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Episode #36

Midwest Mentality

with Sophie Cunningham

02 Feb, 2021 · Basketball

Sophie Cunningham, WNBA player for the Phoenix Mercury, shares the power of hard work and a positive mindset throughout the difficult transitions from high school to college and from college to the WNBA.

Transcript

Sophie Cunningham

Stef

Today’s guest is Sophie Cunningham, a WNBA player for the Phoenix Mercury and former D1 student athlete at the University of Missouri. Today, Sophie shares her journey in sport, helping us understand the difficult transition from High School to University, and then from University to Pro. 

In this episode we dive deep into her mental game and how her Midwestern upbringing has helped her throughout her career. Sophie shares the values of hardwork and positivity instilled by her family of strong women, and takes us through the challenges she had to overcome upon arrival to the University of Missouri, and then the WNBA. She also shares how to navigate the tough recruiting process and what to consider when committing to a school. So if you are one of those female athletes who are about to face some changes like leaving for University or having to adapt to a new role in life, this episode is for you! 

Sophie reminds us all that sometimes, all we can do is give it our best and control what we can control. She highlights that you don’t always need specialised equipment or the best coaches to put in the work. Her journey from a small Midwest town to the WNBA portrays that if you truly work towards your dream and give it everything you’ve got, there is no stopping you. I’m so excited to share this powerful conversation with the VIS community! Thank you for your time, Sophie! 

Stef

Welcome to the Voice in sport podcast. I'm so excited to have Sophie Cunningham here with us today. It's great to speak with a WNBA player. What I love about your story is that you came from a small town and from a Midwest state. I think your story is going to help so many young girls be inspired to reach for their goals. I'd love to start with your journey overall. What sports did you start playing and how did you end up all the way in the WNBA?

Sophie

I am from Columbia, Missouri, and I actually grew up on a farm. We had 25 horses growing up. We had some chickens running around. And so, we were just around the farm life, but I will say Columbia, we're still a big town, but we're not a big city. But I grew up, playing all types of sports. I did soccer, basketball, swimming, volleyball, golf, gymnastics. Did some horseback riding there for a little bit. But once we got older, we did move into the city of Columbia just because of sports, and that's when, around that high school time, I narrowed it down to volleyball and basketball. And so we went to rock Ridge high school, played sports there for four years, graduated there, went to the university of Missouri to dual sport in volleyball and basketball, but ended up getting injured. So I just played basketball there, had a really fun four years, accomplished a lot and now I play out in Phoenix, Arizona for the WNBA, for the Mercury.

Stef: 

Amazing and an incredible journey. I really encourage girls to play multiple sports. What kind of influence did playing multiple sports have on you as an athlete? 

Sophie: 

Yes. First of all, I think it is a Testament to my mom and dad, because I think a lot of parents think that their kids have to choose a sport coming out of the third grade. And, that would be really easy for any athlete to get burnout and for you not to use other muscles and different types of footwork. And so they have always wanted us to play as many sports as possible because, golf works with your hand-eye coordination. Soccer works with your feet. Volleyball helps with jumping, like everything plays into whatever you choose. And so I thought that was super important in my journey to become a professional athlete. 

Stef: 

Amazing. So what in the end inspired you to choose basketball is your number one sport? 

Sophie: 

Yeah, I'm different when I'm inside the lines, you know, and I don't think that's a secret for people who, have seen me play or who know me because when I'm on the court, I'm pretty 

feisty. I do whatever it takes in order for my team to win. And I think that's okay for a woman to be feisty and to sweat a lot and work hard. I think sometimes there's a stigma around: “Oh, she a girl she can't sweat. That's gross”. Like, no I'm going to go kick your butt on the court because I'm sweating. You know? I, I did choose basketball just because that is where my heart really was. And that was where my passion was. And I feel like I could make a big impact to inspire young girls to do what they want.

Stef: 

It also sounds like, you've had some influence on your choice because you have a family, history at University of Missouri. So tell us a little bit about the family dynamic in the sports that they played and how did that influence your journey? 

Sophie: 

Yeah. So it all honestly started with my grandparents on my mom's side, they were both really good athletes from Williamsburg, Missouri, which is a small town. Now that is a small town! But my mom has two other siblings and, all of them but my aunt actually played for the University of Missouri basketball. My mom did track and field for Mizzou. And then my dad, his brother played football for Mizzou. My dad played football for Mizzou and actually my grandpa on my dad's side, played football and then my sister went and played basketball there. So, it was just a family tradition that we always joke that there's black and gold in our blood. And we just kind of kept that family tradition going. 

Stef: 

It's pretty amazing. But, you know, a recent report by female leaders in sports survey, from 2019, showed that 77% of female leaders reported the lack of exposure to female coaches as role models, limiting girls’ sports participation. And here you had a built-in role model with your mom, Paula Cunningham, shoutout to her. And so just talk about the importance of, that as a young girl in sport. 

