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Episode #12

Prove Them Wrong

with Darian Jenkins

17 Aug, 2020 · Soccer

Darian Jenkins, NWSL Soccer Player, discusses the highs and lows of her journey in sport. She also shares untold stories of her struggles with body image and doubt, and how she overcame these challenges in order to perform at the highest level.

Transcript

(background music starts)

Stef

Welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast. I'm your host, Stef Strack, the founder of Voice In Sport. As an athlete, professional, and mom, I have spent the last 20 years advocating for women and innovating across the sports industry. Now, I want to bring more visibility to female athletes and elevate their voice. At Voice In Sport, we share untold stories from female athletes to inspire us all to keep playing and change more than just the game.

Today, we are pleased to welcome Darian Jenkins, a professional NWSL soccer player for the OL Reign and a former Division I athlete at UCLA. In this episode, Darian discusses the highs and lows of her incredible journey in sport, from her experience with youth national teams to her recruitment process, to her professional career in soccer today. Darian shares untold stories of her struggles with body image, doubt, and criticism, and she provides amazing insights as to how she overcame these challenges and how soccer has been a place of solace for her during her life. Welcome to the Voice In Sport Podcast, Darian. We are incredibly excited to have you here with us!

Darian

Thank you. I'm excited.

(background music stops)

Stef

So, let's start with your journey from the beginning to pro.

Darian

So, when I was around seven, my mom had me in jazz dance and basketball, but I was terrible at basketball. I hated going to practice. And, then when I was around seven, I was at recess and I started kicking around with some of the boys and it was fun because it was competitive and a lot of running, which I liked to do.

So, I went home and told my mom, "Oh, I really want to try soccer." So, she signed me up for a local comp team. And, the head coach for one of the big clubs for my age group actually saw me play one day because we were at the same park and invited me to come try out. And, he actually ended up being my coach until I was about 17. So, I just  stuck with the same club from there, and that's where it all began.

Stef

Amazing. And, tell us about your experience in college. How did you decide to go to UCLA, and what was your recruitment process like?

Darian

So, my recruitment process was a little different than it is nowadays, but I was really fortunate to be called, from the age of 14 on, into U.S. National team camps. So, that's really where I got the platform for colleges to take me seriously and take notice. And, then I still had to  email coaches when I was going to tournaments with my club team, just because that's more of an environment where you have a little more chemistry, and you're more familiar with the position you're playing, and you're just a little more comfortable.

So, it was emailing coaches. You know, "My name is Darian Jenkins. I'm this position, this number, play at this time on this field,"  all of the details that you have to really be persistent with to get coaches to come watch. UCLA came and watched a couple of my tournaments and saw me at camps, and then when I was around 16, I started going on visits to colleges. 

I know I wanted to go somewhere by a beach. Me and my mom actually decided to go visit Stanford, Berkeley, and UCLA in one trip. So, we just drove the whole coast. And, when I got to UCLA, I just fell in love with it and had just such a good feeling with the coaching staff. That's what sold me, and my mom also loved it because she wasn't too far away from home that they could come and visit. So, ended up going with UCLA.

Stef

Looking back, what do you think really prepared you for playing college sports?

Darian

I would say I've always had a really good attitude when it comes to training. I've always been obsessed with soccer. So, as much as I could get out and play in games or go by myself to my coach's indoor facility during the winter. It's funny; he actually sent me a video, and he was like, "Oh, she used to just annoy the crap out of me with how much she would ask me to go train if I would come unlock it and borrow balls."  

I was just obsessed with that. It was my outlet to really just be on my own and kind of a meditative thing. All the stress from school and whatever goes on at home and personal life kind of goes away. So, I was always really diligent on training, and I loved training with boys. I think that was a really big thing that helps me because they were bigger, faster, stronger, and I liked the competition and I just had a really good work ethic, which I think transitioned well and was to my benefit when I ended up going to college.

Stef

So, let's talk  about your journey. You've made it through middle school, high school, where actually a lot of girls fall out of sport and all the way through your college career and now onto the pros. So, during that whole journey, did you ever think about quitting? And, if you did think about quitting,  how did you keep yourself in the game?

Darian

So, I've never thought about quitting, but I have had coaches that have really planted seeds of doubt in my mind. So, one of those being, when I first started getting called into national team camps. And, I was at my local  ODP, and you pretty much go try out for your region; so, I went to do that. And, this one coach pulled me aside after training and was like,  "You're tall, skinny, black, fast. You should really just go run track."

Stef

Oh my gosh!

