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Episode #56

The Power of Role Models

with Ifeoma Onumonu

20 Oct, 2021 · Soccer

Ifeoma Onumonu, a professional soccer player for FC Gotham and a member of the Nigerian National Team shares her journey in sport and advocacy.

Transcript

Episode #56

Athlete: Ifeoma Onumonu

The power of role models in driving change.

(background music starts)

Stef

Today, our guest is Ifeoma Onumonu, a professional soccer player for Gotham FC and a member of the Nigerian National Team. In this episode, we unpack some of the lessons. Ify has learned surrounding injury and self-confidence in sport. She shares some of the challenges of being a black athlete in a predominantly white sport in the US and emphasizes the importance of role models.

She is a league mentor on the Voice in Sport platform and is a key driver behind our partnership with the Black women's Player collective to bring more visibility to incredible role models like herself in the sport of soccer. As a board member on the BWPC, Ify uses her voice to drive change and progress for the sport.

In this episode, she discusses the barriers in soccer that led to an exclusive environment in the sports industry. She also highlights the work she is doing with the other Black Women’s Player Collective members to increase exposure in soccer in black communities and explains her path to becoming an advocate. Welcome to the Voice in Sport podcast.

Ifeoma

I'm excited to be here.

(background music stops)

Stef

I love it. You were part of the advocacy team. You're also a board member of the black women's player collective, and you are an NWSL professional soccer player. So, it's going to be a great conversation today, learning about your journey, not just on the field, but also off the field and how you've advocated for change.

So, I'm so excited to kind of get into some of these conversations that you and I have been having off of live podcasting. So, let's start though with your background. You know, where did it all really start for you? I mean, you have in today's season and the 2021 season, you're one of the top goal scorer in the league, which is pretty incredible with seven goals. So where did it all start? Did you always know you were going to be a pro soccer player, or did you play other sports growing up?

Ifeoma

Yeah, I think growing up, I started playing soccer, I think at that time it was sort of the sport to play in the early 2000s. So yeah, I think, I have three brothers,. So I'm from California. I have three brothers. We all were kind of put into soccer at the same time. At the, when I was a, I think I was seven years old, my dad had decided not to put me on this team because he didn't like where we practiced. So I ended up waiting to like the spring and with my younger brother, who's like only like 11 months younger than me, like really Irish twins, which is like a fun fact that I like to mention sometimes.

We were put on the same team. And, we played together that spring and it was just kind of noticeable. I think that I was pretty good. Like, I had a mild understanding of the game at a young age and I was better than my brother. I'll tell you that. And, from there I kind of just progressed. So, like at 10 I sort of joined a more serious team.

So, it was like the teams you sign up for and then like the select teams. And so, I got put on the select team and then from there, I was kind of doing tournaments and, you know, I join a club. I was playing for Arsenal when I was younger. And, you know, we were traveling to different states to play.

That's kind of where, like we did east CNL and that kind of started you know, the move where it seemed like soccer could get me a scholarship to school. So then, like now my parents were incredibly on board with the whole thing. So then I, you know, continued that.

From being in club from high school I went to Cal and I think, you know, it was two fold, You know, not only was like the soccer, something I wanted to pursue in college, but also my education because I was interested in math and sciences. And so, Cal being a school that was, had a very long history of just the brilliance in the sciences definitely persuaded, you know, my, you know, swayed me to go there. I really enjoyed my education there. And, I will say that it wasn't always a thing to become a professional athlete. That definitely came later. But yeah, it's almost, I like, just because I, I still enjoyed the sport, it would have been a shame to stop. So, I think that's kind of where I continued then. Like here I am.

Stef

So, do you remember like those early years, like why you, why you were playing? And, has that changed today? When you think about why you're playing professionally?

Ifeoma

Definitely. I think when I was younger it was an escape and it was fun. So like, although I enjoyed school. I also liked to just be outside and run. And, it was a way I can hang out with my friends and it was a way to travel. So, I think for me, it was just the mode of where I sort of had fun.

It was just, just blatant fun. There was no thought to it. For me, there was no stress because there was nothing to stress about. Like, I'll go, I was garne. Accomplishments at a young age, It wasn't about that. It was just about hanging out with my friends and, you know, as I got older, obviously like now that I play professional or even in college, it became a little bit more serious.

So in order to, you know, when you, when you reach a certain part of your career like college or professional, your performance actually matters in that, that's how you continue to play. So, you have to play well in order to continue to do this. So yeah, I think the meaning did change after a while it became a lot more serious and you know, now it's my job.

So obviously there's so much more tied to it. It's like my career. So yeah, I mean, I still find it fun, but obviously there's a different element to it. As opposed to when I was, I was younger.

Stef

Well, we, you know, one of the reasons why we built the Voice in Sport platform and community is because girls drop out of sport around that age of like 13 and 14, and then there's another big dip in high school. And it sounds like you didn't really have that, that issue of like feeling stressed or wanting to stop.

But, a lot of young girls do drop out and they stop at that age group. What would you say to a young girl today that might be like faced with either the stress of sport or just maybe not really feeling like it's fun anymore but, you want to inspire her to like stay in the game. What would your advice be to her?

Ifeoma

I would say, that's difficult because I think growing, I think now there's so much more pressure with social media and I know that as a young woman, as a young girl, sports is sort of not a realm in which, you know, for whatever reason is seen as something that, you know, a girl or a woman should be doing for some reason.

And, I think social media kind of amplifies that message, unfortunately. I would say like do what makes you happy. I think at the end of the day I think you learn this as you get older, that it matters a little bit less what, you know, people think about you, I think at the end of the day only matters, but how you feel about yourself.

And, I think if your sport makes you happy and I think sport is incredibly important too it keeps you active. You know what I mean? Even that aspect, you know, do what makes you happy. And if you want to continue to play nothing and no matter what anyone says should stop you from doing that.

Stef

I love it. I think that's so important. You know, it's hard though. I think there there's, I think parents can sometimes be part of the problem, you know, if they put so much pressure on their kids to perform or to get to a scholarship, especially if you're part of some of these more elite leagues, like the youth leagues that are very elite, they're expensive to get in.

You know, if a girl is feeling like she has pressure, how do you delineate the difference between like I feel like so much pressure. It's like making me not want to love what I actually do love. Like, I actually love the sport, but how do you separate those two feelings? You know, do you remember back like maybe that happening to you as you were considering whether or not to go to college?

