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Episode #07

From D1 to WNBA

with Alanna Smith

26 Jul, 2020 · Basketball

Alanna Smith, WNBA Player, describes her journey in sport as rocky, rewarding, and relentless. She shares the untold mental health struggles that she faced and how she overcame them with a strong support system, gratitude, and passion for the game.

Transcript

(background music starts)

Stef

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 Alanna Smith, a WNBA player for the Phoenix Mercury, a member of the Australian women’s national team, and an Olympic hopeful. Alanna grew up as a multi-sport athlete and gravitated towards soccer until her father convinced her to give basketball a try, and she fell in love with the game. Years later, she went on to play Division I basketball at Stanford, and upon graduating, she was drafted by the Phoenix Mercury. Today, Allana shares her inspiring untold stories of the mental health obstacles she faced in college which she overcame with support, gratitude, and passion for the game. Welcome, Alanna, to the Voice In Sport podcast. We are super excited to have you here with us today!

Alanna

Thanks for having me. I'm so excited to be here as well. 

(background music stops)

Stef

It's great to talk to you, even from afar. I know you're in Australia; I'm in Alaska. And, it's great to see somebody from that far away, make it all the way to the WNBA. So, let's start with your journey in sport. Tell us about what sports you played when you were growing up all the way to  what got you to the WNBA.

Alanna

I grew up in a sporting family. My dad and my uncle and my aunt all played professional basketball. So, I was surrounded by that and grew up in a gym and in a stadium, just watching them, but I didn't actually start off with basketball. I played tennis. I played soccer. I played a little bit of, I don't know if many Americans know this, but netball. In the end, soccer was one of my favorites sports that I played, but I had coaches coming to my soccer games and questioning why there was a girl who is two heads taller than everyone else running around on the field and not on a basketball court. 

So, my dad kind of convinced me to give basketball a go. And this was when I was around 12 or 13 years old, and I had played basketball before, but not really seriously.  I had played basketball on a team full of boys. I was the only girl, and I didn't like it because I never touched the ball; they never passed me the ball. So, I just kind of forgot about basketball and focused on soccer. But, my dad convinced me to give basketball a go. And, my first training sessions for club basketball, I showed up late, and everyone was doing two-ball dribbling. And, I looked at my dad, and it was just tears streaming down my face, and I was like, "Dad, I can't even dribble one ball." 

(laughs)

That was the start of my basketball career.

Stef

And, how old were you? 

Alanna

I was like 12. So, I actually started pretty late compared to  other kids, but I stuck to it for a year. My dad said, "Just give it a go for a year; So, I stuck to it for a year, and I think the thing that kept me in it was that I made some really, really good friends and had a really good friendship group and community with basketball in the club that I was playing at.

So, I just stuck with it, and then after that year, I  just took off. I improved really, really rapidly. So, in Australia, we have state teams, and each state plays against each other. So, I started making state teams. I started making my junior national team, and then I started getting a little bit of attention from schools overseas or colleges in America.  It all just went up really, really fast. And so, I had all these opportunities presented to me through basketball, and I started loving it. It became a passion, so I decided it was the sport for me. 

Stef

When did you stop playing soccer? 

Alanna

After the first year of basketball, I had to make the decision because it was hard to juggle both. Both  had a lot of time commitment delegated to them. So, it was a massive decision for me at the time as a 13 year old - soccer or basketball, - and what drew me more to basketball as well is that I could really connect with my dad. And, he was a massive mentor in the sport for me and a huge support, which I didn't have with soccer. So, that was another reason why I chose basketball, but in the end, I'm happy that I did choose basketball. I don't think I would have got very far with soccer, but you never know. 

Stef

Yeah. I wish there were more tall soccer players.

Alanna

Yeah. I think I would have been one of the very few 6'4' soccer players out there. You know, basketball stole my heart, and in the end, college was something that I decided I wanted to do. And then, I started reaching out to schools; schools were reaching out to me. The whole recruitment process was a little bit different for me because I'm in Australia. They didn't have access to being able to watch my games. I had to send them film,  and at the time I was very much focused on academics as well. So, I was trying to find a school that fit both academics and sport. And I think the first school that comes to anybody's mind is Stanford.  If you speak to any athlete that is at Stanford or has gone to Stanford, I guarantee you, they will say the reason they went there was because of the strength in sports and academics.

