Power of Vulnerability
with Kathryn Plummer
20 Aug, 2020 · Volleyball
Kathryn Plummer, Professional Volleyball Player, shares her incredible journey in sport and offers a powerful perspective on being vulnerable and asking for help, and she reminds us to embrace our athletic bodies and to be gentle with ourselves.
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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 Kathryn Plummer, a professional volleyball player, and former division one athlete at Stanford University, where she became a three time NCAA champion and two time NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player of the Year. She has also collected ESPN w awards, such as First Team All-American and National Player of the Year.
Kathryn is a member of the U.S. Volleyball and Beach Volleyball teams, and will be playing professional volleyball in Japan this season. Kathryn has been in volleyball world for over 12 years, earning impressive awards, such as FIVB World Championship medals in indoor and beach becoming the only person to ever do this and doing so at such a young age of 16.
Today, Katherine discusses untold stories of her journey in sport, and she shares a powerful perspective on the importance of vulnerability and asking for help. Kathryn reminds us to be gentle with ourselves to embrace the strength and power that our athletic bodies give us and to stay positive in sport and beyond.
Kathryn, welcome to the Voice in Sport podcast. We are so glad to have you here with us today.
Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
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Let's start with your journey. I'd love to hear about the other sports you played growing up. And what made you choose and focus on volleyball? And Now that you are a pro.
When I was growing up, I played all the sports in the book, basketball, soccer. Softball, elementary school cheerleading. I did track and field. Pretty much every popular sport. I was a part of it. And that was instilled in me from a super young age. I started playing sports when I was three or four. My parents were both collegiate athletes. My brother was four years older than me. So I was kind of exposed to it and I wanted to be a part of it. So, I just put myself fully in it. Sports and school was my thing. Then my brother started playing volleyball when he started high school and I was always going to his club practices, always going to his tournaments with my parents. I was bored at one of his tournaments. There's no basketball, there's no soccer in this volleyball gym. So I had to figure it out and I just grabbed the ball and started setting. I had never done it before and I was good at it. My brother's club coach was, “Oh my gosh. You're actually not bad.” I couldn't serve a ball or hit the ball to save my life, but I could set the ball. I went to a bunch of clinics at a local volleyball club. And then I joined the team in a matter of a couple of weeks. That's where it all began. I played club volleyball for seven, eight years in Southern California where it's kind of big. And then I started playing beach volleyball too. So I've always just been a part of it and then went to Stanford. Now I'm playing pro and it's been my life for the last 11,12 years.
That moment that you were in the gym for the first time, how old were you?
I was 10. It was In the middle of Chicago in January. You couldn't go outside and play sports cause it was bone chilling cold and there's a long break at the tournament. I got to figure out something to do. And that's where it all started.
At that moment, did you stop all your other sports right away? When did you narrow it down to just volleyball?
When I started playing in the clinics and initially started playing club volleyball, I was also playing club basketball and club soccer. I loved those sports as well, but my parents kind of came to me with an ultimatum one day and were like a Kat you got to pick one because we can't keep doing this. We want you to play as many sports as you can. And we know you love it, but your brother has volleyball too. He' s gone five nights out of the week, you have all these sports you're gone every night out of the week. We want to figure out how we can be a little bit of a family and not spread ourselves too thin.
And so I was like, okay, I love basketball and soccer. I love it. I haven't been playing for so long, but volleyball, I think I can grow to succeed at it. And I really like it so far. And I kind of want to see where this goes and when I was 10, I think I was 5'10”. I was a tall girl then. And so I was like, okay, this might help me. My parents are 6'8" and 6'3". I was destined to be tall from the beginning. I was like, okay, I think I can get good at this. Cause I'm just going to stick with it. So mom and dad, can I stop playing basketball and soccer and play volleyball? And they're like, sure. My mom played college basketball and when I told her I wanted to stop basketball, she was so sad. She cried. She was like, oh my gosh, I thought you're going to pick basketball, but now she's completely on board.
You did make a good choice and I am curious to know what was your biggest challenge? I'm sure you dealt with a ton of pressure along the way. You played at one of the top schools, won three division one NCAA titles. So can you talk to us about some of those challenges along the way and how you overcome them?
