Reframe. Sport x Mindset.
with Emily Day
17 Sep, 2020 · Beach Volleyball
Emily Day, Professional Beach Volleyball Player, shares the highs and lows of her incredible journey in sport, and she reminds us of the importance of hard work, a positive mind, and finding our true passion in sport and in life.
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Welcome to the Voice In Sport Podcast. I'm your host, Steph 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 Emily Day, a member of the U.S. National Beach Volleyball team, and a former Division One volleyball player at Loyola Marymount University. In this episode, Emily shares her journey in sport that she describes as one of family dedication and a roller coaster. She speaks openly about her journey and we discuss not only the highs of being a collegiate student athlete and discovering her love for beach volleyball but, also how she handles the lows of missing out on the 2016 Olympics and her thoughts of quitting.
Emily reminds us of the importance of hard work, a positive mindset, a strong support system, and reframing our purpose in sport and life. Emily, Welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast. We are really excited to have you here with us today.
Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be on.
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It's always a pleasure to have female athletes on our podcast but, it's especially interesting to have a pro beach volleyball player with us today who started out in several sports and then went into beach volleyball, not until around college, and thereafter became a pro. So, I'm excited to hear about your journey. What sports did you start with and how did you become a pro beach volleyball player?
Well, I grew up playing a lot of different sports. I played basketball, soccer, gymnastics, softball, and wasn't even introduced to volleyball until middle school and my friends all started playing. So I was like, "Well, mom, I want to play too." So, played whatever I could. I think it kept me out of a lot of trouble, taught me a lot of great things about how to be a good teammate and team building.
So, I started playing volleyball in middle school and then didn't really take it seriously until high school and played on my first club team, where I made the last team possible, but whatever it was cool, I was playing. I slowly though started to get better, started to make the “ones” team when I was finally a junior in high school and that's when I realized that I could get recruited and play in college.
But, in the meantime, I'm still playing soccer. Loved soccer, thought that's the sport, I was going to play for the rest of my life. So, all through high school I played both soccer and volleyball but realized volleyball was my potential.
Started to really put a hundred percent into volleyball and got recruited to go to college. And again, this is all for indoor and played indoor all through college, but was introduced to the sport of beach volleyball only because my coach had asked us to play in at least four beach tournaments every summer. So, I was like, "Oh, okay, well, sign up for a tournament."
Got my butt kicked by ladies that were twice my age and jumped half as high as I did and so, that almost became like a challenge and I was like, "Okay, I gotta learn this sport now." And was able to qualify for an AVP tournament, which is our professional domestic tour when I was in college.
That's when, I really was like, "Okay, this is what I want to do. How do I do this? How do I get better?" and USA volleyball took note of me because I was the youngest player that had ever qualified at the time and then the rest is just history.
It's so inspiring to hear that journey because you didn't even know you were going to be a pro beach volleyball player and here you are. So what do you think makes an amazing pro beach volleyball player?
Well, I think in general to become great at anything, learning how to work hard and what that means, going above and beyond and doing the extra stuff. Even if you are a student studying for a test, if you want that A,you're not just going to cram in two hours the night before you're drilling yourself, you're doing extra practice problems to really prepare.
So, I think learning how to work hard and what that means whether again, you're a volleyball player, soccer player, or you're ready to kill that presentation you're going to give in front of your boss, is important.
I also think it's really inspiring that it wasn't until your junior year in high school that you were like, "Okay, I'm going to go for volleyball in college."
Can you, now looking back on that experience heading into college, and playing volleyball, what advice would you give to the girls that are about to go to college or they're debating whether or not they should play?
I personally loved being a student athlete at the highschool level and the college level. Being able to represent your school and being part of this community of athletes is really awesome because now you have this built in friendship.
You have people who support you and there's other people that you can turn to. So, if you're questioning whether or not you'd like to play in college, I would suggest to go for it. I think that you should at least try, and then see how it goes.
