From a young age, my parents always made sure I was exposed to the world of sports. From gymnastics to track and field to softball, I loved every sport I was involved in. I've had role models that influenced me to work hard in all of those sports, but many of them did not necessarily play softball. The biggest role models in my life not only inspired me because of their successes, but because of their failures too.
My earliest role model was a female shot put thrower who my dad had coached in high school. I always admired her at every track meet my dad took me to because she was one of the strongest women I had seen. She always gave everything into every throw at every meet, and I admired her ability to block out distractions. She was constantly recruited by colleges, and I would always be in earshot of her conversations with my dad about getting a full-ride scholarship.
One day, I asked my dad what a full-ride scholarship was, and he explained it the best he could to a 5 year old. But, I understood loud and clear, and I wanted one. That same year, my school had teachers do home visits to meet with their students before school started. My kindergarten teacher asked what I was excited to do that year, and I responded, "Get a full-ride scholarship." The look on my kindergarten teacher's face was pure confusion and shock that I knew what that was. But, I was determined to get one and I did, thanks to UCLA. Go Bruins.
As I got older and started to discover my love for softball, I started watching the Women's College World Series every year on television. In 2008, when I discovered that softball was a sport in the Olympics, I was beyond excited to watch all of Team USA's games on television. I hadn't had a dream of playing beyond college, until the day I watched Team USA play against Japan. All of the players had me in awe with how good they were, but Lovie Jung always stood out to me. She had a similar appearance to my mom and it made me inspired to see someone on the Olympic team who looked like someone so close to me. She made me feel as though I could be just like her and do what she did one day too. From that day on, Lovie Jung sparked the dream in me to be a member of the Olympic team.
With the Olympic dream ignited inside of me, I was more fascinated to watch other sports in the Olympics besides softball. I watched all of the gymnasts, swimmers and track and field athletes, but one sprinter really caught my eye. Lolo Jones had grabbed my attention when watching the track and field events in the 2008 Olympics. My dad had told me how good she was and that she was projected by many people to win the 100-meter hurdle race. I remember being so eager to watch her race because I had learned a little about her background story of how she grew up, and the overall morals she followed every day.
At the start of the race, she was neck and neck with every runner, but slowly started breaking head further and further. Until, she tripped on the second to last hurdle and lost the whole race. I remember seeing the devastated look on her face after being so close to winning, but losing within a matter of seconds. My heart broke for her, but that same day I became one of her biggest fans. I wanted to see her succeed. Every day since then, she's been one of my biggest role models for being a resilient athlete. She endured failure on one of the biggest stages in the world, but came back and still competes to this day. She even took her running career a step further and made the women's bobsled team for Team USA for the Winter Olympics. To this day, I follow her career and tell every person I come across that she is one of my biggest inspirations and role models.
Despite only mentioning three of my biggest role models, I have many more that have inspired me to pursue my collegiate and Olympic career in softball. The biggest part about having role models is having those people in life to look back on when times get difficult and tiring. I always find myself looking at the perseverance and dedication of my role models, regardless if they played softball or not. And it's inspiring to know that regardless of the sport, age level, or appearance, all athletes encounter the same successes and failures. All of my role models have encouraged me to be my genuine self and inspire the younger generations to do the same, and I look to them for guidance through every trial of my athletic career. They are one of the biggest reasons I have obtained some of my greatest athletic dreams.
Here are the four categories that I have used to further develop my game and myself as an athlete. To me, these categories are what have brought my game and myself to the next level!
1. Do activities that increase and maintain your athleticism. Often when we only focus on the technical aspects of hitting, fielding, etc., we become mechanical or robotic. This, when not paired with other forms of activities, can stifle progress, creativity and athleticism. I suggest that during practice, create opportunities to try different movements. That may be in the form of playing other positions, trying plays on the run, playing a game of "sandlot" or getting out and playing other sports or activities.
2. Put time into the mental side of the game. In general, mechanics are usually the only or majority of what is taught at many levels. By working on your mental game, you will heighten your physical game and take you (as it has done for me) to the next level as a whole. Some examples of the mental game that can be worked on are: body awareness, ability to bounce back and being a good teammate (which benefits you and the team wins!).
