Vulnerability & Team USA
with Courtney Gano
20 Sep, 2022 · Softball
Courtney Gano, a pro softball player for Athletes Unlimited & Team USA, shares how vulnerability, injury recovery, and mental health challenges have shaped her highly successful softball career.
Guest: Courtney Gano
“Softball Player Courtney Gano on Embracing Vulnerability, Accepting Support & Making Team USA”
[00:00:00]Courtney: Our sport is not who we are. It's not everything. And if you have a, a bad performance, oh well, that has no reflection of you, your self worth, none at all.
[00:00:12]Stef: This week on the Voice in Sport podcast we are speaking with Courtney Gano, a current team USA softball member, athletes unlimited professional softball player, and former member of the University of Washington women's softball team. In this episode, Courtney shares how her numerous injuries have taught her to be more comfortable in asking for help and viewing vulnerability as a strength.
She explains how these challenging recovery times and processes helped her to grow as an individual both on and off the field. We all face injuries, but it's how we face them and work through the challenges of going through an injury that will only make us better in the.
We are so excited to talk with her today and welcome her to the Voice in Sport podcast. Courtney, welcome to the Voice in Sport podcast.
[00:01:02]Courtney: Thanks Stef. I'm really excited for this.
[00:01:04]Stef: Well, we're honored to have you and hear about your incredible journey and all the perseverance that you have across your experience in softball, playing division one sports at UDub, my dad's Alma Mater and also most recently winning a gold medal in Japan at the Olympics. So, we have so much to talk about today, as well as Athletes Unlimited in that new league.
So, let's start from the very beginning. You were around the sport of softball from a very young age as the daughter of a former Team USA pitcher, Rhonda, which is pretty incredible. So how did that experience having your mom, you know, being on team USA affect your early years in sport.
[00:01:43]Courtney: I feel like I was just born into softball. It's kind of just always been a way of life. And you know, growing up, I kind of just always heard how great my mom was, but as a kid, you kind of just like brush that off, you don't really believe it. And it wasn't until recent years that I was like, okay, wow she was really good. And I have a lot of respect for her. I, I always just thought it was like a competitive thing with her. And I definitely like wanted to follow in her footsteps to a certain extent, but softball has just kind of been a way of life since probably since birth because of her play.
[00:02:18]Stef: Did you ever practice with her? And was she ever your coach when you were really young?
[00:02:23]Courtney: Oh, yeah. All the time. So my family owned this little baseball, softball facility, so I pretty much grew up there. It was like after school, I do my homework there. I do my lessons with my stepdad and my mom. And I did get pitching lessons for my mom, but it didn't last very long because I swore she didn't know what she was talking about as a lot of kids thing about their parents until you get old enough to realize that they do have some sort of knowledge.
[00:02:54]Stef: I love that. I think as you get older, you realize, oh wow, they actually have some incredible knowledge and they have some incredible flaws. And then you realize, oh, okay. Like you see like both sides and then you kind of slowly realize, oh, interesting. Like I picked that up from my mom that up from my dad picked something else up that belongs to definitely neither of them.
So when you reflect back on your own experience, you know, with your mom how are you guys the same as players and how are you different?
[00:03:21]Courtney: I would say we're both extremely competitive. And I think that's really what I got from her is just the competitive nature. And we also have fun doing it. You know, I've heard stories from her old teammates and she was really goofy and silly on the field and that's pretty relatable to me, obviously, depending on the situation of course.
But I think that I've taken that from her. I think pitchers have a totally different mindset than other position players. And I don't think I have that mindset. Like pitchers are a little bit crazy, like no offense, but I think that they would admit it too like, they just have this different mindset that makes them so great at what they do.
And I'm not sure that I necessarily have that. Like, I, I don't think I belong on pictures mound.
[00:04:09]Stef: What's the mindset? I'm sure you've talked to your mom about this. What is the mindset of a pitcher?
[00:04:15]Courtney: Honestly, I don't know. Like we joke that there's just like kind of a screw loose and it that's what makes them so great because they have to be they kind of just have to lead your team and understand that like everything's really on your shoulders at that point.
It doesn't necessarily depend on the situation. But you have to lead your team and carry them on your back. It's just like a ultra-competitive mindset. I guess.
[00:04:42]Stef: that. Okay. Well, what makes you great at your role?
[00:04:46]Courtney: Well, at different times of my playing career, I would say I have definitely different answers. Right now, I, I mean, I would consider myself a veteran. I'm a 29 year old and, you know, we have 22 year olds playing. And so I have definitely been in the game for a while and there's things that I have learned and taken from it and can kind of pass that down to our rookies.
I definitely feel old. But I think just having that, that knowledge and the experience, I'm definitely a better teammate and I can kind of just lead by example at this point. And don't really have to say much, which is totally different than, you know, what made me the player I was in college. I think that I was more so like following people, like I wanted to be that leader, but I didn't necessarily have that in me yet.
I thought I did, but I didn't. So I think at different times in your playing careers different aspects make you a great player.
[00:05:48]Stef: What do you have now that makes you a great leader, you know, I think it's interesting what you said about, maybe it, maybe it's in a more quiet leadership, but sometimes maybe it's more overt. So, you know, being a, a veteran on the team, what would you say are those qualities that got you to where you are today and it makes you a great leader?
[00:06:07]Courtney: I would say learning how to be vulnerable. That's with my teammates, with coaches, I kind of grew up thinking like, you have to be the strong one all the time, you know, whatever's going on, you just, you just leave that behind. You don't share that, you just figure it out and you go, and that mindset did get me pretty far. But I found that being vulnerable and being able to just like share the more emotional sides of you has really helped build my relationships with my teammates and trust. And it helps you learn as well as the people beside you.
