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Episode #38

Dare To Dream

with AJ Andrews

16 Feb, 2021 · Softball

AJ Andrews, Professional Softball Player, speaks out about the challenges she faces as a black woman in the predominantly white sport of softball. She reminds us to love ourselves not in spite of our skin color, but because of it.

Transcript

(background music starts)

Stef

Welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast. I'm your host, Stef Strack, the founder of Voice In Sport. As an athlete, professional, and mom, I have spent the last 20 years advocating for women and innovating across the sports industry. Now, I want to bring more visibility to female athletes and elevate their voice. At Voice In Sport, we share untold stories from female athletes to inspire us all to keep playing and change more than just the game.

Today’s guest is AJ Andrews, a professional softball player for Athletes Unlimited, broadcaster, and former D1 student athlete at Louisiana State University. In this episode, AJ shares her journey, helping us understand the challenges she faced as a black female athlete in the predominantly white world of softball. Today, we dive deep into how she learned to stand up for herself and make her voice heard.

AJ shares the childhood experiences which have made her into one of the hardest working athletes on the field, and she takes us through how she became confident and comfortable in her skin and in her body, not in spite of her blackness, but because of it. She also shares why she decided to become a broadcaster and host, and how she is contributing to empowering women in sports and beyond.  

AJ reminds us all that we are all the creators of our own lives and she walks us through how she uses affirmations to live to her fullest potential. If you are a female athlete who does not feel represented in your sport or you want to optimize your confidence, this episode is for you. AJ reminds us all that we are unlimited as female athletes. And in this spirit, we would like to give AJ’s team, Athletes Unlimited, a shoutout and thank them for sponsoring this episode!   

"Athletes Unlimited is a network of leagues whose mission is to empower pro athletes to unlock their unlimited potential on and off the field. The Founders Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros, started Athletes Unlimited to reshape how professional sports leagues are structured, eliminating team owners and bringing athletes to the center of decision-making. 

Thankful for their support of today’s episode. And I’m so excited to share this incredibly inspiring conversation with the VIS community! Welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast, AJ!

AJ

Thank you for having me, I’m excited to be able to come on.

(background music stops)

Stef

It's an honor to have you because you've broken the barriers on the field. But you've also broken the barriers off the field, and you are a professional softball player at Athletes Unlimited, but you're also just a truly strong and independent woman that's very multifaceted. You do a lot of hosting and content creation with some of the best players in the industry and you really can do everything. And it's exciting to see what you're going to be doing next off the pitch.

AJ

Thank you! Oh, yeah, I absolutely love being able to do so. I don't know life without just being able to dabble in all of my interests. People always say like, you can't have it all. I'm firmly against that. I believe you can have and do any and everything you aspire to do. And so, I'm just trying to be that living proof and having fun with all the different aspects of life that I truly enjoy.

Stef

I love that. Let's start at the beginning. You know, I think the way that girls are introduced to sport is such an important part of their journey in the long end. So, can you take us back to how it started for you and what was your experience growing up and playing sports.

AJ

Yeah, absolutely. So, with me playing sports, I played and tried just about every single sport there was. I tried swimming, I played basketball when I was younger. I was a track runner when I was younger, I played soccer. I was a cheerleader. I played softball. I played a lot of different sports. And for me it was always the matter of, I just loved to win. I loved winning. I love being the best. And so, whatever I could do to elevate myself and to practice and to work hard is what I was determined to do, even at a really young age, I started playing soccer was my first sport. You know, when you're like four years old and they just like, give you balls and you run around and kick, that's what I started with, and then went to T-ball and then started playing soccer more competitively.

And for me it was just a matter of what can I do to be the best? Like, there's just, I just wanted to be the very best. It was extremely hard on myself as a young athlete. Would get told that by coaches, friends, family, like I just need to relax. But to me, the concept of, you know, just have fun was never even a thing.

You know, a lot of times I think people think so much about, well, are you having fun? I'm like, yeah, I'm having fun, but that's not the point. Like, I mean, even at like 10 years old, that's what I would say. That's not the point I want to win. And so, sports has been a part of my life, honestly, ever since I can remember.

And it was all just came down to AJ you want to do this? Yeah, I'll try it. And so, a lot of things stuck, a lot of things didn't, but I was always ready and willing to try to be the best at anything that I put my mind to and stepped up to.

Stef

Yeah. Well then how did you decide to stick with softball?  What really inspired you to go in that direction and ultimately choose softball for your sport?

AJ

Yeah, it's so interesting because I name all these sports that I played, but I was honestly a very good soccer player growing up. I’m very fast. I would train, I still train with the track team. I didn't compete with them competitively, but I trained with them. And, you know, softball was a sport that I just kind of started playing when my mom would play co-ed softball.

And she's just like, well, you want to try it? I'm like, yeah, it’s one of those sports I want to try. I immediately loved softball. And as I'm talking about how competitive I was, even at a young age, softball was probably the first sport where I was just, I really was able to just have fun. Like, there's just so many aspects of the game of softball, where you're in the dugout, cheering loud, right?

Having all this fun, you are creating cheers, having so much team camaraderie. I just didn't get that same experience in the other, even team, sports that I played, it was always just about business. And for me, softball, the fact that it was like the first sport that I had fun first, right. Fun was a part of the game. And I was, I loved having fun. It wasn't always just about winning. Of course, I wanted to win, but I knew as soon as I stepped on the field, even if I didn't win that day, I was going to have a good time.

And, you know, for a lot of those other sports, if I didn't win that day, I didn't have a good time, you know. I think that that was probably one thing that really stuck out in the game of softball for me. And it really is what allowed me to continue that long haul for my professional career today.