Ifeoma

Definitely. I think, you know, for me, I was lucky in some way, because I think my parents never, I think envisioned me to become a professional athlete. They never envisioned soccer to be lasting this long. They definitely didn't push me. So to speak, but they didn't stop me from doing it at the same time.

It was always about school, like as long as I did well in school nothing else really mattered. Like I could do what I want. Like if that kind of changed, like if I wasn't performing well in school, then, you know, soccer was kind of off the table for me. Apparently. Like that's what I was told. Like you gotta do well in, or like soccer was supposed to be like your school was the priority.

And then soccer came second. And now I see there's a trend of you know, a lot of elite youth teams coming up very, very expensive, especially soccer in this country is a pay to play model. You gotta pay in order to play in. Parents are shelling out loads of money to get their girls in this. And so, you know, I can see where the.

That idea of it becomes pressure because then, your parents are like, you know, I spent all this money to, get you the training that you need. And, you don't want to play anymore, or like you've wasted this. It's almost a feeling like you've wasted all this time or you wasted all this money.

So, that can be very, very difficult. I think. The biggest thing I would say is that I wouldn't want anyone to feel pressured to play a sport. You know what I mean? I think as long as it stayed fun for me, you should continue to play no matter what, you know, sort of this perceived sense of waste is. And honestly, I think that if you do not want to play anymore, you shouldn't have to, and it's okay to take a break.

I know for me, when I was in high school, I think. 15, I tore my ACL in that was hard, but it wasn't, I wasn't too sad about it. So then I didn't play high school soccer. I didn't play my freshman year. And, then my sophomore year, I was back and I played soccer. I played high school soccer and honestly, I didn't enjoy it.

And so, I was like, I'm just going to take a break. So I took a break my junior year and I said, I'm just going to do track. And I'm just not going to play high school soccer. Because at that time you couldn't do club in high school at the same time. So when clubs stopped, I was like, I'm just going to stop for a little bit. Cause I'm just not enjoying it right now. And, after my junior year obviously came my senior year and I came to think like, oh, I want to do soccer. 

I came to a point where I had to not necessarily choose, but I couldn't necessarily get away with not playing soccer for, you know, four months. So, I was like, you know, if I want to play soccer in college, I'm going to have to play high school soccer. And I think that break really allowed me just to figure out like what I truly loved to do. So, I'd say if anyone's ever struggling with sort of, do I even love this anymore? Take a break. You are young and you have time.

Stef

I love it. It's such a strong message. Like it's Okay to take a break and you'll find that joy again, like when it's right for you. And I think that's like, it's inspiring to see. Cause like now here you are like one of the leading goal scorers in like the league and you took a break in high school when most girls, a lot of girls are stressing out about whether or not they're going to get a scholarship.

So, you know, also like you can try another sport. There's so many amazing athletes too, that like start in one sport, go to another sport in college. So I think just that's really great to hear. I want to talk a little bit about the system. You know, you mentioned like one barrier to entry into the soccer world is a cost.

And, because of that cost, you know, it really prohibits a lot of young girls and boys to play the sport in the U S past really that recreational age. And so unfortunately sort of that system then just unfolds into sort of this knowledge, an inclusive environment across the sports industry. And I want to talk about what was that experience like for you? Because as you guys get to the league that you're at now, and even division one soccer that you were playing in college, there's about 7% of the female athletes that are black in both division one and in the league. So how do, how do we fundamentally, I guess, make it a more inclusive environment so that we see more young black girls continue their journey in soccer.

Ifeoma

I think, you know, your part of it is just, definitely like the, the pay to play model is definitely a big aspect of it. I think for me my one thing is that I think. I am lucky because my parents did have the resources to provide for me. But I do understand that that is not the reality of a lot of people.

And because that's not a reality, I think for the most part. Soccer is not marketed in the black community at all, because it's so, it's so expensive to play here. If you want to play it at a high level, it is expensive. So it's not, it's not marketed there. And I think, you know, because it's not marketed there, then a lot of girls, a lot of black women, or, you know, women of color, do not even know, you know, how much this sport can bring, because in fact, I think there are more.

DI scholarships for women in soccer than there are for boys, which a lot of people, I don't think no. Cause I know at Cal at the time, I think there were 14 full scholarships for girls and I think there were five between five and nine for the men. And that's because partially that men forego college as in, just go straight to the league.

But in seeing that I think. It's exposure, then there's lack of exposure in the black community because obviously if you can't afford it, there's no point of advertising it to you at the same time, which is a shame. But so, and then I think that is kind of. I think we're going to talk about it a little bit more later, but you know, my work with the BWPC is just bringing that exposure to, you know, under undervalue communities to see like, Hey, look at this sport.

And then on top of that, providing a space in where they can dabble with the sport and hopefully want to know more about the sport. And in the future provide, you know, scholarships of our own to provide to, you know, young women who want to continue to play past, you know the youth age. Yeah.

Stef

I love that. I love what you guys are doing there and trying to like really create an accessible point of entry to the sport in those communities with the mini pitches and all the work that you guys are doing. I think it's incredible. And I love the partnership we have with you guys with the Black Women's Player Collective, because that allows you to have access and the young girls to have access to role models who look like them.

And that's why I'm so proud about like your VIS League mentor on the platform and having that access to role models is just so powerful for young girls in sport, especially in sports where it's predominantly white. So I want to talk a little bit about like, who was your role model growing up and what does it mean now to you to mentor young girls in sport and be their role model?

Ifeoma

Yeah. I think even to your point, I think there was for a long time, a lack of, you know, Role models, black role models in soccer. So I think that partially attributed to the fact where I didn't know I was going to play professionally because quite frankly there was, it didn't seem like a viable option for me.

And so growing up, I think weirdly I looked to them to the men to be my role models.

I still like watched like Ronaldo. I watched Messi, you know, Colby Jones on LA Galaxy used to go love going to LA Galaxy Games. Like, those were kind of the people I look to in terms of like my game in soccer and, you know, part of me it's a little jealous of the girls today because they have, you know, black women and different, women to look up to in soccer, as opposed to, I feel like I didn't really have anyone. 