Sophie: 

I will say that I am very blessed and now learning about other people's stories that what I had growing up is, crazy. So, all the females in our family are very strong. Like we have strong personalities and we kind of set the tone. And it starts from my grandma and she's just taught us a lot in how to be strong and how to stick up for ourselves. And then of course my mom, she always coached me, my sister, and my dad was also super involved and coached us as well. So, everyone was really involved and then just really in gymnastics and in golf, she didn't really play those growing up, but she was still involved of like, “Hey, that's okay. You know, keep your head up”. Like “next one”, all that type of stuff. And so always seeing strong women in our lives has allowed us to get outside that box and push the limits for females here in the Midwest. Honestly, I looked up to all the male athletes here in Missouri, because that's what you had to look up to.

And so I'm so glad that my mom inspired me and pushed me because now a lot of girls around the Midwest look up to me and, I'm super thankful for that. But I do think for females who have made it. That it's our duty to give back, for those people who don't have that background of having strong women in their lives, that it's our responsibility to give back to them. 

Stef: 

I love that. And now that you're an official VIS League Member as a Mentor on the VIS platform, girls can sign up and they can learn a lot from you. I think that's, that's so important that you're giving back like that. So that leads me into my next question about values. I think growing up in the Midwest, what were some of the values that your parents instilled in you both within sports and beyond, and how has that helped you become a better athlete? 

Sophie: 

Yeah. I'm so thankful for how I was raised, and it wasn't the easiest, but I would never change what I had to go through for anything. And, I say that because I come from a very blue-collar town there's some wealthy people, but a lot of us around here, have to work extremely hard. And I think that's something that's always been instilled in me because of my mom and dad and my grandparents and everyone else you have to work extra hard for what you want to get. And if, if you didn't succeed that time, go back and work, on what you need to fix. And try again. I think that just working hard and outworking my opponent has really set me apart from everyone else. But I would also like to say that my passion and my drive and how competitive I am, has also set me apart because, I did have to work extra hard in order to get where I wanted to go.

And being from a smaller town, from a farming community where my grandparents live, farming is hard stuff and I did it for the, first time, this past year because of Corona. And my grandpa is 77 and he can still outwork me and outlift me because farming is so difficult. And I think that if anyone has a problem with work ethic, I'll bring them out into my family farm, and they can get some lessons out there! I do have a strong faith as well.  And I think that not relying on my own strength and my own knowledge has also helped me to get to where I am. 

Stef:

 I love that because I think it's just so inspiring when I was reading up about like how you started, you know, as first starting to play basketball, you talked about your driveway and how it was a little too steep for a hoop, but you know, you basically did it anyway and you made it work within the environment you were in. And I think that is so inspiring regardless of where girls are in the world and their situation. I love that your, your determination, but also your positivity that you bring to any team that you join. I think being in a Midwest town, or in a small town, and that is not the coastal sides of the US can be really hard when you're trying to reach your goals. How did you get exposure to the top teams, when you were headed into high school now, and you knew you wanted to go and play Division 1 basketball and volleyball? How did you set yourself up for success there? 

Sophie:

Yeah. So, it's crazy because, from a young age, from the time I could talk, my dream job was to be a professional athlete. And that has never wavered, not once.  Even growing up when I was six years old, I've always just been bigger and broader and stronger than the boys. And even playing in a kindergarten league with all boys, my parents still had to carry my birth certificate around because all the other boy parents were like, she's too big. She's too rough. She's not in kindergarten. My parents were like, “no, she is”, you know?  So, from a young age, my parents have always put me in environments that would allow me to keep growing. I just always did better when I was with the guys because they pushed me. And my older sister is two and a half years older, and so I was always at her practices playing and so I had to find a way to be successful because they were bigger. They were stronger. At the time they had more skill and I hate to lose. And I had to find a way to be successful. But I will say, I think I started traveling, for basketball. It's called the AAU circuit and that's just when you play in the summer pretty much, and you travel all around the country. I played out of a team, in Kansas City called Eclipse. We were all kind of from smaller towns. Some were from Kansas City, which it's a big city. And there were some really good athletes from there, but the majority of our team was from smaller towns. And we were really, really good. We actually went to all these coastal tournaments and everyone's like, “Oh, they're just some Midwestern team”, but we actually beat all of them and I'm not even going to lie because I'm proud of us. But having professional athletes as parents, you have better resources. You have the topmost elite trainers from a super young age. And there's a lot more opportunity on the coast and that's just facts. And for us to be from small towns here in the Midwest to go in and win all these tournaments was huge. It was fun for us because we're like, “yeah, we might look like this, but we're still going to beat you on the basketball court”.

It did bring its own challenges. And that is if you wanted any recognition for being an All-American in high school for being ranked, you had to kind of be from these coastal areas. My goal was to prove that I could outwork these people and be successful just like them, that I’m not gonna let where I'm from and the opportunities that are here compared to there ever stop me from my dream. And so, I think that's why I joined. And that's why I worked so hard, to win, to prove to myself and to others that you can be from anywhere and be successful.

Stef: 

That's so inspiring. I want to talk a little bit about AAU because it's a great opportunity for young girls in middle school and high school, but it can be expensive. What advice would you give to those girls if their family doesn't have the resources to put them in an AAU?