3. Add vision into your training schedule. It is very hard to hit a ball consistently when you can't see it. The eyes are one of the most under-talked about and under-taught body parts and aspects of softball. The eyes are an extension of your brain; they help you make decisions and form understanding to make better choices on the field. A key concept to working on vision and your eyes is "open focus." This is a way of maximizing your ability to see the ball. By softening you eyes, you are able to see the ball better, and in turn, this loosens your other body parts to create a relaxed approach.
4. Balance of life! Get away from softball sometimes! Softball is my career, but even I take time off and get away from the game. Balancing all aspects of your life is a key component to success and longevity. Often, when this is done, you return to the game with a fresh and sharp mind (which we already discussed is a game changer!). Balance of life creates a happy place and helps you to continue to love the game of softball. To put it simply, loving the game and having fun are why we play (or the reason we should be playing)!
For as long as I could remember, I was an infielder. I wasn't just an infielder though; I was a middle infielder. I have always been that player who just loves the game. I want all the information I can get in order to be great. I knew in order for me to be as great as I could be, everyone else on the field had to do their jobs. Playing the middle infield, you're connected to everyone on the field, so that is how I started to learn other positions. I have always been a player who is intrigued by other positions.
The first time I was put in another position was the summer of 2013. I was playing for Team USA and was put in right field. This was the first time I got a new perspective and new-found respect for outfielders. That position is not easy whatsoever. I couldn't simply rely on my athletic ability to get it done. I was going to have to work at that position so that when I was out there, I wouldn't be that person everyone wanted to hit it to. I was going to be a good outfielder.
From that moment on I worked to be good at my weaknesses and even better at my strengths. I wanted to be able to be put anywhere on the field and make a difference. I know at a young age, athletes tend to play everywhere, which is something that I agree with. The more you learn at a young age, the better. If as an athlete, we have an idea of what is going on everywhere on the field, we will be better for it.
The moment I realized that the Olympic roster was only 15 players, was the moment I realized how vital being a utility player was. Yes, you read that correctly, 15 people. Being able to play more than one position just puts you in a better position to make the team. If you can hit and play anywhere, they can't not play you. There is always a spot for you somewhere on the field. I love being able to add to my teammate's strengths no matter where I am on the field.
Don't limit yourself to one position. Be versatile, be multi-dimensional, be authentically you. You never know where this game will take you.
A former coach of mine described softball as a "unique team sport that is disguised with individual successes for the betterment of the team." As I got to thinking about what that exactly meant, I realized just how awesome softball really can be.
When you are in the batter's box, it is you against the opposing pitcher, and that's it! That could come with some serious pressure, especially late in the game or with the game on the line. We must remember as an individual in a team atmosphere, what separates the good from the great is the ability to understand, that despite the one-on-one situation, there is a group of women in the dugout that are rooting for your success, always. Just as you would be doing if it was your teammate at the plate. What I'm getting at here is that the game of softball creates its own pressures throughout the innings and the flow of the game.
So, how do I personally deal with pressure? I depend on my teammates, I practice how I want to play, and finally, I breathe through it all.
The 2018 World Championships in Chiba, Japan, was a very high-pressure tournament, because we were defending our gold medal from 2016 and qualifying for the Olympics. My teammates and I didn't see it that way. We worked hard together, we had fun together, we depended on each other, and we qualified for the Olympics together. Of course, there were pressure situations in each game that we had to get through personally, but we did it TOGETHER. I have never felt like I had to be perfect on this team because my teammates had my back in every situation and that in itself, relieved a lot of pressure. Hearing them cheer me on in several intense moments is why, I believe, that I was able to perform and get the job done. Remember, the game itself creates pressure moments. If you are able to soak it all in and understand that "pressure is a privilege" and you are in that moment for a reason, then use that to strike out the next batter or hit the go-ahead RBI. Depend on your teammates because they are in the same situation as you are. Be in that moment together!
