More Than Your Sport
with Betsy Brandon
01 Oct, 2020 · Soccer
Betsy Brandon, Pro Soccer Player, sheds light on confidence, body image, and overcoming physical and mental battles with an objective mindset and faith. She reminds us that our worth is not defined by what we do, but rather by who we are as people.
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Welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast. I'm your host, Stef Strack, the founder of Voice In Sport. As an athlete, professional, and mom, I have spent the last 20 years advocating for women and innovating across the sports industry. Now, I want to bring more visibility to female athletes, and elevate their voice. At Voice In Sport, we share untold stories from female athletes to inspire us all to keep playing and change more than just the game.
Today our guest is Betsy Brandon, a professional soccer player for the FTC Női Lab-dar-úgás, and a former Division 1 student-athlete at the University of Virginia. Betsy is from Littleton, Colorado, where she grew up playing multiple sports until she narrowed her focus to club soccer, and even had the opportunity to represent the U.S. on several youth national teams. Today, she shares with us her journey in sport, and candidly speaks about confidence, body image, and overcoming mental health struggles with a positive yet realistic mindset. Betsy provides amazing advice to female athletes transitioning to the collegiate levels, and emphasizes the importance of supporting and valuing our teammates, both on and off the field. She reminds us to approach challenges both objectively and that our worth is not defined by what we o, but rather by who we are as people. Betsy, welcome to the Voice in Sport podcast.
Betsy: Thank you so much. I'm excited to be here.
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It's an honor to have a professional soccer player, and super exciting to have somebody from Colorado join us. Let's start with your journey in sport. What sports did you play growing up, and how did you decide on soccer as your key sport?
Growing up, I played soccer from the beginning, and softball and basketball. Then I got into volleyball a little bit later because both my older sisters played volleyball. I can't even remember the earliest times of playing soccer, but my dad always tells me that when you're like five years old and it's like bunch ball, you were the only one who was kicking the ball and everyone was just kind of going in clumps, and you were on a mission. And at one point, we had to tell you to stop scoring goals and maybe pass them. And so that's just so funny because I used to score a lot of goals. It's changed a little bit. I play more of a holding mid now. So, I don't really do that. That is my earliest memory, even though I don't really remember that, but my dad telling me that.
I really loved sports. I played with the same people within the community. Ended up deciding what I wanted, at around 10, when you go competitive in soccer, you kind of go competitive in softball and volleyball. And basketball was always something on the side that I played with my soccer teammates, so that could always happen. Again wasn't something that I was particularly gifted in, but I was athletic enough where we could just beat teams athletically and score layups. None of us could shoot (laughing).
But I decided that softball was the one I'd probably cut first. Just based on loving the people in the other ones, and my sisters playing volleyball and I loved playing with them. I went competitive in soccer and volleyball. And I remember when I was playing competitive club volleyball and soccer, I was in fifth grade, my mom was driving me everywhere and I think it was madness. She was trying to drive all these kids around playing sports and I realized it was probably not going to be sustainable. So, I stopped playing volleyball after that year. I ended up having to make up practices and I'd miss them for soccer. And that was way too hard (laughs). So I was like, I can't do this.
My most salient memories are just being at soccer tournaments with my friends and having played with the same girls for so long. It just seems like I succeeded most. It was the easiest one for me, because it was fun and I was good at it. And in soccer, there are youth national team camps that you can go to. And so when people start telling you you're good and you're like, oh, well, maybe I should keep doing these things. So played basketball in seventh grade and then volleyball in ninth grade for my school and then decided I really needed to stick to soccer. And if I was going to commit to it, I needed to commit to it then.
So it was in high school that you committed to one single sport.
Technically, I would say I made up my mind in probably sixth grade, but I played more sports. I was frustrated playing the sports because I knew I could be better at them if I played them all the time, but I didn't. And so that was one thing I told myself, I can't keep playing the sport. I get too frustrated. In volleyball, it's such a mental sport, and I played libero because I'm not tall enough to be a hitter. And they'd hit the ball at me. And when you shank a ball as the Lobero, they'd just keep hitting you. I get so frustrated because I'm like, if I practiced enough, I'd probably be able to return this serve, but I don't, because I'm always at soccer. It was always going to be soccer, but it was “Okay, Betsy you gotta let go. They're frustrating and you don't have time.”