It's funny. I think we did this with some of the girls we work for within the mini pitch, ask them who their favorite player was. And, someone were like Crystal Dunn or like Glenn Williams. You know what I mean? Like even Alex Morgan, like, I didn't have that to say, like, I was like, Hmm, we may ask, like, who was your role model? Like. Ronaldo, I feel silly saying that. But I'm so happy that they're actually seeing, you know what I mean, women in sport and being like, those are my role models, as opposed to, you know, the little representation that existed when I was growing up.

Stef

Yeah. It's so amazing to see for our daughters to then the next generation that they get to see amazing women. Like you see you guys on TV a bit more now, and I know we're making progress there, which is great, but also just, you know, there, there is more focus on investing in the sport and investing in women's sports, which is really incredible to see.

So, I want to talk a little bit about your transition into college. You know, a lot of the girls, as part of our community are wondering, okay, how do I best get ready for college? And that transition from playing high school, even if it's a high school elite team, you know, going from that to a whole new whole new crew, you went to the university of California, Berkeley, Cal.

And so, you stayed in the same state, but it was a different environment for you. So can you talk about what you went through in that transition and just be super raw. What was the hardest part and like, what was something that was like, you were really excited about?

Ifeoma

I think I was excited about, like freedom. I think it's like, you go to college, you're like I'm free, but at the same time, it's scary. I remember My first week there, I had to do something with my medical insurance. And I was like, I have no idea what I'm doing. Like I had to go to like the medical clinic and I had to do this because like I had, it was like for soccer.

And one of the juniors like told me where it is. And in my mind, I'm thinking, oh, she's going to go take me down to where I need to go do all this stuff. Not knowing that like, Hey, you have to go by yourself. Like welcome, welcome to college. Like take care of yourself. So it was...

Stef

Welcome to independence. Yeah.

Ifeoma

I'm like silly little me, not thinking that like someone was going to take care of me, but like. I think that was the biggest thing is that you have to like, realize like, okay, now you have to like take care of yourself a little bit more than you did when you're at home. And your parents did everything for you and they made sure your cleats were in your bag.

And they made sure you had everything you needed and you had money in your pocket. Like that was like the biggest change for me. And just the, the shifts in your thinking, I think was a big thing for me, like outside of soccer. Some of the great experiences that I had in college and then some of the, like outside the classroom, outside of soccer, just meeting and talking to people. You just learn so much more than you do in the classroom.

I think. So in terms of soccer I don't know if I'm just weird, but I didn't have too big of a like shift, like, oh, I have to do this. I didn't really think about that. You know, I think it was my freshman year. I think that naivety kind of attributed to my success in a weird way, because I didn't think too much of it.

I just thought to myself, well, they want me here. So I'm just going to do what I did before. Like I'm not going to change anything. I think it wasn't till my sophomore years where things kind of changed for me. I kind of had a slump then where it was like things that I was doing before on the field weren't working.

And it was really eye-opening to me that, you know, More work had to be done. And I kind of just enlisted help in terms of like my coaches and just like outside help or, you know, my coach from club and just asked him, for honest feedback and honest opinion, I think that's all you can really do is get honest feedback, honest opinion, and like work towards whatever goal you do set for you.

Stef

Oh, I love that you went back to your old coach in high school and said like, hey, can you just like break it down for me now? Like, because maybe you'd be maybe slightly different years. Right? Slightly different willingness to listen. That's super interesting. I should have done that.

Well, you. and I have something in common too. We both got injured in college sports. And so I want to talk about how you dealt with that. Cause you know, injury can be tough, but especially when you, like, you feel like you've worked so hard to get to that level of college division one and then you get injured. So tell us about the injury that you faced and what would be your tips to overcoming a big injury. When you feel like you just got to like arriving.

Ifeoma

Yeah. I think. Like I said, my freshman year success sophomore year, just a mess, I would say. And then my junior year I was coming in pretty confident. I was like, you know, after that, that year, it, it changed things for me. And I went back to the drawing board and I just trained like, hell. And I was like, I'm going to come back better than ever.

This is going to be my year, like last game of pre season, worst injury I've ever had. So, I was in the box. I was dribbling on my left foot and I'm a righty. So I'm a little awkward on my left and a player comes from behind. And I think she like, almost comes like on top of me. So like pushing me in the back and my, my leg was on the ball in a weird way.

And so it kind of not to be too like graphic, but twist my leg in an awkward position. And I, I tear my IT banned my hamstring, my LCL, just off the bone. So it kinda like, so whatever connects, like my thigh to my leg, it just comes up. And then on top of that, I tore my ACL. So that just kinda came with it. So basically, the only thing holding my lead together is my MCL. If you know, knee anatomy.

Stef

Oh, yes. Unfortunately, I have torn my ACL. That's like one, you just tore like three.

Ifeoma

Yeah, I tore a lot of things. So I think after initially I'd done, like at that time I was pretty, so I, I did integrative biology in college, so I knew my anatomy a little bit, but I knew my anatomy well enough in right after it happened. Everyone's coming to me and saying you're you're okay. Like it's probably just a bone bruise. And, I was like I'll tell you It's not a bone bruise. When I got that diagnosis, it was probably one of the hardest things I've ever heard, or the hardest things. I knew I was going to have to go through.

My trainer and my coach came to my house and I had my teammates with me that I live with. And when my coach came, I was a little nervous. Cause I'm like, he's going to tell me I can never play again because why would he come to tell me the diagnosis? And immediately when they entered the room, I started bawling crying. Cause I'm thinking he's going to tell me, like, we will you everything we can for you. Like, you can still stay on the team, you know? But this is like the end. I literally thought that was going to be the conversation. But luckily like I think he was just there for support.

He was just there to offer extra support along with my, some of my teammates that I had lived with at the time, I was just being really dramatic in my head. Maybe. I don't know. But yeah, I think, you know, I had an excellent, amazing trainer at the time and an excellent, amazing surgeon too. But yeah, I think at the time, because I couldn't reasonably play, I think I was on crutches for eight weeks.

It was a pretty long recovery. I think it was like, obviously I was out for the rest of the season, plus on top of that I think it was like nine months. I was out for it. So it was a long time. And in that moment I definitely had to redirect my focus a little bit because it was hard.

