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Episode #52

Fight for Women’s Sports

with Hilary Knight

17 Aug, 2021 · Ice Hockey

Hilary Knight, Team USA Hockey player reminds us we need to change the future of women’s sports not only for ourselves, but for a whole generation of athletes following in our footsteps.


Stefanie Strack:

Welcome to the Voice in Sport podcast, Hilary, we're so excited to have you with us today.

Hilary Knight:

Yeah, thanks for having me.

Stefanie Strack:

You're an eight-time world champion, Olympic Team USA Hockey. It's so incredible to have you on the podcast, but you've also done amazing things to advocate for women in sport, not just in hockey, but outside of hockey. We're going to get into that today, but we're going to go way back and start with where you started. You grew up in sun valley, Idaho. How did you decide to go with hockey?

Hilary Knight:

Oh boy, that's tough. I think it was one of these geographic decisions and we were in the middle of Illinois. I started playing hockey after I started skiing and my parents were originally from the East, the Northeast, but not up in the mountains in Vermont or New Hampshire. So, I just went the team sport route. There's just something to me that was captivating about flying around the ice and doing it with a bunch of friends.

Stefanie Strack:

And this is a big reason why we're building Voice in Sport, is for some of those individual sports, it can be really lonely.

So, was that part of your decision process? Because I know you told your grandma when you were five years old, that you would play ice hockey at the Olympics. So where did that determination come from and where did that vision come from?

Hilary Knight:

I think I just saw it on TV to be honest, but no, I think kids are super receptive to what they have around us. And so, I started playing ice hockey because we moved from California to Illinois and the reason why we started was because my mom is super into sports, and she understands the value of making connections.

And so, when you're new to a community, the easiest way to meet other kids is through sport in her mind. So, she signed us up and it just took need for speed that I found on the slopes was something that I found on the ice, and I got to do it with other friends, as you said, the commonality and working through problems and having pig piles and starting to try and shoot the puck into the net.

It was just so much fun. But I think between the love that I found in hockey and then what I saw and what was around me and my environment, I just paired the two. And at the time women's hockey, that's not something I saw on TV. I just saw hockey on TV.  When I was five women's hockey wasn't even an Olympic sport.

So, I was just going to go play hockey at the Olympics, whether it was there or not. That was my dream. So fortunately, years later I got to watch the first women's hockey game in the Olympics and the U S brought back a gold medal in 1998, which is wild.

Stefanie Strack:  

So incredible how important it is for us as young adults to see these sports on TV. And we're going to talk about that later and the things you've done to advocate for visibility for women's sports on TV, but you also had three young brothers who played hockey growing up with you. How did having such a sport focused family shape you into the athlete and person that you are today?

Hilary Knight:

Yeah, I think to be honest, it's instilled this natural competitive drive being the oldest. And my parents didn't necessarily point out the inherent difference that I was a girl and the boys I was playing against were boys. But there was something different.

But I just wanted to be the best and I wanted to be respected and just one of the people on the ice or one of the guys, so to speak, that was out there to have fun and be a part of the team. And by the way, I needed to be better than my brothers. Because they're younger and it's just this weird sibling thing of, I'm the oldest so I need to be better at every single thing which doesn't happen.

But, it's funny looking back now because the brother just beneath me, Jamie was way more successful when we were younger in the sport and had all these state championships and made all the gold teams. And for many years I was definitely chasing him.

We're just so competitive growing up that we always wanted to win. We always wanted to be better. And it was a very healthy way to compete against one another to try and be better. And it's something that's ingrained in all of my family members.

And you're just like, where did this come from? But it's just naturally, sport is so big in our family.

Stefanie Strack:

Why did you play for so many boys teams growing up? And do you think that really shaped who you are as a person and a player?

Hilary Knight:

Yeah, absolutely. I played because girls hockey was just becoming a thing, right? I hit it where we're just starting to have girls’ teams. There weren't as many as there are today, which is great that there are as many as there are today. But it wasn't as accessible.

So, if you wanted to play hockey, you were just going to sign up and play boys’ hockey. And that's what it was. So there are many times, as I got older, I was getting dressed in the rink lobby with the parents who had dropped their kids off, or the handicap stall in the women's restroom in the lobby.

So, it wasn't necessarily an easy journey, but I think I just loved the sport and being a part of a team so much that I was willing to just ignore all that because when you get up on the ice, everything just rolls off your shoulders and it's super simple.

Stefanie Strack:

That's what I love about sport.  What do you think looking back on it now?  What do you wish you were a little less apologetic about when you were younger?

Hilary Knight:

Oh boy. There was one moment where I almost stepped away from the sport and I regret quitting that season because I went through a ton of bullying and my teammates were not nice. The parents were ruthless. It was just not a healthy environment. And for that reason, I stepped away for the second half of the season.

But looking back, I think if I were to change something, I would try and gut it out to just prove a point that you can't scare away this young girl that thinks she's got a destiny to do great things in a sport. And it's unfortunate that parents can be nasty and cruel, and that can also translate into their children as well. But at the same time you have to have a healthy environment. So, I don't know, somewhere along the lines, maybe I would change that.