How I've always looked at pressure is to spin it in a positive way. If you're feeling pressure, it probably means that you're doing something right. People are expecting more of you outside sources want to have a little piece of it. That's how I've always tried to look at it. Granted, it's still tough to be someone that people look to to be good all the time and be a team that others look to, to always succeed. Throughout my whole volleyball career that's been, my reality. You and your team are going to be expected to do well. And that's a tough spot to be in as a young girl and as a woman in college, because you're not going to be perfect every time. And I think that was what I struggled with most trying to live up to these expectations and my last year of college, I just accepted that it was going to be there, all the time. I wasn't going to be able to change it.
People are always going to want more out of you. What I really tried to do was say, okay, I know this is happening, but I can only focus on what I do. I can't focus on everyone else and what they're trying to do to me, with me, what they want from me, I can't do that. I can't talk to everybody that's coming at me. I can only control what I can do and that was where my mentality shifted, to where I am today. Cause like I said, I've always had that positive outlook on pressure and expectations, but eventually it starts to wear down on people. And wore down on me but I think trying to get back to, okay, I know that there's a positive side of this and trying to see that, it's something that helped me
We all know how tough the first couple of years of college can be, especially on the mental health side. A lot of female athletes are challenged with depression and anxiety the first couple of years. partly due to a lot of the pressure and trying to balance school, social life, and sport. What are the things that you did to help you get to that place? What are tips you can pass on to practice that mental agility?
One thing that I did for sure. I found it was super important for me to have. A life outside of volleyball and get a group of friends that had no idea what you do on the volleyball court. They just know you as a person, that was super helpful. I started becoming friends with people that just weren't in the world. They were in the sport world-- they played baseball or basketball or other sports, but they didn't really understand it or grasp volleyball.
That was super healthy for me because after practice, I would hang out with them every day, cause that was how I kept myself sane and I didn't talk about volleyball one time.
But I think that helped me for sure. One of those friends ended up becoming my boyfriend. So that's another story. But once we started dating he came to one of my games, he was like, I didn't know you really good. I was like, I didn't think it was important.
So that was one thing. The other would be to ask for help, in college you're exposed to so many other resources, besides your team and your coaches, there's counselors that I've talked to. There's academic advisors that are there for academics, but also there to help you as a person.
this is going to sound weird, but I talked to the people at the restaurant at Stanford, to help me when I was having a rough day, just like, let's talk at the counter when I'm ordering food, this will help me. Asking for help in other ways, and your team is always going to be there. What helped me was understanding. If I ask for help from them, they're probably feeling a lot of the same things that I am, maybe to a different scale, maybe to the same degree. But they're in the same position as me. We're on the same team. We all are feeling it. If we can have conversations about that, truly asking each other what we need from each other. That helped me for sure. Ultimately just being open to asking for help from all these different resources that you have.
That's great. So during your journey, Kathryn, did you ever have any self doubt because one of the toughest things for any athlete can be internal dialogue and we know a lot of girls drop out of sport due to confidence. Can you share a little bit about your journey? Did you ever face self-doubt and how did you pull yourself out of that?
I think it ties pretty well into what we just talked about. For sure faced self doubt and had problems with confidence, because there were expectations that were always coming in from every angle. And like, if you're expected to get a kill and you hit it out, it's like, okay, there's like a tick in the box. Or if you do something wrong in a game, that's another tick. Freshman year to beginning of my senior year, that was how I played. I was keeping track of stats in my head. Like I have blah, blah, blah, blah, kills this many errors. What is my hitting percentage?
And all this stuff. And that was not healthy at all. And like you said, I went super internal. my teammates knew it, my coaches knew it. I was constantly not called out, but I had conversations and I'm like, I want to be different, but I don't know how, and what I learned in my senior year after talking to the other leaders on my team and my coaches was being vulnerable to ask for help. cause they're not going to want you to fail. Like I said, And just accepting that other people can help you and they're in your corner. it's something that's super valuable for me.
Yeah. And I think that says a lot about your confidence level when you can ask for help or when you do ask for help. It's comforting to hear even somebody who is at your level, the best school and a pro volleyball player, can have those same challenges. You're at the top level, you probably have access to sports psychologists and really great coaches. What's the best piece of advice you've received from either a coach or a sports psych.