Stef

I love that you talk about fun because a lot of the professional athletes that I speak to on our podcast, they still go back to like what keeps them in the sport. And there's always the fun piece. And so even though we're competitive female athletes that want to win, that fun, the aspect of fun is so critical.  And it's not something to kind of look at and think of lightly. I mean, you want to be enjoying what you're doing in your life and that's applicable across sport and work. It's a great lesson to kind of keep at the forefront of whatever you're doing.

AJ

Oh yeah, a hundred percent. I mean, there's those days, especially when you get older and you are competing, especially in the college or professional, where the days get long, they get tiresome and there's days you just don't want to go. Like, I just don't want to go to practice and you have to remember what it is that made you love the sport that you were playing and it's that ability to have fun on the days when, you know, I'm not doing as well, or I'm struggling a little bit finding that joy. And so, I think that on the days where your skill isn’t keeping you going, that remembrance of why it is you started is what keeps us moving as professional athletes. And for a lot of us, it's the fact that we just truly love the game.

Stef

What advice would you have for young girls right now that might not be able to play because of COVID and they're motivation level is low. Like how do you keep motivated to keep going?

AJ

A hundred percent. I know that it can be so difficult. It's just, it's draining, especially those that had their seasons just kind of ripped up from under them, you know. And I think that it's so interesting because in the off season, that's really where you develop who you're going to be during season. It's in the off season.

So, when you put in all this work and all this time and preparation, and then you're just getting started only for someone to tell you. Never mind. I can't even imagine how just heartbreaking that actually is.

And, you know, for those individuals that have had that happen to them and are seeking the ways to be motivated and to get up and do things, I think it's really important to write down every single morning, your why, what is my why? What do I want to do? What do I want to achieve? Who do I want to be? And when you write down your why, and you want to write down three things that you're going to do that day, that's going to get you closer to your why. That's something you should do as soon as you wake up, because that is going to motivate you every morning, every day to keep pushing.

There's things you can't do while in quarantine? You may not be able to get to a gym. You may not be able to do that, but can you study on your laptop ways to get better? Absolutely. Can you be more mentally prepared? Absolutely. Like there’s things that you can do that aren't even physical. And in reality, your mental game is going to help you, and it's going to give you the most longevity in any sport than any physical aspect. And so, I think that every morning you have to remember, write down, and be dedicated to your why in order to keep being motivated towards that goals, because there's going to be days where you do not want to do a single thing, but your why is going to force you to get up and do something.

Stef

I love that. And if you haven't found your why yet there's a really good book by Simon Sinek that talks about finding your why. I read it when I was in college, I think, and I wish I would have read it earlier.  Well, what if you're sitting here listening to this podcast and you don't know your why?

AJ

I think honestly, when you talk about that and about the why for me, it was so easy.  I didn't like the thought of someone being better than me. The thought of anyone just being better than me drove me insane. And it all happened from when I had a conversation with my dad when I was probably like. 11 or 12 years old. And he was putting a cap that year on my back-to-school shopping. Like I had a limit to what I can spend, and I was infuriated that was like, No. I was like, I don't even understand what you're doing. So, I told him, I was like, listen, how about we make a deal? How about whatever money you're saving for me to college? You add that to my budget this year and I'll get a scholarship. You don't have to worry about it. And he was like, he told me that, okay. He in all seriousness, he was like, AJ, I just want you to know if you plan on getting a scholarship, there's always going to be somebody better. So, you have to make sure you're that person that no one's working harder than. And I promise you to this day, like those words creep into my mind. And have like every day, every morning. I remember specifically in college people, if you're talking to any of my college teammates, college coaches, they'd probably tell you I'm one of the hardest workers I've ever met in their life.

And it literally all goes back to that one conversation I had with my dad, when he told me there's always someone better and I'm just like, ah, No, that can't happen. And so like, I've been going, getting ready to go to bed at night in college. And it would just creep into my mind, AJ, somebody in California has two more hours to be in the cages than you. And that would literally spark me out of bed to just, all right, whatever, I'm going to go do 30 more minutes off the tee. And I would get out of bed, go to the cages and hit for 30 more minutes. And so, you know, I think that when you are seeking your, why, I think it's important to figure out what it is that you like, right, write down things that you like and list the priority.

And even write down things that you like, as far as in this game, what is it that you enjoy the most? And I think once you, when you really just write down things that you enjoy, but you have to start. And once you start, you'll pick up and it becomes easier, it becomes easier.

Just like anything, the hardest thing to do is to start something, but once you do, it's when it's really picks up and you'll go back and read through it, like, Oh, I really loved that. Oh, I really enjoy that. Or, yeah, no, that's really important to me. And that's how I think you can truly begin to dive into what your why is.

Stef

Oh, I think that is great advice. And I hope everyone listening to the podcast will grab a piece of paper right now and start listing your why’s.

AJ

Or have your dad put a budget and see if that just fires you up on your back-to-school shopping.

Stef

Oh, that's amazing. Well, you know of your dad, I mean, he must've been one of your role models in your life, and I think it is so important to have role models. Not just that are, you know, in your family, but also outside of your family and the sport that you're in that look like you. And sometimes when you're, when you're in sports that are predominantly of one race, it can be really hard to see yourself in that sport. So, can you tell us a little bit about your role models growing up? Because you're in one of those predominantly white sports. The most recent stat from 2019 was that in college and collegiate softball only 5% of female athletes were black. So, there's not a ton of role models in your sport. What is the power of role models mean for you and who was your role model growing up?

