This weeks’ guest is the light spirited tough as nails US Women’s Soccer team member Kelley O’Hara. Kelley shares her perspective and secrets. Like how do you show up again and again even if someone has told you, you’re not good enough.
Listen to the episode here:
- Training During Quarantine [00:07:46]
- Georgia, a Soccer Traditional Powerhouse [00:15:42]
- Soccer as a Team Sport [00:19:08]
- The US Women’s Soccer Team [00:22:22]
- Innate Intensity [00:26:40]
- Femininity [00:29:56]
- Getting Thrown Into the Fire [00:31:54]
- Informed Training [00:40:12]
- Mind and Body Checklist [00:48:20]
- Handling Pressure and Attention [00:51:17]
- Choosing Your Tribe [00:54:28]
- Personal Expectations [00:55:48]
- Goal: Olympics vs. World Cup [00:58:38]
- Club Games [01:05:30]
- Other Than Soccer [01:07:47]
- On Having Kids [01:12:26]
- On Sponsorships and Misalignments [01:14:02]
- Takeaways on Pursuits [01:17:01]
Kelley O’Hara – US Soccer Star on The Pressure of Winning and the Handling of Losing
In this episode, I am going to be talking to Kelley O’Hara. Kelley is a member of the Women’s National Team for the United States for football or soccer, depending on where you are. Needless to say, we are not strangers to how much this team has won for how long. There are some great things that come with that. You get onto a team that has done a lot of winning. The idea of winning is pretty easy but then there’s the pressure of winning.
During her time on the team, they’ve won two World Cup championships. They were runners-up in 2011. They won it in 2015 and 2019. She has a gold medal from 2012. She played at Stanford. This is a highly decorated athlete. Like all people who have accomplished so much from the outside, it’s getting in there and finding out what drives them. When they do get put down, kicked down, and not accepted onto a team or don’t make it or get cut, what’s their go-to?
Kelley has a lot of wisdom to share and some ways that she goes through her process of, “I got cut. What is it going to take for me to get on there?” With athletes like this because they are so tough and intense, I always wonder, do they ever get wiped out by disappointment? She shares her feelings on that. As a more veteran athlete, even though we talk a lot about not succumbing to this definition of age or limitations because of our age, how can she keep herself healthy, how long she wants to play, and what keeps her motivated? Enjoy the conversation.
Where are you?
I’m in DC.
Is that where you live?
That’s where I spend the offseason. Half the year, I’m in Utah with my club team.
My girlfriend lives here.
I was like, “It has to be love. There’s no other reason.” How’s that quarantine going?
It’s been okay all things considered. The fact that we can’t train.
I was going to ask you about that. You guys are like ponies with all the running that you do. I’m serious. Are you sneaking out at night to high school fields or something? What’s going on?
No, just in broad daylight. We jump in the fence onto the high school field, the local field. There’s a track and a proper turf field and real goals at a high school near us.
Did you say real goals?
Yeah. There’s a turf field that you can get into that the fence is torn down so you don’t have to jump the fence.
Do you have to run away? They probably wouldn’t mess with you though in the end, would they? Do you just get a warning or something?
I hope not. A couple of my teammates said that they’ve gotten kicked off of their local fields but they live in the burbs. Since I’m in DC proper, the cops have better things to do with their time. A cop went by and stopped and I was like, “Maybe if I look like I’m working hard, he won’t bother me.”
How does it work if you’re by yourself? Does your girlfriend help you? I’m fascinated. I understand that in organized training and soccer, you need a lot of people. How do you work on your fundamentals when you’re by yourself or maybe with one person?
You can get away with working with one person. One during this time with social distancing. You don’t need to be closer than six feet. If you don’t have anybody, a cement wall works well like a parking deck. I’ve used that a lot.
In tennis, they have a version of it. For basketball, it’s a little different but it’s touching, feeling, and all that. With volleyball, there’s a wall. Let me tell you, there were so many days that’s like, “Go against that bleacher, please.” You’re like, “Floor to bleachers.”
You’re bumping it into the wall and back? Serving it?
No. hitting down the ground and trying to hit it so that when it goes, it bounces again. You guys are probably like, “Eww.”
No. I was thinking about all the different sports and how they handle training. I bought a bike because I can’t be pounding my body into the ground with endurance-type training. I’ve been doing that with longer workouts.
I don’t want to talk about the obvious stuff, the jockey stuff. People know but what’s always genuinely the most interesting is people’s whys and also to sustain something. For many people in their lives, it’s the ability to sustain it and keep making new components of it that you get in love with what you’re doing. You generate everything. It’s you the human being and not you the athlete. I want to get into it and I’ll lead you there.
I’m always intrigued. There are people who are winners and there are people who love sports and champions and things like that. What are they going to do when they’re done? I was talking to Kerri Walsh and she’s exactly ten years older than you are. It’s like unwrapping that identity. That’s a good place to start.
I have three daughters. I remember one time, I took one of my daughters to the golf course, the driving range. I was completely trying to put my thing on my kids. I want to talk to you about your dad and how he got the three of you to be badass in your own right and differently. This guy came up to me and goes, “Now that you’re not playing, what are you doing? Are you just doing the mom thing?”
It was interesting. Do you know when you observe yourself and you’re like, “Check my ego out right now.” First of all, the mom thing is the hardest thing to do in this life because they’re not like, “Good job.” They’re like, “You suck.” There’s no paycheck. You never get it right. It’s not like you win. Your parents can look at you guys and be like, “We pulled it.” The thing is the arc of that story is long.