The best piece of advice would be to take time for yourself, outside of the volleyball, gym self care, do a face mask or journaling has been something that has been super powerful for me because when I was getting internal, those thoughts never left my head. And then when I was able to take pen to paper, those thoughts could leave. And, they were still there. I still had them, but they were on another source and they weren't wrapped up inside my brain. That was one of the other things that I really tried to do and still try to do, it helps them so much in their professional career, being away from home am I making the right decision, doing this, all this stuff, that helped. But just taking time for yourself because like I've been in the volleyball world, fully 12 for years. Being like, this is where I'm kind of going to escape it for an hour or two hours a day. Even that time is huge in comparison to constantly being in it.
Yeah, I think it's so important to have those breaks. and even the best. Highest level players are doing it. That's how they stay in it for so long. It's a great thing to pass on. Let's shift gears a little bit and talk about bodies. We talked a lot about the mental side of the game and obviously being professional level, is also physically tough, but it means that you're training your body's really hard and you're constantly looking at your body. I would love it if you could tell us a little bit about any struggles with body image during your journey in sport and how did you work through any of those issues?
When I was playing sports, I looked at my body a lot different than when I was outside of it just being a woman. When I was playing sports, I fully loved it because it was doing my craft. My strong legs were helping me jump. My broad shoulders were helping me swing hard, all this stuff.
When I lift weights, look different than other girls on my team I put on muscle in a different way. I'm bigger. I don't have skinny legs that are strong. I have big legs that are strong and people see it. It's not like, okay, you're like a cute dainty girl. We know that you're strong. It's out in the open, like crap, that girl's a big girl, like I'm 6'6" muscle. And like a lot going on. A lot. And so that in volleyball is what has helped me. That's how I try to look at it, is this has helped me, my body is doing what it needs to do to get me to where I want to go. There's definitely a huge mental side, but a lot of it, like you said, it's physical. And you have to take care of your body to do that.
And so that's how I saw it in sport. And I was trying to be a girl that dressed cute and Tried hard to look cute at school or whatever. It was definitely challenging. Because things that fit our leggings and tee shirts and sweatshirts, and that's what is comfortable, and it fits stuff. That's hard to find jeans that are long enough shirts that actually goes to the edge of your shoulder and it doesn't cut off halfway up your collarbone or dresses that aren't riding up your butt. All of those things in the challenge every day. And so you look at your body and a little different. So like when my mom and I would go shopping for birthday gifts or something like that, it's tough. Cause you're like, this is helping me in my sport, but it's the complete opposite when I'm trying to be a woman. That's a tough balance, but my sport is my job. And so, I think I try to look at it in the sport aspect. And I'm probably wearing leggings most of the time anyway, so it's okay. But it's definitely challenging, being different
Yeah. What would you say to the girls out there that are having these same conversations? We're feeling super strong on the court and we're going to try on clothes and we're feeling self conscious. Society has created what should equal beauty and that doesn't always line up to the physical physique of a female athlete. It's not our fault, but it is a part of the training of society and the images that you get flashed every day to say what is cute and what is not. This is why we are doing this podcast to talk about these types of subjects.
What would you say to girls out there that go into the dressing room to try on their clothes and have that tough moment? What do you do to switch the mentality?
It's tough, obviously. There's that societal expectation and that image that all of us are trying to have, the people on the magazine covers and the apparel brand logos and all this stuff. It's like, okay, I want to look like that. And the clothes on the hanger, it looked super cute, but when they're on my body, it looks completely different. And like something that no one should ever put on their body, what I would say to young girls that are feeling that way is that you are stronger, more powerful, and honestly braver than a lot of the people that we see, you're different, and that's okay. That makes you special.
Yeah, I wish I could tell my younger self especially after my first year of college lifting weights, that I, that I could have had a different mindset heading into those dressing rooms.
What's really important is that we talk about these things together as female athletes.The more that we share our own images of strength and beauty, I think will help other girls. And then eventually I hope that the sporting brands and other brands out there will start serving, different body types with their clothes.
Yeah, definitely. every time the Olympics roll around and there's a body issue of the whole team and all of them look different. That's super empowering to me because I'm like, I can look different than my teammate right next to me. And we can have different roles on the team, but we're a team. And, all of us are unique. I think that's something that I look to, especially during the Olympic years, when all those things are coming out and I'm like, okay, that's cool to see that people are different. And their bodies are helping them with their sport.
