Finding Your Voice
with Elizabeth Williams
31 Aug, 2020 · Basketball
Elizabeth Williams, WNBA Player, discusses her journey in sport, and she shares the importance of building a strong support system, women empowering other women, working hard, and using our voices to change more than just the game.
Welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast. I'm your host, Stef Strack, the founder of Voice In Sport. As an athlete, professional, and mom, I have spent the last 20 years advocating for women and innovating across the sports industry. Now, I want to bring more visibility to female athletes and elevate their voice. At Voice In Sport, we share untold stories from female athletes to inspire us all to keep playing and change more than just the game.
Today our guest is Elizabeth Williams, a WNBA basketball player for the Atlanta Dream, the WNBA’s Most Improved Player in 2016, and a Four-Time All American out of Duke University. Elizabeth is a British-born American basketball player who spent many years on U.S. junior national teams prior to transitioning to the collegiate levels and eventually onto the Pro’s.
Today, she is a member of the VIS League - our new Mentorship Program for female athletes, and she is also the secretary of the WNBA’s players association where she fights for equality for women in sport and social justice. In today’s podcast, Elizabeth discusses her journey in sport, and she shares the importance of women empowering other women, using our voices, building a strong support system, and working hard both on and off of the court. Welcome, Elizabeth! We are incredibly excited to have you here on the Voice In Sport Podcast.
Thanks for having me.
It's exciting to have a WNBA player that also played at Duke University and was born in England. So, I'd love to know a little bit about your journey. Talk us through the different sports that you played when you were younger, and how did you make it to the WNBA?
I was born in England, but unfortunately don't have a British accent.
My family left England. I was born in '93 and they left in '97. My parents are both in the medical field, and my dad studied in the UK--did a Master’s of Public Health there-- and then when that was finished, my family came to the U.S. and I've been here ever since. They weren't super big into sports; education was obviously number one for them, but I did start playing soccer when I was six or so. After that, I actually had a family friend recommend basketball just because I was growing so much. When I was about nine that's when I started, and obviously, I'd never played before, wasn’t very good, but I loved it and just kept working at it. I got a trainer, all that good stuff. And, it just kind of grew from there. I stopped playing soccer in middle school, but basketball was always the number one for me. So, I just kind of let that take me everywhere.
And, how did you decide at the end of the day that you were going to go with basketball and drop some of the other sports? Because a lot of girls, I think, have this challenge that they face that-- either pressure from their parents or pressure from other people or their coaches to drop a sport when they're in middle school or high school. So, from your experience, what would you recommend and what was your specific reason for choosing one sport over the other?
For me, it was more I couldn't effectively put time into basketball, and I knew it was my number one. So, I was also in band, I was really busy with that. And then with basketball, I was traveling so much, and soccer was already kind of falling off. I didn't want to burn myself out either. And so, I just kind of put my focus in basketball in that sense, but I did run a little track in high school to help me stay in shape and to just do something different. But, basketball ultimately was number one for me.
I love that you did track. I always wished I would have focused a little bit more on my technique when it comes to running. So, did that really help you in your basketball game, do you think?
I mean, I'd like to think so, but I wasn't that great at track.
I think it was more to stay in shape and to try different things. Like, I tried high jump, which is a lot harder than it looks. I tried long jump and stuff like that. So, I mean, I did improve my technique a little bit, and it kept me in shape, but I think it was just cool to have something different to do and to work on.
That's great. I mean, we all know that the challenges through sport can both be physical and mental. You have made it through one of the best universities in college basketball in the U.S. and now on a WNBA team where we know there's not very many women who make it to that level. Can you talk to us about just your mental journey throughout the years of staying in sport?
The mental side is the biggest part. It's the side that reminds you even in days where you don't want to get in the gym, that at the end of the day, it's the best thing for you and the best thing to do. It's also the side in control of your confidence. So, there are some days where your mind is telling you you're not as good as you think you are, and you have a lot of negative thoughts about your game. So, you just have to learn to control your thoughts and take all the good out of all that you've done. So, that's a journey that I've been on since I started. Some of it is in being a perfectionist, you get really frustrated with yourself, but then when you look at the positive side of that, you can see the results of your hard work. So, you just have to learn how to balance all of that.
What do you think was your biggest challenge on the mental side when you were in-- let's start with high school? If you can remember back, what was your mental sort of movie that you were playing at that moment in time and looking back now, what advice would you give to yourself if you were a high school student in sport?