Sophie:  

Hey, I'm going to be very vulnerable. We are, very, middle-class. You know, I did not start seeing a trainer for skill development and mental performance until I was in eighth grade. And even then, we didn't go all the time. It was just when we were available. So, you don't need all those resources.  I think me and my sisters, were so successful because our parents took the time to go play catch with us, to go put cones out on the street. You don't need the top tier trainers. You don't need the fancy outfits, all you gotta have is a mindset that you want to get better and you want to outwork. I think that is something that everybody can do, regardless if your family can afford it or not.  Honestly, this sounds pretty country, but our family has hay bales and we used to run in and out of those hay bales who could get to the end the fastest. You could use whatever. But I will say, I think that if you really are serious about your dream and you work hard at it, you're going to see the results.  If you surround yourself around the right coaches, they will help you be on that team and get to where you want to go. So, I think it all starts with you, and making sure that you're doing everything you can to prove yourself. 

Stef:  

So that mindset that you have been talking about that came from your values from where you grew up and your family, that mindset actually landed you a scholarship in eighth grade to go to University of Missouri. So, how did that process happen for you and walk us through why you decided ultimately to say yes, so early on, to University of Missouri. 

Sophie:  

I've grown up here. My mom and dad took us to, you know, all the women's basketball games. We went to a lot of the men's games. We went to all the football games, baseball, softball, soccer. And so, growing up. I was just a huge Mizzou fan, and I'm serious, gold and black are in my bloodstream. And so, growing up, I got made fun of for being so tall and so big. But I had my mom and my aunt and my grandma and my sister, like, “Hey, you know what they're saying that now, but in the future, you're going to be so glad that you're this tall and this broad, because you are strong, you are strong, and you're made like that for a reason and for a purpose”. And so, I always had that positive reinforcement at home. I was able to be confident and embrace my size and who I was.

And so, growing up, I always had that voice of that competence inside of me because of how I was raised. And so, in seventh grade, I actually had my first offer from the University of Kansas, which is a big no, no. If you know anything about sports, like Missouri and Kansas do not get along and we will never get along. And I love it. And I was trying to be nice, and then right when we got in the car, like, “Oh my gosh, we could never”, you know what I mean? So, I know it's just sad but like, it's just like funny joke because it's just a border war. Like you just don't like each other.

And, then in eighth grade I actually got a couple of other offers and one of them happened to be Mizzou and I was talking to my mom and I knew my sister was probably going to go there. And I was like “we grew up here and we had nobody to look up to on that women's team”. Because clearly, we weren't here when my aunt was playing, because otherwise it would have been her. But there's just no female role model for people to embrace and to try to be like, and to change the program for the better. And it wasn't just me. There were a lot of people involved in changing it, but I was like, “I want to be that, I want to be that it person and I'm going to do it”.

And I'm one of those people that once I put my mind on something, I'm determined to accomplish it one way or another.  So, I committed, and I was young. I was in eighth grade and I was like, I'm not messing around here. Like, I, we are going to change this program.

You guys need to recruit people around me, because I can't do it on my own. Like I had this huge vision for what I wanted to do for the University, and no one was stopping me and when I wanted to quit or I was tired or whatever in high school, I was like, “no, this extra rep will help me when I'm in college”, you know? And so, from a young age I just had that competitive spirit inside me. 

Stef:  

It’s crazy though! You went through all of high school knowing exactly where you were going to go.

Sophie: 

 Yeah. Which is so rare. But I also think that I saved myself because the recruiting process can be brutal. And I think it's already changed since I was getting recruited, which was really not that long ago, but I feel like when I was being recruited, it's like, “what can I do for that program”? Like I was trying to sell myself where now it's like flipped and you know, these kids are like, “well, what can you do for me”? So, I already think like, it's changed so much and I'm just like these kids and parents, especially the parents, they need help with this recruiting process. And I’m so blessed that I skipped that whole process, cause oh my gosh, I would have gone crazy. 

Stef: 

Well, what, what advice do you have now for girls in high school that are getting different offers and they're considering and they're not quite sure how to navigate recruiting. And, and I know the process has shifted a lot and it's always shifting, especially now with the name, image, and likeness updates and new legislation that will probably be passed in 2021. But in general, how would you advise a young girl to think about choosing a school? 

Sophie: 

Yeah. I think everybody always wants, like they want to be the leading score or their first year of the freshman year. Like they want to, they want to have that stardom right off the bat. Where that is… No, that is not how it works. Like you have got to work your tail off in order to have that confidence to go out there and ball out.

And everyone says that you will have this feeling in your stomach or somewhere that in your heart and your mind that this is the right place. And it's really hard because, you really have to try to peel back all those layers, all the bright lights, all the, the gimmicks and what they can offer you, all the shoes, all the shirts, like all that, and really be like, “Does this coach really fit my morals, does their work ethic and their vision and how they're going to develop me and more importantly, how are they going to help me after the ball stops bouncing?  How are they helping me be a better person outside the lines?” And I think that's something that you really have to be careful about, because if you don't choose someone who you  morally line up with, or, they're not really a good person, they're just a really good basketball coach, but they really don't care about you, you are going to be absolutely miserable.  You are around those people way too much in college, in order for you to not really like them or enjoy or be excited to be around your teammates and those future coaches of yours. 