AJ

Yeah. WOW, it's interesting to hear that stat. I think I looked, I looked that up a while ago. I think it was maybe like 2017. It was only 3%. So, it's still very, very low, but moving up at least a little bit. I just think it's unfathomable. Only three to four or 5% of athletes in college that play softball are black. And that is in no way indicative of the talent of the black athletes that are out on the field every single day. And so that's when you really have to scratch your head and ask why. And so, for me, you know, growing up my role model honestly, was as far as softball was concerned was Natasha Watley.

And I want to tell you, it was Natasha Watley because she was the best softball player I'd ever seen. I want to tell you it's because she was someone that I was just in awe of watching. She played at UCLA, which was one of the best softball schools, still is to this day. But I think that. I can't fully say that. That's the reason why I love Natasha Watley. The reason really is because she's the only one that I saw on that national stage playing that looked like me. Right? She's the only one that I was able to identify with because I didn't see other black athletes playing softball in those positions, doing the things that she was doing that made me feel like I could too achieve what it is that was greatness.

And, you know, I think that that really is the power of representation. Right, I firmly believed that I could be this amazing softball player because I identified with one person on that field. Had I never watched Natasha Watley play softball. You can only imagine how different maybe my mind would have been skewed as to what it is that I could attain and what it is that I could achieve. And so, you know, for me, Natasha Watley, a hundred percent a role model because she was someone that I. I identified with, and really the only one that I saw that I could identify with, and then, you know, Serena Williams, a hundred percent, one of my role models.

And it was because she was unapologetically herself in a sport like tennis, where again, it is another predominantly white sport where you are being forced typically, to change yourself or to mold into a certain role or way of looking and being based on society standards and to have someone be like, absolutely not. That's not who I am. That's not what I'm going to do. And come out there with braids and beads. I mean, even still to this day, there's people that have to muster up the courage to wear braids to work because they don't know what someone's going to say, or they're going to think it's unprofessional. By the way it is okay for you to wear your hair the way it naturally grows out of your head.

Stef

This is the discrimination that is just, you know, so ingrained in the country. It's so to me, it's just crazy, you know, it's like 2021 and here we are. It's important to keep your eyes open and not be ignorant to what's happening around the world.

AJ

That or complacent, right? I go back and forth with being like, Oh, I'm happy that this has happened. And then why has it taken so long? Right. Okay. We're progressing. But are we really like, you know, and I think that in sports we always talk about 1%, right. Getting 1% better each and every day. But I think that that is what we should be striving for as a country, as a society, 1% better each and every day, not 1% better each and every three years, 10 years. And that's how I feel like this has kind of been the driving force. So, for me, when, you know, back to your question on role models, a lot of my role models came from people that made me feel okay with being black and made me feel powerful and made me feel like I was just as good in a society that continued to do its best to try to make me feel like I wasn't.

Stef

But this is why we're talking about this. What advice do you have for the girls out there that are probably still in a similar situation as you were growing up and they don't see themselves reflected in their sport? What do you want to say to them?

AJ

I think it is so important to understand just how beautiful and how immaculate and just how amazing you are not in spite of your skin color, but because of it and that no one gets to determine or to dictate how or who it is that you will be without your permission, you have full reigns over your life. And just because someone who is small-minded ignorant, arrogant, or just simply has no idea who it is or what it is that you are capable of, tries to tell you what you can do. You have the power always to let them know that they are wrong. You have the power always to write your own destiny and to write your own path.

You are the creator of your life. You are the creator of your success. Everyone around you is an extra and you get to write them off or write them in, as you please. So never allow someone who is an extra in your story, to tell you where to take your story. And your black skin is absolutely beautiful. And it is going to drive you to levels of success that you never imagined you could reach, not in spite of what people say, but because of who you are as a beautiful human being.

And I just think it's so important to know that there's not a person on this earth that can stop you from being who it is that you want to be. Realize your greatness and to always know that it doesn't lie in anyone else, other than yourself.

Stef

I think what you said is so powerful on so many levels. You're always going to have people that don't agree with what you believe. You're always going to have people who don't believe in you, and you're going to have voices in your life that are not going to support you or who are going to try to tear you down. And so, it's how you work through that, that is going to really in the end, bring you that power. So, I think that's just such great advice for young girls. It's not easy though, I mean, I can't imagine the AJ that you were always this focused and confident about what you just expressed to these young girls today. So, can you, take us back to when you were 15, 16, 17. How did you feel about yourself at that moment in your life? Did you have this confidence already at that young of an age?

AJ

Honestly, there were a lot of moments when I was younger, that really developed the way that I think and the way that I feel today. And I'm going to talk about two instances that happened that really kind of shaped my mind and really almost developed my goals for what they are today. And so, one of them is when I first started playing softball, I was on a team with this one girl that, me and her just did not get along.  We're maybe 12 years old at the time. And her dad was the coach of our team. And so, as you know, at the end of the day, anyone knows on a team, you're not going to go home with everyone. And so, you know, me and her just don't get along. And I remember one day at practice, we're kind of going back and forth during a little meeting huddle and the coach stops everything and asks me, do you think that you're some sort of a thug.

And let me remind you I'm 12. Okay. Yes, I am the only black athlete on that team. And I just remember being so overwhelmed with anger and just like sadness and this was actually happening to me. And, you know, and it's almost crazy because at 12 years old, it's not like I fully even conceived exactly what was taking place. I didn't fully understand just how deep that micro aggression that he really just placed upon me was. I knew what he was saying was very offensive, I knew he was trying to put me down and I knew that him being a full-grown adult and him speaking to me that way was extremely disrespectful, but I had not grasped the severity of how deep, what he was saying really was.