I couldn't do, I think I was in chemistry. I was in a chemistry lab at the time. And I was on crutches and I can't carry the beakers around and chemicals and I'll, and it's slippery. And I'm like, I can't be in this class. So I had to like, change my classes around like, things like that. Like just like those little things like started to like really get to me and, you know, I was like, well, I mean, you can only go up from here.

So, you know, it was just focusing on school at that point and then my recovery. So. you know, it was just trying to be diligent about, you know, everything I could possibly do to get back stronger than where I was before in that meant, you know, coming to my rehab on time and taking that seriously.

I just had a really good support system around me to get me through that. And, you know, I did summer school, which I dunno why I just really enjoyed being at campus and continued my rehab even after the semester ended. And, my trainer was alongside me doing all this stuff and I was able to come back my senior year and, you know, play like nothing, nothing ever happened.

Stef

 Well, it's a, it's a big, it's a big injury. And especially to do it like, you know, in such a dramatic way. The fact that you came back from that is pretty incredible, and it sounds like you had a pretty good mindset going, going even through the recovery, but it can be sometimes hard to like, let your body heal, especially on those longer injuries and so important to do that. But it also gives you this time to like perfect other parts of your game. Did you work on like the mental side of your game at all? Or work with the sports psychologist during that time?

Ifeoma

We didn't really have access to a sports psychologist, but I wish we did. I think that would have been really helpful. I think For me, I'm able to self-regulate, but I know that's not the, it's not necessarily the reality of every athlete or every person. And I think, you know, therapy and psychology, all of that is incredibly important, especially in the realm of sports.

And it's unfortunate that I didn't have access to that. Cause that would have probably saved me a lot of crying. I did because it gets frustrating when. My first rehab session, I couldn't lift five pounds with my leg. You know what I mean? That is frustrating. And you have to be like, you know, luckily in a way I had gone through an injury my freshman year in high school.

So I knew that it's all going to come back, you know, but if it's your first injury, you're not so sure. You're, you're really not so sure. So yeah, it's just kind of. Whether it be reading books, which I wasn't really into at that time, but reading books getting insight from other athletes who have been through injuries, I had an ahead of teammate who had gone through like three ACL's, which was helpful.

And. She actually started taking me to yoga. So she just was like, we're going to yoga. It's really good for you. I think you're really gonna like it. And she was right. I did. And I did yoga with her for the time she was there. And I think that really, really helped me a lot was just that like meditation practice and just like the calming of my mind.

Stef

That's one of the biggest things that I'm so thankful for because when I was injured in high school, ACL injury, I started doing yoga and it's now stuck with me my whole life. And so it's one of those amazing practices to bring into your game before you're injured.

But sometimes it, it takes an injury to bring in some of those things, but actually the reason why some athletes can come out so much more ahead after an injury is because they start paying more attention to those things that they may, they weren't paying attention to before that mind body connection, the mental health part of sport.

So, yeah, it's really cool that, that, that has you're fully embracing in that now. And obviously it's working. So at what point, you know, at what point in, I guess in your career in college, did you discuss or start thinking about going pro at that point? You know, you come back to your senior year, did you always know you wanted to go pro did you think you'd be successful? And then tell us a little bit about that transition to pro life.

Ifeoma

So like my super senior year, I was like, this game has gotten too easy is what my thought was. Like, there was a point where I was not too easy in a way, but just like I wanted more, I wanted to be challenged more and that's when for me, I was just like, I think I want to play professionally.

I was like on the field. I can score not, not every team, but I was like, I can score when I want to, I can choose to play today and, you know, really show up today or I can choose to just like, kind of take the day off and like, take it easy for this game. And I'm like, that's such a shame.

Like that's such a shame. Like I want to feel that like, I, I need to compete. I want to compete still. And, that was like, okay, so I want more, I think I do want to go professionally. And so. I didn't really know what that meant. I didn't know if I was going to go overseas or anything cause not everyone gets drafted.

But, I did enter the draft. And luckily I did get drafted if I hadn't, I can't say what would have happened to be honest. But yeah, I think it was just that shift. Oh, I want more is why I went professional. And then I think because I got drafted and I entered a very competitive league, I thought to myself, okay, well, you know, I've arrived.

I had all this expectation of the things I was going to do in the league. I thought I was going to play my first year and stuff like that. And like glow and behold, you know, I'm sitting on the bench every single game.

Stef

How did that feel?

Ifeoma

It did not feel great because in my mind, I'm the best player there is at the same time, the coach is thinking something completely different and I can't control the way or what he thinks of me.

Unfortunately, I can't control my playing time. And I think that's one thing. Was a shift for me. Cause like, obviously in college I was this player, like I was playing a lot. I was starting every single game and then to professional and I'm not even looked at really, I'm not looked at as that, that go-to player. And it was weird. It didn't feel good. And, it made me second guess my own ability, unfortunately.

Stef

I'm sure that happens with a lot of transitions, not just high school. To college, but college to pro like you're describing. So did you ever, you know, in that moment, think about quitting and then, you know, what kept you going?

Ifeoma

So after my rookie season the team I was on Boston folded fortunately and I laugh about it now at the time I didn't find it as funny. So that team folded. So we had to do like a dispersal draft and I know like for some reason, I was so stressed out because ultimately I hadn't played my rookie season.

So I'm like, what if a team doesn't pick me up? Cause they haven't seen me in like a year. No, one's seen me play in a year. All the film I have is from college. Like when you can't get, go based on college anymore, like I have no sort of, you know, resume in the league. So like who's going to take me sort of thing.

So after I got taken by Portland, I cried because, oh my God, I'm going to get a second chance. You know, like I think I'm going to get a second chance and it felt really good. And I don't know, I just felt like there was like, kind of just like a release of anxiety, but at the same time, like lo and behold, I didn't know that I was in for a whole nother journey coming up.

And so my second year, I was, you know, not playing and there was a point where I was not even on the travel roster, I was not getting rostered. And then my third year, I, I talked about this recently, which I haven't like, I haven't told a lot of people, but I think there was a moment.

So at this time I'm reading a lot of like self-help books, you know? Not even sports specific ones. They're just like regular self-help books. So I started reading URA bad-ass I had finished that book and I think that was my third year in the league and one morning. So this is after I'm not traveling, I'm not on the roster. Like I'm not being rostered for games and I'm like, I don't know what's going on anymore. I'm starting to get scared because ultimately.