When you decided on soccer and you were going through your journey in high school, what do you think prepared you the best to getting recruited at one of the top universities in the U.S.?
I always am really grateful. And this was really no one's choice, but where I was in Colorado, and the club I ended up at just based on where I was located. Colorado Rush has everything to do with the player I am today, the way I play. I'm so grateful for the coaches I had there, who believed in me and had such a passion for the game. It was actually very good for the style of play. I'm much more of a technical thinking player than I am like athletic and strong and physical, and the way they played at the club, it really valued passing the ball and creativity and thinking, thinking the game, because there are many ways you can play the game of soccer. There are many ways you can get the ball in the back of the net, but one where you play through the midfield and you try and foster creativity... That was exactly how I was as a player. And I thank God for that because no one chose for me to be there. Obviously my parents were in Colorado, but you wouldn't have ever known that that was a place where it would be great for soccer, and so many good soccer players come out of Colorado, and it’s awesome to think that I grew up playing some of those players or playing with some of those players.
So, my club soccer experience made the biggest impact, and the people who invested in developing me as a player, and my teammates around me. That is why I ended up choosing to play club over high school. I knew it was going to be the best for my development. And I think that should be up to the player because when it's up to the person who's actually doing it, you're much more likely to be satisfied. And so I was thankful that my parents let me make that decision. And though it was a hard one- I was bummed I couldn't represent my school- it just felt right for my goals as a player.
As female athletes, we are driven and we're ambitious. And the longer you play sport, the more power you get. You kind of want to do it all. But it's so important to learn how to balance. Let's talk about how you faced your journey heading into college. We know that that's a pretty big transition from high school to college, and everybody faces adversity during those times. And one of those things can be around mental health, and there are some pretty staggering stats out there right now-- 48% of female athletes in college are facing anxiety or depression. So it's true. It's out there. That's almost half the girls.
That's a big number.
It's a big number, but nobody talks about it. I'm so thankful to have you here today to talk about it. Tell us what happened for you. What was your journey transitioning into college, and now that you look back, what advice would you give to the younger girls?
Absolutely. Transitioning to college is the first time in my life where I've been away from my family for an extended period of time. That was probably the biggest and first challenge I felt once I got there, leaving the people I've grown up with, and my biggest support system who's been at all of my games. I mean, everyone experiences this. It's a shock to the system. My family shows this unconditional support and love and passion for my career in soccer. And being alone, I think loneliness is the hardest feeling of my first year in college. You leave friends that you've known forever, teammates I'd played with for so long. And you get used to playing with these players. You have a comfort around these players. And my family, and I was in a relationship at the time- it was just a lot of change.
When I was being recruited to college, I didn't even think about whether I would want to stay close to home. Virginia is pretty far from Colorado and not only that, but Charlottesville is a pretty small town. And so there are no direct flights from Charlottesville to Denver. And that was a little bit of a wake up call when I got there. I didn't realize how far it really felt until actually being there. And we actually got there in the summer for preseason training, and when you're kind of alone on a campus, luckily you have your teammates who are built in friends, but that doesn't mean you're best friends immediately. You have to get to know these people and in one sense, you're like, okay, I have people to be around. I have people to do things with, but these people aren't like me and they're not like the people I knew and they come from a different place in the U.S.
And these all sound like obvious things to me now, but when I had gotten there, it was just like, this is weird. I had seen my sisters go through college and people don't talk about how hard the journey is, the transitioning. But college was probably my hardest transition, because it was the first big one. And I didn't feel like I had been prepared for it, I guess. I would say, first of all, you're not the only one in your situation. This newness is a good new, you just haven't gotten to know it yet. It's going to be okay, and you just have to endure. There are times in your life, where you have left something so good, so it's easy to be like, this is familiar and this is good, and I just want to retreat. I just want to go back. But you're not giving yourself the chance to experience something amazing. And so knowing the amazing experience I had, the incredible people I met, the lasting relationships on the soccer team but even with my coaches, with professors, with people in the community. And if someone could have just said, this is going to be hard, but you aren't alone and it will also be worth it. That would have been helpful.