[00:06:41]Stef: Yeah, I love that. There's this really cool graphic. When you think about like your life, it can be like a really big S and like when you finish the first like curve of the S you start going back the other way, almost trying to like unlearn things. And that S starts happening. Like when you're in the third, like almost hitting your thirties.
I mean, it's different for like every person, right? Every person has their own development path as a player, but also as like a human, but it is really interesting to think about your life as an S and how, like, you, you start, you try to learn everything, learn what society thinks is this, that, the other, and then you try to unlearn it.
You realize at a certain point, okay, I'm gonna try to unlearn all that stuff like, and when you get to that point and you're still playing sports, I think you just have such an incredible opportunity to help so many others.
So since that's a big part of what we're trying to do here at Voice in Sport, what would you say to like your, your younger self that's like maybe 13, 14, and you're feeling a little unmotivated and not sure if you wanna continue playing sports, because we know that's when a lot of young girls drop out, like where do you keep that motivation?
You know? And especially in those years where, you know, your body's changing and like a lot of stuff happening, you might not be making like the top team. How do you stay motivated during those moments?
[00:07:58]Courtney: It's funny that you bring that up because that was around the age. I actually had to take a little break from softball. I think understanding your why, and always going back to that is really important. So when you are not having fun, when you're feeling unmotivated, like reminding yourself of that, why, why do I play what makes it fun and just where am I at with it?
So, I took a, a year off. I was like 12 or 13 and. I'm actually really grateful that my dad was just so like, easygoing about it. He was like, all right. If that's what you wanna do, if you wanna take a year off of softball, go ahead. And that's when I kind of like refound my why and my passion, and I really missed softball.
And you know, when you can take a step back and get a different perspective, you can find that love again, figure out like, why do I play this sport? Is this something that I wanna do? Because if you're not having fun with it, you're not gonna be at your best. That's what I believe. And I was, thankfully, I was able to find that again.
And there's been times in my career where I forget my why, and it is a hard time trying to figure that out and kind of getting back to that point. But that's just how it is in life, right? Like we're on this roller coaster and there's times when something isn't fun and we have to figure it out again, and that's just how it is, and I think that's what makes it fun. And that what's, that's what makes you appreciate certain points in it.
[00:09:34]Stef: I love that. And I think that's really, what we're gonna talk about today is like that roller coaster right of your journey and both physically and mentally, like sometimes we find ourselves as athletes, like just mentally or emotionally tired, and we're asking ourselves, well, why, you know, why have I lost the love of the game?
And then other times we've we find ourselves actually like physically injured and like kind of forced out of the game for a little bit and both come with the challenges, but both come with opportunities. So we're gonna kinda talk through, you know, your experience in college, and then on to, you know, the Olympic team, Team USA, then you went on to play overseas, all the way to like where you are today in Athletes Unlimited.
So, let's kind of start with the college side, because you know, you, you did find your way back to the game and you went to play softball at one of the most prestigious softball schools there is in the country, UDub.
So. You started your freshman year and just an incredible year 51 games either as short stop or third base, which is really impressive that you made that transition from high school to college so smoothly. And I wanna kind of talk there before we get to your injury that you suffered in your sophomore year and that caused you to red shirt.
So, when you were a freshman, like how did you, how did you do that transition so smoothly? And was it just the, the stats that show, it was like a amazing successful transition or were there things behind the scenes where it was actually tough to transition from high school to college?
[00:11:05]Courtney: I had a tough time offensively. Defensively. It was a pretty easy transition. I would say offensively it was another story. And my role really I was a defensive player my freshman year. We had someone who was an All American, who was a senior and she wasn't playing defense very much because of an injury.
So, my role, most of the time was to play defense for her. And then like maybe every other game I would also hit. So, it was kind of just like be ready and if you're gonna hit, be ready to be there in there offensively, but be like a defensive staple. So, it definitely was a struggle like mentally in the box because when something isn't consistent, it's hard for you to be consistent too. So definitely not like the easiest transition like with college as a freshman, I think time management, that's a really big thing that people struggle with. And during that transition from high school to college, that was probably one thing just off the field that I struggled with, but otherwise it was, it was a decent transition. Of course there's always times that are more difficult than other others with that transition. And I thought that I knew it all as a 18 year old. I'm like, I'm ready to be out here. I am a leader on this field. I've got it all taken care of, handled. And that was not the case like I was still a child and figuring things out.
[00:12:37]Stef: Let's talk about that because you know, things can be, you know, okay, if your, if your performance is going alright and you don't face an injury, or you don't have, you know, any mental health challenges, but for you, you, on your sophomore year, you suffered a hand injury and that resulted in you having to red shirt.
So, can you tell us a little bit about that injury and just, how did that injury and that experience lead you into your journey of seeing a sports psychologist and kind of getting into like the mental health side of, of becoming a, a great player.
[00:13:08]Courtney: I had a lot of built up trauma, I would say just from past experiences, childhood things, and I had never really talked to anyone about it, maybe close family, but never anyone outside of that. So my sophomore year, I don't even remember the exact situation or like what triggered me, but I ended up punching a wall one night and I broke my thumb and had to have two surgeries because of it.
And I just, I remember the next day, the next morning we had a clinic and I was coaching it and I had to go tell our head coach. I was the starting short stop at the time. And we were three weeks until season. It's like, it's still like bringing me back to that moment of having to go tell her that.