If you're a freshman heading into college, it's going to be a lot. I'm not gonna lie. You're practicing every day and your coaches are demanding a lot out of you and now you're taking classes that are tough. There's a lot of responsibility that you have to carry on your own, so time management is huge but it's all worth it. I promise. It's a lot of hard work, but well worth it.
I love the advice that you mentioned before about how to set yourself up successfully in the academic side so can you talk about how to balance all of that? Because you have sport, you have social life, and then you have school. How do you do it?
Like I said it's a lot, but a piece of advice that I was given that was very helpful was, when you first get into your, first day of school or your first class, try to find somebody who's not an athlete to help you and introduce yourself and exchange numbers with them because you're going to miss class because you have to travel for a match.
So, you want to be able to reach out to somebody to get the notes, or perhaps, you need a study buddy. I think it's super important to be able to have somebody in every class that you can study together or if when you miss class, you turn to them to get the notes or the assignment.
So, that was super important. I relied on a lot of people to help me through my college career. So, as a new student, I would definitely say find that person to sit next to and be good friends with them.
I'm sure the people that you found were pretty excited to have you as a friend, and I'm sure you're also gave them a lot of joy as well. So, heading into college,we know it's physically challenging but what would be your advice when it comes to dealing with the mental pressures that sport brings in that journey?
So, mental pressures are something that I wish I learned how to deal with at a younger age. I almost thought it was like a sign of weakness when you weren't mentally strong and I didn't really, at the time have any tools of how to deal with it.
So, if you can seek out somebody to talk to like a sports psych, I know a lot of colleges have that resource. Don't be afraid to use it. I feel like I missed out on an advantage by not reaching out to somebody and if you don't have a sports psych, there's so many good books you can read. There's a lot of great apps that you can use to help with the mental side of the game. It's something that I continue to work on, especially during this time and something that I can always improve on.
So, what are your favorite go to apps and books, especially for the girls that don't have access to sports psych, or maybe they're in high school and they haven't quite got there yet. What would you recommend in order to start building that mental agility?
So, I use the app, “The Smiling Mind”. It's great because it doesn't throw you into a 15 minute meditation the first time you use it. You can use it on a daily basis. You can use it more than once, but you build up your mental agility. It also gives you a really cool activity and mindfulness practices you can do.
And then a great book that I just finished reading is called "The Obstacle is the Way" by Ryan Holiday. It's just such a good read and gives you so many tools that you can use. And so, there's a lot of resources out there that you can explore, to help you with the mental side of your game.
I'm a big fan of the power of visualization. So I'm curious to know as somebody who's at the top, an Olympic athlete in the pro circuit of your sport, how do you use visualization as a tool to prepare for your game?
Visualizing is a great way to get yourself mentally strong and prepare for a match or even a tough practice, I will visualize myself doing great things. So, as a beach volleyball player, I see myself serving, running up to the net and getting a block, or I see myself pulling and digging and getting a great kill. I see myself at 14-14, and the match is tight and we're playing only to 15, me executing and playing great.
But, the other side that I think is even more powerful is visualizing when things don't go well. So you've lost game one or you're losing, or you're having a bad match and working out what you're going to do in those times. So, visualizing myself shanking a ball, and how I'm going to respond because when I get into a match, that's going to happen. And so mentally, I already know how I'm going to respond and it's not so much a shock when it happens because we're all gonna have bad matches. We're all gonna make mistakes and it's how we can respond to it that really matters.
Yes, we are all in those ups and downs in our journey and in some of those downs, we all know we kind of can get in those places where mentally we're struggling and a lot of it can revolve around confidence. Can you speak to self doubt that you faced in your journey and what advice would you have to girls that are facing that today?
