From College to Pro
with Brittany Brown
07 Dec, 2020 · Track and Field
Brittany Brown, Team USA Track & Field athlete, joins us on this week's episode to speak about the lessons she has learned throughout major transitions during her athletic journey.
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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 Brittany Brown, a professional sprinter, World Champion and former Division I Track and Field athlete at the University of Iowa. In college, Brittany was an 11x All-American, setting school records in the outdoor 100 and 200 meter during her tenure at the University of Iowa. She also ran multiple relays that rank in the top 10 all-time performances in the school's history.
After finishing college, Brittany became a professional sprinter and Adidas-sponsored athlete and started traveling the world and making history with her silver metal at the IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar in 2019.
She's now a team USA Track and Field athlete working towards the Tokyo 2021 Olympics. In today's episode, Brittany speaks with us on the transitions that she has experienced throughout her life, openly telling us about the trials and tribulations that came along with each stage. We discussed the importance of physical and mental strength, body image and confidence, and the power of developing a strong support system.
It's a refreshing and real conversation that reveals the struggles that we commonly face as female athletes, regardless of our level. We hope you enjoy hearing about her journey. And so let's begin. Brittany, welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast.
Thank you. I'm excited to be here. Really pumped for this conversation.
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So let's start with your journey. When you reflect back on your journey, what have been the biggest transitions and transformations that you have faced?
I've had three big transitions in my life: high school to college and then college to pro life. At each stage, they caused different things to be brought out of me. But yeah, those are my three biggest transitions by myself.
I'm excited today to dive deep into each one of them. In high school, were you only a track athlete, or were you playing other sports?
I only ran track. My older sister and twin brother, they played basketball. I wasn't graced with that coordination. Track was very simple: one lane, just went in a straight line. I feel like that was easy.
So, yeah, track was the only sport that I did.
When did you start running?
A lot of people in track, they start running when they're younger, they've been doing this since elementary. I didn't really start taking it seriously, up until high school.
Looking back in high school, what do you think was your biggest challenge as a female athlete?
I think, you know, you don't know who you are. You're trying to figure out who you are and how you fit in and I wasn't as popular, I guess... my twin brother was.
So, you know, dealing with that, when he's at the same school. I would say in regards to track though I just was very unsure of who I am and what I wanted to do. And talking about the unsureness, I wasn't sure about my body. I've always been very muscular, and I just never liked it. I think that's the thing about being a female and a girl; it doesn't even have to be someone telling you. I think these thoughts formulate in our head from society, the societal views in being a woman and how we're supposed to look was already ingrained in me. We, as women, we're told looking strong or being strong, "You're not supposed to do that."
And I definitely hid from that. It took me a while to embrace my body, be comfortable with it. I think a lot of times people, especially girls, they're always like, "Oh, you're thick. You look good. We like that body." And it's just like, it's funny because I did it.
And she's like, there's something like that. You know, a lot of girls like, "Yeah, I want to do squats and have a butt like you," and I'm just like, "For a while, I didn't want this." I didn't want the big thighs. I didn't want the butt, and I didn't even work for it, it was just naturally my body.
So, in college, I really started being more like, "Oh okay, this is okay." This is what suits me. This is what's right for me. And you know, everyone's different. but it took me some time to get to that point.
I appreciate you talking about it because I think a lot of what you said is spot on. There's societal pressures that girls are facing and you're on these social media platforms constantly comparing yourself to other people or having images put in front of you that are the "ideal body type" for women. It can have a pretty big effect on us as female athletes, especially in those younger years.
Definitely. Social media. Wasn't that big for me, I couldn't imagine being a girl now, having Instagram and Twitter and a Facebook You know, it'd be intense. I definitely, when I have kids, they're not going to have social media.
Like I said, no one told me this. It was just the societal norms that were already inherently built in me.
What advice do you have for girls in high school that might be facing this internal dialogue about their body? What would you say to your high school version of yourself?
I would say that everyone wants what they can't have. Everyone wants something else.
Now I'm built, I'm more muscular, and that doesn't make me less feminine. That doesn't make me less of a woman, and that doesn't make me overbearing and too strong. It makes me "me." There's nothing else to it because everyone's different. And find someone you can be transparent with because I feel like a lot of times we think that we're alone. We're the only ones that are dealing with this. Especially with social media, we're all dealing with it in some type of way. Some are better with coping and dealing with it, but definitely do not think you're the only one having these body image thoughts.