Darian

I didn't know how to take it. When you're a young girl and this coach, who you're trying to impress comes and says that to you,  and he was like, "You're just not technically good enough. You're not tactically aware. You're just fast. You could probably get a scholarship if you went and ran track." And, I don't really remember what my response was, but my mom will say, when I got in the car, I was just really, really quiet. 

I had to go back a couple hours later and do another training. And so, my mom was about to drop me off and she was like, "Darian, what happened?" And, I kind of told her, and she was really upset, and I was like, "Don't worry about it." And then, it really just lit a fire inside of me.

And, I was like, "Screw this guy," and I just proved him wrong. From that camp on, that's when I got into ID camp, national team camps, went to a World Cup, and I tell this story often, just because I think it's important. Don't internalize it. That person does not know you. 

Stef

Wow. That's unfortunate, and I'm sure it also happens a lot. So, to anyone out there that has somebody categorizing you because of either your body or your ethnicity, you just need to make sure 1) you speak up about it, and then number 2) brush it off.  And, I'm super happy that you moved past that comment.

Darian

Another time is that injury in college and coming back from that. I broke the lower part of my leg. So, the doctors were saying, "Oh, we don't know if you'll ever have the mobility to run correctly,  let alone kick a soccer ball. There's just  a lot of factors that would have to go into you being back to the level that you were at." So, that was something to overcome that gave me some doubt. And then, when I was coming back, my first year pro, I had a coach telling me, "I don't think you'll ever get back to where you were before." That really hit me hard. I remember I went in the car and called my mom and was just so upset.

Those are times that have really made me doubt myself, which I'm upset about, but I'm also glad it happened because it made me realize it does not matter what these people are saying. It's all about the goals that I have and how much work I'm willing to put into getting there. And, really making them eat their words again. At the end of the day, I've just used it as motivation to  persevere through it. And, I revert back to those moments now when I'm dealing with challenges and it just motivates me.

Stef

So, the girls out there that might be having that same thing happen to them, what would your message be to them and how do they move through it?

Darian

I would say at the end of the day, it does not matter at all what those people think. It's all about how you're going to persevere and work through those things. And, if anything, take it to motivate you and go work on those aspects of your game. But, don't take any of that to heart because they don't know you or what's inside of you or what your goals are, anything like that.  Just focus on what you can and brush that off and use it for motivation.

Stef

Love that. So, can you talk to us about your biggest injury that you've had in your career and how you pulled through that?

Darian

My senior year of college, I broke my fibula and compound fractured my tibia, right near my ankle bone. So, for those that don't know what a compound fracture is, I dislocated the big bone in my leg, and it broke the skin and actually came out. So, really traumatic injury, and it was about a year and a half recovery. And since it was my senior year, and our seasons during the fall, I was, as soon as it happened, I knew I broke it. I was like, "Oh my gosh, the draft is soon."

I was thinking about all of my goals that I had planned  which  really made it difficult  for me to move past hanging on to the future. It was a really tough mental battle. I fell into a little a bit of a depression and struggled to stop thinking so much about the future or what I was missing out on. But actually, during that time, I started seeing  a sports  psychologist and I used that time to really focus with my rehab specialist - his name's Jeremy Bill, love that man shout out -  to focus on the day to day stuff. And, I got very diligent in my journaling of my goals every day.   

My first five months of the injury were non-weight bearing, so getting all of the goals to, "Okay, today, am I able to use one crutch? Or am I able to finish the exercises without taking a break? Am I able to handle  the manual therapy today without having to take a break?," little things like that. And, making sure that my nutrition is right, because you're not going to heal correctly if you're not eating. So, that was a big thing because I lost a ton of weight. 

And, reaching out for help and using those resources with Jeremy, the trainer, and the psychologist of how to focus on things that I can control day to day and not worrying so much about the future. And, being able to come back from that, I would say I had really good people in my corner, either that I reached out to or just people that I knew from school or back at home that were able to help me get back the physical aspects, the mental, the technical of how my ankle moves and how I'll be able to pass and shoot with my laces again. And, just people that never gave up on me and had faith in me. So, I'd say my support circle was huge.

Stef

Having people around you who believe in you is definitely an important one, especially when you're dealing with injuries. So, thanks for sharing that.  

Let's talk a little bit about the mental side of the game, because it is important to practice your skill, to have endurance, to really get yourself ready, especially when you're transitioning from one level to the next, high school to college or college to pro. So, what have you learned along your journey about preparing yourself mentally for performing at the highest level?

Darian

The big thing for me was not being super critical on myself when I make mistakes, which is still something I'm working on. But, this last year has been a big  year of  working on my mental health for me, and I've realized how important it is to my game and my everyday happiness outside of soccer.