Stefanie Strack:

I'm glad that you brought this up and I appreciate you being open about being bullied, because it is a big reason why some girls fall out of sports, especially team sports. It’s because of the dynamics on their team or the unhealthy relationship with the coach and the team or the parents and some of the players. What advice would you give to young girls today that might be struggling with bullying in their teams?

Hilary Knight:

It's difficult because everyone's situation is different, but with any success, it really depends on the people you surround yourself with. And no, you don't always get to choose your teammates and you're not going to like every single one of your teammates, however, that's your family for the season.

But making sure that you surround yourself with a great support group away from the field, the pitch, the ice rink because really your success is going to depend on the people you surround yourself with and that support system. And makes sure that you're having honest and open conversations with those people because you're not the only person going through these things.

And I think it's really important to realize that there are so many people that share commonality with not being accepted and maybe going through tough times.

Stefanie Strack:

I love that. And the support system is just such an important concept to understand. And if you could tell our younger selves, Hey, build a support system. Break that down. What does that mean for a girl who's in high school today?

Hilary Knight:

Yeah, it's having those, I call them the ride or die homies, right? Those girls or guys that regardless of how you're doing in your sport or whatever extracurricular activity you're doing, that you can take that hat off, so to speak and have fun and have honest and open conversations.

People that you can count on and who respect and appreciate you for who you are. And the way that I look at it is, one, there's a comfort level, right? And you surround yourself with people who you're more comfortable with. And you can have those honest conversations, but also people that make you better.

And that challenge you, they might be smarter than you. And I think that's really important too. And it's easier said than done because you can't just find great people everywhere. So it's really, really being honest about what type of energy your friends bring you and what type of values they have.

Stefanie Strack:

I love that, such good advice. So, after all these years playing on boys' teams growing up and then having three brothers, when you were transitioning to go to college and you were going to be on a women's hockey team, tell us about that experience, transitioning from your upbringing to college hockey, because you did thrive.

You had an amazing freshman year, went to second place of the NCAA and then went to actually be the champions in the next year. So, talk to us a little bit about that transition. What was that like for you?

Hilary Knight:

Yeah, so I went to boarding school before that. So just with the rigors of going to boarding school and having to have your door open with your feet on the ground at the desk from eight to 10:00 PM, I was so excited to get to college and just have no rules. So, it was an opportunity that I was really looking forward to.

And then to be honest, I was able to get a jumpstart with the girls who I was then teammates with at university of Wisconsin. Cause I was on the US team before going to Wisconsin. So, I knew a lot of those girls. There was a level of familiarity. Now, if I were to look back on my freshman year, yes, I did have success.

However, I think it could have been way more successful if I was a bit more focused.  I was just really excited to be in college and do the college things that everyone else was doing. And I lost a little bit of sight of who I was and where I wanted to be going. Which is fine.

But I think I could've had a lights-out freshman year if I approached it a little bit differently.

Stefanie Strack:

So, what would be one piece of advice you'd give yourself, about to go into your freshman year of college athletics? What would you say to Hilary then?

Hilary Knight:

You can't do it all. That's something I did really well when I was in high school and because it felt like a small college environment and everything was very controlled, which was great. But then when I went to a bigger school, there's so much freedom.

And I think I got away from what made me successful and having to redesign my structure of what that looked like. So maybe I was staying in on a Friday night at the high school and not socializing as much or chasing all these shiny objects.

And so, once I figured out that balance and how to balance school when someone wasn't always looking over my shoulder, then I had a little bit more success. And that's why I think I came back my sophomore year. I was like, I am ready to go, let's get this. So, it was definitely a different type of focus.

Stefanie Strack:

What would you say it was your number one struggle beyond just thinking about how do you balance and readjust to this new environment? What was your biggest struggle personally?

Hilary Knight:

Oh man. There's a lot, as athletes, I think we just want to be perfect at everything. And I think that's very difficult because the amount of work you're given from school, there's not enough hours. So, you really have to manage your time and you're not going to be able to do everything.

So, it's trying to prioritize and pick things that are more important with deadlines and what's going to earn you more points or not. And then to the team aspect I think I had big expectations for myself. I think the school had big expectations for me, as well as my teammates and really managing that and understanding that as much as I want go out there and score 10 goals a game that's not going to happen.

It's a different level. So really managing expectations and understanding that people's perception of me should not have any impact on how I feel and how I play. And so, it was really working through that.

Stefanie Strack:

You've been at the highest level of college athletics, but then also on the global platform for hockey, how do you deal with the pressure that comes with that? And if you could come up with three tips to give to girls for dealing with pressure what would those be?

Hilary Knight:

Oh man. It's so cheesy, but every time my mom was driving me to a game or when I was younger, there were three things. And she would say, go out there. One: have fun, two: bust your butt, and three: work hard. And I know that the bottom two are kind of the same, but it's just so important because you sign up to have fun.

And I think if you lose sight of that, a lot of other things start weighing on you a little bit more. Another great advice moment that I had was a four-time Olympian I was rooming with for my first Olympics, and we were going into the biggest game or I was going to the biggest game of my life.