Absolutely. Confidence is something that I've struggled with. I still struggle with it and continue to work on it. I noticed that when I won a match, then I became confident. I felt like I was confident in everything I did, so I would win the match and walk off the court, walk into the player's tent, get my food, sit wherever I needed to sit, had no problem talking with people. Then on the other hand, when I lost, I wasn't confident I would hide and not go in the player's tent. I wouldn't know who to turn to for help
So, I realized after talking to somebody and reading and exploring this idea of confidence that, "You know what? Win or lose, that doesn't define Emily Day as a person, and I can be confident whether I've won or have lost because stepping into a match, my confidence comes from the preparation that I did beforehand. It's the hours of training. It's the game film that I've watched before. It's working out in the weight room and knowing that I've done everything in my power to prepare myself for this moment and that's what gives me confidence.
I love that. I think it's so important to reframe how you deal with wins and losses, and that mindset shift I'm sure has put you in a much better headspace now for having a longer journey in sport but, over time if you're not in that strong mental mindset and you are dealing with adversity in your sport, you consider quitting and so in your journey through sport ever thought about quitting and if so, why and what brought you back?
There've been a couple of times when I thought about quitting. The closest I was, was after not making the 2016 Olympics. So, once I decided to become a professional volleyball player, I knew that I wanted to be the best player I could be and the ultimate goal is to go to the Olympics and win a medal.
So, I'm playing with my partner, Jen Kessy, she had actually already been to the Olympics and we're teaming up to make a run together. When you commit yourself to go to the Olympics, you're telling everybody that this is your goal, so I already had felt vulnerable, right? There's Instagram, there's social media, you're telling sponsors you're a 2016 Olympic hopeful. And, coming from the U.S., we have great teams and the rule is you can only send two teams to go. And so It's a year and a half qualification process, and it's a points race.
So, after every tournament, you kind of know where you stand and it's getting closer and closer. tickets go on sale. My family has tickets, they have flights, but I'm not secured yet and it comes down to the last few tournaments and the other team is finishing higher than us and we don't get to go and it's absolutely devastating because not only do you want this for yourself, but you have this whole team behind you that wants you to go.
It almost hurts more feeling like I've let down my partner, I've let down my family, I've let down my sponsors and I'm like, "Well, if I'm not going to the Olympics, what am I doing? Why am I playing? Am I good enough?"
My partner and I broke up right after the Olympics, which is in the dead middle of the summer once we knew we weren't gonna make it. So now, I'm partner-less and I don't know if I want to continue to play. So, flying home from that last tournament when I knew I wasn't making it was really rough.
How many years is this after college for you?
Gosh, so I graduated college in 2009 and the Olympics are 2016. So, seven years post-college. It takes some years to get on the world tour circuit, to work your way up, and then to be in the mix, you're probably about four years out, you know you can have a run in it and then, the run for the Olympics is a year and a half.
So, a long way.
It's a lot of dedication, and that's why I wanted to play was to make the Olympics. At least that's what I told myself.
So, flying home wanted to quit. I was like, why am I doing this? This is heartbreaking. This hurts so bad. I'm not good enough and that's when my support system came to me and really talked me through some things.
We ended up having an AVP tournament soon after I had broken up with my partner. I scrambled and was able to find a partner and I was like, I had just trained all these years, I might as well just finish the summer and then I'll decide what I want to do and teamed up with a girl named Brittany Hochevar and we won the AVP tournament. It was so nice because it gave me a sign of like, "Okay, I should keep doing this."
So happy I didn't quit and that I had the support around me .They push me to continue to play and this idea of let's re-evaluate this in a couple of months, you're in the middle of season and see if you still want to quit after that, then you can talk to your mentors and really see if that's the right choice.
So through that experience, as you were taking a step back, which I also think can be healthy for anybody, did you sort of recenter why you play volleyball and was it all still centered around the Olympics?
Absolutely. So, I almost had to really explore why I was playing. I thought I was playing to make the Olympics so I reframed or shifted my goals and while doing that, I discovered that there were other reasons to play. I love competing. I love working hard at something and being able to see those tiny improvements. so the goals changed. It was no longer the 2016 Olympics. It was, "Okay. I want to have fun."
I almost lost myself in that process because you're just so in it. And it's so tough. So, that next tournament I played the goal was to just be myself and have fun. And in that, I realized that I became a better volleyball player, that I still love playing this sport, and that there was still a lot more for me to improve on and work hard at and to get better.