Stef: 

It's such great advice. And I'd also say to the girls out there: do your homework on the school. We're about to launch some of our advocacy efforts here at VIS. And it is so important to understand is that school you're about to go consider, are they NCAA compliant? Are they Title Nine compliant? What sort of lawsuits have been filed against them? How do they treat their female athletes?  It's so important.

Sophie: 

Yeah. And another thing you can do is reach out to old players, reach out to current players, if you're comfortable enough and if you're not have your parents reach out to their families. I think it's okay to reach out to people who've been through it or going through it, so yes. Do your homework. That's probably the most important thing that I didn't say, is do your homework.

Stef: 

It's a good life lesson for whatever you do, whether it's a job, you go into a team, you go into even the WNBA, like who are the owners? How is it structured? How's their team? Is it diverse? I think those are things that you might not think about when you're younger, but then as you become older and get more experience, you realize, wow, the, the context of what I'm walking into is also going to be an important part for how I feel every day.

So, I want to talk about just the commitment before we move on to your experience at University of Missouri, because I do feel like there's still a lot of pressure for young girls to commit early. And so, you know, you committed at eighth grade and it turned out great for you and you had an amazing career. So, it all worked out for you, but would you advise young girls to commit that early to a school? 

Sophie: 

Yeah. I would never change my experience for anything, but I also never thought about getting to the next step. Like I knew my dream was a WNBA, but I also know that if I went to a school like UConn or Notre Dame or Baylor, that they have All-Americans and WNBA players coming out of their program left and right. And so, they obviously know they're doing something right. And they obviously know something that a lot of coaches are trying to do. And I think that is one thing, and it's not about this and I've never been about this, but if you want sponsorships or you want to be picked higher in the draft and get better offers overseas, like where you go plays a huge part. And I hate it. I hate that it's this way, because it's so political, and I busted my tail enough that I've been able to make it, but it's not the case for a lot of people, and those people who did not go to those schools, they'll tell you the same exact thing that like, well, if I did go to those, one of those schools, it would’ve probably been a lot easier for me to get those sponsorships and to get paid higher in the draft. And so, I think if you feel a certain way and you feel like it's the perfect fit, then yes, go for it. But I also think, not jumping the gun and patience and you maturing as a person and kind of seeing who you want to be as a person as well, senior year of high school, it's going to change and you're going to mature, and your mindset is going to mature. And so, I think there is also some cool things about waiting.

Stef: 

Awesome. So, you have this amazing work ethic and this mindset that is going to get you ready for college. And let's talk about that transition.  A lot of girls are nervous about this transition of going from high school to college. I did it myself as a division one athlete. What advice would you give to those girls?     

Sophie: 

Yes. So, my sister was on the team, but even if she wasn't on the team, I would have found someone to help show me the ropes of things to do, things not to do, things that the coaches like that players do, that they don't like. I think for me, and I'm going to be very honest that I went to high school to college, in order just to play basketball. And I hate that now, but I was never very excited about the school and that's no surprise to anyone who knows me. I just wasn't. And like I said, I wish I was different, but I'm not. And, I had to learn how to do time management, because high school for me was a breeze. The classes were easy, whatnot, but now in college it's different. And so, you don't want to take it for granted that you're having someone pay for your school. You want to give your best effort. And I wish I had that mindset when I was playing, but I didn't.

So, I had eight hours of study hall, all four years of college, all four years. And it's usually just freshmen in order for them to figure out how to do school, how to manage when to eat, how to manage practice and all this stuff. But for me, I had all four years of eight hours.

And so, I think that it is important, that transition. Our practice started at 2pm, but you had to be there an hour early at one. and a lot of our school got done at 12:30, at 12:45. But it's that time management and that planning of how am I going to get from point A to B in time in order to be ready for practice, to get treatment, to get taped. And then after that you have weights, so practices from two to four, then you have weights for 30 minutes after, and then you got to get to the dining hall in time before it closes, in order to eat a good meal to make sure your body is performing at an elite level. I think that's something that I just didn't realize in high school, you have practice for an 1:30 and you're done, and you can get there five minutes before it starts. But at college you got to get your mind right. Because everyone's good at this level. Right? So, it is smart to get there an hour early to prep. I might feel tired and I have four tests tomorrow, but I can't think about that. And I have to go out there and compete in order to push my teammates to be their best selves as well. And so, I think there's just so many little bitty parts that they just don't tell you. If you wear the wrong shirt, you're going to get in trouble and you're going to have awareness training and awareness training is not fun. I've had it multiple times. You know, it, you are going to be out in your community a lot. There's a lot of young boys and girls that are going to be looking up to you. So you have to be careful what you post on social media, you cannot be cussing on social media. You got to pay attention to the music that you're listening to, if you do post on social media. So, there's just so many little things that are good, that a lot of people should be paying attention to, but coming out of high school, you just don't really think about all of that. 

Stef: 

That's great advice and so honest. So, thank you for sharing your experience, because it's a struggle. That transition is hard for everybody. And everybody has sort of like different facets of their new identity that they are struggling with during that time period. I do wonder though; you had a long line of your family go there. You committed in eighth grade. You had this vision for what you wanted to do for the program. So, did you ever feel overwhelmed by your reputation as this positive, energetic driving force. Did that ever feel like weight on your shoulders?      