What are those moments that you are talking about right now that you see? Is it in the media? Are you talking about when you see all the athletes lined up and they're performance gear?
Yeah. have you ever seen, I think it's in sports illustrated , but it's the body issue where they're naked and their ball or whatever they use to play. Their sport is covering, but it's awesome to see. That these girls are strong athletes and you can see their muscles their they're super vulnerable in that space. That's something that I've always looked for.
Got it. it's super, inspiring to see, other female athletes talking about these things. So thank you for, Being honest about your experience and all the girls out there that are listening. Just remember that your body is beautiful and there is not just one, definition of beautiful when it comes to bodies. Let's shift gear a little bit and talk about college and your experience there because it can be tough going into your first couple years of college, for girls that are playing sport at a high level, and they're the best on their team, in high school and then they shift to college. What advice would you give to the girls heading into their first year, that you wish you would've known before you went?
My advice for these women that are going into college, trying to play volleyball or another sport is, be open to change because a lot of things are going to change how you play is going to change how you look is going to change. You mentioned your freshman year of college, your legs just went poooof, they just grew because you're lifting, who you spend your time with is going to change, all these things. It's just going to be different than what you're used to. And that's true for high school going into college and then college becoming a professional. There's so many new adjustments that need to be made and just be open to accepting them because you can't do anything about it. So being open to that, and like I said before, I feel like I'm a broken record, but ask for help in that situation.
Great advice. The podcast is a lot about untold stories. Is there an untold story that you can share with our female athletes about your journey in sport? And it can be anything but something that you haven't really spoken about.
I can talk about my first professional career. It's definitely a unique situation just because of the world that we're living in now. Most people don't get to experience that. I signed a contract with an agent right after the national championship, pretty much. I was in New York city, spending the holidays with family and friends and then off to Italy to play international volleyball and professional volleyball. And it's super exciting but you're also sad that you're leaving home, but like more excited than anything. And then you step off the plane in Italy. And get picked up by one of the team managers and you're on your way to practice, after however long flight that was, I dunno, like 11 hours, and jet lagged as all hell and trying to figure it all out. It seems glamorous and it is glamorous. You're playing volleyball, you're playing the sport you love and you're getting paid to do it, which is awesome.
But it's definitely a huge adjustment and different than what you've ever experienced in your whole life. You can travel to a country for a couple of weeks and be with your friends and family and it's super fun. And then you go by yourself and you're playing a sport for five to six hours a day. And then it just becomes a lot all thrown at you and you don't have any control of it and you're by yourself. So it sounds lonely. And you don't have your friends and family, then you are trying to learn their language when people are just talking to you. It's really hard.
And you're always the last one to get information just because you're the American that doesn't know the language. my experience was like, I lived at a hotel, and it was just different. I'm used to a dorm room. I've done that for four years.
But like, going into the outside world and expecting so much of this glamorous life and then staying in a hotel with a small kitchen and a little baby living room and a bed and a bathroom. It's just weird and you're not used to it. And then you're there for a month and the global pandemic hits an hour away from where you are in Italy. And again, you're the last in translation things get lost in translation.
And it's a tough spot just because this is so foreign to you. And then another thing happens and you're like, Oh my gosh, what do I do? And so you rely on people back at home relaying information to you that they hear on the news. You tried to find a news channel that speaks English. And once I found it, it was on 24 hours a day. And then you have to figure out, okay, is it in my best interest to leave the team and be home with my family? Or should I stick it out and see what happens? I stuck it out for a while, like a month. And then I was like, I don't think this is safe anymore. The president of our country is going to restrict travel from where I am.
Ultimately made the decision to come back home and I'm so glad I did, but I had to make sacrifices. I lost a lot of my salary. I won't be with the same team next year. So all of these things happen, and it's your first year and it's all foreign to you. You just get thrown into it and then gotta figure it out. And so I think that's something that a lot of people don't get, cause they're like, oh, you're a professional athlete. And the professional athlete in the United States looks pretty different than what it does in another country.I think that's something that people don't know and I hope this can help people understand, yeah, it's awesome. And you're getting to play the sport you love, and it's really fun. But at the same time, it's some of the hardest things you’re gonna have to have to do because you have to sacrifice a lot to be away from home.