And it was only until later on, I remember I left that practice early with my mom and told her what happened, and I was off that team like the next day. And when I looked back on that I know if I was a white athlete that never would have been said. Right. And so, I think that I never wanted anyone to feel like that from that moment at 12 years old. Right. That was kind of like my mission. And so even getting onto the next team that I got onto when I'm maybe 13 or 14 at the time, anytime I saw someone being mistreated, I'm always like the first person to step in.

And I just, I truly and genuinely hate sitting back and listening to people being mistreated. I cannot do it. It's literally, it's not something that I can just be quiet on. And there's another instance on the second team where I'm running around the bases and I go in to go home, right? I'm a very aggressive base runner and grant, I probably shouldn't have done it, but, you know, I'm thinking I can make it safe. So I ended up getting out and I remember the coach asking me if I truly was a softball player or if I was just fast and, you know, again, the microaggression right, that comes in. That's never asked of white athletes. It's like, Oh my God, she's so good. And she's so fast, but for black athletes, even historically speaking, right, you see someone that's black and that's fast. Like, Oh, maybe she'd be a great pinch runner. Oh, maybe we just stick her in the outfield.

These are these things that are so deeply ingrained that people don't even realize. And for me, it was just another thing that I felt like kept pushing me towards my path to make sure women, especially young black girls feel empowered and feel as if I'm not going to allow this ignorant person to dictate my feelings and my mind, my self-esteem and what it is that I know that I am capable of.

And so, when he said, are you just fast? I'm like, Oh, okay. That's very interesting that season I had the highest batting average on the entire team. And me and I think one other girl, we were just killing it and, you know, it was just kind of set the stage of, Oh, okay, I'm going to prove you wrong. It turned into these things where anytime someone says something to me, in which I felt was a negative fashion or was something that was meant to set me back it was almost like I just winked at them. I was like, you have no idea how you just propelled me forward, but you thought you were pulling you back, but in reality, you didn't realize I was a rubber band.

And so, you pulling me back, as soon as you let me go, I'm pushing, pass everyone with rapid speed faster than you ever realized. And if I was talking to young girls and how to deal with those instances today, it's hurtful. I can't tell you to pretend like it's not.

And when people say the things that they say, it hurts. It's sad. It's saddening to know that people truly think the way that they think, especially when you're around people that you thought were essentially family on your team. But I do think you have to allow yourself to be a rubber band and every single time someone tries to pull you back, set you back, you put your head down and you work hard for when they let go.  And I think that that is how you can overcome and build this confidence. I've just proved those people wrong. Never do something to try to prove someone wrong. Always do it to prove yourself right.

Stef

I love the advice of the rubber band and propelling you forward. That is going to help so many girls. But what if you don't have like another option to go to another team? And this is your only chance, and you're dealing with microaggressions all the time.  At what point do you speak up, raise your voice to your coach and how do you do it?

AJ

I think that it's important to always speak up. None of us were put on this earth to make other people feel comfortable. And I think that you should always speak your truth and be who you are, and no longer should you feel the need to shrink yourself, to make yourself more digestible to other people, let them choke if they don't like what it is that you have to say. I promise you, once things are addressed, people will begin to move differently. Now, whether it is in a situation in which maybe you feel a little bit more isolated or you feel like you can't talk to someone, or you feel like you can't be a part of a group, right? This is not, it's not about them. Again, I think it goes back to your why and what is that you want to achieve?

And if you are doing something and you have a reason to do it and you, and that's why you can't go to another team and you have to endure the microaggressions and then abuse that you may have to endure. I think it's so important not just to speak your truth, make sure people know who you are, what you stand for, what you believe, and that you are no longer going to take this from them anymore. And if they want to continue to say and do the things that they're doing, they should expect repercussions for that. They're going to have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because you're not going to be quiet any longer. And at the end of the day, continue to remember your why and keep your head down and moving towards your goal. Because as many people as there are trying to put you down, there's twice as many trying to pull you up.

Stef

And there's always going to be people who are going to push you down. It's part of sport. It's part of life, so it's a good lesson to learn. So, let's talk about then another dimension of confidence for young girls in sport, which is body image. You were featured in the ESPN body issue and are clearly very confident in showing that you are strong, that muscles are beautiful. Did you always feel that way when you were younger and. you know, it's hard sometimes because society shows what the ideal state of beauty is? And unfortunately, it's not a very diverse representation of what is beautiful. So, it can often be really hard for us as young female athletes to feel good and feel confident about our bodies. So, did you struggle with body confidence issues growing up?

AJ

Oh, a hundred percent. I have always been very cut, very muscular and like, I could not lift a single weight, but I still, my arms have always been very defined.  I'm just, I'm built like this y'all I'm built like this, but I still work very hard there's days where I'm muscles are a lot bigger and that's, that's putting in work, but the, the definition in my arms, a lot of it is natural. Yes.

It's so funny. Cause you know, you have. Older women always telling me, Oh my God, AJ, I would die to have your arms. But as a young girl, what am I listening to? I'm listening to my peers. Right? And a lot of those young kids, young boys, especially are telling me, Oh, she looks manly, right? You look very muscular, very manly. And so, I would do everything to hide my arms. If I worked out, I never worked on my arms. I honestly covered them up as much as I possibly could. Always super insecure about the way that my arms look growing up. And it all came down to just a couple people making comments about my arms. And I think that's so scary and so dangerous, especially when we're young, right. It takes one person sometimes to completely destruct our self-confidence. One comment to really just obliterate any self-esteem that we may have had throughout the rest of our lives.