So, a big thing for me is being able to visualize, I take 10 minutes before training in the morning, or especially on game days, I take longer  because you have all day to kind of sit and visualize things that I would want to do in a game. Whether it's  scoring a goal or making an 80 yard run back to help defend or having a good cross, just things like that.

And, I take the time to  put in details of, "What's the grass smell like? Can I hear people cheering in the stands? Is Lizzo playing over the speaker?"   Things like that, really bring me to the moment of, "This is what's going to happen in a game."

And, another thing is being able to, this goes back to being very critical, is leaving that on the field, and then using that in a productive way that's not going to  give me anxiety or make me feel stressed. And, another part of that is being able to talk to my coaches. So, if I make a mistake in a game, I'm not going to dwell on it. I'm going to watch the film at another time, make my notes on it, go ask for advice on how I can fix it or things I can work on in training to improve, really helps with my mental game. 

And, another big thing is going out and having fun and not thinking about soccer for a little bit. That's something that through each phase of my soccer career has been huge. So, having to find a medium and just stay even keeled through the mistakes and the good things helps me stay balanced.  And then I'm able to check out, do what I need to do throughout the day, actually have fun with my friends and talk with my family without being stressed about what happened earlier, because there's nothing I can do about it now. I think that's very important is to make sure you're having fun and relaxing a little bit.

Stef

Love that. Let's transition a little bit and talk about our bodies because, as female athletes, sometimes it can be tough because we do gain muscle, we are strong, we are really working on our bodies to perform, and the result of that is a different body type. And so, I would love to just hear from you, did you have struggles with your body image through your journey? And if so, how did you move through that?

Darian

So, I'll tell you a little about my family. My mom had me when she was in college. My mom is white, petite, 5'2", long blonde hair. And, my dad  was a football player; he's African American, 6'4", but I don't really have a relationship with my dad.

So, I'm just with my mom's side of the family. And, I live in Utah, so I'm one of the few black people, and that was really difficult. My uncles used to tease me about like - I'm more built like a boy and I'm too toned or things like that. And, especially when you're young, you don't understand really what that means. You just know it feels different and you feel a little ostracized. 

So, when I was younger and even in high school, I remember covering up a lot more just because I felt really self-conscious about, "Oh, my legs are way too muscular. I don't look as cute as these girls." That's when Myspace and Instagram were just coming about, and you just see  these influencers who are beanpoles and you don't look anything like them. So, that was really difficult, especially growing up in a state where I didn't have anybody that looked like me. So, I didn't really start to embrace that until I got to college. 

And, I'm really fortunate I had such great friends, all different shapes and sizes, and I went to a very liberal school where everybody just embraces your differences. And, I didn't know about any of that until I actually went to college.  I still struggle sometimes with that because we do live in the age of social media, but there's also a beauty to that because you see people of all different cultural backgrounds and physical differences that just embrace how they are and how they look.

That used to be a really big struggle for me, but now I realize when you're young and you're toned and muscular, people kill for that. So, if you're struggling with that or however your body is, totally embrace it. You just have to learn to appreciate how your body is and don't ever let somebody put you down for how you look.

Stef

Totally. I'm in my late thirties, and I wish I could go back and say, "Love your body. Be proud of your body. It is amazing because when you're older, it's a lot harder to keep that." 

(laughs)

Darian

I always think about that too.  Even in my journals and stuff, there's somewhere I'm writing about how I felt self-conscious or boys made comments that my legs were bigger than theirs, and I just wish I would've told them to shut up and that they wished they had legs like mine.

That's nothing to be self-conscious about. Now, especially with social media, it's difficult to not compare when these images are put in front of you constantly, and especially during this isolation period, where we're all spending more time on our phones than we normally would. Don't compare yourself to anybody else, because sounds corny, you're beautiful just the way you are, and your future self will want to give you a hug for doing that. 

Stef

It's unfortunate, but somebody is always going to comment about your body;  it just is society, and how do you get yourself in the right frame of mind? Especially if you're a female athlete and you're strong and you're out there working hard, taking a step back, having the right frame of mind about, "Your body is a powerhouse, be proud of it. Everybody's body is different."  I wish I would have had a little bit more of that when I was younger and similar to you, I would have had a different comment: "Oh, you think I have big shoulders...  Well, it's because I do push-ups and I'm really strong. Thank you very much." 

(laughs)

But, that was not the internal dialogue when I was younger. It was like, "Oh my gosh, I'm not going to wear a tank top. When all my friends are wearing tank tops, I'm not going to wear one."