I think I broke my thumb. I was trying to think of things like, what can I make up? Like, instead of saying, I punched a wall, did I, you know, I jammed it in the car or the car door. I was trying to think of all these things. And then I just realized like, what, why would I lie about this? Like, I need to just be up front honest because the truth is gonna come out.
So she was pretty understanding to a certain extent but recommended that I see our sports psychologist and kind of figure out, you know, what's causing me to get so angry that I would punch a wall. And I did see our sports psychologist at school and it just wasn't the right fit for me. I didn't feel like I was getting much out of it.
And I think that that's really, really important with therapy is finding the right fit, who you're comfortable with because there is the right fit somewhere. So I requested to see someone off campus ended up being an amazing, amazing experience for me. I have learned so much. And now over 10 years later, I mean, I was just seeing that same therapist for like couples therapy and marriage things.
So, you can build that relationship and you can find that right person. And I'm so thankful even though it was such a terrible moment my sophomore year, I am so thankful for it because it has helped me tremendously in other aspects of my life.
[00:15:27]Stef: Well, and thank you for sharing that because I know it's obviously very personal, but you were smart enough back then to one, tell the truth, to ask for help and not be ashamed by asking for help, which is really what we wanna change the culture around, like asking for help, because it's important you do that for your body you should do it for your mind.
But I wanna talk a little bit more about like how you found your way to a therapist outside of your school because I think this is so important. Schools have great resources, but they don't always have the right resources for you. And that means you don't wanna give up, right, you go to one and you have a bad experience. Don't not go . And you're a great example of somebody who's now like almost built a, a lifetime of conversations because you decided to kind of find another way, which is awesome. But let's talk a little bit about the difference between like a sports psychologist and a, a therapist, because there, there is a difference.
And I think it's important for girls to know like, okay, am I, am I having anxiety or stressors related to my sport and my performance? Or, or is there something else going on with me as a human, with other experiences in my life that I need to unpack? So how did you find your way through that, you know, and what advice would you have to other girls who, who might find themselves in a similar position right now where they're angry or they're upset, but they don't know why. Can you share a little bit more about your, or, you know, your experiences there?
[00:16:59]Courtney: Yeah, absolutely. When I saw our sports psychologist, we talked about the game, but I just realized that it was so much deeper than that. Like the things that I was dealing with, I was like, at this point, I didn't really wanna talk about sports. Like, I didn't really wanna talk about my mental science, like on the field.
There was so much that I had to unpack from off the field and I had to figure that out first, like that was my main priority. And obviously it was with my injury. I thought that was very apparent and trust is a huge, huge thing. So there was a part of me that was like, okay, if I'm sharing these personal things, I didn't like a hundred percent trust that it wasn't going back to our coach.
So I felt like I was censoring myself and not getting the, the most out of it that I could. So I had a teammate that was actually seeing the therapist out off campus. And that who recommended her. And I, I wanted to do that right away as soon as I heard we could talk about more than just softball and the mental side of things. That's what I really wanted. And then if softball was part of it, that was fine too, but had to kind of start from like ground zero and, and figure out like, just a little bit deeper.
[00:18:13]Elizabeth: Thank you for listening to the Voice in Sport podcast. My name is Elizabeth Martin, a soccer player at Emory University, and producer of this week's episode. If you enjoy hearing from Courtney Gano and would like the chance to get to talk to athletes like her, go to voice and sport.com to sign up for free membership and gain access to exclusive episodes, mentorship sessions, and other weekly content.
Don't forget to follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok @voiceinsport. Now , let's get back to the episode.
[00:18:39]Stef: Yeah, thank you so much for sharing that. I think that's so important. And I think the fact that you went and did that has obviously given you a ton of benefits. So, can you share a little bit with the girls like what benefits you have, you know, found over the years of working with you know, both the sports psychologist, but also a therapist.
[00:18:59]Courtney: I would say one of the biggest things is I've been able to create boundaries to protect myself from things that harm my own mental health. So there's boundaries with relationships, with people in my life. And I had to figure out how to take care of myself and put myself first. That's been a really, really big thing because when you put yourself first, it doesn't mean that you're selfish or you don't care about others, but if we're not our best self and we can't fill our own cup and be our best, then how can we be anything for anyone else?
So that, that would be like the main like life lesson. And I'm still learning that every day. And with the softball side of things. Softball's a big, big, big, like mental game based on failing. And it's really, really hard. So, with the sports side of it just figuring out how to balance that failure and the success of like, all right, how do I stay up after failing seven outta ten times? And sometimes many times more than that. And that's of course translated to life too. So there's different things like figuring out releases, focal points, all those type of things. We use something called like green, yellow, red light, those kind of things that have helped me and there's books that I've read and whatnot.
There's so many life lessons that people can take out of just being in a safe space and talking to someone freely and being vulnerable. And I don't know, just being able to share your story. It's important.
[00:20:36]Stef: Yeah, I agree. And also just being like you, you hit the nail in the head, the safe space, right. You don't wanna feel like somebody's like watching over you, you know, it is what I'm gonna say, gonna affect my playing time, all these things, right, and I think that that's a big reason why we developed the platform at VIS the way we did is so that you can have your privacy, you can have the conversations you need. And then when there are moments to bring teams together, which are also great to do, you bring 'em together and you have conversations around mindfulness or around performance anxiety as a whole, so everybody can learn.