And so, Stanford was a dream school of mine, and they hadn't even reached out to me; they never recruited internationally. So, I was emailing Stanford probably three times a week for about three months before I got a response. Then, they had a look at my video and they're like, "Oh, okay, this girl can actually play." So, in the end, I managed to weasel my way into  an official visit at Stanford,  and then it was just about waiting for my application to see if it had been accepted or not 

When my application was accepted, which to be honest, I was very surprised by, I did not have the confidence in myself academically, I didn't think that I was going to get accepted into a top school like that, but when it was accepted, it was a no brainer.  Once they offered me a scholarship, it was immediately going to be Stanford for me. I did my four years at Stanford, some of the best and hardest years of my life. 

Then, last year when I graduated, I was drafted in the WNBA draft. I also was a part of the Australian national team; we're called the Opals. And, in 2018, we went to a World Cup, which was really cool, and we won a silver medal. We lost to USA in the final, unfortunately,  much to my dismay, because I've got a couple of USA players on the team, my teammates at Phoenix, and they love to remind me that we came second to them, but a silver metal is better than no metal. 

(laughs)

So, now I'm here. I'm  about to be in my second year of the WNBA. I'm an Olympic hopeful.  I know that was a kind of long version, but I promise you that is the short version because there's a lot that goes into it 

(laughs)

Stef

It's super inspiring to hear your story. I'm assuming that through that journey, it wasn't all just physically challenging, but it was also mentally challenging, especially coming from the outside. So, I wanted to talk a little bit about: What were the mental challenges that you faced along your journey in sport, and what would be your advice to other girls out there that are  trying to practice the mental side of the game?

Alanna

Definitely. Before I even went to Stanford, I struggled with injuries for years. I had knee surgery when I was 15. I had a stress fracture in my back when I was 16. So, that's two and a half years consecutively for me that were just gone, that I wasn't able to play sport, and those are crucial development years as well that I felt like I was missing out on. Then, just little injuries here and there, like my ankles were awful. I sprained them three or four times a month. 

So, injuries was the first mental battle for me, especially the serious ones resulting in surgery or   a year out. And it's in those moments where I found that having a support system is really crucial in helping you get through the tough times. And at that time, I was at home, so it was really easy; I had my family around me, I had my friends, and they helped me get through those injuries. 

But, the true test for me came when I went to college for the first time. I was the first international recruit; they had no other foreign players on their team. I was the only one, so I was kind of the guinea pig as well. They'd never had to deal with a foreign player, so everything was a first for them as well as the first for me. And so, at Stanford, what they do is they bring in their incoming freshmen in the summer before school starts just so they can get a feel of how school operates, they can create friendships with the team and the coaches, and get an idea of how life works as a college athlete before college actually starts.  It's like an orientation, which I think is awesome; it really, really helps the incoming freshmen. 

Unfortunately, I did not do that. I was playing for my junior national team and wasn't able to stay there in the summer, and I think that's one thing that made it really tough for me because everybody had already been there, made friends with the team, and so I came in with a new face to a team that had already formed these connections in the summer beforehand. So, I came in feeling a little bit on the outside, a little bit ostracized. Obviously, they weren't doing it intentionally, and they were lovely, lovely girls, and in the end, I became super close with it, but it just took me a little bit longer because I hadn't been there initially.

And, that was a struggle for me. I'm a very personable person; I'm outgoing. I rely on my friends a lot, and so not having that immediately around me while also going through a massive, significant change of moving countries, going back to school, we graduate school earlier than you guys, so I'd been out of high school for a year before I went to Stanford. So, going back to school was a massive shock, and then also taking on the college practices, the three hours a day every day, getting up to 6:00 AM, weights, and then going to class, and then going to practice.  