[bctt tweet=”The only way you get good enough is to get thrown into the fire.”]
There’s no immediate satisfaction or gratification.
It’s not like, “Kelley, we’re going to work on this drill. I want you to go to the left now.” You’re like, “I got that.” It’s like, “I nailed it. Awesome. I’ll be here.” I thought I could give them the list. This was an epiphany for me. They were like, “Weren’t you that volleyball player, Gabby?” I was like, “I’m still Gabby.”
I would love to hear your relationship with not only your sport and Kelley the soccer player and Kelley the World Cup Champion and all of these things. I wonder if you think about when it’s done, will you still be engaged in the sport? Will you have other things that you are interested in looking at? Athletes like yourself are loaded guns. Give them a target. It’s like, “Sport, boom. Now business, boom.” That’s not the only place where you can point your gun and see what you’re thinking.
Some of the younger girls on the national team like to call me Old Bag of Dirt and give me a hard time because I’m older. I’m like, “You’re only a couple of years younger than me.” It’s something that I think about a lot and that I’ve thought a lot about throughout my career with soccer specifically and even where I ended up going to school.
You went to Stanford.
Correct. For instance, I never thought that I would go to Stanford. It never crossed my mind up until a year and a half out when I said, “I do want to check this school out. This is interesting.” I’ve looked at other places and I haven’t found the right fit so I looked at Stanford. Up until that point, it wasn’t even on my radar. It wasn’t a thought in my mind that I would go to that school but then I went.
You’re from Georgia. Is it because it was far away? Are traditional powerhouses in soccer in other schools? When you say that, why wasn’t it?
Being from Georgia, I didn’t know much about it. I knew that it was a good school but I wasn’t up to speed. It was a phenomenal athletic school. It was like the elite school on the West Coast that’s not an Ivy. It wasn’t a soccer powerhouse. It didn’t cross my mind. I went and visited Santa Clara. That was the first school I visited. My dad took me out for the visit. We flew into SFO. We went to San Francisco and hung out.
We were driving down 280 and we passed the exit for Stanford. My dad goes, “That’s the exit for Stanford.” I was like, “Cool.” I didn’t think anything of it. We went to Santa Clara and did that visit. We went on a couple of other ones. We ended up going to Stanford. The moment I stepped on campus, I was like, “This is magical. This is the place.” I met the team and that was the kicker for me, the chemistry, and the culture. It felt like a family whereas like other schools didn’t.
Were you academic in high school? I went to college to play volleyball.
No, I was. My parents were like, “You will make As or you’ll be grounded.” The expectation is As. My dad likes to talk about this and apparently, my sister said, “We’ll average as Bs.” My parents were like, “You guys aren’t average.” That was the end of the conversation. I was expected to be a good student.
Did anyone rebel? Your brother or anybody?
We got into trouble.
You were normal humans. From the outside, I look at it through a couple of different lenses, “Athlete, a human being.” As a parent, I’m like, “How did they do it?”
You probably are like, “They were probably straitlaced kids, never went out, and didn’t do anything wrong.”
I have three daughters, 1 has grown and 2 are at home. They were homeschooled quite a bit because we live between California and Hawaii. The youngest needs more action so we put her in a conventional school. She’ll talk to me about grades and I’m like, “I don’t care. I care that you try your best.”
We’ll see how that story works out. It’s all good and fine for now. Also, she’s very uptight. She doesn’t need more pressure. It’s like cruising and then you have to go like that. My point is it’s always interesting to see parents and what the expectation is. The team and family element, how much is soccer been about soccer? How much of the love of it has been about the team and being a part of something?
I did so many sports growing up. The reason that I ended up being a soccer player or picking that as my thing is because I enjoy the team aspect of the sport. I probably appreciate it more now that I’m older and I’ve been through World Cups and Olympics and being a part of a group of individuals that come together for a collective goal and put agendas, egos, and personalities to the side. It always fascinates me.
Every time we’ve won, I’m like, “Wow.” It’s incredible to do that with a group of people because it’s difficult managing and making everything fit in place and in place to be the most successful and operate at the highest level. I love the camaraderie. I’m an outgoing person on the soccer field. I like cheering my teammates on and getting pumped for somebody else because I know that I’m going to need that. That’s a big reason that I did soccer.
When you were going through Stanford, did you already have in your mind that you were like, “I’m going to play professionally. I’m going to go to the Olympics and go for the World Cup.” Was that already laid in there?
The first youth national team camp that I got called was when I was 15. I remember going and being like, “This is it. I want to make it all the way.” As soon as that happened, that lit a fire in me. Even before that, I knew that I wanted to do it. I always had that goal in the back of my head. I want to play for the full team, especially once I got to Stanford. When we were there, I was like, “I want to win a national championship for my school.” I definitely wanted to play.
When I was a freshman, there wasn’t a pro league around. It came in the summer of 2009. Going into my senior year, I knew that I had the opportunity to play in a professional league after college, which was huge. If you don’t get called up to the national team, you still have an opportunity to play elsewhere and continue your playing career as opposed to having it be over.
Let’s talk about how good the US women’s soccer team is. I came up with Mia and Foudy and all those guys. I’ll never forget this one time I was at a tournament and this woman I used to work with at Nike said, “There’s this soccer player.” We were all 22 and 23 and getting into our professional careers.
How long did you play?