Sophie: 

I think I have that approach of just trying to be, a light and a positive person to any situation I go into. And even though I didn't like school, I still went into the classroom with a big smile on my face and said, “what's up” to the teacher every single day, even though we both knew that I wasn't a very good student, you know, but I had a good approach and so they ended up liking me. I will say, I knew where I wanted to go, and I was just so determined. And so that's just who I was, and I wore it on my sleeve and I never felt like it was a mask and I never felt like it was fake. If you really think about it, what is pressure? You know, like what are you doing? I feel like, that's where my sports psychologist came in is to help me be like, “pressure's not a real thing”. That is something that humans made up. You know what I mean? And being with my sports psychologist helped me to not feel that pressure and to go out there and just be myself. And so, physically I didn't have an issue.  I've just been blessed, and I didn't have to like catch up or get stronger or do any of that because I did that on my own, because I wanted to be successful on the court. But then going into college, everyone's good. And so how am I going to set myself apart from my other teammates, from other people in the nation playing at the D1 level. And that's when I got really into sports psychology. And I talked to her once or twice, three times a week, every week. And you know, for being 18, 19, 20, 21 years old, and trying to take this program to somewhere else, there are a lot of things that a lot of other athletes never had to go through.

And so, I couldn't talk to my peers. So, I ended up having to talk to her quite a bit.  There was one time that I felt that my character was being attacked. I'm probably not the nicest person on the court, even though like I'm out there having a good time, I'm smiling, I'm laughing, because I've put in the work, in order to have fun when I'm performing in front of tens of thousands of people, and so, there was one time in my whole career where I just hated the position I was in. And that was when I had literally all of South Carolina and all of their government officials, all these people, lawsuits coming back and forth, like all these things.  They attacked my character and, I think that's when I had to step back and be like, you know, who do I want to be known for? Like, yes, I want to be a competitive sassy, happy go, lucky girl out on the court, but I also need to represent my faith and be a good example.

And so I think I turned that into a positive and reflected on how I could be better and how I can be better. And I think that might’ve honestly been the best thing that's ever happened to me, even though it really, really sucked.

Stef: 

Oh, I bet. I think that coming out of that, you must've grown a ton and working with the sports psychologist is such a great advantage. Talk to us about when you started seeing your first sport psychologist. How did that really affect your game? 

Sophie: 

Like I said, now I don't think pressure is really a thing, but I do think it's all in your head, but there's so much pressure. If you're getting all these awards, you have to perform a certain way, all the time. It's like you can't ever have a bad day. So, I think I started either seventh or eighth grade. I can't really remember, just seeing Brett Ledbetter. He is a live performance coach. He is one of the best of the best now, he wasn't then like, he was very new then. So, we grew up together, and he helped with our mental toughness and I think that is so huge because in a game there's a lot of things that you can't control and that could be how the refs are calling it. It could be your shot going in. My whole life I've been trying to focus on controlling things that I can control and owning it. You know, that's all I can do.

And I'm going to work my tail off and put my best foot forward every single day and what happens, happens. And honestly, something that a lot of young girls can do now is visualizing yourself in one of those situations. You just turned the ball over, you missed a wide-open layup, and then you went to go foul. Like typically your mind is not in the best spot right now.

But just sitting here, how am I going to react to when that kind of stuff happens? Like I'm going to take a deep breath. I'm going to make sure I'm strong with the ball and make sure my next pass is going to be great. Like, no one's going to touch it. Just little things like that really helped me.

And I also think working hard a hundred percent of the time, when you're in the gym. And making sure you're putting in that work gives you a strong mindset too, because you know that you've done everything you can, and now you just have to have your mind right. And focus one thing at a time. And so, I think for me, it was my mental toughness and I'm still trying to work on it.

Stef: 

We are all trying to still work on our mental toughness. I think regardless if you're playing sport or not right now,  but I love that and I hope to encourage  all the girls that are listening to this, to really treat your mental side of the game, just like your physical side and like Sophie said, visualize, learn how to meditate and does it have to be some crazy, you know, spiritual thing, you can just focus and learn how to breathe and how to react in situations that you know are going to come at you. 

Sophie: 

Yeah. And I think you're right. It doesn't have to be some extravagant thing. Like there's so many times in college that I was just exhausted and like, I love practice but sometimes I was just dreading it, cause I knew I had so much stuff going on outside of the lines that I had to get done. I'm acknowledging that I don't feel great today. Regardless, I'm going to be the most talkative person in the gym. Like that is a sign of mental toughness, even when you don't want to talk, I'm still going to be like, “Hey, good pass”. Or, “Hey, let's get our hands up on defense”. Like even though I really don't feel like it, I'm forcing myself to do it.

Stef:

I love that. So, having this focus on mental health and the physical health, and just that overall mentality mindset that you brought into that program, it ended up in some amazing results. You ended your four-year career at Missouri as the program’s all-time leader in points and free throws, which is pretty amazing and ended up getting drafted to the Phoenix Mercury. So, let's talk about how all of that, you know, hard work from your upbringing. How did that help prepare you for this next transition, and was the transition different from High School to College, and from College to Pro? 