It was all just massively overwhelming, and I had come into college with the idea that I was going to be fine, that I was going to crush it, and that everything was going to be good. I was super excited, I felt like I was ready, and I just was not. And I just crashed and failed amazingly.

(laughs)

It was a first year for me, and it was tough. It was really, really tough, but what helped me get through was my support group and the people that  I loved and that I had already formed really good connections with -- so my family, a lot of friends back home, in the end I reached out to a sports psychologist as well, who really, really helped me process what I was going through. One of the important things was it wasn't about trying to ignore or trying to work past it. It was just processing what was happening and being more aware of it and kinder to yourself, because going to college is a big deal, and it is hard, and it's not just something that is going to be a breeze for people, and I think recognizing that was really important. And then, when I became a lot closer to my teammates, they helped me through, my coaches were helping me and learning with me as we were going along.

The main takeaways that I got from that period of time was being able to lean on others when I needed it and not being afraid to talk to people when I was struggling, whether that's through friends or coaches or teammates or a sports psych. During the really hard times, I'd also have a little gratitude journal; I would write just five things I was grateful for every day. And looking back through the journal, the hard days are when I'd write, I'm grateful for food, just like really basic stuff. Like I'm grateful for shoes. I don't know. 

(laughs)

It forces you to take the attention off of the negative stuff and put it onto the stuff that you're actually really privileged to have - having a roof over your head, being able to study at an institution, being able to play this sport that you love, and recognizing your friends and the things that make you happy. That was another thing that made me realize just how grateful I was to be in the position that I was in. 

Stef

That's amazing, and I love the idea of the journal. It's something that all of us as humans should do more, but definitely as female athletes, because the power of writing something down, whether it's a goal or a positive affirmation can really help you set your mind in the right direction. So, I think it's great. I used to do it a lot when I was younger and I feel like I need to go back to my younger self and be like, "remember when you did that; now, start doing that again!"

(laughs)

Alanna

Definitely. I still do it today, not as much as I did in college, but I still try and make the effort to do it two or three times during the week, because it's a reflection process as well, and I think it's really cool to also look back. Like I said, you could tell when you were having great days and you can tell when you're having bad days. 

(laughs)

Stef

It's so funny to look back. When I go to my house here in another week, I'll be able to see all my journals because my mom has kept everything and I'm going to go back, and I'm going to find something. I'll take a picture and send it to you.  

(laughs)

That's amazing. So, now that you've transitioned from that part of your journey, which was a tough one, a transition from high school to college,  what would you say about the transition from college to the WNBA?  What was that like, and is the level of play that much higher than Division I basketball? And how do you prepare yourself and stay mentally strong for that transition? 

Alanna

Going from college to pros is a huge step in a few different ways. One of those ways is that with college, you have a full four years at that school, whereas in pro basketball, it's very fleeting, and there's not a lot of job security, especially as a rookie coming into the league, first off. The League is small; there's 12 teams, 144 players, and it's unfortunate, but it makes it really, really competitive. And, a lot of players who deserve to be in the league are going to miss out and do miss out on playing in the WNBA. What that means is it makes it really competitive and players get cut and re-signed all the time. 

It's just a common thing that you have to get used to, but coming out of college and into the pros, that is something that's really hard to adjust to, that sense of insecurity in your position, especially as a rookie, which also ties into confidence in yourself as well. If you're not confident in yourself, that can eat away at all these other things, and then it starts to affect your play, and in the end, it'll affect your position in the league. It's just this cycle, and if you focus too much on it, you can psych yourself out. So, it's a massive transition to make and  one thing that I tried to focus on in my first year in the WNBA is just having that self-confidence and if I do get cut, there's always going to be another opportunity for me. Players go in and out of the league a lot, teams have different needs, and there'll always be another opportunity.

So trying to keep that mentality of  self-confidence like, "Hey, I'm here. I deserve to be here. It's a small league;  there's so many people that deserve to be here, so I'm just going to make the most of my opportunity while I am here." It's tough to maintain that confidence as well when you're not playing many minutes, so that was another thing that I had my first year as well. I wasn't playing very many minutes. Typically, people who have been in college and then go to the WNBA were their main players in college, were the best players on their team. And then you're going from playing 40 minutes, scoring the most points and getting the most rebounds or dishing out the most assists, whatever, into the pros and kind of being on the bottom rung.