I played off and on for about thirteen years. I had some knee issues and then I started having kids. I played five months pregnant with my youngest. They were trying to bring back a discipline forum that I enjoyed doing. I don’t want to say it was more doable as you got older because your real estate was less. I was 40. We’re going to get into the age thing too because that’s a mindscrew.
It is something that I’m working on.
We’re going to talk about it. She said, “Her name is Mia and she’s the best player.” I was like, “Okay.” At the end of the day, she’s like, “Did you meet Mia?” I was like, “I don’t know.” I had met her but she was unassuming and quiet. It was interesting to watch all of that unfold. What’s fascinating is, in a way, there are certain teams. If you play basketball years ago, you played for Tennessee or the Lady Vols. With certain groups, you’re stepping into not only a legacy but like, “We’ve won a ton. That’s what we do, we win.”
It’s interesting for me. When you guys are stepping in and getting called up to the US team, how do you separate, “I’m going to focus on what I can control, which is my practice and how I work with my teammates and listen to the coach and perform.” Not let this onus of like, “Anything other than winning is a failure.” A lot of people don’t ever have to step into that. Some teams would be like, “We made it to the show. We made it to the semis. We made it to the final four. That was amazing.” With you guys, what’s amazing to me is it’s one or it’s none.
I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. As a younger player, I always wanted to prove myself through high school, college, and at the beginning of my pro career. Anson Dorrance is the head coach at UNC. He has won I don’t even know how many national championships. It’s annoying. I remember talking to him when he was recruiting me and he said, “We want our players to go into that environment and not cower away or be scared of these players who have these big names, have these reputations, and have done all these successful things. You should go in there and fight for your spot and not back down.” That stuck with me.
That’s good advice.
It’s not like saying, “Don’t be respectful,” because there’s that element to it. You should try to learn from the veterans. You should watch what they do and how they act on and off the field. Learn and absorb as much as possible. When it comes down to playing, you want to kick the crap out of everybody as much as the next person. That was the mentality that I went into that environment with. I’ve always adopted the belief that I might not be the best. Technically, I can always control how hard I try my effort. That’s something that no one can away from me regardless of the day.
I know that your dad was a pilot. There’s probably some intensity in your genetics. Do you think that’s something you develop through participating in sports or do you think that is also something that is naturally yours?
A lot of it is naturally me. That’s innately who I am to my core. I’m a competitive person. Even when I was a kid, my best friend said that I used to compete against her to see who could eat their sandwich the fastest and she hated it. She was like, “Kelley wants to make everything a competition.” I don’t ever remember that switch turning on or off. I just became competitive as I always have been. To my detriment a lot of times, throughout life, it’s not brought out the best in me. At the same time, the reason why I’ve been successful is that I’m like, “I’m going to win and that’s it.”
Bringing that into your relationship, how does that play out in a relationship? Do you change gears? Is that something you work on with age and maturity? Where do you find a place for that?
When I was younger, I was consistently stubborn and competitive. You’re naïve and immature. You haven’t gone through life experiences. Through relationships and my 20s, I learned a lot about myself, friendships, love relationships, family relationships, and how it’s not competitive. Stubborn doesn’t win. Having grace, mercy, and those things are important. I was not the best back in the day, for sure.
Is your girlfriend an athlete?
It’s probably better not to date another soccer player. I’m not sure. I know and you do too that some girls that you played with even maybe married other soccer players. How does that work out?
Dating their own. It’s like, “Not for me.”
It’s that language. It’s like shifting gears and having these tools that work so well. Somebody said to me once that we have tools in a tool belt. Especially if you’re an athlete, you’re a hard charger, and you’re going to get after it. It’s intense and straightforward and all of these traits that are amazing. Your tool is like a hammer, you hammer away.
They go, “Awesome. Now, you’re going to wash the windows.” You’re like, “I don’t have that tool in my tool belt.” Life is more about washing windows in the sense of grace, mercy, compassion, understanding, and things like that. I always find it fascinating with female athletes because competing is on the masculine side. Relationships and flowing with people, that’s where femininity is powerful. It doesn’t mean I wear a dress. I’m not talking about femininity.
[bctt tweet=”One of the biggest realizations I came to through my career was that self-confidence and self-worth are only determined.”]
It’s getting in touch with your emotions and how you convey those. Being vulnerable, that’s more of a feminine quality than a masculine quality. Society is assigning those things and we’ve been ingrained to believe that. You can be masculine but then also very compassionate as well. The more that we challenge those accepted norms, the better we’ll be because it’s putting people in boxes where it doesn’t allow them to be who they are.
It’s sort of saying, “What is the appropriate side of myself for what environment I am in versus a masculine or feminine?” I read in Natural Born Heroes that to be a true warrior one must be compassionate. It’s a great point. Probably the most badass people have that other side to keep things balanced out. You get out of Stanford. It’s hard to make a living except if you’re a female tennis player and you’re top twenty.
I wish I would have done tennis but it’s not a team sport but I love tennis. I feel like I would have been so good at it.
Do you know brutal it is? It’s just you out there. My middle daughter plays a lot of tennis and she’s a big and strong girl. I’m like, “What if you’re down?” If you’re down, your teammate goes, “Let’s go. We got this.” They’re down and you go, “Here we go.” Those individual athletes love that. Women’s sports, since I started and before, is a hard business to make a living. It’s like, “I am an Olympian and a substitute teacher.” “Awesome.” What does that look like? Do you go to the club team first and then you get called up? What was your path?