It's a big reason why we're building the Voice In Sport platform is to create a safe environment where girls can actually talk to each other and have those conversations because we're not alone in those thoughts,
And so I'm wondering for you, did you notice a shift in your performance or in your lifestyle outside of sport, once you got to college and sort of accepted your body and your strength?
Definitely, I was afraid to wear certain clothes. And then freshman year in college and I was like, "What are you doing wearing that dress? You never worn that before."
And it was form-fitting and. I felt comfortable. I wasn't trying to hide my body. I also think I got a lot of like compliments to my body like, "Oh, we like your body." We love it. And, sometimes it's easy to get caught up in someone else's validation of you. I realize that it was nice to hear those things. It really was. but I had to like my own body, and it took me a while to learn that. Get more accustomed to self-validation like, "You're fine. You look good." That is more important than anyone else saying anything.
How do you do that though? If you're a young girl and you're listening to this podcast, what do you do?
I think a lot of it is having to be realistic with yourself. You're putting these extreme goals on you like, "This is what it needs to be right now."
And that's not true. So I know it sounds weird, but talking to yourself and telling your brain, "You're fine. You're okay. You look good. Your body is where it needs to be right now. And that's the big thing about body image I have definitely learned. My body is where it needs to be right now for this particular stage in life.
Last year when I went to Doha, I was leaner. But in my junior year of college, I wasn't the same. I wasn't as strong. I wasn't lifting as much, but I was still PRing still doing good. What my body needed at that time., it worked. I was in 2017 shape and that's what I needed at that time. Trusting your body, your body will tell you. There are some times where I know like, "Let's get better. Let's get stronger. Let's get leaner." Your body will tell you. It definitely is to talk to yourself re-telling yourself, I'm not going to let these thoughts control me.
So what happened as you transitioned to college? You gained confidence. You found your own voice. How did those four years go for you? And during that time, what was your biggest challenge?
It was the end of my senior year and I'm going to be like a hundred percent honest I went through a breakup and the breakup was really hard for me. I had a fifth year, so the people that were in college with me, my best friends, they only had four years, so they were gone. So not only am I dealing with the breakup, two of my best friends are gone. They're physically not in Iowa with me anymore.
My support system was shaken. And I didn't know what to do. I didn't feel like I had anyone. I felt lonely. Especially after the breakup, I realized I needed to go to therapy, we talked about being a woman and how we take breakups and how it does affect us and it affects men, but it affects men differently.
As women and as a black woman, I think we always try to be so strong. I have a tendency to laugh when I'm sad to pretend like everything's okay. Being with the sadness, forces you to reflect. I went to therapy and there were a lot of, like I said, big transitions -- the break-up, two of my best friends leaving -- and, I felt alone and I had to find community and support, and therapy was the biggest thing.
And I remember even telling someone "Yeah, I'm in therapy. breakups are hard. And the group came up to me after, like, "I can't believe you're in therapy. We just thought you were great. You looked awesome." And I was just thinking to myself, it's just so funny how sometimes a lot of people have the perception of other people that, "Everything's great. Everything's dandy."
I didn't PR that whole season, up until USA's. That was when I was a little more calm and relaxed. But it definitely showed up on the track and I definitely remember telling them, "If I'm not good, me as a person, nothing else can be good." So, that's when I really took my mental health and my routine and my schedule, because at times like that you can slip into a bad routine of not caring and just not being fully there. My happiness and my life were showing up on the track.
I know some people say fake it till you make it. There are definitely some moments where you do just have to push through, but there are definitely some moments where you cannot fake it.
I'm so proud of you for doing what you did and seeing how that helped you on the track is pretty incredible Right now, if you look at some of the stats, 48% of college female athletes say they're facing anxiety or depression. When you reflect back on your experience, what advice would you give to girls today that are facing challenges about anxiety or depression or a breakup? What would you say to those girls today?
I can only speak from my perspective, breakups are hard, and that's just a normal part of it. I would say for that mental aspect of it, your mental psyche is going to be tested. It's that fine balance because as much as you want to be resilient and be strong and, you know, "Nothing can stop me. I'm strong," sometimes you can be stopped and it's okay to not be strong because being transparent and vulnerable is super hard.
I remember talking to the girls about my breakup, and I was just shaking the whole time I was talking about it and I didn't feel strong, I felt scared. But I remember after Telling my story and speaking on it is healing. It brings about some type of connection. I'm not the only one in this. So what would I say to them? The girls on your team -- find one or two, and be transparent. Be open, with them, whoever your group is, if it's your coach, having someone in your corner when those times hit because they are going to hit.
Your mental, just as much as the workouts are hard and your physical can be strained, your mental is going to be strained too. You're exercising your body and trying to eat right. You have to do the same for your mental because if I'm not okay, then nothing else is okay.