It was her fourth gold medal game. And I remember we were in a little studio and being like, oh my gosh, I'm so nervous. I'm not going to sbe able to sleep and play tomorrow and all this stuff. And she's like, what are you talking about? I'm like, well, you know, it's the biggest game.

She's like, yeah. But, have you played hockey before? It was like, yeah, well, in that way, it's just another game. And I was like, Huh, and don't get me wrong, she wasn't trying to minimize the fact that we were at the Olympics, but I think she was trying to add a fresh perspective to remove all of the pressure of being on a world stage and performing and representing your country.

And I think that's so important when you're all in your head, bring it back, focus on the little things. And really, you signed up to play hockey.

Stefanie Strack:

I love that. Well, you did make a pretty big decision when you were in college, you took a year off to join team USA. And I wanted to talk about that decision, because I think a lot of women are considering different paths for their career. And they're thinking about, do I go to college, or do I go straight to pro, or do I go for a little bit and leave?

There's a lot of different ways to get to your dreams, but you specifically took a pause during your college experience. So, what was that decision like for you and what did you weigh when you're trying to make that decision? Did you lose your scholarship?

Hilary Knight:

To be honest, I didn't even blink at it. I was like, yep, going, bye. It was so easy. In many ways this is the first time I even thought it was like, oh, it wasn't a decision. That's just what I was going to do. To represent your country on the world stage, I consider that one of the highest honors and to have an opportunity and maybe it just seemed easier because the Olympic coach just so happened to be our collegiate coach as well.

And he's an icon who won a gold in 1980 and there's just so much to learn from him.  I was excited. I think the hardest part was actually coming back to college after having an experience like that. And that's where I had to learn to be a little bit more patient and to really understand the value of what the college experience can offer and how valuable an education is because it was really hard for me to finish.

Stefanie Strack:  

Why was it hard to come back? Can you unpack that a little bit? Is it because the experience of playing was different or was it like, I have a future in pro hockey. Why should I come back and go to school?

Hilary Knight:

Yeah. It was all the above. I think you look at our male counterparts and you see them on TV and you're like, naturally at this level maybe I shouldn't have even gone to college. I should have just gone straight to pro and then fast forward a few years later, I understand that there's no pro for women's hockey.

So, everything that I thought was going to be there, wasn't there. In the moment you're on the world stage, you're playing with the best players in the world. You're playing against the best players, the world. Everything's great. Everything's taken care of.

You don't have to worry about things. And then you come back to college and Wisconsin was unique in that way where I didn't have to worry about anything because their athletic department was just outstanding. But I had this experience that was closer to pro and then I felt like I was coming back.

And the level of play obviously was different. I don't want to say it was bad because it wasn't.  We were still wanting a national championship. I was on the best collegiate team in the country. But I couldn't just wake up and play hockey every day. And that was tough for me.  I had to go to school, I had to do other things and I thought it was taking away from who I could be as a player.

And so that was that internal conflict that I was experiencing. And I also felt older, which I wasn't, like I went to the Olympics. I'm 30 now and I was like, no, you're 20 and go back to school.  

Stefanie Strack:

That's amazing. Well, fast forward, you finished college, you go into the pro leagues. And so, you had this experience of going to the Olympics and going back to college then going pro, is that when you started to realize that the pro lifestyle and the pro league difference for women versus the men's league that there was a gap and that there were difficulties in that journey? What was the moment when you were like, oh, this is what it's like to be pro hockey player as a woman?

Hilary Knight:

Yep. This is just young me, but I packed up our family car and drove from Wisconsin to Boston because that's where I got drafted. I didn't even know that we had a draft. I got a call when I got drafted, like, we're going to pay you say that you live in Boston. And I was like, I don't live in Boston.

I live in Wisconsin. They're like, just say you live in Boston because we need to pick you for the US team in the CDL. And I was like, this is sketchy, but sure. So, it was this mock draft, right? Like, I didn't even know it was going on. So, I think from there, it was a red flag and then people were tweeting at me, and I was like, oh, this is so cool.

 Just keep up with the image of it all. But yeah, I packed my car. I went to Boston, and I showed up and I was like where's the rink? And we're at this community rank. And I was like, what? And I went from the palace of the Cole center at Wisconsin, packing it a few times to 15,000 people, to scanning in a community rink that didn't even have enough seats in a locker room.

I got dressed for games on two milk carton holders, these plastic things in the bathroom next to the shower stalls. Because we just didn't have enough room. And I was happy to do it because I was young, but I'm like, this is a very different experience than what I thought.

I still have a picture on my phone because I remember taking a picture of being like we're going to change this someday, and this is not going to be acceptable moving forward. So I knew it wasn't right, but I was young and I just wanted to play hockey very competitively.

And the good thing that we had going for us was every weekend we played it was essentially US versus Canada. So, I think that's what kept us all going was that the level of competition was there. And that was a lot of fun. We did have this cult following, which is always fun because hockey fans are incredibly endearing and just wonderful in that way, especially women's hockey fans, because they'd been watching us through doorbell cameras for two to three decades.

Stefanie Strack:

Okay. So that was one surprise. The rink, the milk cartons, basically no seats. Were there any other difficulties?