Mine specifically was I got called into a full-team camp my freshman year. I went and I vividly remember having this one practice where Greg Ryan was the coach at the time and he put me on the left. The only thing I was doing during the drill was serving crosses with my left foot into the box. It was a fast-paced type of thing. I couldn’t hit a left-footed cross to save my life. It was a disaster. I didn’t get called in for many years after that but then I got called back at the end of my senior season at Stanford in 2010 December.
Go back to your freshman year. Where was that camp? What location?
You go there. How nervous are you?
I was very nervous. I wasn’t good enough to be with those levels of players yet. At that point, they brought in younger players. The only way you get good enough is to get thrown into the fire.
Now you’ve got to be focused and competitive at the level that you’re playing at, at a college. You’re just entering college. By the way, there’s a level jump from where you came to high school. Do you come back with a vengeance, like, “I’m going to work hard now.” Are you thinking, “Maybe I’m not realistic about this thing I want to try to do.” What are you thinking during that time after going through that to say, “I’m going to keep at it.” For a lot of people, that would also seem like, “Forget it.”
It’s not to say that thought didn’t cross my mind because there have been many times in my career when I’ve gone to the next level and been like, “Put me on a plane and send me home. I don’t want to be here. I shouldn’t be here.” For me, it wasn’t like, “I don’t want to do this. I shouldn’t be here. I’m not good enough. I’m not going to make it.” It was like, “What do I need to do to be good enough?” That’s how I’ve been my whole life. Even when I was a kid, any setback I encountered, I was like, “That’s unfortunate and this sucks but I want it so I’m going to do what I have to do. I’m going to figure out a way.”
Did you have any technique? From the incident to, “Back at it.” Is there a technique in between that’s like a licking of the wounds, crying behind bleachers, or whatever version that you have. You go, “I’m ready.”
The amount of times that I’ve cried in a hotel stairwell is more than I can remember. That was more so a professional career like getting onto the national team and being called in consistently but maybe not making a game day roster or making a tournament roster. It’s not like, “The coach said you’re not good enough. We’re not bringing you.” I’m like, “We’re good. You know what you’re talking about.”
I was pissed off. I was crying. It’s to the point I’ve had to talk myself out of crying in front of coaches so many times. There’s this emotional reaction because you want it badly. You want to be good enough. You want to hear a yes but you keep hearing no. There’s that period of time when you feel all the emotions and let it all out. You wake up the next morning and you go back to work because that’s the only option. I do that the emotion is part of it and it’s human, it’s natural, and it’s necessary. You’re like, “I am sobbing right now. I must want this.”
You get another call in your senior year.
We were in NCAA Tournament.
Everybody reported probably Friday or Saturday of the championship weekend. We were in the semis. We won. We played on Sunday and lost. My season, my career, and my college trip are over. I never won a national championship. I got thrown out of that game with a red card.
How close to the end did you get thrown out?
There’s probably fifteen minutes left in the game.
It’s a while.
It was a difficult day. I got on a plane that night and flew to LA to meet up with the team and then train for the rest of the week. At the end of the week, Pia Sundhage was the coach at the time. My college career was over so I could then become a professional and be paid. Pia said, “We’re going to put you on a contract.” I was blown away.
She was like, “You’re in our plans. You have a shot at making the 2011 World Cup.” I was dumbfounded at that point. I’m like, “Really? You think?” They put me on contract. It was effective immediately. On January 1st, I was a paid professional athlete, which was super weird for me because I never thought that much about becoming a professional.
You were a different player. The amount of players who can mature from their freshman to senior year at a high-level University are galaxies apart. When you stepped in your senior year, was the environment different? It’s a different coach. Besides you being different, was there anything different about the environment that you stepped into that you think helped you? I don’t want to say perform more but it worked out.
It was the fact that I had three more years under my belt of experience. I had been through a lot through college with soccer and making youth teams, not making youth teams, being cut, and those things. Also, it’s the development for me as a leader on our college team and where we started as a college team and where we ended after my senior year at the end of my senior year. Time and experience helped. When I got back there, I was more confident. I was a different player and person.
Did you have to manage any injuries in college? It’s hard to get this and that but anything that you had to deal with?
I had a stress reaction in my freshman year and it showed up the last week of the season right before the tournament began. That was because of the amount of load I have gone through. Being a club player and then transitioning to college is completely different. I had a stress fracture in my foot. Besides that, no. I was lucky when it came to injuries throughout my college career.
You’re compact. I hate to say it but sometimes you see certain athletes and their body is compact and the way they move. I always joke that with my arms and legs, everything’s so far away. You’re like, “You’re in trouble.” For certain athletes, it’s the way they move. Have you always trained in an informed way? It took me a while to get informed about training. Did you start that in high school or did it start in college? Did it start in the pros? My informed training started as a professional athlete. In college, it did not. My volleyball was informed but my training was not.
I didn’t learn or understand a lot of things until I was a professional. Dom Scott was our strength and conditioning coach on the national team. She probably came in in 2010. That was the first time that I experienced monitoring your heart rate, your load, and your zones like zone 4 and zone five. It completely changed the way that I approached fitness and the overall approach to lifting, conditioning, and everything. She helped with that. I was like, “I wish I would have known this before.” I’ve just been running myself into the ground and not understanding, “Am I getting what I need out of this workout?”