I love that you also talked about the power of support systems.
How do you approach creating a great support system and for the girls that are in high school and college, how should they think about creating that support system for themselves?
I mean, I was lucky that my parents are a great support system, so super lucky that it was almost built in, but for people who maybe don't have that, it takes some time and it takes some exploration of who your support system is.
One thing that I kinda missed out on is a great mentor, somebody that you can turn to year after year, that you can trust and there's people out there that want to do that for other people. mentorship can come from a coach, it could come from a teacher, it could come from a best friend.
Find your support system because you don't want to be alone. It's no fun when you're alone and you want to have somebody you can bounce decisions off of. And so, it's very important to have people in your corner and backing you.
I totally agree and this is a big reason why we're building this community so we can have a support system.
I also think there's a lot of power in being vulnerable and asking for help, and it's something that we don't really get to until we become older. And so, I was wondering for yourself, did you ever have times in your journey where you were stuck more in your head? And, I want to talk mostly about body image here and confidence. Did you ever turn to a friend or a support system to help you with that struggle? And, what would you say for girls that might be facing that because volleyball is a sport where you're pretty exposed. So, I imagine that's been at least on your mind at some point in your journey.
Absolutely. So, it's no secret that beach volleyball players wear bikinis, and so, our body image is on display all the time. And at first, I thought I needed to look a certain way in order to be the best player, but I realized that my body needs certain fuel to be at the top of my game.
And, I started to discover that for me to play my best, I wasn't trying to look a certain way so much to just make sure that I feel my best when I'm doing X, Y, and Z. And, you can see that there's different body types all over our sport of beach volleyball. We have girls that are super tall and real skinny, while we also have great players like Misty May who doesn't look like that. And, currently April Ross, she'll tell you she lifts harder than anybody I know, she can outwork anyone, and you can see 10 abs on her.
So, it's really interesting. You have to figure out what works for you and your body is a machine and you need to fuel it the way it needs to be fueled to perform at its best.
I do think it can be harder for women in sport that are constantly being talked about for their bodies, or a coach giving them feedback about their body or their weight or their body type not being right for this sport or that sport. So, in terms of inner voice, what do we tell these young girls to think through when they are in a tough spot?
I definitely do that. I get in my swimsuit and I'll go in front of the mirror, and those thoughts occur in my head. But, I have to give myself a little bit of a reality check, like, "How did I actually feel during my workout? Did I feel slow? Did I feel like I wasn't performing at my best or is it just because I look this certain way?" And so, going back to how my body is actually performing is more important than what it looks like.
And, it's really tough because there are so many critical people out there. And, with social media, people feel like they can attack you because they're behind a screen.
So, find what you need to play your best and don't go searching for a certain body type and, it's easier said than done, but you'll learn along the way.
Yeah. Don't go search for a certain body type, and also just be aware of the thoughts in your head and if you find yourself in a negative place, start talking a little bit more positive to yourself which I think you learn as you get older, but as you're younger and you're in it, it can be really tough.
So, I appreciate you opening up and speaking about it because the more that we talk about it, the easier it will be. But, even for myself in Division One soccer, I was having a lot of body image issues with how strong I was getting and I never talked about it even with my closest friends on my team and I was thinking now, why is it that we don't talk about it?
I think you feel vulnerable when you start talking about that stuff and you don't want to show any weaknesses, but know that your friends are there and they're going to help you because that's what friends do. And, more likely than not, they're having the same thoughts.
Yes. And we hope that the more we talk about it on our podcasts, the more normal it becomes and we help more people. So, thank you for sharing that. As we sort of come to the end here, what is an untold story that you can share with other female athletes that might help them in their journey in sport?
Well, not a lot of people know the depths about not making the Olympics, another untold part of it is me dealing with the confidence side and the thoughts in my head. I used to reason with myself before I even stepped on the volleyball court. Why was it okay if I lost because I think I was sheltering myself from the actual pain of losing?