And, that's not everybody's experience, but that was mine, and I think it's the common one, too. And it's a massive shock  it affects your self-confidence a lot, but I think I had a really, really good head coach at Phoenix, Sandy Brondello, and she's also the head coach of the Olympic team in Australia. So, we have a really good relationship, very open communication. And she's often said to me,  "Hey, you belong here. You're talented. We chose you for a reason. Don't stress. You're fine," which really helps me, especially hearing that from a head coach.

Another person that I had was my mentor in basketball that I've met along the way from playing. She's a little bit older than I am, has played in the WNBA, has played for the national team in Australia, has played overseas; so, she's done it all. And, we are really good friends, and she talks me through stuff, I can ask her a question, she gives me advice, and she's become someone that I've really, really relied on to help me through, especially during uncertain times, even this time right now being at home and my question of whether the league is going to go ahead or not with this season,  just being able to talk to people about it, like my head coach and like my mentor in basketball, has helped me wrap my head around it.

Just going back to the whole support, a group thing with my family and my really close friends, they've definitely helped with my transition from college to the pros, just being able to talk to them, "This is what you did. This is what you didn't do. This is how you can get better" kind of thing.  It's a work in progress. I'm only in my second year, and I'm still going through some similar things, but it's definitely improving. 

Stef

I think all of us have moments in our journey where we have self-doubt.  whether you're in the WNBA or you're still in your little league. 

(laughs)

What would you say to the girls out there that are facing self-doubt or a lack of confidence? What would be your message to them? 

Alanna

You've got to back yourself before anything, especially  when you get to the pros. It's a very individual environment. Everybody's playing to get their spot, and so, you have to be able to back yourself. And if you can build that confidence up early, it's going to help you so much in the long run, but  it's a growth process. You're not going to be able to have the best self-confidence immediately tomorrow. Give yourself time. Be kind to yourself. That's one thing that I've had to learn. I think as athletes,  we're perfectionists. We focus on when we make mistakes, and that can affect our play, it can affect that whole game. So being kind to yourself; people make mistakes. And it's about trying to move past it.  I've gone through this process a lot, but it's recognizing that you've made a mistake, you've done it, it's done, and then moving on. 

There's always going to be opportunities to grow and learn from those mistakes as well. And I think that's a really good process to go through in building confidence, and like I said, it doesn't happen overnight. It takes a long time, but if you go through that process, it will definitely help you. And in time to come, you'll look back and be like, "Yeah, like I made mistakes," but you can be okay with them. You learn from them, and you learn not to get too down from it. 

Stef

That's great advice. So, you've been through some challenging times of your own through these different transitions, and we know the stats out there for young female athletes. Unfortunately, there are a lot of dips where girls fall out of sport. So, did you, yourself, ever think about quitting,  and if so,  how did you pull yourself back into staying in sport? 

Alanna

Yeah, it happened really, really early on, going back to when I first started playing basketball, and I wasn't very good compared to my other teammates as well. I compared myself a lot to my teammates and that did not help. And I had these thoughts going through my mind, like, "Ah, why are you even trying? You may as well just give up" kind of thing. But at that time, I had a really big push from my dad just to give it a go for a year, just stick to it for a year, and if you don't want to do it after a year, you're welcome to try something else. So, I persisted through that first level of discomfort. And once I got through that and faced that fact that, "Okay, I'm not as good as my teammates, but I love my teammates. We're really good friends, and I don't want to miss out on seeing them, three times a week and being able to play with them so much fun." And that was my first experience of thinking about quitting. 

And, then it happened again when I first moved to college as well. My first year was a struggle, and I did not want to be there because I was struggling being so far from home, being in school, and then I wasn't performing well in games, in practice. It just felt like everything was going downhill for me, and that if I could just go home and, play it safe and not take the risk of playing basketball and the risk of failure, then I would be okay. And I think, talking to others and talking to my family and sports psych, like I think for me, what came out there was the fear of failure. And, that was one thing that was really, really channeling this idea of me quitting, and you know, that would not be a failure; it would just be me moving onto something else. 