I’ve evolved a lot throughout my career. I’m always learning and I’m always looking to learn more. I never want to be like, “This is exactly what I need to do. I don’t need to add or tweak anything.” I’m constantly tweaking, constantly adding, and taking away. I’m learning what my body specifically needs at this point in my career because it’s changed a lot. I used to go out and run miles upon miles. Now, I don’t need to do that. I need to be specific in what I do, the speed I do, and my heart rate. With my lifting, that changed immensely as well. It’s evolved constantly throughout my career.
It’s different. You guys are running on grass. The turf is soft but it’s not that soft.
The turf sucks.
It’s that amount of jarring. We talked about this a lot. You get into a sport and then you have a coach who goes, “Part of our training is going to be to train what we do in our sport.” It’s like, “Could we find ways in our training to improve but not do the constant repetitive motion that we’re doing in our sport?”
We call it the unwinding. No matter what, you have to wind up when you’re doing your sport. That’s something been around since you turned professional. The trainers are so much smarter about, “We’re doing enough of that. Let’s do something else.” That’s an important thing for people to remember. They pound themselves in the ground and it’s like, “That’s not a long-term story.”
Do you feel like you did that throughout your career? Do you feel like you overtrained and overdid things?
I did. I already have an artificial knee. I train a lot. Here’s the deal. I’ve been with my husband for over 24 years and he’s an incredibly high-performance athlete. I don’t know a lot of humans that keep up with him.
I wish I was in that category, I’m not. I’m an average human who’s strictly behind. I’m tucked in behind Laird drafting in little pockets. I promise you. I want to talk about this. When I watch tennis and I watch Roger Federer, I get annoyed listening to, “The 30…” They bring up the age about every seven points. Of course, in football, you bang your head a lot. There are certain sports that have a shelf life.
I often think that the shelf life has more to do with you getting tired of being told where to be and when to compete but it’s not the sport itself. A lot of athletes would love their sport longer but it is being overtrained or dealing with politics and a lot of personalities and things like that. Now you’re considered one of maybe the more senior players, as experienced, on the team. Was there something in that that caught up with you, maybe at the last World Cup, where you went, “When did that happen? What does that mean?”
[bctt tweet=”You can be masculine but then also very compassionate as well.”]
It’s interesting that you think of the shelf life for a lot of people. That is probably true, a lot of people’s shelf life is based on not necessarily physically being able to do something and being able to do their sport but it’s all the other things that they’re tired of. For me, that hasn’t happened yet. That’s not to say that I love everything about the ins and outs. I still love playing. I genuinely love it. I genuinely love the challenge of being like, “I want to get better.” I haven’t reached my peak yet. I can always be improving in finding these different ways. I love that challenge and that constant push for more. I love playing the game and competing.
What about when you go to practice? Do you get that feeling in your stomach that’s like, “It’s going to be hard. Here we go.” That smell of whatever field or socks or whatever the hell the smell is. Are you still like, “Practice, here we go.” For example, I was talking about Kerri Walsh. It doesn’t occur to her. Withing herself, “I feel good.”
She loves what she does. She’s down the road. At the perfect age of 31, it shouldn’t occur to you. You should only check in like, “Do you feel good? Does your back feel good? Do your knees feel good? Are your hips feeling good?” You’re having fun. You could be better tomorrow than you are today. The idea of 31 should be more about if you want to do other things in your life.
True. I haven’t been as fortunate. In the past couple of years, I’ve had injuries. I’ve gone through things where I’m like, “That doesn’t feel right. This isn’t great. That body part hurts.” It’s more joint-related. That’s a lot from pounding and the load that we put on our bodies. It crossed my mind to retire after this last World Cup because I didn’t think that I would even be more than a fifteen-minute sub going into the tournament based on where I was physically. My ankle wasn’t allowing me to do what I needed to do.
Explain the nuance in that. Maybe you can explain because a lot of people don’t play a sport at that level. When you have to go out and count on your body to show up for you in a certain way, how are you managing, “I got to go out and play hard and give 100%. I hope I can.” What do you tell yourself? That’s management and we all feel that in different ways. Not necessarily in a physical way but like, “I need to show up. Maybe I don’t feel my best but I got to show up.” What do you go through in your mind to do that?
You first have to figure out, “Can I physically do this? If I go out there and I train right now, am I putting myself in danger of hurting myself and being out longer?” That’s the first box that you have to check, “We’re good. It’s overall soreness or achiness in my joints, knees, and ankles.” You said, “Do you show up to practice?” It was like, “You get to practice.” Not every day by any means. I vividly remember during our last tournament with the national team. Having to go out and practice, I was like, “This is the last thing I want to do right now. I don’t want to be here. I’m tired. I’m sore. I don’t want to do it.”
I put on music and I’m like, “This is a privilege to be able to do this. You’ve spent so many days sitting at home wishing that you could be out on the soccer field. Make the most of it.” I tricked myself into being super excited. I crack a joke or two and I probably act silly and then we’re in it, we’re doing it. For me, it is a mentality but it’s a positive mindset. You can look at it one way like, “This is the last place I want to be,” or, “You get to be here. This is something you get to do.”
How do you feel when you go back? A lot of your teammates are probably going to be doing other things or moving on. It’s that new group or partial and then adding, especially when you’ve reached these high levels of success. The last team for the World Cup, you’re not going to recreate that. You can create something new and something equally as magical but you’re not going to repeat those personalities and that scenario.
I would like to talk about maybe the pressure of all of the dialogue about media and all the stuff and the equal pay and then saying, “By the way, we have to do our job and perform.” How did you guys not let that get in the way? Is your coach creating an environment in some way? Are the players collectively saying, “That’s over there. When we’re here, we have a job to do.” How do you guys do that? I was impressed. You were playing two games at one time.