Hilary Knight:

I'm living in Boston, no money. I got a stipend because I was in the US program. And that was for training resources. And my stipend was reduced when I moved there, I just came out of a surgery. So, I was like, this is just a collision of many things that are unfortunate and not what I thought pro hockey was going to be because you see the lights and the glamour of the guys.

And you start to realize that all those things take an army to be successful. You don't have trainers; you don't have full time support staff that's being paid. You're building the plane as it flies, and you don't even know where the plane is flying.

So, it's crazy to think back that when I was in high school, on the U S team, I remember being a sponge and sitting at all these tables, listening to the older girls talk and finally thinking, okay, when I get out of college, it's going to be different. And when I got out of college, it was exactly the same and I was crushed.

Stefanie Strack:

So now fast forward, 10 years. How much has it changed, do you think, for the girls that are about to leave college now and head into one of the leagues?

Hilary Knight:

I don’t think it's changed. I think we don't have that viable option yet. What we've done as the PWHPA is provide a player led, player driven association that provides resources and competitive structures to help alleviate the burden of graduating college and not knowing where you're going to play.

And also providing a standard to be able to pursue your dreams professionally until we finally have a solution where you can receive and earn a livable wage playing women's pro hockey at that level.

Stefanie Strack:

It's so disappointing to hear decade after decade go by, and this is a big, big reason why I started Voice in Sport. Because when you take a look at the facts for girls in sport or women's equality or the pay gap or sponsorship deals, it hasn't shifted much. We have to fundamentally do things differently. And I love that you created this association and that you're putting up these standards that are going to define what it means at least to support women's hockey.

Similarly, on the Voice in Sport side, we're saying, here's some standards that we need to do to support girls and women in sport. So, what are those standards that you're trying to ensure going to be there for the next generation?

Hilary Knight:

To be honest, it's overwhelming. There's a lot. But I think quickly it would be to provide a livable wage or salary. Provide healthcare and benefits provide professional and adequate training structures as well as resources shared services. The things that make teams successful that an everyday fan, when you turn on your TV, you don't necessarily see or appreciate.

In addition to that, they provide a consistent home of hockey and a competitive schedule that people know they can find women's hockey on this channel, that channel or that platform, this date, that date or the other one. And I think that's something that women's sports have missed for so many years because we haven't been able to access the opportunity and we haven't been able to generate a structure that people see fit to move a sport forward. It's more so a donation cause. Instead of Hey, we can actually build this, and we can make it profitable. It's like a startup. You just need to take a chance and invest money and we're going to grow it. So, I don't think women's sports have received a fair shake to be able to start and develop a platform to a successful future.

Stefanie Strack:

I think you hit something that's really important is you have to invest if you want to see growth and without the investment, nothing can grow that's business 101.

Hilary Knight:

It's so frustrating, right? Because you get into these meetings and they're like, it's a great sport and it's one of the fastest growing sports, but we just don't really see where our return is. And you're just thinking what. This doesn't make any sense. You're going to put some money up to see more. So, it's been interesting, but I think that the frustrating part is just being a woman and when you go into these rooms, a lot of the time they just see you as a woman, they don't see how you can be a successful business ally in many ways.

So, it's really changing behavior and culture and working through that as well as, oh, by the way, I want to go compete at the very best. And all my teammates are in the same boat.

Stefanie Strack:  

I think it's amazing what you are doing. And this started pretty early on for you, even in 2017,  you actually led with some of your other US teammates to threaten a boycott for the World Championships because of the pay inequalities between the men's and the women's hockey teams at the time.

And the US women's hockey teams were ranked number one in the world, but they were barely getting paid a living wage according to the New York times. So, you started the hashtag #beboldforchange movement. And this had a really big impact and USA hockey eventually gave in and offered the team a four-year contract that was closer to the men's team.

I want to unpack this a little bit and talk about how this came to be? Where did it start? Because I think it's incredible that you created this movement.

Hilary Knight:  

To start it off, I wasn't the only one in the movement. It was years and years of conversations around training tables and meals and shared bus, rides, and traveling around the world together and listening to the veteran speak. And then finally, coming into this room with my teammates and we're like, oh my gosh, like we're the old ones, there's so many things that we sit here and we complain about and we get upset about, because we know we deserve better.

We've earned better. We're the number one seat in the world. And we don't have them. And you look over to the guys and it just seems so easy. we want that. We need that, our next generation needs that. So, I think it was a culmination of all these things aligning.

And also, we'd built a very strong culture amongst our team to really have this trust and interconnectivity that helped us navigate potentially sitting out of a World Championship to demand better for the future of our sport at the national level. I think it was just an aha moment that was like, if not us then who.

And we were a strong enough group to put our nose down and grind through it and achieve better. And fortunately, we did, but we were prepared to not go to that world championships. I don't think people understand that's our World Cup, it's a really big deal.

And we were hosting, it was on US soil. And at the time I think USA hockey was offering people money to go and replace us. And it was a very icky time. So, I'm really glad that they came to the table and finally took us seriously. And we were able to embark on a new future together.