But, facing that and being like, "Okay, I don't want to fail, and I feel like I am, and that's why I want to quit," made me realize I love basketball and I love playing and I loved playing before I went to college. And when I was in college, my first year was rough and it made me question that, but it wasn't the game of basketball that made me want to quit; it was the fact that I wasn't doing as well as I thought I was going to do. Being able to realize that and know that if I just pushed through this time,  basketball has opened so many doors for me. It's given me so many opportunities. I've made amazing friends. I got to study at Stanford. I just focused on the positives more so, and that pushed me through that period of wanting to quit, and I haven't had that feeling since. 

I probably will, again, at some point; you're  going to have highs and lows, and I'm definitely going to feel it again at some point,  but having those experiences in the past will help me realize the basis of why I'm wanting to quit and face that and get through it because like I said, basketball has given me so many opportunities. It's a passion. I love playing basketball. It's fun. I've met people. I've been able to be involved in things that I never would have been able to be involved in if I didn't do basketball. So, I'm glad that I didn't quit, and I'm glad that I'm sitting here today and I'm able to talk about it too. 

Stef

We all have those moments. So, it's very  comforting, I guess, just to hear somebody with your success, that you had those feelings, that you had that challenge and  how you worked through it. So, thank you for sharing that.

Alanna

No problem!

Stef

Is there one story during your journey in sport that is untold, that you want to share with the other female athletes out there?

Alanna

Mental health was a massive, massive battle for me my first two years of  college. It  got to the point where I was, I would definitely say experiencing anxiety and I had depression, and I felt really alone. And, that was what I was going through my first year of college and a little bit of my second year. And, what I've found is that the anxiety  and the depression stuff, it never really goes away;  you can get in those states again. So, going to a psychologist or sports psych has really been helpful for me.

But, I found my first year as well,  being by myself definitely did not help, and I got to so low a point that there were times when I was thinking about self-harming, and it was an absolute struggle. And so, I was going through these feelings and emotions as well as trying to juggle everything else, and from the outside, it looked like I was functioning pretty well. I was still going to class. I was still showing up to practice. I was still getting my homework done, but behind closed doors, that was a totally different story. And, the people that were really close to me  could tell. I said I was going through something really tough, and so luckily for me, I had people recognize that something was going on and   that it had to be addressed.

I pushed through that moment, but that is definitely one of the more in-detail  stories about my first year in college that I don't tell many people, but I think it's important to tell because mental health is real, and people may look like they're functioning and doing well, and  you think that they're fine that they're successful, they're moving forward, but you never truly know what someone is going through. I found that out, going through it personally, myself, and so I think about that a lot when I meet other athletes, and I know the struggles it is to be an athlete, especially a college athlete as well. I think there's a lot to juggle as a college athlete, and not many people think about that and the struggles you go through. So, being able to talk about it openly now, I think it's really important because it validates other people's experiences as well. 

Stef

Yeah, and it makes you feel like you're  not alone. The most recent study on this topic is that 48% of female college athletes report having depression or anxiety. 48% - yet  nobody talks about it, - and I think it's so important that we talk about these things so that you don't think you're crazy that you're going through them, and that you recognize that there's ways to get a support system and tools to help you through it. So, on that topic, looking back, what would be the two tools that you would give to these girls out here that might be facing these same  challenges today?

Alanna

I would say that gratitude journal was really a massive thing that I did and committing to it as well.  You could do it for like a few days and then forget about it for a couple of weeks, but actually committing to doing it. There's been studies behind the whole gratitude journal as well because I studied psychology in school, which, I don't know if that helped or hindered me to be honest. 

(laughs)

I remember reading a study about the gratitude journal and how they've found the results. It actually improved happiness, and so I was like, "Okay, I'll give it a go see how it is." And, it definitely helped. Absolutely.  Like I said, it makes you shift your focus from the negative to the positive, so I would a hundred percent recommend the gratitude journal. 