I heard the phrase "practice how you play" when I first started playing softball, and I still believe it to this day. The phrase, "never take a rep off" is the mindset that I have used in practice, that has prepared me to play in pressure situations. Practice can feel like a necessary evil sometimes, but if you treat each rep as if it is the game-winning rep, then there is purpose to your training or practice. It doesn't matter if I'm hitting by myself in a cage or hitting live batting practice, I am visualizing game-like situations in my head that I have to execute. Because I've done this several times in practice hopefully muscle memory takes over and this transfers easily over to high-pressure game situations and it becomes automatic.
I never go into a practice or training without an objective or goal in mind. I always recreate situations on offense and defense that can happen in a game. Not only do I hold myself accountable to this kind of training, but so do my teammates. They all do something similar, but, usually their own version. As a team, we always practice game speed and nothing less. This helps when we are actually in a game, nothing feels different, no matter the situation. We play like we practice! I have definitely benefited from practicing like this, my mindset is stronger than ever because of the situations I put myself in and the situations my teammates and I are forced into that help me breathe and relax when it counts in a game.
Lastly, when I look back at the very beginning of my softball career, I remember my dad coaching my rec ball team, I remember watching my sisters play softball and wanting to mimic every little thing they did. I specifically remember my teammates who have become like family, I remember the coaches who have shaped me into the player I am today and still becoming, and most importantly I love how softball has connected my family and brought us all together.
This is all part of the reason I am still playing today; this is my "why." Whenever somebody asks why I am still playing today, that is what I respond with. So, when I am playing today as a USA player, which comes with pressure just by wearing the jersey, I think of my why. Why I started it all when I was 8 years old? Why I continued to play once it got hard?
Think about the little girl you were and how excited you were when you were first starting to play and the excitement to lace up the cleats and run around the bases with your BFF, when there was no pressure at all; you were just learning how to love the game at the time. This is what gets me through any game and what brings me comfort when the situation gets too "big." I go back to myself at 8 years old, playing for my dad, mimicking my older sister at shortstop, learning the basics of softball and enjoying every second of it. It is the same game as when I was 8 years old playing at the local community park. Until now, when I'm 24, representing the United States playing for a gold medal!
In college, sometimes my favorite part of game day was pregame. I got to show off my arm and my range on the full field for only a few minutes in front of our fans, but I took advantage of every second, because I knew it might be the only chance I got to make a play that day with the big dogs we had in the circle.
I love the outfield, and I love the art of outfield. Until I was a freshman in high school, I thought being an outfielder just meant backing up the infield, catching fly balls and making a longer throw than the infielders. It wasn't until I had the life-changing opportunity to play on the OC Batbusters (Hanning/Stith) that I got to get one-on-one attention from Danny Murakami that I learned the art.
The art of throwing in the outfield, the art of reading fly balls, the art of backing up, etc. Everything was intricate and purposeful. It wasn't just the place where infielders went to die. It was its own position. It was here that I learned to "play with a passion and take it personal" -- something Danny would remind us to do at every practice.
So why should we value the art of outfield? Why shouldn't we just throw people out there and tell them to be athletic? I believe when we value the position and either learn about it in detail as a coach or take pride in it as an athlete, we have a better understanding of the flow of defense, we are held accountable to clear expectations as outfielders, and the strength of the entire defense elevates. My primary position is left field, and even though you might be able to think of a play that wouldn't involve me, I can't. I have a place to go and a purpose for being there every single time the ball is put into play. I understand the flow of the entire defense, not just my position, because I am always thinking 2-3 potential plays ahead in order to be in the right place. We should never be caught flat-footed in the outfield.
We can also hold athletes accountable as coaches and be held accountable as outfielders when we value the art of the outfield. If coaches and players think of outfield solely as the "backups" or a secondary position to infield, it is unclear of the expectations of an outfielder. Should an outfielder be able to make a throw on the money from 170 feet away? Should an outfielder know when to dive or when not to? Should an outfielder know when to play it off the wall or go for it? If there is an expectation placed on the outfielder, that skill should be given the proper attention needed for development.