So I wanna talk a little bit about some of those, some of those learnings that you had, you know, throughout your career. One of them in particular, I feel like is really important right now in the world is just mindfulness. You know, so if you look at the definition of mindfulness, it's a, you know, there's a couple different definitions out there.
One is about the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something. And, and the second one is really just a mental state that you achieve by focusing that awareness on the present moment, accepting your feelings, your thoughts, your sensations, and use it almost as a therapeutic technique. So, how do you as a, you know, both as like a top gold medalist athlete and a mom slash amazing person, just how do you keep mindfulness and sort of what you've learned along the way, sort of front and center for you and your day or your week.
[00:22:02]Courtney: When you were explaining just the mindfulness and just being aware. I think that's been my biggest thing is being aware and not judging my thoughts. And even if I'm having negative self talk, not getting upset with myself about it, but being aware of it and then figuring out, okay, well, where am I at?
And how do I kind of fix this? I definitely have performance anxiety, and that has like developed honestly, like in the past few years, which is kind of surprised me because I'm like, why now that I'm getting older, I'm having this anxiety. And maybe I just wasn't aware of it before. But even last year, I mean, as a 28 year old I like set up an appointment with my therapist during season because I'm like, Hey, I don't really know what's going on, like, it's hard to breathe. Like I can't get a deep breath when I'm on the field. I'm like hyper aware of, of all my surroundings. Like I'm not enjoying it, like, okay, let's talk about the steps that I need to take to just get to a point where like I'm enjoying it because that's not enjoyable for me at all.
And I didn't wanna go through the season like that. So I, I think at every step of the way you're dealing with with different things, but it's always gonna be there and just like being mindful of it, being aware of it and you can't judge yourself, yourself for it. This is a natural thing. We're human.
Just figuring out how can you be your best self in every situation? And it's, it's a process and it's always going to be a process.
[00:23:44]Stef: Well, you're right. And you know, it can come and go, ebb and flow, and it can come at any age. Right. So I think just like what I love about mindfulness practices and like focusing on your breathing or doing yoga, or sort of just taking moments to find the present, like it helps you check in with yourself and that is so important, you know, as you go on your career and your journey and there's a lot of ups and downs, like you said, I mean, you've, you finished, you got through that injury your sophomore year and you returned to play, which was great, you know, but then you faced another, you know, pretty tough moment when you were diagnosed with C I P D and it's a pretty serious condition.
So I wanted to talk just a little bit about that. Like how, how were you diagnosed? And again, like, what did you do just to protect yourself and again, check in with yourself to make sure that you were gonna be in a good mind space as you're working through something like that.
[00:24:43]Courtney: So that time was like almost a blur. I think that I kind of blocked some of that time out. Sometimes we do that, like with traumatic events. So like that whole process, like I remember the whole process, but there's a lot of moments that I'm like, I, I think I legit blocked it out. So what started happening was I was like feeling tingling and numbness in my toes and I was catching for our team at the time and I just attributed, attributed it to catching.
Like, you know, I'm always in a squat, like maybe some nerve stuff it's fine. And it just slowly started progressing, like maybe like within two to three weeks, like I started tripping when I was running feeling weaker and then it came to the point where I was at practice and I tried to run and I just fell on the ground.
Went, saw the doctor right away and couldn't go on my toes and I wasn't even realizing it at the time, you know, when I was at home, it was just. I just felt weak and I thought I was really tired, but eventually I, I yeah, I couldn't get on my toes at all. I couldn't raise my arms like above my shoulders and started losing a lot of weight.
And I think we're so used to you know, everything adds up. There's an answer for everything. One plus one is two. And the people that I was working with, you know, like our trainer, there's always an answer for things. And there was no answer for this for a while. And the hardest part was when I realized that, because we couldn't find an answer of what was going on with me.
I think that people were questioning if this was like in my head. And I didn't even think that that was like a possibility that someone would think that but we saw like the neurologist at UDub, and they kind of like, couldn't figure things out. I had no reflexes anymore, so, you know, if they tap my knees, like nothing would happen, tap, nothing at all.
And then, you know, their answer was, well, maybe it's always been like this. No, I like I've had reflexes my whole life, every doctor's appointment. So there were things that it just didn't make sense. And I knew like, eventually we're gonna figure out what this is. And I, it was almost just like a waiting game.
I'm like, if, you know, at some point someone is gonna find a way. So I had to kind of like be my own advocate and found another doctor, another neurologist in the area who's like a, a top doctor, and he figured out what it was right away. Next step was to do a spinal tap to confirm it. And I just remember like the relief and almost like I told you so kind of moment.
But all along, I, I knew there was gonna be an answer eventually. So it was like maybe a two month process until we actually like had a definitive answer and a plan. So, you know, there's always like the right space for everything. And then luckily I found that before, I guess, I don't know it was too late, you know, I could have been in a wheelchair the rest of my life.
Like just you, you just never know, but I was in the right hands. So that was kind of that journey. It was really crazy journey. I did treatment for like 10 to 11 months. So I'd be in the hospital every three weeks. I would do something called IVIG. And it would be like five, six hour process.
And it's an infusion. So I was at that time I have to say, like, I have no idea where I was mentally. I wasn't in the best place. I did have a, a pretty good support system, but I was away from my family and, you know, we are in season, so my teammates they're busy and things go on. Like they go on, right. So people are still living their everyday life. And it, it was hard for. And like I said, I did block a lot of it out. And at the time I didn't know that it was hard. I would just, you know, you just day to day, you figure it out. Okay, I've got this appointment, I got this, gotta get through it, gonna try and make it to practice, gonna try and, you know, stay awake and be strong for my teammates and just figure it out.