It’s the reason why we’ve been able to be successful as a team. What’s special about the national team is there are multiple things that have run the course of history through the team and that’s the culture and the fact excellence is expected. That’s it, excellence is what we are here to do. The reason we’re able to be so successful in these tournaments is that, as a team, we create a bubble.
Sometimes coaches contribute to it but it’s more so a player-driven thing that we do it. You’re in this little camp with your team and the staff and you become a family. You’re going after this one singular goal so nothing else matters. Personally, I turn off the outside world and don’t look at social media like a deleted Twitter midway through the tournament. Some people do engage and that’s fine, too.
For some people, maybe that makes them fired up. I don’t know. I would know. I would personally melt.
It was right before the France game that I deleted Twitter. There were so many people saying that we were going to lose and expecting us to lose and I was like, “I’m done. I’m nervous already. I don’t need somebody else telling me they don’t think we’re going to win and that this is going to be the most difficult game of our lives.” Why would I continue to look at that?
This is important because you can do this in your everyday life. What people don’t realize is we are all getting told things all the time. It’s whether we are willing to accept that as part of the narrative that we live by or we’d go, “That’s your story.” That’s an important point. Yes, you experience it on this crazy level but it is the real reminder to people that because somebody says, “This is going to happen. You’re not good enough.” Whatever a million things are, it’s that reminder that it is on us to say, “Am I going to attach to that or am I going to say, ‘That’s probably not good for me so it’s out. It’s not part of my narrative.’”
It’s perfectly applicable to all things in life, all facets, and all experiences. As humans, we almost do crave knowing what other people think of us or something. At the end of the day, you are your only constant.
It’s like a giant tribe but you were in your real tribe and that’s the difference. We always need acceptance from the tribe. That’s all connected to our survival but which tribe are you a part of?
You need to choose your tribe accordingly. You are a product of your environment, I fully believe that.
Now, you guys navigate that. That’s crazy. A few people will experience that white-hot pressure, attention, and energy directed at them. I was genuinely amazed at the consolidated front and the consistency that the team was able to manage that whole thing.
What’s important to know is everybody’s always like, “You guys just win.” People don’t realize how hard. Maybe they do. I didn’t realize how hard until I was in it again and I was like, “I forgot how freaking hard this is. This is the hardest thing to do.”
What surprised you about what was hard? Was it the soccer or was it all the BS and the dialogue around it? Which part was hard?
A lot of times, I’m not paying attention because it doesn’t add any value to my life. The hardest part was the pressure, I wanted it badly. Coming off of Rio in 2016 where we lost in the quarterfinals, that was the worst we’d ever done in a major tournament and we had just won the World Cup the year before. I still had that memory of losing. I knew that this thing is fragile. At any moment, it’s over. It only comes every four years. If you aren’t careful, it’s done.
For me, it was the personal expectation that I had, “I want this so badly.” Also, it’s all the outside pressure of people being like, “If you guys don’t win, you’re not as good as 2015 or you guys aren’t as good as you think you are as you come off.” I’ve always been this way, I want to prove people wrong. I want to be like, “We can win a World Cup back to back.”
It was the fact that every game day could be over and you have to pack up and go home. It’s a terrible thing to think about. For me, I would be stressed and nervous in the days in between. We’d get our game plan and I’d be like, “That’s a good idea. This makes a lot of sense as to how we can win this game. I feel much better.” I then get a little nervous again. As soon as I would get on the bus to go to the stadium was when I felt at ease and was locked in.
It’s preparation but then having a real strategy. You can’t be like, “I want to win. You guys are working hard and busting your butt.” It’s like anything, it’s like in business. Even in relationships, communication. You’re always doing strategies and sometimes it’s the faith too to follow the strategy.
It’s believing. Sometimes this might not be the right thing or the correct path. If we’re all on it together, hopefully, to it’s going to end up being the correct path.
This is a perception I have and tell me if I’m wrong because I certainly could be. It feels to me that the World Cup for football is the pinnacle, even more than the Olympics. It’s both for your country but there’s something about a football player or a soccer player. For them, it’s like the World Cup. Is that true? Are they equal or different?
Early in my career, I said that they felt the same just different. They were of the same importance and they still are of the same importance to me. I want to win in a five-to-five scrimmage. Regardless, I want to win. As I’ve progressed as a footballer throughout my career, the World Cup has a different meaning. It is playing for the US but everyone’s watching football for a month and everybody’s watching that team. We have America supporting us at home and it’s just us.
As a kid, the Olympics was more exciting, cool, and meaningful than the World Cup because I was more of an athlete as opposed to a soccer player. The 1996 Olympics was the sporting event that solidified that I wanted to be a professional athlete. I didn’t know what it was going to be because I just remember watching the gymnastics team and being like, “That’s cool. They’re representing their country on TV, these women. I’m going to do that. That seems cool. I want to do it.” Early on in my career, they felt similar. It’s not that one’s more important than the other. I won a gold medal in 2012 and didn’t even medal in 2016. I’m like, “One gold medal is not enough. I need another gold medal.”
Why isn’t it enough? Is it because you’re like, “This is my window and I’m doing it. I want to squeeze the life out of this window and get this apex of excellence of winning while I’m doing it.” Is it about that?
I think so. In your career, you’re lucky if you get to go to one Olympics. If I get to go next year, it will hopefully be my third. Who knows if I’ll get to play a fourth? I would like to.