I really believe that you learn when you are in uncomfortable situations. When you are feeling uncomfortable or you're pushing yourself, you are growing. And I think as athletes, we understand that because we're always pushing ourselves physically in our sports, but where I think it's hard is when you're heading into a big transition like that, and you're in your first year in college and, you know okay, I'm going through a new experience. This is all change. And maybe you have the mindset and the maturity to say, and I'm going to grow from this, et cetera. But it truly is a fact that a lot of girls are anxious and depressed. So what can we do to ease that anxiety?
I think we desire to be known fully, and loved despite being known fully. And when you don't even have that sense that people actually know who you are and can appreciate that, it's no one's fault because you have to make that transition. But I know that if someone had just been like, Hey, do you want to get coffee? Or do you want to come hang out? There's something so special about that. And it makes you feel at home, even when you don't know the person. I think we get lost. It's such a default, you get lost in your own life. So I have a lot of things going on, I'm stressed with school, I'm worried about the season, practice is hard, I'm tired. There are so many valid reasons to not look outside of yourself and say, who needs me? And if I could tell anyone, what would have made a difference is someone caring a little bit more. And it's funny because that's not to say people weren't good people on the team and weren't caring. It's just that willingness to take a step outside of yourself and say, where was I? You're so quick to forget where you were and how hard it was. And I was like, I'm never going to forget how difficult it was, and I will always open myself up just to make you feel comfortable. As an upperclassmen, it's so much easier for me to look like a fool and maybe be awkward and be like, Hey, do you want to go and get coffee or something then for her to be like, Hey, i'm having a hard time, would you mind? That's just hard. That's hard for people. And I know my first year, I wouldn't do it. So, to all the athletes who are in college, don't try and put people through what you went through, try and make it better, because at the very minimum you want your team to do well. And your team will be better if you have players who feel comfortable and valued and known, and the quicker you can do that, the quicker you guys get off and running, and it just helps. It makes such a difference.
It's very inspiring to hear you speak about your experiences like that, because not everybody has the awareness, even in college. They might go through their whole four years and actually be uncomfortable the whole time. But for you to have a challenge in your first year and then move to your second or third year, and be able to go back and be like, I'm going to do things differently for the other girls that are coming in- It says a lot about you, obviously, Betsy, but it's great advice to anybody. And thinking about the sports side, just like another trainer, you have weight lifting that you're gonna learn when you get to college, and that's going to be a whole new thing. And you have the mental side and that's going to be a whole new thing. So why is it that one is okay? And the other isn't. (Betsy: "Exactly") That's why we're doing this podcast.
Also, with mental health and sports psychologist, I was just kind of like, I don't need that, I'm not that serious. And then when I got to my senior year and maybe struggled a little bit more with anxiety, I got to a point where I was like, Betsy, you can't do this alone. You need someone who doesn't know you. I have amazing friends around me and people who cared, but I needed someone who wasn't going to worry about me and who would just listen. And when I went to the sports psychologist, I was like, I should have just been going, even if I didn't have big problems. You can go just to work through: How do you perform better? How can I improve my mental game and my endurance and my pregame set up, to how to best perform? There are so many ways you can use that and that resource is free to you. There is, without a doubt, a stigma around mental health. Luckily that's, I think, becoming less, but even the step further of seeing someone and getting help. Help doesn't mean I'm desperate, I need help. It could mean that, but it could also just mean I need help dealing with this small thing. I could go once and that once would be enough or I could go weekly. It doesn't matter. But that resource is available to you, and you should never shy away from using it if you need it.
Let's talk about confidence. What would you say to the girls out there that are having these same conversations?