Sophie: 

Absolutely. I think it's always just another level. So, like you just said from high school to college, you just have to learn that it's a whole another level and you got to give yourself some grace to figure out the pace and the figure out how it works. And it's the same thing with college to professional. It's a whole another pace. It's a whole another type of knowledge. You are with the most elite in the entire world, which is absolutely insane. But what a great opportunity, like how awesome is that, that every single day you get to be one of those most elite athletes in the whole world playing your sport. I mean, you got to bring it and that's where that mental toughness comes in, because it can be intimidating. It's really easy to get down on yourself because you're like, if I can't perform, then you know, they're going to just get someone else. I think at this level it is a hundred percent more mental than physical.

And looking back in college, it's the same thing, but I just didn't realize it then. I think it really is a great opportunity to pick people's minds. How they train, how do they eat? What is their diet look like? And I don’t know, just to go out there and have fun and compete, to learn and, like not prove myself, but know that I have so much more inside of me, but I just have to wait and stay ready. And I'm excited just to gain all that knowledge in order to give back to people because no one in my family has ever been to the WNBA or any professionals. So, we don't know what it looks like. 

Stef: 

Yeah, not a lot of girls know what that looks like, cause there's not a lot of players in the WNBA. So, I think that if you could take a step back and think about it, it wasn't that long ago, 2019 was your first season. You just finished your second season with the Mercury, but going into that first season, what would you have done differently, to better prepare? And what are you proud of that you did, that really set you up for a great rookie season?  

Sophie:  

I do think that you feel like you've accomplished so much in college and all of us did like, I'm not saying we didn't, but you feel like that you've worked hard and that you've earned a certain spot. But that's not the case. It's just like from high school to college, you got to earn it. You got to put in extra time, you can't do exactly what you did. You have to do more. And so that's what I had to learn. And I'm still trying to learn what else can I do? How much time can I put into my mental performance? Can I really sit down and make sure my diet is good? So, my body is healthy so I can perform and not miss one game this season. There's so much I had to learn. But at the same time, it's really easy to lose your confidence. Like you just never know what is going to be thrown at you. It's a mental game. You got to stay ready. You have to be mentally tough, but you have to be ready to prepare like you're going to be starting every single game because you never know when that could happen. 

Stef: 

Absolutely. And it's so cool to go into a team like the Phoenix mercury, where you have some amazing all-star women around you to help support you. So, you're not in it alone. But just like when you transitioned from high school to college, you might be scared to ask questions to these older girls. What is the type of questions that you asked, your first and second year to these more vet players? 

Sophie:  

I will say, do not be afraid to ask questions. Like if you don't know something, you'd got to ask, even in college I was like the go-to player, but there's sometimes I was like, “I have no idea what you're talking about. You've got to explain this” and it helps you because then you know what they see or where they're coming from. Be that voice and ask a question. 

There are a lot of questions I asked Diana [Taurasi] of like how many shots do you get up? Cause she is the goat. She is like the best of all time, she is. And I was like what do you do in the off season? Like what do you do before practice? What type of diet do you eat? What is your mental? Like, what do you think about when you can't make a shot? Because I know what my sports performance coaches had told me. I know what I think when I'm going through something like that, but she is the best of the best. And she used to be a huge meat eater. Like she used to eat everything in sight, but now she's a vegan, which I don't know if I could ever do that. But maybe I could try some of it, you know, but just like little things like that off or on the court. Like why did you call that player? Why do you think I should've made that pass? Really seeing her perspective and her mindset. I think you can't be scared to gain knowledge. And so in order to pick her brain and to think about things differently and to get her perspective, it only helps my mind grow, even though I'm not in her position of getting 30 shots a game and playing all game, when my time comes, I'm going to be prepared because I am learning from the best of the best.

Stef: 

And I just want to repeat it, asking is just so powerful and I think nobody says anything, especially in college, it's like, everybody's just walking around silently suffering instead of raising their voice. So, it's such a strong message. So, you just came off the 2020 season in the bubble. And so, you had a lot of time with your teammates. What did you observe makes a great basketball player? 

Sophie: 

That is a fantastic question. I think of course you have to be able to stand your ground on the court, right? You have to be able to make your shots. You have to be able to handle a ball, make great passes. But I think one thing that is so underrated that coaches do not speak enough about is being a great teammate and owning the role that you are in.

And I think that's something that I've been going through the past two years, because in college, from my stepping on campus, I was a starter. Right. And I earned it.  I worked hard for it, but now. It's so flip-flop that I have never been in the position I've been in now. And I'm at the most elite level. Like you would think sometime in my life I would have to work for a starting position, but I haven't. And so, it's, it's a new learning experience. I'm owning the position I'm in. I get that. We have a lot of bets on our team and they are fantastic players. They're All-Stars. And even though I know I can do exactly what they're doing, it's not my call. That's something I can't control. So, I'm not even going to worry about it.  What I can control is cheering for them, making sure our defense is exactly what our coach wants. And then also owning my role as a practice player. 