So I don't even think my teammates knew like what I was going through. I didn't really share at the time of just the struggle. I wasn't used to that. It was like be strong. Don't show it, show up. You're fine.
[00:29:07]Stef: Yeah that's such an interesting comment, right? Because I feel like that is culturally what we're trying to like shift, right? You're this whole like, show up, don't say anything like suppress things down. Don't talk about 'em all that stuff like trying to shift. And I think just hearing that you felt like you weren't believed or heard at the beginning of this process, like really saddens me and that you were a bit alone in some regards, like it, it can be in general, very lonely when you have an injury, let alone, like, you know, an issue like this where you don't even know exactly what it is and you're trying to figure it out. And I'm so happy that you recovered, but those moments can be like really dark moments. It's interesting that you say you can't remember, like, you can't remember how you were, you know what do you think are those, like the learnings from that experience now that you have some time and space from that moment where you went through that cuz that's a pretty big deal. All of a sudden, you, you can't have the reflexes in your body, you aren't able to move the way you normally are to move. Like it's not a small thing. So, when you reflect back on it, Courtney, what are those learnings, I guess, that you would take and you would share with other girls who, you know, might be trying to figure out what's going on with them, whether it's mental or physical and maybe they feel like they're alone?
[00:30:34]Courtney: Some of it had to do with the culture of our team back then. I think that the mindset and, and I think our coach will admit it to our mindset back then was you walk in the locker room and whatever happened that day, whatever you're going through, you don't bring it in the locker room. Like we're here to perform, we're here to play.
And as an 18, 19, 20 year old, I'm like, okay, let's do it. Right. And I'm so happy that that is shifting and, and the culture at UDub now it's completely different. I think that there's been a lot of experience and learning from that. So it's really cool to see that shift, but I really, really wish that I would have been more vulnerable and honest and been able to share with my teammates, what I was actually going through, what I was feeling, because I think I would've gotten that support that I needed and that friendship and the love that I really wanted at the time.
I don't remember all of my treatments, but there was a few, there was one time where if they do the infusion too fast, your body can react to it, and you know, you can get nauseous and start throwing up and whatnot.
So we were trying to like do it within four hours instead of five or six. And I was feeling nauseous, but even then I didn't even wanna share with the nurse. Like I was like, okay, just do it. So I actually like threw up on myself and you're in this room where other people are, you know, getting treatment too.
And so I ended up throwing up and I didn't wanna tell the nurse because I, I don't know. I just. I don't, I can't explain my mindset at the time. It was like, don't be weak or like don't show weakness. It makes me like, wow, at this point, I'm like, why wouldn't, why was I like, scared to do that? But I remember calling our trainer like, hey, can you find a way to bring me extra clothes because this happened, I told him, so one of my teammates brought me clothes, one of my best friends. And I changed. I ended up telling the nurse and she brought, you know, cleaned me up and whatnot. But I, I just, I think about the times where I wanted someone to be there with me, a lot of the treatments, I was there by myself, and I really wish someone would've been with me. And I, I wish I would've told them or asked them to be with me. You know, you, people don't really know they're not mind readers. So I, I wish I would've shared that more and gotten that support and love I needed and like, I bring up vulnerability and just like being able to share, like I am having a rough day today and it was, this was really hard or I'm very tired from treatment like, could you just be by my side? So I that's one thing I wish I would've changed because people wanna be there for you they sometimes they just don't know. And it reminds me of like that strong friend saying is like, check on your strong friend. I always felt like I was that strong friend. And I was like, like yearning for someone to like check on me.
[00:33:44]Stef: It's so insightful because that, just that mindset that you just talked about about, like, I got this, I got this, like, I could see you there at the training being like, oh, four hours should be five, but I'm gonna do it four. I got this because like, there's this almost like mentality as like a athlete, when you, especially when you grow up as an athlete and you're just constantly have these messages that are good, a lot of good right comes from these messages of being strong and like persevering and pushing through but it's like really important to know. And again, have that mindfulness and that awareness of like, okay, hey, wait, this might not be that moment to be pushing and to be like strong and it's okay to have those other dimensions of yourself. But those dimensions sometimes are just not as accepted it feels like as an athlete and, and that's, that's what we have to continue to change. And like it's women like you who are sharing how they felt then now that are gonna help these younger girls.
[00:34:45]Courtney: Right and I think we've learned that there's this fine line between like persevering and pushing through things and also getting to a place that's unhealthy, you know, pushing yourself when you might not have anything left. And we're still trying to figure that out, you know, but as, as a young athlete, that's what I was taught right away is like, get after it go.
And there's this saying when people say like, nobody cares, keep going. And I, before I probably would've been like, yeah, that's my mindset. Like you go, like, nobody cares if you're tired, nobody cares if you're hurt. And I, I see that now. And it just like, it makes me cringe because no, somebody cares and you should care too. That's not a healthy mindset to have.
[00:35:34]Stef: There's so many times I wish I could whisper to my like younger self, like 13 through 18 time zone of just like slow down, like stop pushing so much, you know, cuz I got injury after injury, after injury, cuz I just never gave myself enough time to recover. I just kept pushing, pushing, pushing, cuz I was just like so ambitious and motivated and like wanted to, to be the best and never really stopped to think about recovery and fueling and, and, and that's a big reason why we're building VIS is like, okay, how do we like ensure that the younger girls don't don't make that same mistake. So, you know, even for you, like you returned from this pretty tough period and had an incredible season, right? 18 home runs 59 RBIS, but you also then faced another injury.