For me, when it came to rebuilding that, honestly, I didn't get rebuilt until college, until my freshman year in college. And what I began to realize in college, as I have workouts every day. Right? I'm forced to lift. I can't ignore my arms anymore. Was AJ do you want to be an All-American or do you want the comments of three, however, many people that are insignificant and are never going to help propel you to your goal, stop you from your success. And it was a no brainer, right? I want to be an All-American. I want to be a legend at LSU. I want to be great. And if what is going to allow me to be great is to workout, is to build muscle. And I'm not going to allow my self-esteem to be dictated by individuals that are not helping me get anywhere closer to that goal. I think it's so important to remember that God made you that way for a specific reason, you are beautiful. And I know saying it sounds easier said than done, but I think you learn that what people say do says so much more about them than it does about you.

And you get to a point when you realize absolutely nothing someone says against you has anything to do with you in reality. And it's all has to do with their own insecurities and the way that they view themselves. And I think that confidence is something that you have to truly work on. It's not something that you can just wake up one morning, like, all right. I'm confident. I feel good today. Right? It's a practice. It's something you work at every day. You know, if you wake up and my hair is literally not doing what it's supposed to do today, instead of letting that shrink your self-esteem and letting that bring you down, find something that you love. Like, okay. My hair looks a mess, but my eyebrows are so sneaky right now. Like. You know what I mean? You just focused on those things. Are you talking about like, okay, my legs, they're not working for me today, but you know what I see I'm putting that work I put in is really showing on my arms or it's really showing in my stomach. Find things that get you excited about yourself.

Find things that you love about yourself, what it is that makes you beautiful is the fact that no one is you. I think that's also really important. We all have a superpower, and the superpower is that not a single person on this earth is you. Not a single person on this earth can do what you can do the way that you can do it. Can look the way that you look. Not one. And so, for you to try to transform into the way this person looks like you're taking away from what makes you, you and you're taking away from your own authenticity and what truly makes you beautiful. So as soon as you step into that confidence, step into knowing that you're beautiful, every single piece and every single ounce of you, it's something you have to look in the mirror every day and tell yourself, the way I go to the field every single day to make sure I can hit a rise or hit a curveball.

Right. I got to look at myself in the mirror every single day to make sure I know that I am beautiful. Every curve, every inch of my body is there for a reason. And it is what makes me me, is my superpower. I'm not going to let nobody take my power. 

Stef

I love it. I love that. I love looking at superpowers that way. I always ask that question to female athletes. Like what is your one superpower, but you just answered the question for everybody. And I think it's like spot on. You're you.

AJ

And, I think sometimes people get intimidated by me and honestly, I just know I'm bomb. Right. I just know that I got, I got a really great superpower . And I think it's so important to understand that my self-esteem doesn't take away from yours. You should feel that same way about yourself. Like you should feel like your bomb. You should know your superpower is something that no one can take, shrink or define. It is completely up to you. Be authentic. Be a hundred percent yourself.

Stef

Absolutely. And I think when it relates to body image, practical way of trying to get into this mindset of loving your body is to get a journal and write down things you love about yourself. It's called affirmations. And there's a lot of studies out there that show the power of affirmations. So, start with a list of things you love about yourself and say those things to yourself every morning. And that is one place you can start to build the confidence to get to a place where you're at AJ, where I hope all female athletes get to at some point in their life.

AJ

Daily affirmations is, I would say it's a part of my secret to success. Right. Really though, when you tell yourself every day, that you look beautiful or you are amazing, or nobody is better. You get to a point where you really believe it, right? The more you talk to yourself, the more you say things to yourself, you truly believe that. And so, I think affirmations are a hundred percent necessary and that's what I think you should do. Every time you look in that mirror, speak those affirmations, speak the things that you love about yourself, so that not a single person can make you feel bad about your superpower.

Stef

So, we've talked about confidence when it comes to body image. We've talked about it in terms of being a black female athlete in a predominantly white sport, but now we're going to go one layer deeper and talk about colorism. And we know this is something that you have struggled with in your journey. And I don't know if everyone knows what colorism is. So, let's start with the definition of colorism.

AJ

Yeah, well colorism is really where you're discriminated against, based off of the color of your skin. And it really is rooted so much deeper than a lot of people understand. So, in the black community where you see colorism is where typically people will talk about girls or women or black people in general with lighter skin as more beautiful. So, the lighter your skin, the more “beautiful” you are, or how society sees you as someone that is less threatening, right? And then the darker your skin, the more you move away from those European features that society deemed beautiful is where you are viewed as ugly or as less than or as someone that is threatening. Right?

And I believe every single community there's colorism in the Hispanic community, even in Asian communities, right. It comes down to what it is that lighter skin represents and the “beauty” that people find in lighter skin. And honestly, all that, especially for black individuals that goes back to slavery where the lighter skin individuals were in the houses as house slaves and darker slaves had to be out in the fields. Right. And so, it's being rewarded for being lighter skin.

To be completely raw and real, the individuals that were lighter skins were products of the slaves that had been sexually abused by their masters. Right. It is truly something that has you mentally changed into believing that a certain color is better because it identifies more with white than another. So that really is. Kind of all-encompassing what colorism is and how it is typically viewed in the black community.

Whereas me being a dark skin woman, I've been told, Oh, AJ, you're really pretty for a black girl. It's even been told to me. Ooh, AJ. You know, you're a very pretty dark skin girl. Right? These are things that have literally been said to me, and they're said as in terms of endearment and not even understanding the deep root insult that is really attached to them.