This league, you know, our contracts are semi guaranteed. So if you're not getting rostered, you're not playing games. There's a point where you could just be out of here. And I woke up one morning and I said, I'm going to go on a walk. We had an inner squad. And I said, I'm just going to go on a walk to clear my head.

Cause I was incredibly nervous for this inner squad for some reason it's during like pre-season. And I go, just think I'm just thinking to myself, like, what do I want. You know, do I still want to play? Like, who do you think you are? Like would have like what basically trying to separate, what have I been told about myself and what do I actually believe about myself?

And I kinda just went through like a mental list of like, okay, this is what I sort of think this is what I've been doing. Recently about myself. You know, you need to do this. Whether it be like, oh, you're not, you're not shooting enough. Or, you know, you're not good in this space. You're not good in the ball.

You need to work on your first touch. You're not this, you're not that you're, you're not good at this. And then what I actually believed in myself really believed about myself or what I felt was special about my game. And I said, do you actually want to stop playing? Or is it because you're starting to believe what people are saying about you?

And I said, I think I'm just starting to believe what people are staring to think about me. And so like, am I good enough? And I'm like, do you think you're good enough? So I'll talking to my head. Like I honestly do still think I'm good enough. I just don't think,I've been given a chance. And I said, okay, well now you're going into this inner squad game.

Like, what do you want to do? And I said, I just want to prove to myself that I am good enough and no matter what that means, like ultimately I didn't think any more that Portland was where I was supposed to be. It came to a point where. Before anything happened? I was like, I don't think this is a place where I'm going to succeed.

I don't think I'm giving, being given enough chances to prove how good I am. And so after that inner squad game, I, I played really well. I did, I play, I can say about myself. I played really well and then it was told to be like, I thought, oh, maybe I might travel this weekend because I think I played so well, comes up to me and he said, You might think you played really well.

And other people might tell you that you deserve to travel, but no one did anything bad enough to warrant them getting off the travel team. Not that I did anything, not that it was. So at this point like that for me solidified that it was nothing I could do anymore. It wasn't about me. It wasn't about me.

So it was nothing I could do in that space. And that was fine. The thing is like, After all that, I guess, work mental work I had done. I think it's set me up for this moment where I was like, okay, well, quite frankly, it's not about me. Cause I did everything I could do. I think I did. I did myself justice and I was happy and I was proud of myself.

And then the next morning I was waived. And I was at the same time as though I was upset, you know, had this been me two years ago, I would have been in my room crying, not knowing what to do, packing my stuff to go home. But instead, I was like, well, I need somewhere to go. I need somewhere to play. I need somewhere to prove.

Like, I, he wasn't, I don't think he was treating me adequately. I was like, I'm just trying to, trying to trade me, but who the hell, who knows what that even means? Didn't find anyone there. So I got put on like the discovery list. I called one of like I called someone I knew on another team. and I said, do you guys have room?

Like, do you think if I came here that I could potentially get a contract and they were like, yes, gave me the number to their GM was like, call him immediately. And just like, let him know what's going on. And then, from there, it was Taylor Smith. I'm going to give her a shout out because she's the one who truly helped me gave her the number to the GM and was like call him right now and tell him what's going on.

From there. I packed up most of my stuff and headed to straight up to Tacoma. In there, I, I kind of earned my contract, and so like at that time, like when I got released, they had gone on a travel trip. So. If this had again been me a year, two years ago, I probably would've been crying and distraught during this time, but I was training.

I was running, I was working. I, you know, I finally built up the courage to call my parents because I told my brother, but I was just like, I told them, I was like, I know I'm capable of so much more. And, this might look bleak to the outside, but I know that this wasn't the place where I was going to succeed.

Like I'm telling you to trust me. And like, I was like, can you tell me, I actually asked him to tell my parents. I was like, can you tell them that, I was waived, but I have a plan and I'm not going to stop. I was like, I'm not going to stop. Cause I don't think this is where my journey ends. And He did. It was my older brother.

 And and then I made my way to Tacoma. And so I think that's where things started to kind of, you know, work out for me a little bit. It, I got more opportunities. I got to show myself a little bit more and, you know, from there I got traided here, which again was not upset about because look at, look where I am and I'm so happy about, you know, the opportunities I've been given and you know, I think. In a way I've been working towards this for, you know, this is what my four, five years I've been in the league has been working up to. So yeah, it's just, it's been a journey.

Stef

Wow. What a, like a lot to unpack right there, because you were working at it and it was a journey. And, I want to kind of go back to something that you said, which was like, you didn't feel like you were given a chance at that team. And, that moment when, you know, you were putting in the work. So, why do you think that was, did you, can you look back now and see what it was? Because I feel that like a lot of young girls or even women in your same position, maybe at their teams right now might be feeling the same way.

Ifeoma

I think, you know, no matter what, there are, people are gonna do what they want to do. And I think in terms of coaches, there are hard decisions that need to be made. They can't honestly, unfortunately they can't give everyone an opportunity, especially in soccer. Only 11 people can play at a time.

And then, you know, being a professional, you can only make at the time three subs now, five subs, even that's not even a lot, you know, so. Not everyone can really get an opportunity, no matter how good you are, you know, and sometimes you have too many good players. And so now you're going to have to leave really good people, either off the roster or, you know, not on the field.

So I think for me, it came to a point where I was like, I can only control certain things and I can only control, you know, how hard I work. That's all I can control, you know, nothing else. Like not me not being on the field. And again, this was like a learning experience. Me not being on the field didn't mean I wasn't working hard.

 Like I can't control being on the field. I can't put myself on the field. Unfortunately. I think that's a realization that a lot of people have to make. You can't give yourself that promotion. You can't do it. Like you can work towards getting a promotion, but you can't give it to yourself.

And I thought, you know, I had to shift sort of that in my mind, I was just like, no, I'm not getting these opportunities. So maybe I need to go somewhere else where I'm going to be given that opportunity. It wasn't really an option in his head to put me on the field and I can't control what that is, how he thinks of me. And so I'm like, I need to go somewhere, work. The opportunity actually exists because ultimately it didn't exist there.