And, then my second thing is, I feel like during that time I felt really alone and that I didn't have anyone, but  what I was doing was kind of shutting myself off from other people. So, I think really, really making an effort to talk to someone that you obviously trust and that's close to you, but talking to someone about it, and just opening up about it. It's not something to be ashamed of. It's not something that you should keep to yourself. You definitely should talk to people about it and it's only going to help you. And if they can't help you, they can help you find resources that will help you as well. 

Stef

Those are both great tools to tell the other girls out there, so thank you for sharing that.

Alanna

I think it's important to use those and find others ways that work for you as well. 

Stef

Awesome. What would be three words that would describe your journey as a female athlete in sport? 

Alanna

The first word that comes to mind is, it's rocky. It's not always gonna be smooth sailing. So, my experience has been rocky, but definitely rewarding and relentless. I've faced obstacles, faced challenges, but I just pushed through and stuck to it relentlessly. So, I've got the three Rs: rocky, rewarding, and relentless. 

(laughs)

Stef

Love it. Nice alliteration!

Alanna

Thank you!

Stef

I think it's really important because a lot of what we're building at Voice In Sport is trying to keep girls in sport, and the reason is I truly believe that the longer you stay in sport, the more power you're going to get to do, not just great things on the court, but great things off the court. So, as you reflect on your own self, what do you think is the superpower that you have gained so far from sport, and how are you going to use that superpower to do something positive outside of sport? 

Alanna

When I think about what I've gained from sport and how I've used it to drive something positive outside of sport, I think that the platform itself is a superpower for me. I've got a lot of eyes on me. Basketball is a popular sport; a lot of people watch it. Even as just a sportsperson in general, you've got more eyes on you than a regular person does, which you can use in whichever way you see fit. For me, I've really liked to use my platform in a positive way because I've got this really unique opportunity to give back with the platform that I have through sport. It was even something that I was really, really conscious of in college.

I remember my senior year, I took an anti-sex-trafficking class, and I was talking about how awareness was their biggest problem, that just not that many people knew about it. And I was like, "We have thousands of people who come to our college games. Why don't we have anti-sex-trafficking awareness night at one of our games? That would be perfect just to raise awareness for it." And, I think that was one of the first really significant steps that I had taken in using my platform for really good cause. And, that was something that made me feel really good, and others wanted to help out. And I was like, "Wow, I could do this in college. Imagine what I could do as a professional athlete as well." So, I think that idea of having a platform and using it for the community and giving back to the community is definitely a superpower that I've gained from sport.

Stef

Thank you for using that superpower to do good. So, let's wrap up our  conversation with one piece of advice that you would give to all the girls out there in sport.

(background music starts) 

Alanna

Having confidence in the face of failure is  the advice I would give to younger girls, and if I could, my younger self, and being comfortable in failure as well.  Like I said, everybody makes mistakes, everybody fails and being comfortable in that  space will only help you with the long run. And, like I said earlier, it's not going to be something that just develops overnight but taking steps towards that is something that I'm still doing, but I've found has really, really helped me.

Stef

I love all the advice that you have given us and really appreciate you joining us

Alanna

Yeah, no problem! I'm so happy to give it.   

Stef

Thank you Alanna for joining us today. WE are inspired by your openness to discuss and reflect on your untold stories battling depression and anxiety. Mental Health struggles in college are so often hidden and we are here to bring more visibility to this very real and important part of our journey. You can follow Alanna on Instagram @alannas96 and on Twitter @allanasmith96. Please subscribe to the Voice in Sport Podcast and give us a rating. You can follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok @voiceinsport and if you are interested in advocating for female athletes check out voiceinsport.com and voiceinsporfoundation.org.

Host: Stef Strack

Producer: VIS Creator™ Anya Miller

Alanna Smith, WNBA Player, describes her journey in sport as rocky, rewarding, and relentless. She shares the untold mental health struggles that she faced and how she overcame them with a strong support system, gratitude, and passion for the game.