Right. I am pretty. Typically, they don't find women that I'm dark skin beautiful, but I'm the exception. And the only reason I'm the exception is because of X, Y, and Z, right. Or I've been asked by individuals also AJ, are you mixed with something and I'm just thinking, no, yes, I'm mixed with black and black. And you know, for me it was, they're trying to find something that makes sense as to why I was pretty, even though I have dark skin, right. It couldn't be that I'm just a beautiful black woman. There has to be some reason as to why I'm beautiful, even though I have dark skin. So that is really the power that colorism has had over communities, many, many different communities.

Stef

Thank you for sharing so much of the history, because I think rarely do we see how these experiences that a lot of girls are going through are part of a really long and complicated history. One of which we're not very proud of as Americans. And so, I do think it's so important to talk about these topics and then talk about how it shows up, because it is a form of discrimination and it's important to call these things out. And it's important also for young girls to know how to handle themselves when things are said. So, can you talk a little bit about your experience, within the softball community? Did you ever feel like you were discriminated against because of your dark skin tone and how did you deal with that? What advice would you have for girls that might be facing colorism today?

AJ

Yeah. In softball, I'm sure in many different sports in which you feel as if you are or not feel as if you are a minority in that sport, it's not enough to just be better than your white opponents, right? You not only have to be better, you have to be twice as good as them, and then you cannot fail.

Right. You have to consistently show up. You don't get to have a slip up and when you talk about the differences between being an African-American woman in the sport of softball and having some of my white counterparts in the sport of softball, I don't get as many chances to succeed, right. And this is not just me speaking, if you were to talk to literally any black woman playing softball, I'm very confident you would get similar stories in which we just don't have the option to not be successful. And it comes down to the fact that, right, we're supposed to be this, so it's not seen as something that's exceptional.

Right? I’m very fast, well, of course you are AJ, you're black, right. And that's, again, goes deep into the colorism. Right? Whereas you have one of my white counterparts that comes out to being fast. Like, gosh, she's so fast. Oh, it's so impressive.

You know, in the back of your mind that you have that pressure of, I have to get this done or else I may not get another chance. And a lot of my white teammates don't ever have to feel that way. Right. They know that they're going to get a chance at a chance and chance until they simply run out.

And so, I think that when it comes to softball and really having to try to navigate those instances, I would be lying if I said it wasn't frustrating. I would be lying, if I said it wasn't disheartening at times. And you know, they're playing softball, it's a sport of failure. So, I could have the best hit of my life, but someone made a great play and it's not a hit.

Right. There's the, there are a lot of things I cannot control when it comes down to this game. And I feel that from trying to navigate those instances, I just had to keep going. And I never, I think it was so important that I'm not focused on the excess pressure. Every time I had the opportunity to succeed, I overdid it.

Right. I never gave anyone the opportunity to doubt me. And again, there's times when there's things that are out of my control and there are times when I did not get a hit. There were times when things just did not go right. But when I did have my opportunity, you were, I was going to make you pay attention to me.

Right? You no longer had the luxury of saying, Oh, well, if she does this, no, you would get to the point where people would begin to ask questions as to why AJ isn't playing because she's doing so good. You don't get to pretend like she doesn't deserve the position that she deserves, but I don't know that everyone deals with it the same, but I think that in the sport of softball, as far as the opportunities and just really in life, I mean, if you were to talk to any black person in this country, they're going to tell you that in any field we have to be twice as good to get the same as a lot of our white counterparts. And again, it's no longer when I'm speaking, right. I don't get the chance to use any different kind of jargon or slang. Right. I have to sound intelligent or else you're going to assume that I'm not, people get surprised when they know I can eloquently speak and those types of things that are just deeply rooted.

You know, it just comes down to, I have to focus on myself and sometimes it's sad because I want to be a part of the team. I want to do more. But when sometimes my team and our coaches don't think that I'm capable of this simply because of the color of my skin or because I'm supposed to achieve this because of the color of my skin, you know, sometimes it forces you to kind of have to focus on yourself and get yourself to the position that you want to get to without relying or seeking the support from what you would hope would be your support system. 

Stef

How do you think that we could create a more inclusive environment in sports, like softball or other like predominantly white sports?

AJ

I think that it's important to have those athletes in those positions to succeed. So, I think it's important, like, as you talked about only 5% are in college. I think those questions need to be asked. Why, why are you not recruiting this college athlete? Why is there only 5%, right?

These questions that have been asked, especially this year, when it comes to workplace environment of all these individuals, you know, posting a black box on Instagram or making these statements of denouncing racism, then it's like, okay, well, thank you for your two paragraphs, but let me see the black individuals or people of color in general that you have in your company. Right? Are you truly making those changes that you are writing that two letter paragraph to put on Instagram so that other people believe in. I think it's now putting the work in place and asking those tough questions.

People are forced to make changes, right? Companies feel the pressure that they have to diversify. They have to have that type of training. Now they can no longer slide by and people are calling them out. And I think that that is exactly what needs to happen in sport. And I think it's been happening in other sports, but I think it needs to happen more now.

You know, I think with the NFL people, they've had a lot of scrutiny where it is. With Colin Kaepernick and all those different issues where it's like, so do you still think that that was the wrong way to protest now that you see everything else going on? Those questions have to be asked in order to force change.

And you know, my favorite quote is “not everything that is faced will be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced”. And so, when it comes to sport, asking those tough questions and forcing those answers is how we're going to create the change.

Stef

I love that. And that is actually at the root of one of the reasons why we created the Voice in Sport advocacy team that we're launching here in February because. We want those female athletes and all these schools to be asking the questions, because if not them, who? If somebody is not going to speak up, if the administrators are not going to speak up, because they're afraid of losing their jobs, then the girls on the ground must do it.