So, if I was in a tournament in China, before we even gotten near the sand, I was tying myself, "Well, if I lose, I'll fly home and I know I can sleep in my own bed." and, I know that's the wrong thought, but I told myself that because I was trying to shelter myself from that pain of losing.
Looking back, it's real tough because I know I could have probably won so many more matches if I didn't have these crazy reasons in my head and since then, I've learned how to deal with them. I know how to reframe those thoughts and I've become a much better volleyball player, because of it.
So know that if you're having negative thoughts, it's okay because everybody has them, but how do you reframe them? So for me, it went from, "Oh gosh, if I lose it's okay, because I get to fly home" to "You know what, Emily? You are prepared. You get the opportunity to play against the best in the world. Go out there. Everybody's attacking and being vulnerable and if you lose, you'll deal with the consequences then." And, because I have lost multiple times, I know it's going to hurt, but I also know I'm going to become a better player because of it. And I'm going to learn from it.
I believe you've helped a lot of young female athletes so thank you for sharing that. I would like to hear from you, what superpower do you gain from sport and how are you going to use it to drive something positive outside of sports?
I feel like sport gives you so many different superpowers. We talked a lot about confidence, about being mentally strong, but I feel like the all encompassing super power for me is work ethic.I know that I can work hard and it's in my control. I was never the natural, great player on my team, so I've always had to work hard to get where I am.
And so, knowing that I have a great work ethic, it's going to take me far in beach volleyball, but it's also going to take me far once I'm done with beach volleyball. And so, knowing what it means to work hard, with going above and beyond, is a pretty cool super power that I've learned through sport.
What are three words you would use to describe your journey in sport as a female athlete? They do not all have to be positive. They just have to be real and honest.
First is family. Through sport, I've gained so many friends and teammates that become family, whether it's just during that season, but then also the lifelong friendships that develop. and then now as a professional, I'm on the road traveling all the time. So, my teammate is my family, my coach, all of that. So, family comes to mind.
Dedication. There's so many decisions that I almost felt or made for me because I was so dedicated to my sport. So, that meant I've missed countless weddings, vacations, baby showers, so many big events because I've been dedicated to my sport, and it's paid off. But also, you lose out on a lot of things and even in college, I didn't go to that party on a Friday night because I had to play the next day. Being dedicated is such a huge part of who I am.
And then, the last word rollercoaster. Holy smokes. The highs are so high and the lows are so low. You go from winning a tournament and feeling like you're on top of the world to being in the very bottom. It's just so up and down, but it's so much fun.
So, I would say the third word is rollercoaster.
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I love those words. Let's end on the one piece of advice that you would give to all the girls out there in sport.
What's funny is when I was thinking about this question, I was going back into my journal and I had actually written a letter to my younger self and the overall theme was to be more present.
Not worrying about what the future held or what would happen if we lost this match. "Would I look silly? What would people think of me?" I was not able to be very present, at all. So I really wish that I could have just played in the moment, been who I wanted to be, not worried what other people thought, and tell myself, "Be present, and the rest is going to fall into place, and you're going to be okay."
Such a strong message whether it's sport or life is to be present. So, I appreciate that that is your piece of advice to all the girls. And it's been a pleasure, Emily, thank you so much for joining us at the Voice In Sport Podcast.
Thanks for having me. This is such a cool platform and I hope that lots of people take advantage of it.
Thank you Emily for sharing your incredible story with such power and vulnerability, your advice on reframing negative thoughts, being present, enjoying the moment and ultimately finding your true purpose is very inspiring. The highs and lows of sport make us who we are and overcoming those challenges can be a bit of a roller coaster, but it's definitely worth it. Emily shared how she did it, and we are grateful for that and it will certainly help so many of us in our journeys. You can follow Emily on Instagram @emday6. Please subscribe to the Voice In Sport Podcast and give us a rating.
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Host: Stef Strack
Producer: VIS Creators™ Arielle Schafer and Anya Miller