” he said. “I didn’t really have anyone to share the process that I was going [through] with.”

It’s an incredibly draining process, with months of physically and mentally grueling training, all just to have a chance to make the team. To push through this process takes an incredibly determined athlete and according to Dr. Whitney Sedgwick, a psychologist at UBC Counselling Services who often works with athletes, that determination comes from an athlete’s mindset.

“If someone says, well, the odds are stacked against me … my sense is, if they continue to have that inner dialogue, they’re stacking it even higher against themselves,” she said.

That sentiment certainly applies to Knott — he pushed through the difficulties inherent in the process by viewing the tryout as an opportunity, not a roadblock.

“I didn’t try to treat it as a chore,” he said. “I was playing with house money. I really didn’t have anything to lose, so why not just give my all?”

Over the tryout process, Knott put his head down and continued to work with the team as the regular season grew closer. Then, as the preseason came to a close, he finally heard the news he was looking for.

“One day, coach called me in and said, ‘You’ve been working hard, we like what we’re seeing and we’d love to keep you around.’ It was pretty exciting,” he said.

It was an incredible reward for a long, arduous journey. Yet, for Knott, the work didn’t stop there. As a walk-on, you still have to compete — maybe not for a roster spot, but for playing time.

In other sports, such as baseball, you may have to move up the ranks of an entire other team before you make it to varsity. Pritchett mentioned that while few players make the varsity team right from an open tryout, many make it onto the junior varsity squad. Pritchett said injuries, personnel and continued determination could move a junior varsity player to varsity, but it is variable.

“It’s not a promise [to get a varsity roster spot] when you’re on our junior varsity team, but there are some players that are on there now that will impact our varsity team,” he said.

It’s hardly the Hollywood rags-to-riches story described earlier. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are indeed success stories. Even if walk-on athletes make it no further than the junior varsity level, there’s no denying that’s an impressive achievement itself. And for some, a junior varsity spot is all they may have wanted in the first place.

“Some kids don’t ever have that goal to play on the varsity team,” said Pritchett. “They just want to play college baseball and go to school here at UBC.”

So while some walk-on athletes may never leave the junior varsity level, start a game or set program records, it doesn’t matter. That was never the point.

After making the team, Knott never started a game for the Thunderbirds. But that doesn’t take away from his accomplishment. After all, he was never trying out for the spotlight — he just wanted some more time on the ice.

“I just still really loved hockey,” he said. “Even if it’s just practice … I really enjoyed being out there, I was having a good time. So not having playing time is not ideal, but just being there and having the opportunity to play hockey every day was enough for me.”