And just realizing like, you know, I could have stopped and you know what I mean, called that the end of my journey. But, I guess I chose not to. And I've given this a lot of thought this like this idea of like, it's just stopping. And as long as I keep going and trying the journey is not over. As long as I keep trying to dream, the moment I stopped, the journey is over. You know what I mean? I got cut and I could've been like, that's the end of my journey. It's not being on my journey. You know what I mean? I, my journey, as long as I keep going, it's still, my journey is still there. So that is, that's my choice as well, yeah.

Stef

love it. Advice, you know, for anybody who's, regardless of like what level you're at or where you're at. I mean, it's a process and we're all like work in process. I always believe our journey doesn't end. You know, I think we've got a lot to do accomplish in this world. And when one door closes, another one opens sounds super cliche, but it, but it is true.

What you just described is a perfect example. And, I love that, you know, people are telling you you're this you're that you're this. And you're like, wait a minute. What do I think I am like, I think that's one of the most powerful things about your story. And it's very inspiring because you know, confidence, it can be hard.

You get knocked down a lot in sport and in life and how you surround yourself is a big part, you know, of your success. So it's really cool. Okay, so fast forward and you've gotten now through three teams. So you're, you know, you're at Gotham city now. And you're also on the Nigerian national team. You get called to the Nigerian national team. So tell me about that experience and what that means to you, because both of your parents are from Nigeria.

Ifeoma

Yeah. I mean, it's amazing. I think, for a long time, like, there's no secret that I wanted, I had that dream of, reaching the U S national team, but I think, , there became a point where maybe that isn't maybe that isn't, where I belong in, I have the opportunity to play for Nigeria.

And again, both my parents are Nigerian. So so far it's been. Playing international soccer, I think is my dream. You know, that is like the pinnacle. I think everyone, maybe, maybe not everyone. I don't want to put everyone in that box, but you know, I think soccer, like you want to play international soccer.

That is like the top level. That's the top level. And then when I got that opportunity, I was so like thankful for it. And it felt just like, Just everything I was working for was just kind of falling into place, but I'm not going to lie. It does come with a little bit of stress as well. You know, it's always a learning experience for me.

So like although I'm reaching like these goals and they're coming, like that just comes with just like more expectation and that can, you know, breeds, self doubt. But, just like looking back at everything I've been through. I think it's sort of prepared me for this moment. And so it feels really good to be here and have the opportunity to play and, you know, definitely culturally different.

I think from what I have, I'm used to even, at club level or I know, you know, how they do it, the U S and definitely culturally different, but even that has been an amazing experience because it feels like I've gotten so much closer to, how my parents were brought up in culturally, what they experienced when they were younger so, yeah, it's been, you know, quite, quite crazy, but amazing at the same time.

StefYeah, it's very cool. What would you say to a young woman today who's like, considering going pro like considering sort of the pro-life, you know, cause unfortunately. Women are still not getting paid a great deal in the league and things are getting better, but it's still, the salary is pretty low. You're 27 and you just got a sponsorship with Adidas, which is incredible, but you didn't get it right out of college.

So let's like talk about the opportunity and what you weighed, because academics was really important to you all the way through high school, but also in college, you studied integrative biology in school and you're super passionate about these other areas. So did you ever think, well, maybe I should take the path of becoming a doctor and there's this true. You know, there's a true salary. There there's true path. So the girls that are trying to think about what do I do here?

What should they consider in making that decision?

Ifeoma

You know, I think I'm not going to naively say like money doesn't matter. Like it does, it does because you know, it matters. It definitely matters and

Stef

it matters and it's okay to say it matters.

Ifeoma

Yeah, it does. Exactly. I think, a lot of people, oh no, a lot of people, but like, they like to say like, oh, do what you're passionate about.

Like, you know, Money doesn't matter what I'm like. It does. It does, especially if you knew how much we get paid in the league, like you'd understand why it matters just a little bit. For me, when I entered the league, I think the minimum was like $16,000. And a lot of women were on the minimum. It was very, very bad.

Stef

That's your annual salary.

Ifeoma

And we didn't even get paid throughout the year. We got paid, like for only that portion that we were in season.

And that was only like six months. So yeah, it was, it was very bad and it is getting better. And I think, you know what I mean, as we continue to fight and have these conversations that kind of pushes forward. So I always want to make sure that, you know, no matter what you continue to fight and have this conversation. We need to keep talking about this and make sure they know that this is still not okay.

I'm going to continue to complain. Cause that's the only way we get things. Like a lot of the women in the league have to have second jobs because obviously the annual salary is not enough to support unless you're on the national team.

You know, you're not getting paid, you're not getting. Anything. So it was a moment for me and I think this comes from like what my parents, like my parents , weren't sure if they wanted me to play professionally because they knew we didn't get paid and it just kind of fed their fears of, I understand the fear came from the unknown.

Like, we don't know how you will survive on the salary. Like, you don't know how you're going to take care of yourself, you know, with making so little. So their fears are real because it was very little money. But for soccer, I, there's only there's only a small amount of time in which I can decide to play. So as long as I want to continue to play it, I knew that it had to be now, or it's not like I can just come back later.

Like it was like once I stopped it was done. So because I wanted to continue to play, I said to myself, what am I basically willing to compromise in order to do what I want to do? And I can always go back to school. The thing is I always have my mind. I always have my education. I can always go back to school if I want to.

You know what I mean? Like medicine is not off the table for me. I think, you know, when I'm done playing, it's still something I want to go back into, but right now, playing is. Something I can only do whilst I'm young. So in the, in that's what I chose to do. And I was like, and it makes me happy. So that's kind of what I weighed and yeah, and I, and again, I believe that I am, I have the ability in this game, so that is why I chose this and sort of forgoed any sort of financial, financial stability I probably would have had with a career that, you know,

Stef

Yeah, you did. You definitely did. And I mean, it's not like it's gotten that much better. I mean, right. The, the minimum salary for the 2021 season is $22,000 and the maximum is only 52,000. So I think, you know, it's an increase and it's gotten better, but you compare that to the men and the, in the MLS. So U.S. soccer, men's soccer, which isn't the best in the world. And, they're getting, you know, almost close to 400,000 for their average player.

Ifeoma

Yeah.

Stef

So, I mean, there's just a lot of work to be done. So I, it was this part of why you guys created the black women's players collective or was the focus mostly on like, how do we get more black girls in the sport, more black women in leadership roles?