And I think it's why we called the company Voice in Sport because we really believe in that power of speaking up, asking a question, doing your homework, get informed. Just because a company talks about Black Lives Matter or equality and women in leadership doesn't mean that they're actually doing the work behind the scenes. So, look at their board, look who's running the company, where are they putting their money? That's the real work that we all need to do as members of the world. It's not just enough to say you're for something.

AJ

And I think at this point you can see past that. Like I just, I think it's very easy to weed out those individuals that are just talking the ones that are actually walking the walk. I mean, for me, it was, it was as simple as looking for the people that actually stated Black Lives Matter in the statements that we post. A lot of them didn't. And, you know, I think that it was just very easy to see the people that felt pressure to do something and those that really want to do it. But I think again, that's how you move forward. That pressure you have to force those people to. Do something and to change because as we realize, right, it's not going to happen unless it is forced. 

Stef

Absolutely. I think the power of coming together, bringing these conversations to the forefront, talking more about it, and then speaking up collectively as female athletes, I think we're going to drive a lot of change together. I love it. Well, I say you have broken so many barriers on the field, a softball player, and it's been really exciting to see. You were the first woman to receive the prestigious softball, gold glove award, which is amazing. But you're also doing some amazing things off the field. So, I want to talk a little bit about your dreams and aspirations outside of athletics, because you know, you are also heading into another male dominated industry which is broadcasting and content creation. And so, you're breaking some more barriers, which is amazing to see.

Tell us a little bit about why you decided to study broadcasting and journalism in school, and you know, really what inspired you to get into this industry?

AJ

Yeah, well, I didn't decide that I wanted to be a host and get into broadcasting until my senior year in college, that majority of my life, I thought I was going to be a sports agent. But my senior year, Jessica Mendoza, many people know her, she played softball. They don't even see me to say it now speaks on MLB or broadcast for MLB, but she was actually someone that came up to me, I think, was at the SEC tournament that was being held at LSU my senior year.

And she's like, AJ, you would be so good at this. I was like, you know what? I would, I'm thinking. I always loved being on camera after game interviews. Reporters always wanted to interview me because I was very theatrical. I always gave them really fun responses, but I just had never thought about having a career in it.

And so, after speaking with Jessica Mendoza, I was like okay, you know? Yeah. But I would love to, I need to learn more, I mean, my senior year is almost up at this point. And so, I decided to go back to school and to get my graduate degree in broadcast journalism and mass communication.

And so, as I'm going to school and learning about what it is that I want to do and all of the different jobs that you can have. So many things stuck out to me, but you know, for me, what really felt the most like me and what I really enjoy. I enjoy talking to people.

I enjoy learning about people. I enjoy uplifting people, and I just felt like the direction that I wanted to go was hosting that would really allow me to dive in and get those stories about people beyond the statistics, being an athlete. Like, what are you doing off the field and or court? What matters to you? How are you? What made you, you. And, you know, I think that that's really what drove me to continue to want to host and create those spaces and have those conversations that I didn’t feel like we're always being had outside of how great you did that game or what it is that you're doing in the off season.

And, you know, in many industries, especially broadcasting, there's a lot of gatekeepers, right? There's a lot of people that believe in you, a lot of people want you to do something, but it really is one person that gives the okay.

And for whatever reason, I did everything there. When I tell you, I had people vouching for me, people elevating me, people wanting me to do this. And the gatekeeper just kept saying no. And there really wasn't any reason as to why. I've thought about it for a long time. Like why, why am I not given this opportunity? Why can I just have a chance? They're all, there are a lot of people that were given opportunities that I know haven't done the work that I've done. And I was not given one. And I'm just thinking to myself, I just, I don't, other than the fact that there aren't any, you know, people that look like me, really color analyst for softball, I can't think of any other reason why I'm not given the opportunity. And so, but for me again, when I talk about how, you know, those things just propel me forward, whenever I feel like someone's pushing me back it really pushed me forward because honestly, being a color analyst, isn't what I wanted to do.

It was just something that I thought that this is going to jumpstart my career, right. Being able to talk to people, see me, know what I'm doing. And in all honesty, I'm grateful to that gatekeeper because she truly pushed me towards what it is that I actually truly enjoy and forced me to get into those spaces. And I am now able to host and have podcasts and do so many different things with individuals that want me to be where I want to be. And I feel like while 2020 has been a crazy year, for me, it has truly been a year of finding myself. I feel like it sounds really cliche, but like finding what it is that means so much to me and what it is that I really want to do. And I've really been able to uncover that and been able to really push past my goals. I think I'm very spiritual and I talk about manifestation and meditation and things like that.

And it's so true when you like wanting something so bad or you're holding onto it so bad that, it's like, God makes you wait. He likes to make you wait until it's you, it's not something that you feel is necessary. And then once you just start working and you start feeling like you deserve it and you start feeling like you are worth it, that's when everything just starts. And then in 2020 I stopped asking and waiting for a seat at the table and decided to build my own. And when I decided to build my own, all these people started coming and wanting to help me at that table.

And so, you know, I think that in a field, whether it's male dominant or you just have gatekeepers, male or women that are, you know, trying to keep you out. When you get to a point where you're not trying so hard to fit into a space that they don't want you to be, and you create your own space. Whoof. That is where you're going to see all of the dreams and goals that you want, truly come to light.

Stef

That is where the magic happens. It's such an amazing message to send to anybody because you know, lots of doors close on us and it's going to happen. But sometimes you just have to create your own path and you can't keep knocking at a door, knocking at a door, knocking at the door. And that's important to kind of take a step back sometimes and be like, Hey, what door I knocking at? And why am I asking permission in this one company, this one place, when I could go over here and create. Because most of these roles, a lot of these roles and companies that we want, and we aspire to be in are run by men. Don't give up on your dreams just because someone says no, but sometimes you just might have to create a different path to get there.