I would probably say-- by nature, I'm pretty laid back and chill. So, being more open to speaking out more and using my voice more, I think that would have helped me to do that more effectively in college. So, just not being afraid to step out and try something new because honestly, what's the worst that can happen? For me, I was like, "I'll just work really hard and be that workhorse and let my game speak for itself." So, when you already have that personality, being able to add the vocal part of it can be really huge. So, I just taught myself to speak up more and trust my words.
How do you do that if your natural personality or your inclination is to be a bit more introverted? How do you work on building your voice and your communication in sport, if that's not naturally coming for you? Because I think a lot of girls actually face this. Part of being a player, especially on a team sport, is being able to speak up, not just for yourself, but for others. So, how do you work on that if you're a girl that still hasn't developed her voice?
It's slow. So, it doesn't necessarily have to be yelling at people in a drill, but it could be, you know, next time you're in a small huddle-- saying a couple words. And then, the next time it might be a bigger group saying some more. You can do it in little increments; it doesn't have to be you yelling and going ham all the time, because I mean, realistically, you don't have to talk and yell all the time. But, being more conscious of it, making sure you call every screen, even if it's not necessarily you, right? Maybe it's not your man setting the screen, but if you practice when you see somebody else that's doing it, it can really help. So, just doing little things like that, and then building it up to being able to talk to the big group.
I love that. Especially, it must be hard if you're a bit more reserved to be able to speak up to your coaches and to be able to ask for what you want or if you're having challenges. So, what would you recommend when it comes to approaching your coach with a concern that you have? How do you do that in a way that's also constructive or will lead to a positive outcome?
Number one is to be respectful because at the end of the day, they're the coach, you're not the coach. So, whatever you're approaching them with, I would say come at them with a level of respect and show genuine interest and concern. I'm trying to think of a specific example that I've had. I mean, even recently in the W, when you have a lot of changes on your team, I've had to communicate with my coach and say, "Hey, what does my role look like now?" And, actually go to her and ask these questions. So, I think if you come to them with genuine respect, and you're showing that it's because your main focus is the team and how you want to help them, then I think that can be a really good conversation.
I think that's great advice. It's all about, too, how you frame it when you're speaking to people and the tone also of your voice. So, let's talk a little bit about then transitioning to college. When you think about what it took to be mentally tough, to perform well in college, when you're balancing all of those new things - new place, school, new team. How do you work on the mental side of your game in preparation for that transition?
Any transition is tough, of course. And, any new environment is tough, but I would say first being open, being open to making new friends, building new relationships, and then finding those people that you can trust and communicate with and being vulnerable with them so that when you do have days that you might be struggling or you might be a little frustrated, you can talk to them and they can talk to you. From a basketball perspective, just trying to be a sponge. So, trying to learn from the upperclassmen, trying to watch extra film or get in the gym more because that generally helps your confidence and helps that mental aspect of the game. And, confidence is a big part of transitioning into a different level.
What was the moment in your career or your journey, Elizabeth, where you had the biggest struggles with confidence, and how did you overcome or build yourself back up?
I would say probably my transition from college to the pros was that for me. I went to a team where in my position, there were players that were really established, and they were all-stars coming off of really good season. So, I kind of felt like I was at the bottom of the totem pole, not just by age.
So, I really struggled with being confident, even in practice. So, to combat that, I was like, “Okay. I'm going to try to get in the gym as much as I can with the coaches after practice or before practice, just working on things, learning the game.” And then, by doing that, I got more confidence in practice and then that eventually would translate into the game. So, just being able to learn myself in that way, that I felt confidence by being in the gym more, some people feel it from watching more film and learning that way. So, it just kinda depends, but just finding how you learn best.
Yeah. I love actionable things to build your confidence. For some people, it might be in the gym more. For some people, it might be on the court more, and for others, it might be actually practicing mental agility. So, thinking positive self-talk things to kind of get your mindset in the right space.
Yeah. Those are important too. Positive self-talk-- I feel like a lot of girls really struggle with that. We can get so frustrated with ourselves and not trusting that our hard work and the process of doing things the right way will actually give us good results instead of only focusing on the result. And so, being able to just breathe and take a second sometimes is really important.
I agree. And, now that you've made it to the top level in basketball in the WNBA, how would you say you approach the mental side of the game now? And do you have resources at your fingertips that you can share a little bit to us about what you've learned from the people who are now supporting you in the game?