Stefanie Strack: it's so incredible. You have to often ask yourself, if not now then when and a certain point you got to go for it. What lessons can you share with the young players out there today that might be seeing similar inequalities between their teams and the men's teams? What advice would you give them to take that first step to advocate for themselves and drive change?

Hilary Knight: To be honest, there's so many inequities out there. Ours was bigger on a grander scale because we were at a world championship, and we were the US team.

But you have to have people around you that support you, and you need to understand that you're not the only one with these issues and you need to galvanize a group of people to help you push issues through and help you advocate for yourself, for your teammates. And I think what makes it easier is removing yourself from the me in the I and understanding that what you're pursuing and what you're trying to fight for is something bigger than yourself.

And from that standpoint, it becomes easier because it's not about you. Yes, you may benefit from the things that you're fighting for, if you are successful, but it's really about a whole generation of women. Maybe it's your generation, maybe it's the next one, but it's so important to combat the inequities and identify them and try to problem solve.

And sometimes it's not taking them head on. Sometimes it's just going to the drawing board together and being constructive about things. And it's problem solving. It was something that we learned in team sports, how to do it on the fly.

Stefanie Strack:

I love it, that's why also the PWHPA just signed the More VIS for IX pledge to help us develop these women leaders into advocates. I'm really excited that you guys joined us because we are trying to help create the largest grassroots movement for girls and women in sport to stand up and to voice those inequalities that they see specifically in high school and college.

And so, we're trying to get to 23,000 leaders, develop all of them, provide them with education training as well as a toolkit to evaluate their school and determine if there are some non-compliance issues, because power is knowledge. And if you know what to look for, all of a sudden you start seeing those inequalities. There's actually a law in place to prevent that, it's called Title IX.

Hilary Knight:  

You have to use Title IX, you have to keep it accountable. Cause there's so many instances where all these women and pioneers that came before us fought so hard for title nine and we are still falling short in many, many areas. It's a constant process that I'm sure you're very familiar with as well.

Stefanie Strack:

That's right. but if you come together and you create a community, like we have at VIS for these girls to brainstorm and bring the issues to the table for us to solve together, it's amazing what we can do. And sometimes it's through the power of social media.

Sometimes it's connecting them to a lawyer. Sometimes it's going straight to their athletic department. There's so many different ways you can solve these problems, but doing it together, like you did with your campaign back in 2017, it works.

Hilary Knight:  

We also had a lights-out superstar law firm, Ballard and Spar, working with us pro bono, I'd be remiss not to mention that their work and their attention to the detail of what we were going through was pivotal for our success. So just shows it's not all on the players. It takes an army.

Stefanie Strack:

That's right. It's so important to have that support and any girl who's listening today to this podcast and saying to themselves, wow. I think there are Title IX issues at my school. Please come and sign up at to be an advocate because we'll teach you what those things are.

And we will connect you to amazing lawyers. Hilary, you have an amazing platform. And you're doing a lot with building this organization, which is at its center and at its core is fundamentally trying to advocate for change. Let's go back a little bit to your unconventional path, because you actually did train with an NHL team during your professional career.

It was with the Anaheim Ducks. What was that experience like? And why did you do that? Tell us about that experience and what you gained from it.

Hilary Knight: Yeah, I was on this kick where I was doing whatever I could do to provide more visibility to what we were doing on the ice and also to the sport, because as a female athlete, there's so many times when I was like, oh, I didn't know girls played hockey or, oh yeah, you play hockey, but you can't check or you can't fight, or you're not as fast.

And so, I was like if I can skate with an NHL club, let's do it. And I happened to be in California doing something else and the ducks were like, Hey, you know, we'd love to have you come out on the ice and practice.

And I was like, all right, let's do it. And I think at the time, and maybe this is just something about my personality, I just didn't understand how big of a deal it was. I was like, yeah, let's go. Because reality is, we ski with a lot of the guys in the summer. We train with them.

We're just sharing a lot of the same weight rooms. We're sharing a lot of the same ideas, the same resources, which is great because it's a lot of fun and it might be your cousin, your brother, or your friend's friend. And it wasn't that different. But I think because the camera lens was there, it was like, here's this woman standing with the men and isn't this great.

 I think that was really cool because growing up when we were talking about, on TV only Olympics and to see the NHL clubs duel it out for the Stanley Cup, just the hockey fan in me was like, this is so much fun.

And I'm forever grateful to the Anaheim Ducks organization for being as forward thinking as they are, whether it's with that opportunity, but also in their grassroots development. And the way that they're growing hockey in Southern California is really cool.

Stefanie Strack:

So, you had this experience and then, you had the experience of your team in Boston, there at the community rink when you first got out of college and then you were at one of the best division one schools. So, you've had all these different experiences.

And if you could speak to an investor today about investing in women's hockey leagues in the US and Canada, what would be your pitch?  If they're listening, what would you tell them?

Hilary Knight:

Oh man, putting me on the spot. I can get into the whole thing of the fastest growing sport. It's a great investment, but really, you're going to be connected to people that are thought leaders and amazing advocates and people that you want to invest in. And really at the end of the day, I think that's what's important in business is if you're thinking about putting money somewhere, you want to believe in the people that you're putting the money into.