I would say I'm a pretty confident person and not in the way that I feel like I can tackle everything, but I just feel pretty secure. My faith drives a lot of that. The belief that God's Will will prevail, and I am going to endure hardship and life, it's going to just really tear me down sometimes. But knowing that I will make it because there's something greater, and there's purpose within the pain. That helps me in life. And it's been harder for me within sport because as an athlete, you can't make it to a high level without a competitive drive. I firmly believe there's no way you are not a competitive person. It's hard to make it because you have to have this will to fight and to win. I asked my roommate do you think you can find joy in your sport and also be competitive, but not be too competitive, not care too much about your performance because with a competitive drive comes this desire to want to do well and to perform well. And the question is, do you think you could ever not care about how you're doing? And I think that would solve problems in some ways for me. I care too much about the bad things, but on the other hand, it's like, if you didn't care at all, you wouldn't even care about the good things. So I value you asking about confidence, because as a professional soccer player, I do not have the answers.
And you'd think maybe as you got to this level, you would say, this is how you be confident, and this is how you do it. But I am happy to share that because you don't need to feel lesser or you don't need to feel embarrassed telling yourself that you are where you are for a reason, you've earned this spot on the team, especially professionally. I am just in my second year and there are fantastic players around me, which is awesome, but it can also be really defeating. Last year, I didn't even make the roster most weeks.And I was just like, I'm thankful to have a contract. I'm thankful to even be here. And so in one breath, I actually had so much gratitude, but I was also like I want to be playing. I care about that too.
And it is so hard not to soar too high when you have confidence or go too low. Personally, why I struggle so much with confidence is because I think I've always looked outward for it. You look to coaches, mostly because they're the ones who make the decisions about you. You look to your teammates, do I have the respect of my teammates? Do people think I'm good? In college, you look to the fans. You look to how much media attention do I get? The awards. Am I best 11? Even into the draft, am I gonna get drafted? Am I a draft prospect? Whatever that may be. I had to tell myself, you have to know that you have value, because you're you. And if you let the people around you be the ones to dictate your confidence, you are going to have a false sense of confidence. You're either going to think really low of yourself or you're going to be like way up here and the tough part about it, is that one second you're here and like, literally you're back down here right after that.
I wanted to share this quote-- one of my old coaches shared this with me the other day, it says, “If they praise you, show up and do the work. If they criticize you, show up and do the work. If no one even notices you, just show up and do the work. Just keeps showing up, doing the work, and leading the way.” And for some reason, when I read that, I had this flip switch and this was only two weeks ago. But if they praise you, if they criticize you, remember that it's just one voice. And so I encourage, especially younger girls, stop looking to your left and your right and look within. Ground yourself in the fact that you have intrinsic value-- as a player, but also more importantly as a person. You are more than your success and your failure. And when you're a competitive athlete, it's hard to believe that. You want to just show up and do the work, and don't soar so high and don't sink so low, based on your performance or based on what someone is saying about you.
And check yourself a little bit, because if you're up and down and having a roller coaster of confidence or how you're feeling about yourself, check that you're not relying on other people to give you that validation, but you're actually looking inside to check to see what you're saying about yourself, to yourself. There are a hundred voices out there, and some of them are going to be good and some of them are going to be bad and some of them might not even be true.
What is your voice?
First of all, I don't like the word failure. Failure has such a negative connotation. And so, I like to say I fell short today, or I didn't do exactly as well as I wanted to. But something that has helped me gain more power over my opinion of myself is looking at myself as a player objectively versus subjectively. Because when I speak subjectively of myself, it is like, you were so bad today, like you should quit. The amount of times I have told myself you're a bad soccer player- too many, way too many. A year or two ago I told myself I'd never say that again because the more you think things, the more you start to believe them. And then say someone happens to yell at your practice or whatever, something small, but that triggers you. And then you start snowballing and you start really believing, intrinsically, that you are not good enough. So it becomes, I had a bad pass, to I was awful at practice today, I'm not a good soccer player, to I am not a good enough person and I will never be good enough. And that sounds crazy, but that has happened to me and it has happened like that, but it's also happened slowly.