Like, was this the pay part of it? Walk me back, I guess a little bit on like why you joined the board and why it was so important for you guys to come together and use your voice to drive change.

Ifeoma

Yeah, I think for the most part, it is supposed to be empowering and, you know, giving exposure to, in of women of color in, in sport, in soccer. So our main initiative is just to. Provide role models for young black girls. But on top of that, you know, going back to, you know, the fact that we don't get paid a lot of the things we want to do.

So like when we have clinics, we want to make sure that, you know, the athletes that we have working in these clinics are getting paid for their time. I think a lot of the times this league asks a lot of their athletes without providing any.

Stef

Compensation.

Ifeoma

Several times and I'm like, that's not okay. Like our time is valuable. Our images valuable, like you see on using the U.S. women's national team as a template, you see how valuable their image really is. And, you know, I think in some degree the NWSL is lacking in that. But we recognize that and we want to make sure that anyone who does any work for us.

Is getting compensated accordingly for doing that work. Like yes, what we're doing is important. You know what I mean? In, I believe in all our work, but at the same time, like it's not, it's not wrong to ask for compensation for the time you are spending. Cause it is hard work. It is hard work, having conversations, you know, it's hard work being a mentor.

It's hard work, you know, going out to the field and trying to inspire like thousands, you know, in social media, you know what I mean? Who knows hundreds of thousands of girls. So yeah, you, and part of it was to make sure that, you know, there was some sort of financially, support to supplement the little we make in the league.

Stef

That's right. That's why, when we were, we were working on our partnership with Voice in Sport and black women's players collective, we brought you guys on to be mentors to girls and to get paid while you're doing it right. And we've paid all of our mentors from day one at this, because we need to provide more income for.

Women in the sports industry period. Whether you're a player or you want to be an executive, like there's still a gap on the executive side for women and what they get paid. And there's a gap on the sponsorship side, and then there's a gap at the player level in between men and women. So we've got a lot of work to do, but you know, it's groups like yours, women, like you, that will help drive that change.

And that's why we're so excited to have you also part of our advocacy team. Let's talk a little bit about like, where does the passion for advocacy come from for you? You know, did you ever feel like your voice was never, or wasn't heard in certain situations when you were growing up through a predominantly white sport or did you find that you always had that voice and you were like one to be loud and extrovert and sort of like upfront about what you wanted? Like tell us a little bit about like, I guess you and advocacy and like, what does it mean to you?

Ifeoma

I would say for me, I definitely was not the loud one in the group. I am not an extrovert by any means. But it doesn't mean that I think some people, if you say you're introverted, that means you're shy. It's not necessarily that I'm shy. I think, you know, often I. Okay. Don't necessarily like, feel the need to be.

I don't feel the need to be the loudest person in the room. I really don't. You know, but I do think that now it's important. I think there was a, there's a point where I'm just like, I need to, I have this platform and I need to be using this platform to, to speak. For those who do not have the ability to, to have the reach that I have the ability to have.

So that's kind of where my, like I have all these thoughts and I have all these feelings, but I was always wanting to be like, yeah, well that's within me. Like, I don't feel the need to share that with anybody. Like, it's not important to me to make sure everyone knows what I think about a situation, but there comes a point where yeah, I think, you know, people do need to know.

What you think to a degree, especially if you have in, can have a positive impact on people's lives. So that's kind of why I, what advocacy means to me. It's just like, you know, not everyone has. Deep, like I'm a professional athlete and, you know, for some reason people want to listen to me. So, you know, as long as I have the ability to reach these people, I prefer it be someone like weirdly.

I prefer it. Be someone like me where I don't have any malice or hate in my heart to spread as opposed to, you know, giving the mic to somebody who, that's all that they want to, to spread. So yeah, I think. For me, that's why I decided to become an advocate

Stef

I love it. So how do you, how do we create a more inclusive and diverse environment in the soccer world. Like what do you think are some of the key things that need to change in order to see more leaders more young girls in sport? What are the areas that you think that still need a lot of work

Ifeoma

I would say right now, Would probably be just coaching for me. I think right now my, I, this is the first time in my career that I have had a female or a woman head coach. First time in my career, all through my youth career club calling. No just man, men, men, men, men, men, men, men white men too, you know,

Those have been my teachers and, , I think because of that, I think, there's a strange, I've talked about this a little bit before, but there's a strange power dynamic there is with, I think women and men, and I think, Especially in sport.

Obviously you have your head coach and there becomes a point where obviously when you get to like professional, you have a lot of experience underneath your belt. But you feel like because throughout your playing career, you've always had to just follow the rules and follow what he says, then, you know, you kind of get stuck in that sort of space, even though you're like, you know, I think I, at one point I had my head coach who was.

Younger than some of the players on the teens, like, they have a load of experience and I'm not saying that they should, butt heads with the coach, but they have valuable knowledge that could be utilized. But I often find that obvious, I think through just socialization in general and like this sort of hierarchy and this, you know, you get a lot of pushback.

I think, you know, as a woman, when you try to, sometimes suggest things you go out to push back and you're seeing like, it's not the same conversation of, well, he's just passionate. You get like, she's difficult to work with. You know what I mean? She's.

Stef

Or aggressive.

Ifeoma

Yes, definitely. And so,

Stef 

Yeah.

Ifeoma

Having, a head coach who's a woman has been different because I feel like now you feel, I just more comfortable with, you know, being in that space of being able to suggest things and talk, talk through things and talk about, you know, dynamics and not getting that pushback of you're trying to step on my toes type of thing that I tend to feel like I got from. Their male counterparts.

Stef

Isn't it interesting like power, power and safety, right? And it's like, once you start pushing that power dynamic, like as a woman with, or against a man there's immediately this tension and that power dynamic is just so important to kind of step back and see, right. Like understanding that context and saying, oh, wow, interesting.

That was the response I got from, from seeing it to this person said the same thing to that person, different response. And I think that understanding the context of which you're in. Whether you're talking about the team you're on the coaching staff, the general managers that are involved or in the workplace is one of the biggest lessons.

I feel like I've taken away from, you know, 15 years of the sports industry. And it's dangerous. Cause just like what you talked about before Ify is it might just be the situation that you're in. That's not right versus like, wait a minute. All my ideas are bad or I don't think I belong here.