That's what our group is. That's who our players are. Everyone's an extremely well-educated and just phenomenal group of women. I'm confident we'll be able to scale the way it needs to scale for what we want to do for the professional landscape. I think when you look at the bigger picture, it's a great investment. Because you get to connect on so many different levels that you haven't had access to before.

Stefanie Strack:

You mentioned some of these pillars and standards that you're trying to achieve with the new league, and one of them is access to great services and I'm assuming mental health is in there. Let's talk a little bit about mental health and the importance it has on your success as an athlete.

I think COVID exacerbated the mental health issues across the United States and for women athletes, especially, it's been a hard year. We already don't have a ton of visibility. A lot of the programs have been cut and a big part of what we've all gone through is some mental health challenges.

What we're doing at Voice in Sport is we're offering access to sports psychologists and mental performance coaches, all of the things I didn't have growing up and creating it in a way that makes it a safe space, super accessible. So, I wanted to dive into this topic with you and talk to you about your journey of what point did you start accessing mental health services, whether that was a sports psych, or just thinking about your mental game?

Hilary Knight:

Yeah, I think where I equated the physical and the mental training wasn't until the last 10 years. But I've worked on mental skills training since I was, I think, under 10 years old. My dad would sit me down and say, if you want to do this you should think of it this way.

Or maybe try doing this or try visualizing or whatever that looked like at the time. And so, I developed this routine which I think helped me gain confidence before I would take the ice. And it's just something that's always stuck with me, but as you get older and you have a little bit more bandwidth and you're thinking, I know now how important the mental component is, how do I find the right people?

So, I definitely had access in college, but I didn't really know what I was looking for. And I didn't necessarily vibe with that person that came in to speak to the team. So, we were fortunate enough to be introduced to an amazing mental skills coach. I think it was 2012, 2013, who really had a significant impact in the way that I go about mapping out my games before, and then also how I can perform.

And then, you go through that and then a few years later, like, but this is different than mental health. So, understanding that there's another pillar that I haven't necessarily even looked at. So really tackling that and working through that, to find the right people, to help me make sure that I'm as sound as I can be as a human off the ice to then go out there and have fun when I'm on the ice.

And I think you've touched on it perfectly. COVID, this is a global pandemic and a huge crisis, and people are dying and you're living in a constant state of fear of being like, is this airborne illness going to attack me?

There was so much uncertainty and unknown.  I think especially people who are specific about planning and structure and live off of, this is when I know things are happening and, in the ebbs, and flows of that, especially with sports, it was hard because you never knew when your next opportunity was going to come along to play to be with the other girls to just train together.

So, it was really interesting to navigate the global pandemic alone, quarantined. I think everyone did the best that they could in their own way, but I'm thankful that I had resources that I could rely on because I knew these people before and during, in such a significant time in everyone's history.

Stefanie Strack:

Yeah, it's so incredibly important. And most people don't know where to go. And a 2020 survey on NCAA showed that 55% of women athletes did not know how to access mental health resources. But what you said is so spot on and we hear this from girls, that maybe that one or two people that they have, they don't connect with. So, if they don't connect with them, they don't have a place to go. And that's why we built the platform with 80 experts that are diverse, that are coming from different backgrounds and have different things that you can connect with them on.

 I fear that for a lot of girls out there, is they try it once it was terrible or something happened with their playing time because they spoke to the school counselor, and we don't want that to be a reason why girls don't ask for help.

Hilary Knight:

I think you touched on it perfectly. Cause there's so many times where these people come in and you're like, is there a separation of space. Is this space safe for me to share what's truly on my heart or how I'm thinking?  So, I think what you're doing is fantastic because one, you might not vibe with one person, but there's a whole list of other people and then two, you might outgrow somebody.

So, there's another opportunity to really work on a different facet of your mental health.

Stefanie Strack: Yeah. I think what you said is really good. There are two different things you want to talk about here when you're thinking about becoming the best version of yourself as an athlete. And I love that you spoke about both actually, because they're both incredibly important for you to be in a great space before you step onto the ice, or before you start your race, and you want to treat your mind just like you do your body. Both are important to recognize they're part of a more holistic success package and that's what we hope to help girls with. So, I want to go back to your specific example of well not, everybody's had the 10 years of experience of working with the mental performance coach. What have you learned on the mental performance side, that's really helped you with your game?

Hilary Knight:

Yeah. A lot of it is a self-journey. Because you can sit in a room or you can sit on a zoom call with them and you can work through different situations, but a lot of it is going out there competing, training, but then being able to keep a memory or keep a record of it.

Journaling has been pivotal for me. To look back and be like, okay, at this time, this game, I felt this way and I don't know why I felt this way. And then you look at the tape and then you then collaborate with your mental skills coach and be like, what's going on?

And they're not in your skates so they can provide a different perspective and say, Hey, let's work through that because this is what it looks like. And maybe they don't have any experience with the sport and that's fine, but the indicators of body language can tell them a lot.

So, a lot of it's been journaling and feedback and scheduling that out. But then also these situations are high pressure situations and the Olympics every four years, and you can't necessarily practice the Olympics every day because the Olympics aren't there. Not every day is going to be the same and you want to prepare for your peak and to put yourself in situations that can help give your mind a little bit of exercise to compete at that level, even though you're not surrounded at that level.