It's great advice. Find that one or two girls on your team and reach out to them. So, we go from body image in high school to confidence and mental health in college, and then you transitioned from Division I athletics to pro. You're now a sponsored Adidas athlete, you have won a world championship in the 200 meter and you're training for the Olympic team. What has been the hardest part about your transition from college to pro?
Finding myself as a woman now. You get to the professional realm and you realize very male-dominated. My coach and my other coach are males, but outside of that, agents and meet directors, they're all males.
Let's dive into that a little bit. Have you faced discrimination based off of your gender? Or has it been tough because you're not surrounded with any women in those leadership roles?
I feel like it's both. You face a pay gap and not receiving as much as your male counterparts. There's not a lot of transparency in track, and that's also frustrating as a woman. I haven't gotten that comfortable. It's just so weird at times.
Well, I can only say from the corporate world, but something to think about is if you can build relationships with your male counterparts, some of these male players are starting to support the female players. And I think that comradery will drive progress for women's sports.
Definitely, the more that you get into the professional realm, the more that you see the business side, not just track stuff. There's so much that goes into it.
What has been the most surprising thing, for you, as you transitioned from college to pro?
That it's not all about the times. You're thinking like "I ran this time, so this should happen," and it's not. It should in my eyes, be based off your talent. Everything should be, how good you are, where you're rank and stuff, all that. It's not; there are other factors not even just money, just, who wants to talk to you, who will talk to you versus who won't talk to you?
As a woman, you have to be aware of this person's motive, your motive, who they know how they know them. You have to be aware because men already come in the room and they call attention They already have it versus you, you're trying to get it. So if you walk into a room and you're caught off guard, you already lost. That's why I think it's so important, as women, to just talk. There are definitely conversations I've had with women when I first started out and we try to be slick with it and we don't want to be too overarching, but it's those little nuggets of truth that they give me.
As women, we're always afraid I don't want to feel bad. And you learn that there's a difference between being mean, and there's different a fact. If this is a pattern it's not being mean, it is what it is.
So you learn that you don't have to seem quote, unquote as mean all the time because it's not their life. You're the one that has to live with your decisions each and every day. I was just telling my therapist, anytime that I have betrayed myself, it never works in my favor.
Anytime that I know something I do the opposite, never works out. Your intuition is strong. So don't betray yourself.
As women, we really need to know that heading into those meetings
Thinking about the transitions from college to pro, it's no longer just sport that you're doing for school. It's now your profession. How have you approached the mental side now that you're performing at the top level?
I don't know about other sports, but track you're kind of by herself. so a lot of times people will see like, "Oh, you get to travel. You can just do this." The first time I traveled overseas was by myself. I had to figure out stuff by myself. I had to do everything by myself. So you have to build some type of community around you, and the community may not look the same for different athletes.
I know for me, my community is my friends and my family. I'm a Christian and I meet with the D group every Tuesday. My community looks like volunteering. I don't have my coach traveling with me only for some big meets. I don't have my trainer. I don't have my best friend. Like, it's just me. When you're building a craft, a new life, you have to build a new community around you and the community just looks different.
Community is so important. I think we all need to have different support systems. So, I do want to talk about how you have focused and been able to perform on the track, in high-pressure events, like the world championship. How do you show up and prepare physically and mentally for PRing at some of those really big events?
For me physically preparing looks like training obviously, but for example, last year, I didn't PR the whole year. I ran 22 nine, every single race up until Doha. I got to the first round at Doha. And like I said, I was PRing in practice, so it was frustrating, definitely. I remember getting to Doha and I'm in lane eight... you don't want to be in lane 1 or lane 8. I remember thinking like, "Gosh, I'm on the outside. I don't see anyone."
And I was like, "You know what? I'm going to run for my life." I want to make it to the next round, and like I said, I've been PRing and practice. So, physically preparing myself looks like doing well in practice, but trusting my body. I had faith in my coach in the workouts and I had trusted my body. In regards to mentally I'm very big on routine and I think that's just any athlete, any person, we like routine.
On race day or even race week, I like to be very calm. I like to have fun. I am not a very, rigid type of person. I like to have conversations when I'm warming up, let's laugh, and my coach knows that. I know that I like to journal. I like to read my Bible. I love to take a nap. A fast runner is a relaxed runner.
I love that comment. A fast runner is a relaxed runner. How do you build that?
Through journaling, through taking time to reflect, and reading my Bible, having a relationship with God, meditating, that's another big thing that I started implementing last year. And I think a lot of times people think like, what do you do?