And that's like the context part of it. Right. Being able to step back and say, oh, okay, there's a dynamic going on here. So what does that mean? You know, and it's, it's really hard to do that when you're a lot younger and you're in, you're younger and especially younger and pro-life, or just coming on to a team.

So what advice do you have for girls that are like trying to find their voice and they show up in a space where they don't really quite feel complete. To use their voice or they maybe tried once and they sorta got this pushback.

Ifeoma

Yeah. Oh man. It's tough because I think I struggled with that finding where and when, and especially when you are new, like where's the space to do that. Honestly, I think you look to. If we're talking about sports, for me, I look to my captain, you know, if I have a problem, I look to my captain like, Hey, can you sort of, you know, talk about this or talk to, the coach about this, or like, I've noticed this, like, just kind of trying to get people on your side.

 I feel like there's much more room for conversation there with, your teammate or your age mate, or, you know, someone who is in the same boat as you, as opposed to just going straight to the head, especially when it's very hard.

Stef

Yeah, you're right. You're right. Sometimes like that direct path, isn't always like the best path, right? That's that can be hard sometimes. I think for people, even myself, or like, like to move fast and like who are competitive and want to get stuff done and, and you know, I think that's a really, it's a really smart thing. It's not always linear, how things happen.

Ifeoma

Yeah. I think those that are. Are more open to like the direct path is they understand like that's the fastest way to get some things done. There are others who feel threatened by that. So it is those who you have to go around to get things down. Unfortunately.

Stef

Yeah. Wow. It's such good lessons. Okay. Well, when you take a step back iffy and you look at your journey and you know, it's incredible what you have accomplished and the things that you're continuing to do on the field, off the field. What advice do you have for girls about , sticking with their journey.

If they, if they ever feel like it's too rough, it's not going the way they wanted to, or they're, you know, they're having a tough time. Like, what is your single piece of advice that you would tell younger girls in.

Ifeoma

I think, you know, like I did in high school, you take a break, you take a break and you regroup. I think that is the best you take a breath. I think if there's anything that, I learned is that it is okay. To reassess. It is okay to just be like this isn't something I want to do right now.

Like this is something that I can just step away from at any point in time and then ask yourself the questions. Is this something I want to do? You know what I mean? Like in honestly, if it's not, I think that's okay. But I think it's always important to do what you think is best for you and have confidence in your decision, you know?

And, you can always come back, especially with. A lot of these, I feel like with the amount of pressure that there is right now in sport, you forget that you're young. I'm like, you're so young. You have time. I was just saying you have time, like nothing determined right now. There are people at the age of 27 who don't even know me.

We don't even know who they are right now. You know what I mean? Like I might say it a lot who I am, but like people go through different stages. As you get older, you're continually to grow and you change. You will change your mind when you're older and you will change. You will probably change your career and you are 15, and you're not sure if you want to do this anymore, take a break.

You know what I mean? Take that time for yourself, have fun with your friends. And then if you decide you want to do it, let's start to work. You know what I mean? Let's get back to work.

Stef

Such good advice. We'll okay. What do you say to a young black girl who feels like they don't belong in the sport of soccer?

Ifeoma

That's a hard one. I've been there. It's, it's difficult. I think, don't let anyone stop you from achieving what you want to achieve. I'm not going to lie and say, it's not hard because it is. But I think, if you look to those who support you just, you really have to find your, your crew. I think it can be very bleak when you're in a space where no one else looks like you.

But fortunately now I think hopefully with the BWPC, we are providing, role models that you can look to and be like, this is somewhere I belong. Like this is someone I can look up to, like they did it. I know I can achieve this.

Stef

Well, I think anybody can, can see that you have such passion for what you're for what you're doing. Then what you guys are working towards at the black women's players, collective is going to , have a huge impact. And I love that you guys are coming together doing the things you're doing.

And I love that you're part of Voice in Sport and you know, young girls can come and have a whole conversation with you about, about seeing themselves in sport. And I think that's so amazing to like what we've, what we've built together over there. I'd love to, to sort of wrap up the conversation but what is one thing, if you had to choose one, what is one thing you'd like to see changed for the future of women's sports?

Ifeoma

That's hard. Like one themed it's difficult. Cause I suppose there's so many things. For me. I need women to be paid more. I think we right now, particularly in interview sell, continue to treat this league like a charity, as opposed to something that can grow in actually have products.

And I think that needs to change immediately. Like women are putting their hearts and souls into this game and we deserve to be paid for such. we're not a charity, so like stop treating women's sports as charity, stop treating women's soccer as charity.

Stef

Absolutely. Absolutely. You have to invest, right. You have to invest in something to see it grow. And if you want a return on that investment, you have to put money in. So I think it's so important. I hope that we continue to see amazing companies step up to do that. And thank you for spending so much time today.

Just sharing your story and, and being so vulnerable about your experience, because I think what you shared today with your own inner dialogue is one, in which many of us go through at a certain point in our lives so easy, it was so great to have you.

Ifeoma

Yeah, so it was great to speak with you. Amazing.

(background music stops)

Stef

his episode of the Voice in Sport podcast was produced by vis creator, Rena Schwartz, a skier at Dartmouth college. Thank you for joining us today. You are doing such important work as a role model for young girls and as a board member at the BWPC. And thank you for sharing your wisdom with all of our community members to.

If he reminds us of the power that comes from focusing on what you believe in about yourself and not about what other people have told you about yourself today. She encouraged us to stop worrying about what is out of our control and instead attend to what we can do to make ourselves a better person and athlete.

You can gain access to incredible mentors like Ify and other black women player, collective players on Voice in Sport.com. When you sign up as a visible. You can also check out our partnership with the BWPC at bwplayercollective.org. 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're interested in joining our community at voiceandsport.com, you will have access to exclusive content mentorship from pro and collegiate athletes. Access to the top vis experts in sports, psychology, and nutrition, and of course, advocacy tools to drive change, check out voiceinsport.com to join us for free.

We hope you've enjoyed this episode and for similar content, please check out episode number 47. When I speak with professional soccer player and BWPC board member, Jasmine Spencer. See you next week on the Voice in Sport podcast.

Host: Stef Strack

Producer: VIS Creators™ Rena Schwartz

Ifeoma Onumonu, a professional soccer player for FC Gotham and a member of the Nigerian National Team shares her journey in sport and advocacy.