Lastly, the strength of the entire defense elevates because there is clarity at every position on the field. All nine athletes on the field are playing with a passion and taking their position personally.
I also want to offer a few applicable tips on how to value the art of outfield. By developing a powerful and accurate throw, glove work and anticipation, we can begin to dust off the cover of the art of outfield. One of the things that Danny taught me was how to have a powerful and accurate throw. Many athletes have one of these things, but rarely both.
Mechanics are imperative in the outfield. Everything related to throwing will be exposed in the outfield. If your body isn't in alignment, your spin will reveal faulty accuracy, your arm will most likely suffer from injury, and/or your throw will lack velocity. In the same breath, if we don't field the ball cleanly, we have no play. Glove work is not just for infielders. Picking hops and understanding the position of the glove on various fly balls should be crystal clear.
I once heard it said that outfielders should be like dogs. The picture that comes to mind is a Labrador. They don't care how far, how high, or what's in it's way, they are getting to that ball. They use every ounce of their energy to get to the ball as quickly as possible. They don't drift under the flight of the ball, they sprint as hard as they can. This is the picture we should have in our heads when we're chasing down a ball.
However, part of the ability to do this requires anticipation and eagerness. Every time the batter attempts to hit a ball -- successfully or not -- we should be taking a few hard steps. Swing and miss, foul ball or any ball put in play no matter where it is, should result in a reaction from us. That means we don't take pitches off because every time the ball is thrown there is a potential for one of these things to happen. I learned how to position myself based on swing path and how to anticipate where the ball was going half a second before the ball is hit by doing this pitch after pitch after pitch since I was in high school.
Sports develop integrity in general, but outfield is an area that fine tunes this character trait. It's the position that people forget about until the ball gets hit there. It's the position that is easiest to take a pitch off, get distracted or lose passion. However, it's an art. When we understand the value of the art, we take pride in what we've been given the opportunity to do. To me, being an outfielder means being invested in every pitch, being committed to every play -- whether to me or not, and staying ready so when it's my time, it's natural. -Janie Reed
Our bodies are amazing machines. The elite athlete expects their body to react, accelerate and make explosive movements with accuracy, speed and efficiency. But, how do we fuel this amazing engine to run with such precision?
Many athletes are leaning toward a plant-based diet. A vegan diet is part of a lifestyle that is 100 percent plant-based and excludes the consumption of animals and animal products. With recent excitement about Beyond Beef Burgers and Tom Brady's in-season veganism, I am excited to share how nutrition has played a key role in my performance and recovery.
I get so many questions regarding my diet. If I had a piece of spinach for every time I got asked, "Where do you get your protein from," I would have too much protein in my diet!
For those of you who missed it, PLANTS! Yes, your normal greens: broccoli, spinach, peas, beans, lentils, the list goes on! Plants are an efficient and clean source of protein. Animals are high in fats, hormones and GMOs which increases inflammation and slows down muscle recovery.
As a softball athlete, we play approximately 50 games a season. The recovery time in my sport is minimal. In order to optimize my performance on the field I needed to make my recovery faster. Instead of my body breaking down high saturated fats, and storing lactic acid, eating 100 percent plant-based allowed my body to work on healing and rejuvenating so that I could get back out on the field with minimal soreness and fatigue.
I think "The Babe" would agree; don't let the fear of missing out keep you from challenging yourself. People ask me all the time if I miss cheese, chicken, etc., and I am so excited to share with them how veganism has liberated me. The beautiful thing is I am not weaker, I am stronger than I have ever been. Although it has challenged me, I have loved every bit of discipline I have gained.
In fact, veganism is not a diet, it is a lifestyle. It made me pause and ask myself, "Is this going to give me life; is this going to help me achieve my Olympic dreams?"
Food provides your body with energy, but you decide if it is negative or positive. -Sahvanna Jaquish
When I am traveling around to places working camps and clinics, I always hear people say that it is important to work hard. It is a cliché term that is thrown around by coaches, parents and even teammates. People brag about how hard they work, how busy their schedules are and what they are doing that no one else is, but how is "hard work" defined?