So in this case it was your ACL. And then that then tore your meniscus. And I think basically you, you kind of had a, a really rough like end there. And so again, another injury. I guess now that you, you face that, like, obviously it builds resilience, right? You go through tough times challenges, you end up even stronger.
But when you're in it, it's super hard. So how did you find that motivation to rehab and, and to get back to playing because we know the rest of your story, you went on to get a gold medal, but you didn't end your college career exactly how you wanted to.
[00:37:01]Courtney: You know, after my illness, it was like, all right, we're starting from ground zero. And that was kind of an exciting thing, because as athletes, we like the challenge, we like the competitiveness. And so I, I took it as a challenge of now we start and I can be better.
Right. And I had a great year my third year and it was fun. I loved it. And I remember thinking, going into my, it was actually going into my fifth year, like, imagine I got injured right now in my fifth year. And it was just like this random thought as I was walking down to practice of, like, that would be like insane. That would be like the worst thing that could happen. And then I just kind of forgot about it. Like that wouldn't happen. And yeah, I, I ended up tearing my ACL and then I thought, wow, remember that thought that I had, I'm, I'm living it. And like you mentioned it's really easy to just like, just try and push yourself through it.
And if you don't have people stopping you, if, if you have a competitive nature, that's just kinda natural. To keep going and not necessarily have a limit for yourself. And of course, that's what I wanted to do. If no one was gonna stop me from playing with a torn ACL, I was doing it. You know, they said, all right, you can tear your meniscus if you do this, you can tear other things. And I thought I can have surgery so you guys can fix it if that happens. Totally. That's like, I think about it now, now that my knee, you know, I'm four surgeries in now and it's affected me for the last decade. I do wish someone would've just said no, you're finished, but I'm also grateful for every moment that I've had.
I think it's kind of in our nature to push and think that you have no limits, but there, there are limits. Our body has limits and things like that have happened with you and I both Stef a lot of injuries and we learn from it. And so I do have limits, but I still need people beside me. I'm almost 30 years old and I've got my trainers telling me no, a minute, rest, you have a minute break. You're not allowed to do your next set until this time. And I'm standing there like, okay, I'm ready, I'm ready, you know, but I still need that because I'm so competitive.
[00:39:33]Stef: so ridiculous. And for me, it like went into my like pregnancy and I know you're a mom too, so you could probably relate to this, but I was like, oh yeah, I'm gonna do the whole hypno birthing, I was living in Portland, Oregon working for a Nike at the time. I was like, hypno birthing all natural, I got this. Oh my gosh. And uh, oh my my my gosh, dragged with my husband to hypno birthing classes and had this whole plan and like the whole thing. And then it's like 24 hours into my, into my natural birth with no drugs and I'm sitting there with like five centimeters dilated, which is for all the young girls out there. You don't don't, don't have kids young, but you'll realize that you need it to be, you need to have a slightly more open scenario to be bringing the child into life. So yeah, I had, again, that sort of like. Athlete mindset stubbornness. Like it, it affected also like my pregnancy and my delivery of my child.
So if it's really hard to kind of let go of some of those, like what can be really amazing strengths can also be your weakness. And it's another thing I, I love to always remind myself is like, there is always the positive and the negative of something, right. There's the, the light in the dark. And like, you gotta remember that.
[00:40:57]Courtney: Yeah, absolutely. Like you hit it on the head. It's, it's a blessing and a curse. And I never really know which one it is until after the fact. But you know what, it's funny that you bring up birth. Because I actually surprisingly went into it like epidural, if it's painful, I don't care. I'm I'm going for it.
And I was ready. I'm like epidural epidural right now. And I'm actually surprised with myself that I didn't challenge myself . More with that. But maybe it's maturity, maybe it's growth.
[00:41:32]Stef: I think you did, you had all those other injuries and all those other things that got you to that place a little sooner than I did. So yeah, I didn't quite get there until I went to number two. And then number, number two with my little Parker, I was like, all right, epidural, straight in baby. Let's go.
[00:41:47]Courtney: Right. It was like, I, you know, when you endure enough pain, it's like, all right, I don't need, if I don't need to, then I don't need to.
[00:41:56]Stef: That's right. So, you know, reeling this back into like sport and, you know, helping our, our young girls, like, I really, really wanna talk about this topic of just like, beyond being an athlete, because I know it's also really important to, to you. And there was a quote that you, once, you know, you once said, I know softball doesn't define me.
So when did you say that? How old were you and how did you find your way to that moment? Because this is a, a topic that a lot of the young girls in college we talk a lot about on the Voice in Sport platform. We have a lot of sessions with pro athletes about this because the girls in college I think are, are facing just so many, so many things and being an athlete on campus, it really makes you feel sometimes like you are an athlete and that's all you are. But that's not true. So at what point was it for you that you said that sentence and when did it really shift.
[00:42:50]Courtney: There's a pretty known basketball player here from Seattle. And I remember seeing his Twitter, he's like pretty famous. His name's Jamal Crawford and I just randomly came across his Twitter one day and I was in college and I think the bio was basketball is what I do, not who I am or, or something, something to that.
And I kind of had to sit and think about it. Like, what does he mean? Like it is, it is who you are, right. Like softball is who I am. And I had to kind of figure it out what that meant. And I kind of used that for myself, honestly. And I had to figure that out as like, who am I beyond this sport? What am I, who, who am I?