You’re young so you could.
I’m telling myself that. If you’re there, you might as well win it.
You’re taking a trip.
If you go through the effort of qualifying and flying fifteen hours to Tokyo, you might as well come home with some hardware.
[bctt tweet=”You should go in there and fight for your spot and not back down.”]
I talked to Kerri because of the postponement. Were you like, “More time to prepare.” It’s a little bit like building a hot fire when you’re getting ready for some competition like that where you’re getting it hot at the right time and you have to go, “I got to back off a little so I can grind it out for another year.” What were you feeling?
For me, it was inevitable. I was waiting for it to happen but it didn’t make it easier to hear. I was sitting outside and my girlfriend came out of our little at-home office and she says, “Did you hear?” I was like, “Hear what? What happened?” She said, “The Olympics are postponed officially.” I put my head on the table and then she was like, “Are you okay?” I was like, “I’ll be fine.” It was 10 to 15 minutes of being bombed and she was like, “Go outside. Go into the parking garage and get some touches. Get a workout and sweat. Get it out of your system and move on.” That’s what I did.
What about when you play for your club team? What does that schedule look like?
It’s March through the end of October. This year, it was going to go through the middle of November.
What would you do? Jump out when you go to the Olympics?
It’s not ideal at all. In the different leagues around the world, they have different calendars. Certain countries start in August and they go to June. We start in March and go to November.
Does Brazil have a league?
They have a female league.
Our winter is their summer. Is it based on different places?
It’s based on places. Even in Europe, some have different calendars. They might have similar. I’m not sure. Ours is this way. We’re postponed in a holding pattern and waiting for when we’re allowed to be together.
If you have to play in a place, Utah is cool.
Salt Lake City is great.
It’s a cool place.
I grew up going to Park City and Salt Lake to ski. That was our big family trip. We would go there so I knew the area or was familiar with it. Living there and playing there, I’ve gotten to get to know it a lot better. I like it. It has outdoor activities, which I love, like hiking. Unfortunately, skiing and snowboarding tempt me and laugh at me because I can’t do it. It’s a good city. I don’t particularly like the altitude. I don’t think that my body does well in altitude. It’s something that I’ve taken into consideration in terms of recovery and training because it’s affected me in terms of how quickly I can recover.
Do they work with you at all about ways? I know it sounds corny but you guys are working with more CO2 and things in your system. Do they work with patterns for your breathing when you’re playing? You guys are running crazy about how to dump your CO2 to make some of that easier on you.
No, but I would love some advice.
I’ll talk to you offline about that because there’s some real stuff you can do that might make some of this easier.
That would be fantastic. I’m always looking for a way to be better.
When you have to play for your club, I know you’re a competitor so I can tell that you will bring that intensity everywhere, is it different? Is it a different part of your job? How is that different? Also, I’m curious what it’s like when you have to play other clubs and you have your teammates that you have to play against.
Is it different? No. I still get nervous before club games. In the sense of being nervous, I want to win this badly. I don’t know how this is going to end up but I want this and we need this. We need the three points. I don’t approach it any differently. For me, anytime I step on a field where there’s a championship on the line, I want to win.
Either a W or an L is on the line.
You’re playing a team that has a couple of your US teammates on or something. Are you like, “Hey,” and then you want to kick their ass. What is that?
Depending on the player. Sometimes you’ll get into it with a teammate during a game and it can get trippy. There have been many occasions that it’s happened throughout the league, not necessarily with me but like other people. Everybody wants to win.
You have teammates that you’re like, “The only reason I like you is that you’re my teammate but I don’t like you.” You’re playing against them and you’re like, “Now, here we are.”
I don’t have anybody like that specifically. Thankfully, I do. It is funny because you know their tendencies and are almost better than the other players so you can play them better or defend them better. You just know. It can get pretty trippy out there sometimes.
Let’s fast forward. Let’s give it twelve years. Why not? You’re probably not competing in soccer anymore. We have a big window. We’ll put a big window up there. What other things are in your mind that you think, “I’d like to express myself that way. I’d like to take the skillset I’ve developed and add to that or express it in these different ways.” Are there things out there that you ponder?
Yeah. When I got out of Stanford, I started as a professional. In the first many years of my professional career, I never wanted to seem like I had something I was doing outside of soccer because I didn’t want it to appear that I wasn’t fully committed. It’s not that I regret that but I now have learned how to manage soccer and then also interest outside. It’s important.
I knew that a couple of years ago. It’s like, “I know this is going to end. This has an expiration date. I need to be prepared.” I don’t want to get slapped in the face and wake up one morning and be like, “You have nothing going on because you retired from soccer.” I’ve started to do different things and dabble and more so even think about what interests me. Where do I find my mind going when it’s quiet? That’s a good way to realize what your true interests are and passions are. What consumes my thoughts the majority of the time?
Business is one thing that I’m interested in. I didn’t leave Stanford to go into the corporate world so I don’t know all the ins and outs. I’ve learned so many things through being an athlete having to manage myself almost as my own entity and doing that thing. I have certain qualities that a lot of people probably don’t have from doing a regular corporate job or being in business. It’s cool to bring that to that sector of things. People are like, “Do you want to coach?”