One word that comes to my mind is accountability. Holding yourself accountable means that you alone are "required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible." There is a growing trend of athletes blaming others for their lack of performance. Blaming bad coaches for bad at-bats, blaming umpires for bad calls that affect statistics, bad weather, bad field conditions. Honestly, none of that matters. No matter how young you are, once you realize that your success and failure is determined by your will and your mindset ALONE, your work ethic takes off, because you know that regardless of the circumstance, you are responsible for the outcome. You have to hold yourself accountable.
So why work hard? Why hold yourself accountable? Because the game knows. The game knows how much effort YOU put into practice. The game knows what work YOU put in outside of practice. The game knows how much weight YOU are lifting or how much weight YOU are NOT lifting. It knows if YOU want it more than the person you are competing against. It knows if YOU want it more than your parents or coaches want it. Once this clicks, you will be amazed at how much more "lucky" you get.
The game will know you and appreciate you more, but only if you appreciate the time, effort and sacrifice that it takes to be great at it. You alone can make this decision, and it cannot be forced on you by anyone else.
At the end of the day, your greatness is determined by you. The game knows. Let it know you as the hardest worker on and off the field. I promise you the game will reward you. -Haylie McCleney
Now that I am 25 and am living my dream of playing for the U.S. Women's National Team with my sights set on competing in 2020, I can't help but to look back on who I was at 12 years old. If I could give the younger me some advice it would be to enjoy every minute. I would tell myself don't be bothered by the people who tell you that you can't, but make sure you really listen to the people that tell you that you can. I'd tell you to trust Mom about that speech class that you want out of desperately because you can't stand the thought of getting up in front of people to speak. I'd tell you to keep the faith through this journey because you're about to go on the ride of your life that is going to lead you to exactly the person you've always wanted to be.
Lesson No. 1: Enjoy every minute. There are still so many times that I think back to travel ball moments when I was 10, 12, 16 and 18, and just smile because those moments were special. It was just about playing the game and getting better. Building friendships that will last a lifetime and learning who I wanted to be. It wasn't about stats; no one cared who got the job done. We just wanted to win and have a blast doing it. And man does it go fast, so enjoy it.
Lesson No. 2: Ignore the people who don't get you and say you can't, but listen to the ones in your corner saying that you can. When you're 12, someone will actually tell you that you won't play Division I softball. You're too small and skinny; you look breakable. But then in that same week, another coach that you know believes in you, will tell you that you can do anything if you work hard enough, that it doesn't matter what people think they know about you and what you can do. If you listen to that first coach that doesn't totally get you as a player, you won't be here living your dream. You'll learn to recognize the people that are truly in your corner. Listen to them.
Lesson No. 3: Trust Mom when she says you can't drop that speech class even though you can't imagine getting up and in front of people you don't know to speak. Honestly, just trust Mom. She's pretty much always right, but especially on this one. You have no idea how much you're going to mature and grow. Give it a couple years, but you're going to have the confidence to lead rallies in front of the whole high school. You're going to be poised in press conferences in college, and you're going to be bold when you start a ministry with your friends to give back. But you won't if you don't take that first step in that class. You're going to try and fight Mom to let you drop it, but trust me, you'll be grateful she didn't let you.
Lesson No. 4: Keep the faith. Man, easier said than done, but you'll learn. It's a journey, and if you trust it, if you have faith through the trying times, you'll realize it was all worth it. You'll remember how far you came and realize that you didn't do it on your own. You'll look at how you've transformed from an awkward, insecure and unsure girl into a poised, confident and bold woman and know that every trial was for a purpose. One day you'll look at yourself and know that because of your experiences, you became exactly who you always wanted to become, and you'll be proud of how you got there.
There's so much more to all of this "softball stuff" than just throwing a ball. Know who you are without the game, and you'll learn to recognize all the amazing things that it's doing in your life. I would hate for you to miss out on the blessings that it will surely bring you just because you can't see them. -Aubree Munro