Like, how do you meditate? There are definitely some apps and stuff. It doesn't have to be this grandiose thing.
Is that like five minutes in the morning? Is it planned?
I do all my stuff in the morning. If I have a hard workout, I try to visualize, the hard workout, but in regards to race though, I would visualize everything leading up to it.
Me sitting down, listening to music, warming up, and then, getting on the track. I even visualize when I'm on the track too. This one time, I was on the track and I remember, my eyes are closed. I'm walking in my lane and visualizing my race in my head. And I opened my eyes and a guy standing in front of me. He's like, well, "You can see it in your head. You can do it." That was just really powerful because I think he knew what I was doing. He knew that I was trying to calm myself down, see the race in my head, see how it's going to plan out. How important it is to see it, in my head, even though someone else may not see it,
The whole thing we're talking about today in this conversation is all the things you don't see, and they're all so important.
Definitely. Although you're not going to see what's in my head, but I'm going to see it and that is super important for the race.
If you're a younger girl and you haven't started visualizing yet, how do you start?
I would say, working into practice. Visualize you're taking a test, you breathing before and calming yourself down, and also what it looks like when you don't know the answers, what are you going to do? Even I do that when I'm racing, like What do I do when I misstep? What's next? How do I recover?
There are definitely plenty of tests I've taken where I didn't know the answer. You're like, "Oh my God, what would I do? Like I'm stuck. I don't know what to do." Training your brain to think, "Okay, I saw this in my head before. I have two options. Stay a minute or two, or go on to the next one." Doing that, your brain has already been there, and it knows what to do. I tell people a lot of times, it's a brain that's just messing with you, but your body knows. I used to go on walks every Sunday to take time to reflect. And I would just thank God that my body knows what to do in a certain situation at different times. Thank God my body tells me what to do. You put your hand in her fire, it's going to tell you it's hot. So listen to your body.
Well, you're talking about visualization and listening to your body and your mind it goes hand in hand with your emotional aspect of sport. You have to work it, you have to treat it like a muscle, just like your physical body. And I think that's the piece that often gets left off the table. I feel like the common thread is that had you started those things earlier, had you been a bit more aware of the importance of the emotional side to get rid of the stigma that's around it. It's good to be going to a therapist. It's good to be talking to people. whether that's your friend or a professional.
I appreciate you sharing and opening up, about your life and how it's affected you. And I'm excited to see your success in the coming years. We have two signature questions we ask everybody. What is one single piece of advice you would tell your younger self as a girl in sport?
Lean into your strength. As women, we don't want to be seen as strong and as strong emotionally. You are 10 times stronger and it is okay to be physically strong, just as much emotionally strong. Lean into that. Your intuition and your strength are powerful Don't be afraid of it. Don't hide from it.
What is one thing that you would like to see changed for the future of women's sports?
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I would like to see more women in positions of control. I just think as women, we are natural-born leaders and I feel that a lot of times people think, "Oh, they get emotional. They're nurturing." I used to feel bad about that. I used to feel like, "Oh, I have my emotions."
But the good thing about my emotions, though, is that I'm able to regulate them. I'm able to use them in a positive way. I'm able to set them aside, as you get older, you're able to do that. So I think as women we're able to see different perspectives. So having women in positions of power, leading, would affect a lot of things.
It's so important to have more companies out there in the sports industry that are led by women, and we're excited that you're part of ours. Thank you so much for spending your time today with Voice In Sport Podcast!
Yay! Thank you
Brittany, thank you so much for sharing such an honest perspective of the challenges that you faced during your transitions. I loved your advice about leaning into your intuition and celebrating your strengths, whether that strength is physical, emotional, or spiritual, all of those dimensions are so important in life and in sport to consider, especially when we're aiming to achieve our dreams.
She also reminded us to stop looking for validation from others, which can be super hard with social media, but it's so important to remember the most important validation that we need is actually inside of us.
Brittany is training to make the Olympic team for Tokyo 2021, and so are many of our visit league members! We know it's been a very challenging year for all of us. But forming a community can help us get through it all. And that's why we've built VIS to support each other. So if you are a female athlete, 13 to 22 years old, we'd love to have you join our community at voiceinsport.com.
When you join you'll gain access to amazing female athlete mentors, like Brittany, and so many others at the VIS league, you'll also have access to our exclusive content and the amazing tools to help us all advocate for change in women's sports. You can always find us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok at @voiceinsport.
And we hope to see you next week at the Voice In Sport podcast!
Host: Stef Strack
Producer: VIS Creator™ Anya Miller