I don't know why I'm acting like I don't play like I do play, but I just am not satisfied with how much I'm playing and the opportunity I'm getting. And so, my first year, I just wanted to be the best player when we were practicing in order to prove myself and keep pushing them as starters. And I think that's helped me this year because I did get a lot of opportunity this year. Like being a great teammate is something that all of my teammates know that I am and that I'm loud that I bring the energy every day that I'm passionate. Like that is what I own. And I do it religiously every single day. 

Stef: 

And do you feel like the coaches and the managers of these teams, they recognize that quality as an asset? 

Sophie: 

Oh, a hundred percent. And I think it's so funny because I'm at the, I'm playing in the most elite level and for me to be known as, Oh, we want her on our team because we know that she is the hardest worker.  She will always give a hundred percent and that she's a great teammate. Like what I’d thought it'd be like, she makes all her three, she can play the best defense she has the most assist. Like, no all that I bring to the table has nothing to do with basketball. This has to do with life too.  And so, it is really funny that that's kind of why people like me is because I'm a hard worker. Like how easy is that? I can control all of that.

Stef: 

I think it's such a great lesson because everybody's career, at some point in their life is going to go through a shift of what your role is on a specific team and being able to persevere through that is what keeps players in the game. Being able to adapt is so important. But for so many female athletes, especially coming out of university, it can be really confusing.  You're losing a part of your identity because you were this certain person in college and then you're going into this whole new environment where nobody really knows you. What advice would you have to girls that are like heading into transitions?  They're leaving college and maybe they're not going to play pro, but they were a star at their school. Like how do you stay grounded, and who you are? 

Sophie: 

Yeah, I think it's different for everyone, but I think I stay grounded because, well, first of all , I just don't like cocky people. I don't know why. I just think that like why do you feel so entitled or empowered? And especially for like, athletes and for celebrities, like they walk in the room and everyone should like bow. No, like I, I hate that you have no idea. And so I think one reason is cause my mom and dad are like, don't ever be cocky.  If you're really that good, then you don't need to say a word and people are going to know you're good because of how you perform.

But another how I stay grounded is because I'm deep in my faith. And I think that honestly, being in such an unknown territory for the first time in my whole life, I've had to rely a lot on my faith. 

And another thing when you're in transition, it is not all rainbows and butterflies and honestly, it's the exact opposite. It's hard and it can be really lonely at times and really dark at times. But you always have to remember your why. And that's what I come back to is my why. And, you know, I'm going through some things right now that I don't want to go through. But I, I know my vision for my future. And so, I know this is just like a steppingstone I have to do, I might not like it. I honestly, I don't really want to go over to China and Russia and Spain.  I'd love to visit, but I don't want to go over there and live there for eight months out of the year. That’s just doesn't really sound fun to me. Like, what am I going to eat over there? I love food. And so, there's just so many things that are unknown that are not fun and that are lonely. But I think if you can persevere and really just remember your why and just being in the present, like you might have these negative feelings or thoughts and acknowledging them, and then how am I going to be better for it tomorrow? And how am I going to be better tomorrow, just in general. So, I really just try to turn it into a positive because you know, a lot of people are going through the same things we're going through, even though they might not be professional athletes. 

Stef: 

Well, it's the perfect segway into kind of the last part of the conversation I wanted to have, which is a bit about like, just, you know, pro athlete life. What are things that are often, I think, misunderstood about being a professional athlete in the WNBA? 

Sophie: 

Well, I'll just kind of talk about our last question to transition-wise is like in high school and in college, you kind of know the culture and you have to buy into the culture because you're around these people way too much to not be on the same page.

And I think that's something that some teams do, and you can see it because they're really good and everyone's on the same page. But a lot of times, teams don't really have cultures and it's hard because you go into a practice and you're there for three hours out of the day, with your teammates, lifting and practicing, and then everyone goes and does their own thing. A lot of people are married. A lot of people have kids. Some people might have their own foundations or just other things going on. So, you don't ever spend time together unless you're at the gym. And I would love to change that. 

But also it's hard to be a professional athlete as a female, because even when we're in the States, you're still traveling and you're not ever in one spot. And then after season's over, you, you literally go to foreign countries in order to make big money, because that's what we honestly deserve, is some better pay. And in order to do that, we do have to go overseas and sometimes you're not allowed to bring your families over with you because there's just not enough space so that team's not going to pay for it. If you have kids, are you going to pull them out of school and make them go to China to just so you can be with them? Like, there's just so many variables. 

And for me, I don't have to worry about that right now because I'm clearly not married and don't have kids, but my thing is like, I want my family to come visit, I just think it gets really lonely. and it's just hard to find people who speak English sometimes. 

Stef: 

Yeah, I think that's really important to talk about because as, as amazing as it is to get to that level and make it to the WNBA, the reality is most players have to go overseas in the off season to make a full year's worth of wages to support their family, or just to make it as a pro and salaries are published publicly so anyone who's listening to this podcast can go and look at everybody's salary and the WNBA and the announcement in this last year in 2020 with the new deal, definitely improved compensation. It was a 53% increase in total cash compensation for the players and there were added benefits and there were good things that happened in that new bargaining agreement, but it still isn't quite there yet. I wanted to ask you, like all of this mental toughness and strength and power and confidence that you get from sport and from playing sport all these years, how do you use that and channel it to fight for equal pay for female athletes?  