 The other part of it, I would say would be keeping it simple. And there's so many things you can worry about, you can focus on, but at the end of the day if your mind has so many things going, it's got to process it all.

And to really come back to whether it's a mantra or code words to really lock yourself back and refocus. And then in addition to that, I would say a lot of breath work and imagery. there are all sorts of little tech devices you can get, whether it's the heart map or, your sleep performance or whatnot or the little finger thing you can put on to see what your heart rate is. It's just trying to figure out a good cadence for your breath work to, to work through those situations as well.

Stefanie Strack:  

You mentioned two of the things that were part of the reason why I did have success in sport was the visualization that I learned from ski racing that my dad also helped me with, and just visualizing the whole course and understanding that that was part of my success in my performance.

Taking that learning and then translating that to soccer. Imagining me scoring the goal, imagining me creating the plays with my teammates and that stuff really helped. So, I love the power of visualization journaling, and I'm really curious to know what your mantra is. What do you whisper to yourself before you step onto the ice?

Hilary Knight:

Something that I've used for a number of years is just “dare to be”, and then I leave it open-ended just because sometimes you're not feeling great or maybe your stomach hurts because you ate too much food or whatever it is or you're nervous.

And you need a different word depending on the different situations. So, it's something that I've used and not every game's easy mentally, right? There are very rare moments where you can get into that flow of things and you're not thinking about everything, but I think we all chase that moment because the game’s easier that way.

It's finding these little codes or these little clues, or maybe it's the way you adjust your equipment that brings you comfort or familiarity to get you back in that mindset of being like, just keep it simple. Everyone's different, but it's crazy, because even if my teammate hasn't told me her routine or what she does, you just pick up on it intuitively you just know that if she's adjusting her pants this way, or she's doing that in a locker, that's her thing.

So, it's really, it's really interesting to see how people navigate these situations differently

Stefanie Strack:

And finding what that is for you, I think is really special combination with a mantra. So, I think it's a great way to start. Even if you don't have a mental performance coach, finding that place of reset is something that we can all do.

Hilary Knight:

Yeah. And it's interesting, because I never really was able to call it out and understand what I was doing.  I just knew when I went into the face-off dot, I was doing things and I started playing golf and I kept slicing it. And there was no reason why, I mean I was hitting fine on the range and then I'd go up to actually play and it would just go. And I had a coach ask what's your walk-up routine. I was like, what do you mean?  What do you do? So, it was interesting because from there I noticed that to get back to hockey, I was like, I have a walk-up or a skate-up routine for hockey. I have handshakes I do before I go on the ice with different teammates, they get me prepped. And then I have stuff that I do when I'm on the ice that helps me individually focus and get myself ready for a puck drop. It's wild how the mind works. You might not know what you're doing, but you're doing it.

Stefanie Strack:

That's the power of the mind. A lot of that stuff you're doing subconsciously and then all of a sudden you start tuning into it and then you can use it as a tool and it's something powerful to really get yourself to the next level. Thank you for sharing that.

I want to talk about confidence because this is something I think we all struggle with and I have a feeling, a lot of us are going through that right now. Me, not so much because I'm done with sports, but these young girls that are finishing a season or their season got cut short, I'm sure there's been a lot of peaks and valleys to their confidence over the last year. How do you keep your confidence high when you're struggling or in a low point in your life?

Hilary Knight:  

It's so interesting because it doesn't matter what level you're at. It's always there. And you know what it feels like to be at your peak and everything's working, and it seems effortless many times and things are great. And then there's times where I cannot get out of this phone.

It feels like you're in a rut. And I just kind of bring it back to the basics and it doesn't always feel good, but to really focus on the little things that I can control and make noble that struggle and understand that at the end of the day, when I get through it, I'm going to be better for it.

But right now, it's really, really difficult, but to try and find rhythm and routine and to build confidence through that rhythm. And a lot of the times when I don't have confidence, I feel like everything's sort of spinning around me out of control. And so it's like, how do I take a little bit more control of what I can, because we can't control everything, but I can control that. I get to go train instead of I have to go train and the way I think about things, the way I'm talking to myself, or the way I'm talking about myself the way I'm planning my days, there's all these little things that you can change.

But at some point in time, maybe you need someone else to help you through it as well. And that's why friends are so important to take you out of this rut that you're in your brain. And to offer a fresh perspective and hit the reset because everyone goes through it and it's difficult.

And I don't ever want to minimize that, because there's so many ruts, but it's how you work through these things. And sometimes you just can't do it all alone and you need someone else, but confidence should never be external, I think. But there are people who can help you hit the reset to get it again.

Stefanie Strack:

I think it's so important because here you are eight world championship titles later, NCAA title as well. And you're still struggling with confidence at certain times. It never really goes away. It's how you approach it, and we all are facing it. And we just don't want that to be a reason why someone quits.

So, if you could think back to age 14, 15, because that's when a lot of girls do drop out confidence, body image, and then they're gone from sport forever.  What would you whisper to all the girls out there about sticking with it?