It's different than being in in NFL. When you're considering going to be a professional female athlete, you have to make sacrifices. I can't wait till we get to a place where we have less of those sacrifices to make as female athletes, to continue with our sports. But for now, I think it's so important to just be real and honest with what those experiences are. Thank you for sharing that. I actually had similar experience moving myself to Italy right after college, literally right after college, like you, moved to Bologna to work for Nike. Got a small apartment, tiny kitchen, tiny little living room.
Long time to just know what was happening in the world. So I can't imagine to be over there, feeling lonely and having to go through the global pandemic, the beginning stages of it. It must not have been easy. And I can relate to those experiences of putting yourself out there to go follow your dreams. And then getting there and realizing, Oh, wow, it's not as glamorous as I had it in my head.
And I'm still thankful that I did that experience, working for Nike in Italy, but it was tough and I didn't get paid a lot and it's similar, but I wasn't playing professional sports. I'm still thankful I did it but it was tough.
Yeah, my advice, like you just said, if you have the opportunity to do it, even for one year in one season, do it. I've learned so much in two months that I was there, than I ever would have, living here at home. I think if you have the opportunity to do it, at least once go for it. And if you find that you don't like it, so be it, you have the rest of your life to do what you want, it's a unique opportunity that we get as female athletes to put our sport and succeed in it.
Yeah, and go to other countries. It's cool. A lot of the WNBL players that we talked to with Voice in Sport, they have to go overseas because of the pay, in the U.S. which is a bummer. We're advocating to try to help change that, but It does offer some other positives when you try to take a step back and think about it. The experiences of the scene and other culture, what that means for you, I'm sure you came back with a different perspective on the world, even though it was just a few months. There is some positive to that, but let's all try to move women's sports forward in the U.S. so that we can have our female athletes here and being paid more money.
Let's talk about, the three questions that I always end with with all of the athletes. It's really been interesting to see everybody's different perspectives. So what is your superpower that you gain from playing sports all these years and how are you going to use that superpower to drive something positive outside of sport?
I would say my super power that I've gained through sport is vulnerability. And that's come in different facets. Asking for help or crying with your teammates or whatever it may be. But I think I can help the world outside of that, by making it something that people don't look down upon, cause I have a platform to help people and little girls look up to me and I think if I can make that the norm and not a stigma, that's a really powerful thing.
Thank you for that. That's a great super power to gain from sport. So what are three words, that you would use to describe your journey in sport as a female athlete?
Three words, I would say bumpy, competitive, and the third word would be growth. So bumpy, there have been times where it got super hard, but I stuck through it. There have been times where I'd been injured and had to watch my team do stuff without me. So that was definitely a bumpy road. I learned a lot from it. Competitive was as female athletes, we kind of have just forced our way to the top and work really hard to get there. As a woman, it's tough to be assertive. But I think my competitive nature has gotten to where I am today and then growth, my sport has allowed me to gain things that I wouldn't have experienced if I didn't play sports. And I've learned things that have helped me be more competitive and it got me through those bumpy times.
This is a podcast aimed to helping young female athletes.
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What would be one piece of advice that you would give all the girls out there playing sports?
My piece of advice would be not being so hard on yourself and letting yourself off the hook because using one of my three words. I've grown, I now understand that Constantly looking at yourself in a negative way or a degrading space. Is it going to help you in the long run? And if you have fun and you're smiling and you love the people that you're around, my experience is that my play improved and I just became a happier person and a better person and a better friend. My advice would just not be so hard on yourself. It's called a volleyball game because it's supposed to be fun and we play it because we love it. And it's not supposed to be something that brings you down. Cause why would you do it if you did that?
Such good advice. Thank you. And Kathryn, it was such a pleasure to have you on the voice and sport podcast. Thank you for sharing your untold stories and or giving all these girls. Great advice.
Of course, thank you for having me. And I hope I helped some people today.
Kathryn, we really appreciate your authenticity and honesty today. Thank you for reminding us to embrace not only the strength of our beautiful athletic bodies, but also the strength in being vulnerable and asking for help. We know this conversation will help girls in sport everywhere. You can follow Kathryn on Instagram @kathrynplummer and on Twitter @plumddawgg, P L U M M D A W G G.
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Host: Stef Strack
Producer: VIS Creators™ Libby Davidson & Anya Miller