Sophie:   

I will say that we're talking about all these things that we struggle with, but there are so many awesome things too. And so, I am very blessed and grateful. I can channel it because I really think it's a cultural issue. There's a lot of people who don't support women's sports, but there are 10 times the amount of people who do and who do respect us and who do want us to be successful.

And I think being a professional athlete, it's kind of the same thing as being a woman in a business atmosphere. I don't know why people don't think we are equal to men. Like, I don't know, because honestly, when there's more women involved, stuff gets done. But I think that we can keep fighting this fight and keep pushing things that people don't know that us as women, as athletes have to go through and put it into light. And that's something that I can do is tell people simply just have a conversation and it doesn't have to be you're right, you’re wrong. Just inform people of what it actually really is. 

Stef: 

Yeah. I think what you said is spot on, that's why we started VIS.  We want to bring more visibility to what's really happening in the world of sports. And, and that's really across all things like mental health side, but also on the advocacy front. I think if we talk about what's really happening and what the environments really are like. I really hope that more people will jump up, men and women, to be allies and changing it. When you think about, talking to a girl who's in high school and college, what would you say to a young girl who wants to advocate and help support equal pay for pro athletes? 

Sophie: 

Oh, that's such a good question. Think of your 13-year-old self and your dream is to be a WNBA player. Do you think that the pay would ever cause you not to follow your dream? You know, no, no! Because if I wanted to really get paid, I would have become a doctor. You know what I mean? And so, I think honestly don't be discouraged because of what we get paid, but I think the more that we can unite and have conversations and just keep being you, and be confident with your shoulders back, head up high. Don't get discouraged and follow your dream.

Stef: 

I love that. Okay. So full circle here, you have, you know, talking about your journey. You've started from a Midwest town, headed to University of Missouri onto the WNBA for two years now. And you've gotten there through a lot of hard work, your mindset and also an amazing support system. So, in conclusion, what advice would you give a girl from a small town or a state where recruiters might not visit?  

Sophie: 

Like I said, the resources, we didn't always have all that, but I think if you can, seriously work hard. You don't need to be in the gym for eight hours a day, go in there for an hour and a half, go in there for however long. And when you're in there, get dialed in and work hard. Like work on your ball, handling, work on your shot, work on your passing. All those little things are things you can control and work super hard at it every single day. 

Another piece of advice when we did drills, we'd go through it like twice with our right hand. And with our left hand, we would go through it four times, so it could be equal. I just think if you take responsibility of how hard you work and the time you put in, I don't know, then you can just put your shoulders back, be confident, and you're going to be able to smile and enjoy where you're at.

Stef: 

And to the girls out there that are not getting the playing time or who might not like the role that they're specifically playing right now? 

Sophie: 

You know, just, I just think it's so important to not lose who you are. It is really easy to be discouraged and, it's frustrating.  But I think you just have to remember how much you've accomplished. Like look at all the things that you've done and don't be satisfied. Like you got to just keep working harder. 

Stef: 

So inspiring. I love it. Okay. Our signature last question at VIS because ultimately Voice in Sport exists, because we are trying to shift a lot of the things that are currently systemic problems within the sports industry. So, what is, what is one thing you would like to see changed for the future of women's sports?

Sophie: 

Yes. I just think the vibe and respect that we deserve, like, there's just so, there's so many people who do support us, but I think if, if we can all unite and really trying to move forward together and not on our own as like just separate sports. But as females, if we can come together and really talk about some things and come up with some awesome ideas, that it will move something awesome forward. And I don't really know what it is at the moment, but I think there's so much power in being united. 

Stef: 

Oh, perfect way, perfect way to end. So, thank you. Thank you so much, Sophie, for joining me today, it was such a pleasure to get to know you. And I know your story is going to inspire so many young girls around the country. 

Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us, Sophie! Your determination and positivity are going to inspire and help so many young girls in their journeys in sport. 

Mental strength and motivation are so incredibly important for all athletes. Like Sophie said, what makes her a great team player is her hard work and giving it a 100% every day. Especially now, during the pandemic, we all need to make sure we are working on our mental health and staying strong together, as a team of female athletes! 

Even though we all come from different backgrounds, we can all work towards our dreams and towards making women’s sports a bigger part of the conversation. Like Sophie said, “as females, if we can come together… it will move something awesome forward… There is so much power in being united”.  

Although there is still so much work to be done to give female athletes equal representation, Sophie really showed us that we can choose to see the progress and the bright side. Like she said, “there’s a lot of people who don’t support women’s sports, but there are 10 times more people who do and who do respect us and who want us to be successful”.

At VIS it is our mission to unite female athletes and bring them more visibility in sports and beyond! And so we invite you to join us. 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 Sophie and Advocacy tools to help drive change. 

We appreciate you so much, Sophie, for raising your voice in today’s episode. You can follow Sophie on Instagram at @sophie_cham. 

You can always find us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok @voiceinsport. And we hope to see you next week at the Voice in Sport Podcast.

Sophie Cunningham, WNBA player for the Phoenix Mercury, shares the power of hard work and a positive mindset throughout the difficult transitions from high school to college and from college to the WNBA.