So, fortunately for us with Atlanta, we have a sports psychologist that we can go to and talk to about not just basketball but life because sometimes life can kinda take over sports a little bit. So, being able to have access to somebody like that and being able to feel comfortable with them has been really important for me, I know, in the mental aspect of, of the game. And then, support system outside of that-- your friends outside of basketball, your teammates, obviously, and there's always some teammates that you're a little closer to than others. So, being able to talk to them about how you're feeling, about what's affecting you, it's really important and it makes a difference.
How do you get prepared for those really big matches? I can imagine, when you gotten your first WNBA team, there may have been little nerves. Heading into those big games or those moments, what tips can you share to the girls out there that might be having a hard time focusing or preparing for their game?
Well, I'm going into my sixth season and I still get nervous before every game. So, don't feel like that's a bad thing. I think even LeBron says, he gets nervous. I think part of it is just like, it's still a big deal, it still matters. And, I always say that nerves are really good thing because it shows how much you care.
But, once the game actually starts, that's when your body and your mind goes to, “Oh yeah, this is just basketball. This is what I've been working on my whole life.” And so, kind of trusting that. Trusting that what you did in practice and the way you prepared is good enough for the games. And, then once you're in the games, things are up and down, but at the end of the day, if you practice things like that positive self-talk and trusting your teammates and things like that, then good things happen.
I love that. What do you think are the biggest sacrifices you've had to make along your journey? Because I think a lot of girls think about college sports and they say, “Okay, I'm going to make it to college sports. That's my goal.” And then, there's that moment during those four years where you're thinking about: do I go pro or not?
And, there's a lot of discussion you have at that moment. You think about the future. You think about your lifestyle. You think about pay. So, how did you make that decision to go pro after college, and what sacrifices do you feel like you've had to make in order to be one of the best in the world?
So, when I first got into college, I thought after about four years, I would go to med school. But, then I think it was after my sophomore year or junior year, I realized like, ”Oh. Hey, I have a chance to play professionally.” And so, I just tried to train and focus and prepare that way.
And, what do you think are the biggest sacrifices that you had to make as a professional player?
I would say one of the biggest ones is just being away from family. In college, you're there early for summer sessions. That's the time usually people are at home, and you are going to be on campus, taking extra classes, and doing a couple of workouts.
And then, the holidays like Thanksgiving, there's always a tournament. Christmas, you only get a couple of days because you're going to have your conference games. So, I think probably one of the biggest sacrifices is being away from family. And, that's why it's so important to find your support groups on campus.
For you personally, as a woman in a WNBA, what does it mean to represent women in basketball in the highest level?
It’s an honor, honestly. And, I also serve on the executive committee of our Union. And so, being a person who basically has a voice for the rest of the players is just incredible. And, I try to think about it and reflect on it as much as I can because it's a privilege. We all work really hard at this game and the league is not huge; it's only 144 players. So, I always try to put things in perspective and that way, when I'm frustrated like, “Hey, you're supposed to be here.” And so, I'm just really grateful for that platform.
Yeah, it's pretty amazing. And, it's awesome that you're also advocating for all of the women as part of the Union. So, what did you think about the most recent bargaining agreement? And, do you feel that the progress was a little step or a really large step towards hopefully getting to an equal level playing field?
I would say it was a pretty large step just considering what the last CBA was. Even just the involvement from the players was astronomically higher for this CBA. So, I think one: women are understanding more and more how important their voices are. And, that's why we were able to see some big changes. It’s obviously not what we want forever, but I think being able to take such a big step in creating the CBA means that our next CBA is going to be even more incredible. So, I'm just grateful that I was even able to have a part of that.
It's amazing to see women lifting each other up and working together to drive change. It's why we created Voice In Sport is because the power of the collective voice can really do amazing things. And, you guys were a great example of that. So, I'm excited to continue to cheer you guys on and help in any way we can. So, on that topic, what do you think all the girls in sport right now can do to help support the players in the WNBA?
I mean, watching the games, it's important. We have the TV deals and the higher the viewership the better. So, anytime you can check us out-- if you don't have a team in your market that I would say, just watch us on TV, watch us on League Pass. And, I remember watching WNBA games on TV and just seeing that, makes a difference for a lot of girls and how they view what their future can look like. So yeah, I would just say watch the games, and if you can make it to a game, check it out and bring somebody because live sports are always the best.
And, if you don't have a team, definitely go for the Atlanta dream!
Well, I'm curious to know from one sport to another supporting female athletes, what do you think about the US Women's National Team court case right now, as they fight for equal pay in a totally different sport in the US?