Darian

My coaches, even this last year, would always tease me -  we finally got tank tops, midsummer last season, and I was  finally wearing tank tops. And they would always be like, "Oh, welcome to the gun show." I'd be like, "Yeah, thank you! You wish you had arms like mine," and they would just laugh. Flip it in your mind and make it something positive. 

Stef

So, to all the young girls out there who might be self-conscious of their bodies, please love them, and if anybody does say something about them,  stick up for yourself and be proud.  

I'm a big fan of girls staying in sport because I think we gain something great out of it that we can use for other things. So, what is a superpower that you think you gained so far from sport, and how are you going to use it outside of sport?

Darian

I would say the two biggest things are confidence and perseverance, because what we've talked about this whole podcast is insecurities of growing up and soccer kind of being a place where you have solace and you can  check out from everything else that's going on. It's just given me confidence and  really peace of mind at times when I've genuinely needed it. And, at times when it's been a really big struggle, whether it's coaches saying things that they shouldn't say, or people doubting me or injuries or going through the ups and downs of playing time or not, it's really taught me to persevere and the mental, physical, emotional challenges that come with it.

When things outside of soccer happen, I always know that they're going to pass because I can look back and think, "You know what? I just crushed a fitness test or did this in a game or was able to battle through this whole season of dealing with not playing,"  all of those examples. I kind of bring that back into my mind and I'm like, "I can handle this. I've been through way worse." So, it's really given me the confidence to handle pretty much anything that comes outside of my sport because I can just revert back to those memories and those things that I've put my body and my mind through and know that I'm strong enough to get through it.

Stef

I love that. And I think that now that you have that confidence,  you're willing to be vulnerable to talk about it. That's important, and you don't really get that unless you have confidence. 

Darian

Yeah, I used to be such a bottle. I never used to talk about anything that was affecting me, even with my mom telling her about the coach told me I should quit because of all of these physical things about me. From a young age, I never said anything, didn't want to be vulnerable, thought it would be embarrassing if I shared mistakes. It's taken me a long time to really just embrace those imperfections, and I think it's important that we talk about those things, especially when you have a platform of being pro, no matter how many followers or whatever you have,  we're all human and we go through those things. So, I think it's really important.

Stef

Awesome. What are three single words you would use to describe your journey in sport as a female athlete? 

Darian

I would say impatient, persevering, and joyful.

Stef

Love that. That's real. So, the podcast is really focused on helping other female athletes. What would be one piece of advice that you would give all girls in sport out there today? 

Darian

I would say that regardless of what phase in your career or level that you're playing at and regardless of your sport, is just to enjoy the process 

(background music starts)

because one of the biggest things that I struggled with was being impatient and wanting to be at the next phase of my career or at the next camp or game or whatever it may be. There's a lot of times where I kind of made it miserable for myself or caused a lot of stress for myself by not enjoying the day to day of what comes with the highs and lows of training and being at your sport and the opportunities that it gives you. 

So, really just learn lessons from the highs and lows and enjoy the process as much as you can. Everything, whether it's a loss or a win, is going to teach you a lesson. And, most of the times, it's the losses more than the wins that teach you  the bigger lesson. So, really just take the positives that you can out of all of those and move on to the next thing. 

Stef

That's something that we can all learn both in and out of sport, to be more present and to truly enjoy the process you're going through. So, that's great advice. 

Thank you so much. This has been very insightful and, thank you for sharing all of your stories. It's really important.

Darian

Thank you, Stef! I really enjoyed it. 

Stef

Thank you so much for joining us, Darian. Your willingness to be truly vulnerable and share your untold struggles with body image and criticism is invaluable, and hearing about how you have overcome these challenges is truly inspiring. When faced with adversity whether that’s through unexpected comments from coaches early on or through unexpected injuries ... Darian taught us how to turn challenges into motivation. You reminded us to love our strong, athletic bodies, to focus on the positives in every situation, and to keep FUN at the forefront of our journeys in sport.  You can follow Darian on Instagram @darian_jenks. 

Please subscribe to the Voice in Sport Podcast and give us a rating. You can follow us on Instagram, Facebook, twitter and TikTok @voiceinsport and if you are interested in joining our Community as a member you will have access to exclusive Content, Mentorship from female athletes and Advocacy tools - check out voiceinsport.com. And if you are passionate about accelerating Sports Science and research on the female body check out voiceinsporfoundation.org and get involved.

 

Host: Stef Strack

Producer: VIS Creator™ Anya Miller

Darian Jenkins, NWSL Soccer Player, discusses the highs and lows of her journey in sport. She also shares untold stories of her struggles with body image and doubt, and how she overcame these challenges in order to perform at the highest level.