People ask me that too, “Do you want to stay in and around the game?” I’m like, “No, I didn’t.” Volleyball, feasibly, saved my life in a lot of weird ways. It was a different route for me than let’s say someone like you or other champions. For me, it was like a get-out-of-jail card in a way. I had these other things rolling that I wanted to do. Do you think, “If I can’t play at that high level, I want to leave it and use the things I’ve learned and take on a whole new.” Do you think it would be in and around the game somehow?
It’s hard for me to know. The reason I love it is that I get to go do it. As a coach, I would be stressed out. I have all this pent-up energy and anxiety over the outcome and I wouldn’t be able to expel it on the field. It’s like sitting on the bench during a game, that’s miserable. That seems like what a coach would be or the coach would be even worse.
That’s why they have gray hair. Why do you think they always look like they’re worked?
I have many coming in and it’s wild. When I turned 30, I was like, “What? I’m sorry. I’m going to have to dye my hair for the first time ever.” I don’t know if I would coach.
Does it scare you at all?
To take that next step because it is an unknown.
It intrigues me. I’m like, “It’s a blank slate. That’s cool.” Much of my life has been dictated by trying to be the best at this specific thing. When I leave this, I have the opportunity to go be the best at whatever I choose. I chose soccer but it chose me and I’ve been thankful and lucky to do what I’ve been able to do. It doesn’t scare me. It intrigued me. I’m like, “Am I going to want to do races? Am I going to want to be a mom? Am I going to want to be a businesswoman? Am I going to want to do philanthropy?” There are so many things. I will have so much more time. I won’t be tired all the time. It seems interesting to me.
I don’t think you’ll get tired. You don’t seem like a person who gets tired.
Do children interest you or is that a question mark as well?
Yes, I would love a family because family was so important to me growing up. I have a phenomenal family.
You have a nice family.
Having a kid in the picture seems a lot. I don’t ever want to do it because it seems like that’s the next step. I want to do it because I’m like, “This is what I want. I’m choosing to bring a child into this world, bring another person and raise them.” I would like to but I need to get to that point where I’m like, “Yep, I’m ready.”
In doing some homework on you, you come across as the fun and playful person on the team. When I was introduced to Beast and all of that, I was like, “I can see why they chose her.” They’re an interesting company. What they’re trying to do even with the product, what’s in the product, and with some of the ideas of more sustainable packaging and things like that, that’s important. Do you have companies that come to you and you go, “I can’t because I’m not aligned. I would never use that product.” How does that work for you when you get approached?
I’ve said no to a lot of things. I don’t feel I could ever be a part of something or promote something that I don’t genuinely believe in or use or like. A lot of people can and that’s their choice, that’s their prerogative. I’ve said no to a lot of things. With Beast, it was an intriguing opportunity. We met in person. Jay came and met me and my agent. We flew to Nashville and met John and Jay. There was a lot of hashing things out and figuring things out. I wanted to make sure that if I was truly joining a company, which I did with Beast, it was the right fit. It ultimately ended up being that way.
A lot of it was the personality of Jay and John but then also what they were doing and the opportunity to join a company and affect a cool mission and that sustainability and creating products that are high quality but aren’t being necessarily thrown out women. They started as a men’s grooming company but we’re bringing it towards unisex. There are so many different elements of that.
It feels modern to me, too. They looked at a lot of elements about the way people are living and things they’re concerned with, like, “What’s in the bottle? Maybe I don’t have to throw away the bottle or reuse the bottle or have less waste and things like that.” I was like, “I get why they chose her.” I’ve met a lot of female athletes like you where the drive and the relentlessness are in there. I don’t think that is something that people can train. You have that and then it can be developed further. It is unique and unusual.
I would be interested if you thought that there was something about your experience or experiences that you have come away with whether it’s a young athlete, a young female athlete, or someone who graduated college and now they’re taking on a new challenge. Everybody feels unsure. We’re all unsure. We know that we sometimes want and want to pursue but we’re unsure. If you had words or something to share with them about because you have gone through many different things during this journey so far because you are young and you’ve got a lot of time until you decide.
I’m going to call you if I need a pep talk and you’re like, “You got to have this.”
What would you say?
For me, one of the biggest realizations I came to through my career was that self-confidence and self-worth are only determined. You can’t look outside of yourself for that, which seems simple. It’s self-confidence, the confidence in yourself. Like anyone in any walk of life, we look to outside sources for that validation, that reassurance.
I realized in another pressure cooker in the 2015 World Cup, that’s when I came to that realization that the only person that’s ever going to be there consistently is me. As soon as I can learn to look inside myself and look at myself in the mirror and believe in what I see and who I am, that’s the only way I’m going to become successful. If I’m always looking for the coach, a teammate, or a loved one to tell me, “You got this,” which are all great things and sometimes you get that. There’s going to be times when it’s quiet and it’s empty and there’s no one giving you that reassurance and you’ve got to figure out a way to look inside yourself and find that yourself.
Thanks so much for reading. If you’d like, rate, subscribe, and leave us a review. All of my music was graciously done by Frank Zummo and Tom Thacker. If you want to see some of the behind-the-scenes action, follow me, @GabbyReece. Remember, don’t miss new episodes every Monday.
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About Kelley O’Hara
Kelley O’Hara began her career as a standout forward at Stanford. As a freshman, her nine goals led the team and as a senior, she nearly tripled that number. The Hermann Trophy winner scored 26 goals and notched 13 assists in her final season, one of the highest outputs in Division I history. Seven years ago, the goal-scorer was converted into a defender—a defender with full license to go forward. Now headed into her third World Cup, O’Hara is a veteran outside back who can jumpstart the U.S. attack.