There are days where you just don't feel good enough. And if your thoughts are constantly telling you that, it's not okay. And having someone that you can talk to about that and who kind of snaps you out of it. It's great to have people around you who love you and who remind you of your worth, but to have someone that is unbiased, that just listens and they're professional. They know what they're doing. They actually want to hear the problems because that's their job. Don't feel like you're burdening them. But that's one way I think that can help you have a healthier, more realistic view of yourself. So it's not, hey, think more highly because you don't want to get too high and think lower of yourself because you don't want to get too low either. I don't know if you've ever heard the quote, but it's not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. The thoughts that run in your mind are endless, and so have people around you or a professional that helps you have a more positive framing. Not just positive thinking, but positive framing of your situation, because it's realistic. And not, I am bad at soccer, but writing, today, I didn't connect enough passes. I think having a journal that is realistic, and -you don't even have to write a lot after practice, you can just say, my passes weren't good enough, but I had some great shots today- and always using verbiage or words that are not, this is me and this is my identity, but I did this today. I did some good things, I did some bad things. But you will never be able to improve if it's only about you as a person and your worth.
You want to improve your talent and your passing and your shooting and your heading, and those are the things you're going to improve. Not this tearing yourself down. And I talk more about that because that's the way I lean. I lean more on the destructive end of like, I'm not good enough, versus I am amazing. But some people lean on that side too. And so it's having this healthy chip on your shoulder to say, I deserve to be here, but also, not everything is just given. I've worked to get here, but let me put in more work. We're going to have positive thoughts too, but frame those thoughts, do something good with those thoughts. So don't just think like, Oh, everything's good when it's not. Things are hard sometimes, but framing it in a way that's not, my life is over and I am a bad soccer player, but okay, I'm going to frame it in a way that will help me grow and not destroy me. And some things are just not in your control. And learning to lose and lose well and learn from the losing. You just face so many lows, when it comes to sports. That teaches you how to overcome. And there's just this drive within me, this will, to tackle whatever comes my way. And I know I won't do it perfectly, but I will. I will do it. Somehow, some way.
I love what you said about framing whatever it is, you're going through. I think how you frame and how you think about any situation is so important. You know, you have had the journey through your body changing quite a bit from high school to college, and now to pro. How do you frame that internal conversation about your body? And have you ever had struggles with your own body along the way?
I would say confidence goes right with body image. The two places I struggle most with my confidence are in soccer and in my body. Because you, as an athlete, are surrounded by insanely fit and athletic and unique and different women. And everyone's body is different. You just have to understand that there's no one standard, because growing up, that's just what you think. So on the same note, as I said, in regards to confidence, you need to stop looking left and right. And you need to look within and say, I've been given this body and I want to be healthy. And I think that, as an athlete, you are going to have a different body type, based on your sport, but also different than people who don't play sports. And social media makes it really hard for women to not always look and say, Oh, I don't look like that, and I now don't like myself because of that. I have given up social media this year, actually. And one of the things that I realized is I don't like who I become when I spend too much time on social media. And mostly I don't like the way I start viewing myself, or why I'm posting pictures. And this is something that, it's hard to admit because it's like, these aren't things I'm proud of, this isn't who I want to be. I don't want to look at someone and say, I'm not good enough.
And I remember, I think my second year of college, one time I was taking pictures, it was either after a banquet, or it was when we went to dinner one night. We dressed up and looked nice, and the amount of photos I took, I was like, Oh my goodness. I needed to take so many photos to get an angle. And it was always like, I'm going to take this photo and then I'm going to look at it and see if I like it, and be like, no, can you take another one? I didn't like that one. And one time, one of my mentors had been like, they've thought about getting rid of likes! Would that make a difference for you if they got rid of likes on Instagram or comments? How would that affect your view of yourself? And then the other question was, why do you post? And that is a very loaded question. But I started to realize that I'm posting for other people. Or I’m posting to get the affirmation of other people. And I wanted to take a break from it in a way where I'm like, I want to be able to use it in the way that it is good and not in a way that it is destructive. And I know some people have a much healthier view of their body, but that's something I personally struggled with. And so that's a way that I've practically taken a step to separate myself from that.