Hilary Knight:

Yeah. I would remind them why they signed up and that this moment doesn't dictate the whole thing. It doesn't minimize everything you've done, just because a lot of the times when I think back it's not fitting in feeling. And then looking at the magazines, or I guess on your phone now, or Instagram or the Tik Tok filters.

And you're like, oh, I don't look like that. Or I'm not like that. Or man, I wish my life was like that. And to understand that you're, you and no one else is going to be you and you're not going to be anybody else. And to really look in the mirror and find the things that you'd like and move forward with those I think is extremely important, but in terms of sport don't let one week, two weeks dictate your whole career and force you out of a sport.

Because I think it's such a tragedy when people don't feel accepted on the field or on the ice. And a lot of the time it's a social situation.  I think I would also challenge younger girls to be more empathetic and to be more open-minded towards their peers, because one day you wake up and you're not as confident, maybe your teammate to the next of you or your opponent aside on the other line is feeling the same way.

And to really have some empathy and deep understanding that you all signed up to play a sport and you want to go out there and have fun and bring out the best competitiveness of one another.

Stefanie Strack:

Absolutely. And Hilary, you've been interviewed by a lot of different media publications over the years, ESPN body issue, Shape, you have been in a lot of media yourself and your image is everywhere in women's hockey. So, what would you tell girls today that might be struggling with comparing themselves? Whether that's their body image or just how they perceive themselves as a person. How do you handle that?

Hilary Knight:

Yeah, I'd love to tell them the industry trade secret is they want you to compare yourself to whatever they're putting out there. And they want you to find yourself inadequate because they want you to buy their products. And it's just, it's as simple as that, right? We're going to airbrush people and we're going to do all these crazy things to present our best self, especially on the internet.

But understand that's not real at all. And that's a view, that's an ad. So, I would just find strength in your knowledge of understanding who you are as a human and also being able to have those human connections around you and your peer group to see, Hey, that person doesn't look like what they look like on Tik TOK. And maybe there's a reason behind that.

Stefanie Strack:

Yeah. Just having that awareness, I think, is a great reminder. There's usually something that's trying to be sold behind that image. How do you personally handle social media? You have a bit of followers and you're still playing. How do you separate the things you hear on social media and stay focused?

Hilary Knight:

Yeah. I try not to read the comments to be honest. And it takes a lot of discipline because when you're bored, you can just scroll on your phone and you're like, oh, what did someone think of this picture? And so, I like how you can't really see likes on certain individuals' photos, because it doesn't really matter.

The marketer in me, I want the likes. But from human lens, social media is a whole another beast. So, I try not to read comments. I mean, I try to have a healthy banter with people, especially surrounding sport cause it's fun. And then the understanding that at the end of the day, I signed up for social because I wanted to bring my sport forward and I wanted to connect with people who all are all over the world because we've never had an opportunity to do that.

Particularly for me, that's why I signed up. And I think maybe I'm old school in this way, but I think if I weren't playing hockey and who I was, I probably wouldn't be on social media because it takes a lot of time. Right. And they say if you're spending more than two hours or something, it's really unhealthy. On a game day, don't look at social media because it has a huge negative impact on performance.

Stefanie Strack:

Great advice. So, what would you be doing if you weren't playing hockey?

Hilary Knight:

Oh, my goodness. I'd probably be playing another sport because I love sports. Right. Let's be honest about that. But if I weren't playing a sport, I always wanted to be a lawyer and that was something that I thought I was going to do. I was going to go to school and then I was going to go law school and then I was going to be this lawyer.

And then I could help out and take on all these cases and fight for the future. And it was going to be great. And yeah, somewhere, I felt a little bit short of that, but still get to work with these insanely successful lawyers who you sit in a room with and you're like, how did you just do that?

That is so impressive. But no, I think I just fundamentally, I love to share my passion with other people. And I think whenever you can have a positive impact on someone's life, however great or however, small it does matter.

And so, whatever I would be doing, I would be doing something along that line.

Stefanie Strack:

I love it. Well, you're living it out now because you're having a huge impact on girls and women in sport with all of the things you're doing today. So, thank you Hillary, and really appreciate you coming on the podcast and being so open about the things you've gone through.

Let's end on our last question, if there's one thing you can do to change things in women's sports, what would that one thing be?

Hilary Knight:

Consistency. I would provide consistency to women's sports. I think consistency of having a schedule right. And understanding when you're going to play an amazing team and how fans can tune in and watch and young girls can aspire to be that. So, I think consistency is the biggest thing that women's sports have missed and are missing.

And we see the WNBA filling that gap and the NWSL filling that gap. And hopefully those two are catalysts for many other sports to come and also other industries as well outside of sport.

Stefanie Strack:

Well, it's exciting to see what you're going to be doing next. It's also exciting to see you just invested in just women's sports and we hope to see you continue to take charge as you advocate for change. So, thank you Hillary, for joining us today.

Hilary Knight:

Yeah, thanks for having me. It's fun.

Hilary Knight, Team USA Hockey player reminds us we need to change the future of women’s sports not only for ourselves, but for a whole generation of athletes following in our footsteps.