AJ

Oh, no, a hundred percent. And in all honesty, I think the fastest way to get where you want to go slowly. Like, you can't rush things. And so, when you are starting something, right, have your goals be big, think big when you're starting something, but as you're getting there, as you're working towards it, think small, think small about the progress. Be excited about how you're moving forward. Don't think that, Oh, I have to be there, here at a certain time, or this is my destination. I have to be there. Work on that 1% and get excited for it because that really is the fastest way that you're going to get to where you want to go.

Stef

That's great advice. Even if you're talking about whether you're talking about sport and a dream within athletics that you're trying to hit, or for an entrepreneur who's starting their own company. So, what would be your one piece of advice to a girl who is trying to break through in a career that they currently don't see themselves represented?

AJ

Every single barrier that's been placed in front of any of us as women is made to be knocked down. And as soon as we knocked down that one barrier, you are literally going to open up a door that leads to all these other doors waiting to be knocked down by someone else.

But it's that first door that allows us to see all the other doors that we can knock down. And I think that that analogy just points to, sometimes it just takes one person to show that it can be done to inspire all these other women, all other fields to feel as if they could tackle the next barrier. And I think that. What's also important is to understand that impossible is not a declaration. Impossible is a dare. And that is how you have to look at things. Before 2016, when I won the Golden Glove, it was impossible for a woman to be a Glover, right. Before 2020, it was impossible for a woman to be a GM of an MLB team. Before all these other years, all these other amazing feats that these women have done, right? Impossible for a woman to be a coach in the NBA and impossible for a woman to be a coach in the NFL, impossible for a woman to play D1 football and score a touchdown.

But now that someone has done it, do you know how many women probably have goals of playing D1 football, now that Sarah Fuller has done it? How many women have goals to be GMs of Major league baseball teams, now that Kim Ng has done it. That's what I mean by you knocked on one door and you are truly elevating so many women to believe that they can knock them down as well. I want you to always be too determined to be defeated and too focused to be doubtful.

Doubt only creeps in when you were getting closer and closer to success. People only doubt what you can and can do when they know your potential, right.

Stef

Oh, I think that is so spot-on AJ. I think it's an important piece of life lesson for anybody to, to kind of just pay attention to is like, take a step back and think about the person that's criticizing you. And, and most likely the people who are trying to tear you down or say it's not possible, are the ones that are themselves not confident, themselves worried about your success and those are not the voices you want to be listening to. And so, what is one thing that you would like to see changed for the future of women's sports?

AJ

I would like to see more women knowing their value and knowing their worth and demanding it. I would like to see the time where women no longer ask politely to be put on TV, no longer ask politely to be respected or ask politely to be seen as valuable as the men.

You deserve it and it's time to demand it. Everyone needs to be strong, forceful in their voices, knowing exactly who they are, knowing exactly what they're worth, and I think it's time that we make sure everyone else knows it as well.

Stef

Totally agree. And that's why we're so excited to have you part of the Voice in Sport team and doing this podcast. I hope that so many girls hear this message and all the important messages that you talked about today, AJ, because you are a great example of the confidence we want all young girls to have. And we believe in that power of confidence and staying in sport, and then what we can do with that power outside of sports.

AJ

One last quote, to leave you with, whether you believe you can, or you believe you cannot either. You are right.

(background music starts)

Stef

Thank you so much Aja for joining us on the podcast and we can't wait to see what you come with next.

AJ

Thanks for having me!

Stef

Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us, AJ! Your fierce drive is going to inspire and help so many young girls in their journeys in sport. 

Representation and having role models that look like you are so incredibly important for young female athletes. Thank you for breaking those barriers for the next generation of girls in sport, and showing them that they can live their dreams! 

Your mental strength in overcoming the people who doubted you is so inspiring. Thank you for sharing your experience with discrimination and colorism, and showing us that sometimes we need to step back and forge our own paths to reach our goals. Your reminder that sometimes the fastest way to get to where you want to go is slowly, is so important now, when the pandemic is making it harder for all of us to follow our dreams. 

Although there is still so much work to be done to give black female athletes equal representation, AJ has really shown us that the power to drive change lies within us. We need to ask those difficult questions of our friends, coaches, schools and universities. Most of all, we need to focus on ourselves and not those who doubt us, like AJ said, being “too determined to be defeated and too focused to be doubtful”. 

At VIS it is our mission to bring more visibility to female athletes and elevate their voice. And we have some friends in the fight as I like to say with the sponsors of today's episode - Athletes Unlimited. Check out Athletes Unlimited multiple handles on social channels starting withAUPROSPORTS, AUPROSOFTBALL, AUPROLAX and AUPROVOLLEYBALL and Stayed tuned for the inaugural volleyball season starting February 27th."

We appreciate you so much, AJ, for raising your voice in today’s episode. You can follow AJ on Instagram at @aj_andrews_. You can always find us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok @voiceinsport. Leave us a review, subscribe, share our podcast with your friends to show support.   

If you are a female athlete 13-22 we’d love to have you join our Community - when you sign up you will have access to exclusive Content, Mentorship from amazing female athletes, like AJ and Advocacy tools to help drive change. And we hope to see you next week at the Voice in Sport Podcast.

Host: Stef Strack

Producer: VIS Creators™ Zosia Bulhak and Anya Miller

AJ Andrews, Professional Softball Player, speaks out about the challenges she faces as a black woman in the predominantly white sport of softball. She reminds us to love ourselves not in spite of our skin color, but because of it.