And it's just hard because the people around you, first of all, are amazingly gifted and fit, so when you're comparing yourself to these people, you're comparing yourself to someone who is amazing. But also the amount of times I've heard someone compare themselves to me and then we're like, what are we doing? To think that I'm over here thinking this person has it all, when she clearly doesn't because she reveals to me that she doesn't, and she thinks I have it all. And that was something I became really grounded in. I used to really care about putting on this facade of perfection, because I thought if people viewed this perfect person, soccer wise, academic wise, they would want to be me.
It's really good that you have had the moment where you are at now, but can you imagine if you had this mentality when you were younger? You would have been so much happier. And that's a gift that I hope we are giving younger girls when they listen to your story, because you don't want to wait your whole life to get to the moment where you're at right now. And you're still very young to be at this moment where you're already so wise.
But had I known when I was younger, how to think about these things or even having the awareness to realize, wow, I do struggle a little bit with my body image (Betsy: Yeah) and I'm noticing that this specific thing is making it worse. And I'm going to take that out of my life. (Betsy: Exactly) And the great thing about certain things, you can do that. Other things you can't. So as an example, you walk into your bathroom and you see a mirror. So, you can't take that out of your life really, unless you get rid of all the mirrors in your house. So that's also really important. Get rid of the things that are taking you down a path that's not good.
And that is so important. Standing in front of a mirror, I'm like, how do I escape that? How do I do that? And in reality, you can't. And so how do I do it in a way that's healthy? And I think being like, I'm just not going to stare at myself and pick out things that I don't like. It's honestly very similar to the way I handle a day at practice. I'm like, okay, if I want to be more toned, what can I do to get there? But also what is good about my body, and what do I like about it? That idea of this objective view of yourself instead of a subjective view of yourself. And we want to be happy, but we're resisting this happiness because we linger so much on the bad and what we're not, instead of what we are. And again, it's all the way you view it. You could say, my legs are huge. Someone could be like, you have such strong legs, and so it's learning to not think about yourself so much. I know that might be kind of a funny thing, but sometimes I'm like this just isn't all about me. People aren't looking at me as much as I think they are. People don't talk about me as much as I think they do.
I really appreciate that. So what are three words that you would use to describe your journey in sport as a female athlete? And they don't all have to be positive.
Rollercoaster is one of my words. Hard. It has been hard. But the last one is that it's worthwhile. So rollercoaster, hard, and worthwhile, because of what I've learned and what I've experienced and the relationships, and I truly can't imagine who I would be today without all the experiences that have shaped me and the people who have shaped me along the way. And it's just funny because something so hard can be so worthwhile, and that's something you learn in sports.
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I love that. We're going to end on our last question. This is a podcast aimed to helping young female athletes. What would be one piece of advice that you would give all the girls out there playing sports?
Joy comes from knowing that you are more than what you do. We get lost as athletes in “I am what I do. I am what I produce.” So that naturally takes you on that identity roller coaster, but you have to know that there are good days, there are bad days, and you are more than the best days of your life, and you are also more than the worst days of your life. And know that your identity is not who you are on the field. It is how you treat people and it's the way you love the people around you. You as a person is more important than you as an athlete.
When you hear stories that are so raw from women, like you, I just know it's going to help other girls have the better journey.
Thank you, Betsy, for sharing everything that you did. And thank you for joining us at voice in sport.
Thank you so much. It was so nice to meet you. And I'm so grateful that you have made this opportunity possible.
Thank you so much, Betsy. The perspective that you shared with us today in approaching confidence, body image, and athletic performance is invaluable and it will positively impact so many young women in sport. Your insight is so spot on. We are worth way more than our best days and our worst days, and our value is not defined by what we do, but rather by who we are. You can follow Betsy at Instagram @betsy_brandon, and on Twitter @betsybrandon.
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Host: Stef Strack
Producer: VIS Creators™ Libby Davidson & Anya Miller