And when I got hurt, I think it was when I was, it was when I was sick. And we hadn't gotten a diagnosis yet. Coach Tar, that's our head coach at UDub. She brought me in the office and she's like, well, what do you wanna do? I'm like, what do you mean, what do I wanna do? I wanna play softball.
And this is like a week after I was our starting catcher. And just like, I don't understand what you're saying. And she said it very bluntly and I, she probably could've had more empathy now that I think about it and I'm sure she would agree, but she's like, well, you need to figure out like, What do you wanna do besides softball?
I'm like, I, what do you mean we we're just in conference play like, this is all I know. I don't have any other passions. I don't know anything else. Like, no, don't ask me this, but it did really like, make me think about it. Like, what do I have beyond my sport or as an athlete. And I faced, I faced that again after I had Gregory and my baby when I didn't have like that thing that I loved to do when I didn't have softball and, you know, motherhood was a whole nother animal.
And then being alone for a lot of that time on top of that. I was feeling like I didn't have anything for myself. And so I had to reflect again of who I, who am I outside my sport. And we have to, we have to know that because you can't like the saying, you can't put all your eggs in one basket.
You can't put your whole identity into something that can be taken away like that. And when it's taken away, it's better to know it before it's taken away than after, because that transition is very, very hard. And it's a low point for a lot of people. When something you find your identity in identity in is no longer there.
So very, very important. And I challenge whoever's listening to this to figure out what you love about your sport and why, but how does that translate into your life and as a person? You know, I can say there's a lot of life lessons and a lot of characteristics that I love about myself and the sport, but why do I love those things outside my sport? And that has helped me a lot. Just figuring that out. And it's a process and it's hard, but it makes, it makes that transition a lot easier because things can be taken from you in a second. And I think more recently we've really learned that, right?
[00:46:07]Stef: Yeah. And in, in really unfortunate ways, we've learned that I think with everything that's happening in the us right now. So, you know, not to, not to bring it down too much, but it is like so important that you think about the things that bring you love and joy and purpose. and then ask yourselves, is there anything else that I'm saying to myself besides my sport?
You know, and if, if it's only your sport, you know, I think it's just something to, to be aware of. Right? Like kind of like what you said when your coach is like, what else are you gonna do? , you know, it's not, it's a journey, right? It's not like you're gonna have an answer tomorrow. You're, you're going to start opening yourself up and like looking at things differently and exploring things.
So let's maybe talk about then what that meant for you and why, why you decided to take your experience your next step overseas. Cause after college, you headed overseas to play softball and you were, I think the only American on your team. So what was that experience like? And would you recommend it to other young women who are about to graduate? Like what's real talk here. Like what's the good, what's the bad.
[00:47:22]Courtney: Yeah. I didn't even think that I wanted to play softball after college until I got hurt my fifth year, it just felt like, I wasn't finished yet. Like something was taken from me and I, I wanted to have more of a hold on my career and it not be done, you know, just like that.
So going to Italy, softball was a lot different and I kind of knew that I kind of expected it. It's, it's more lax there. And when I decided to go overseas, it was for five to six months, which now looking back, that's a long time to be over there. It, it was an incredible experience. I have to say that, like, it was one of the most, most amazing experiences of my life. The people that it introduced me to my teammates out there while talk about valuing people and valuing them on and off the field. It was an incredible experience and taught me so much as a teammate and as a person, just how to truly be a friend.
So I have lifelong friends there and I actually went and visited them last year to bring my son because I thought. I, I want my son to meet these amazing people that I got to be around. So, I mean, that could kind of tell you my experience right there, but it, it was different. I was in this room with like kind of like a cot you know, we didn't have air conditioning.
We had mosquitoes that would just attack me like crazy. I tried, we tried to like connect a mosquito net to the top of the ceiling and it would like fall on me in the middle of the night. Like there were definitely downfalls or like challenges there. I didn't have a car there and one of my teammates, she drove stick.
So it was kind of like, you're just really relying on somebody else or a bike or taking the train. But those are the things that when they challenge you, they help you grow. So I did a lot of traveling on my own. A lot of growth happened there. And then we ended up winning the Italian championship. So it made it all worthwhile. I mean, I was ready after five months to come home. I was totally ready to come home. But it was, it was a once in a lifetime experience. So I just, I always tell when people ask me about it, you know, oh, should I try it? I'm like, go do it, like, go do these things while you can listen if your travel is paid for go, like, don't say no experience it even if it's not the greatest experience, you learn something from it and you grow and you immerse yourself in another culture, as, you know, as you know, Stef, right? Like it's, it's incredible to experience new things. And we need that as people just like to be well rounded.
[00:50:11]Stef: It gives you perspective, right, on so many things, right? It gives you perspective on how you grew up, on your own belief systems, on the expectations society puts on you and you realize, oh wow, those things are different in different cultures. And I think then you just have a perspective on your own culture and your own experience that, that helps you just have more empathy, but also just helps you understand yourself better.
So I think it's an incredible opportunity for anybody that can go plus Italian food, wine. I was working for Nike and Bologna and they call it El Grasso for a reason. And that's because that means fat it's right next to Parma ham and reggiano cheese. So yeah, I quite enjoyed myself there.
[00:50:57]Courtney: So, it's funny that you were in Bologna. I was only like 30 minutes from you in a town called Forli. And my husband actually played in Bologna as well. So small world.
[00:51:09]Stef: That's amazing. Oh, that's so awesome. Well having that experience must have been something that also helped you land on Team USA. And as part of that team, you went to the Japan Cup in 2018 and won a gold medal. So I would love for you to share just with our audience, like how did you get onto Team USA and for all the girls out there that are dreaming of wanting to be on that team someday, what advice would you have for them?