Our players associations support each other. So, whether it's NWHL, the Women’s National Team, WNBPA-- like all these unions communicate with one another and we're all fighting the same battle. So, we're in communication with them and we understand their fight. And, I love watching them. I've been to a couple of games live, and they're incredible. And, they deserve everything; they're World Cup Champs, Olympic Champs, all that stuff. And, they've proven that they're generating revenue. They've proven that they're really good product.
So, they've kinda done everything you would ask for a women’s team because people always ask for more from us. And so, we are obviously supporting them in their fight and they deserve everything good.
Why do you think that is? Why do you think that the women's sports teams have to produce something different or more?
It's kinda the general concept of a minority where you have to be twice as good to get half the credit. And, I think that's just the way-- at least in the U.S.-- that's just the way it's been with women's sports, for whatever reason. I don't know why the mentality around it is so different, but hopefully I think now at least it's starting to change.
Totally. And again, another reason why we want to get female athletes together at VIS is to help drive this conversation because one thing that needs to happen is it needs to be in the conversation more. Even through this moment of COVID-19, there's been a lot of discussion about college basketball for men, college football for men, and where's the conversation around women's sports?
So, part of it, what we're doing at VIS, is we're also creating a sports media program for young female college athletes and students that want to get into sports media and journalism. And, we're creating a path and a program for them so that they get in those positions where, then, they're also creating the narrative and helping support to drive visibility for women's sports. So, that's why we're doing this.
And, I am curious, in your journey, if you battled with confidence and, mental toughness along the way, did you ever think about quitting? And if you did, how did you kind of pull yourself back into the game? Because the stats are pretty staggering for girls in sport; they drop out at sport at four times the rate of guys at age 13, and then another huge portion of them drop out in high school. So, could you share with us: did you ever have a moment where you were like, “I'm done,” and if so, what brought you back?
Luckily, when I was younger, I had a mentor that kinda pushed me to say, like, “Just keep going. You can do it.” I think honestly, sometimes now with this Corona stuff, there are days where you just don't want to work out at home and like, “Man, what am I doing this for?”
So, I think I've actually probably had those thoughts more recently than when I was younger, but they're still really real. But at the end of the day, you're like, “Okay, One: what else would I be doing? And two: this is something I really love, not just the game, but the teammates, the comradery, the road trips, everything.”
And then, you kind of have to remind yourself and put things in perspective and talk to people when you're feeling like this. I was just talking to one of my friends in the League about it. And it's like, “Man, some days are just really hard,” but at least having somebody that you can communicate that with that understands what you're going through, that's huge. So, if you have other teammates or girls in sports, talk to them; they're probably feeling some of the same things you are, and that can help motivate you to keep going.
Totally. And, it's tough for all of us, right? No matter what level you're at. And, here you are, one of the few at the very top, and you're struggling. And, I think just being vulnerable and saying, “Hey, I'm struggling. It's tough,” you're helping so many girls because it’s not perfect right now, and none of us are sitting at home saying, “Oh, every day is great.”
Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
We gotta lift each other up, and one thing I've learned through having these conversations with all these female athletes is that we all have gone through the similar challenges, and most of the time we didn't talk about it with each other. And so, part of what we're trying to do is normalize these topics, whether it's confidence, body image, the mental health, and just encourage each other to lean on each other because you can have amazing progress by leaning on each other.
So, my final three questions for you, Elizabeth. I ask all the athletes. What superpower do you think you gained from sport and how are you going to use it to drive something positive outside of sport?
Just sharing my platform, having a lot of influence. People just see us, whether it's literally at the games or just physically in my build, people can tell I'm an athlete. And so, using that talking to kids, I try to instill confidence in them, reminding people that it's possible. My existence in this pro sports world means that it's possible for you too.
I love that. What are three words you would use to describe your journey in sport as a female athlete? They do not all have to be positive; they just have to be real.
I would say dependable, stressful, resilient.
Amazing. We've talked a lot about confidence and the power of mental toughness, what would be your one piece of advice that you'd like to share to all the girls in sport out there? What would you tell your younger self?
I would say work hard and good things happen.
Thank you, Elizabeth, for joining us at Voice In Sport Podcast. You're so inspiring, and you're always part of our community.
Thank you so much.
Thank you so much Elizabeth for all of the work that you do on and off of the court to fight for equality for women in sport and social justice. Your advice about building confidence, support, hard work, and using our voices to change more than just the game are invaluable and truly inspiring. You provided a powerful reminder that the mental side of the game is the most important and shared so many tips for how we can successfully transition from one level to the next. You can follow Elizabeth on Instagram and Twitter @e_williams_1.
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Host: Stef Strack
Producer: VIS Creator™ Anya Miller