[00:51:34]Courtney: Well, I was performing pretty well in Italy and I was just like, totally having fun with it playing freely. And in my mind, I'm like, all right, like I got this, I think I'm at my best that I've been. And I didn't really get to prove anything in college. And during post season in Italy a player named Amanda Chidester she's really well known within softball community. So she came out during post season and I remember asking her like, how do I get on Team USA? Like, what do I need to do? Are there tryouts? She's like, well, there's invited tryouts. So like you have to get invited and I'm like, do you have somebody's email? I wanna reach out to somebody like, you know, people didn't really get to see me very much in college. I just want an opportunity. And I was not embarrassed to like reach out and email people. I'm like, I don't have anything to lose. So there was actually a, they said they're doing an open tryout for the first time.
So you have to pay to get into this open tryout before the invited tryout. And I think they were taking maybe eight or 10 from the open tryout. I'm like, here's my shot. Here's my chance. How much does it cost? Sign me up. I don't care. Like, I'll go to the open tryout. So I ended up doing that. Got invited To the invited tryout that same week and made the team, and it was like, to me, it was like fairy tale ending. Like, I was so happy with whether I was on the team for a year or 10 years. I didn't care. Like I got to wear USA across my chest. And I was so proud of myself because it's something that I felt like I really worked for. I was very vulnerable in the whole situation, and I don't know. I just, it was, it was one of those moments that I'm like, I, I deserved this. Like I really worked for this and I felt so proud of myself. And there wasn't many times where I felt that way. So it was, it was really surreal. And I'm really happy about that experience.
[00:53:34]Stef: So cool. I love that. I mean, it's so incredible and I know will inspire so many young girls just to, just to keep going. Right. Because like reflecting back on what we've heard today of your story it's, it's incredible. Like again, ups and downs, but. You made it to that team had an incredible performance and you're still playing today.
So a lot of inspiration for our community. So thank you so much for spending so much time with us, Courtney. We loved hearing about your background and what you're gonna do next.
We always like to end on two questions for our community and that's all because we're trying to help each other have a better journey, so we'd love to know what is one single piece of advice you would tell a younger girl in sport.
[00:54:17]Courtney: Be nice to yourself. We don't have enough time to be mean to ourself, like positive self talk. Be nice. If other people don't wanna be nice, so be it, but you know, what treat yourself like you would treat other people. Right. And, and I think it's a learning experience and we're all learning how to be nicer to ourselves.
And I wish I was growing up and our, our sport is not who we are. It's not everything. And if you have a, a bad performance, oh well, that has no reflection of you, your self worth none at all.
[00:54:52]Stef: Well, and there's a lot of things changing in the world of softball, including this new league that you're part of at Athletes Unlimited. It's doing things very differently. So, you know, I'd love to know from your perspective, what is one thing you'd like to see changed for the future of women's sports?
[00:55:08]Courtney: More respect for us. You know, we have, we have amazing platforms, especially now like Voice in Sport, like Athletes Unlimited, people who advocate for us, a safe space a diverse space, and it gives us a platform for good. And you know, with social media, that can be a very scary place. There's a lot of great things about social media, but I have seen that firsthand that we are not as respected as female athletes. You know, you see the comment section of sports pages when it comes to women, and it's not fun to see a lot of the time. So I really, really am hopeful that there will be more respect because we work just as hard as other athletes and we deserve that respect, right? Like hope we get paid more too. Of course.
[00:56:06]Stef: Respect can show up in a lot of ways, right? I mean, you called out, you called out the social media. You called about how even just how broadcasters talk about women's sports or talk about performance and yeah, getting paid, that's respectful. um, so I love that. Love that. Well thank you so much for joining our podcast this week, Courtney. We're so excited to see what you're gonna do next, and it's been a pleasure hearing about your story.
This week's episode was produced and edited by VIS creator, Elizabeth Martin, a soccer player from the Emory University. Throughout this episode, Courtney reinforces how important it is to embrace vulnerability, compassion, and self care. As athletes. These traits allow us as athletes to better ourselves on and off the field and to lift up other people in our lives.
I love Courtney's story because it really shows us that when we are vulnerable and ask for help, whether from our coaches, teammates, or any other experts around us, great things will happen and we can grow as a human. We are so thankful for Courtney and that she shared her story with us today and excited to see all the incredible things she will achieve in sport and beyond.
You can follow Courtney on Instagram @courtneygano or on Twitter @cgano8. Please subscribe to the Voice in Sport podcast. Give us a rating and review on apple podcast and send this episode to a friend that you think might enjoy the conversation. You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok @voiceinsport.
Head to the feed on Voice in Sport and filter by softball and spend some time diving into the incredible free resources that we have at this. Check out the sessions page and filter by professional athlete or sign up for one of the free or paid sessions with our VIS league or VIS experts.
Please click the share button in this episode and send it to a friend or an athlete that you think might enjoy our conversation. If you enjoyed hearing about Courtney's experience with finding mental health resources, check out our VIS expert page, sign up for group sessions, or even request a one on one with one of our incredible sports psychologists. If you're interested in other content about mental health and injury recovery, check out episode number 50 with Perry Shake-Drayton, straighten or fellow softball player, Monica Abbott on episode number 73.
See you next week on the Voice in Sport podcast.
Courtney Gano, a pro softball player for Athletes Unlimited & Team USA, shares how vulnerability, injury recovery, and mental health challenges have shaped her highly successful softball career.