Leadership within a Team!
with Sierra Brooks
25 Oct, 2022 · Gymnastics
Sierra Brooks, a gymnast at the University of Michigan, NCAA Champion, 2022 Big 10 Gymnast of the Year, and 13x All-American shares with us her dedicated relationship with athletics, academics, and discusses what it takes to be a great leader!
[00:00:00] Stef: Today's guest is Sierra Brooks, a gymnast at the University of Michigan and a member of the 2021 NCAA Championship winning squad. Sierra was also named 2022 Big 10 Gymnast of the Year and holds 13 All American Awards.
In this episode, Sierra shares what her transition from high school to college looked like in terms of shifting from an individual mindset to a team mindset.
[00:00:26] Sierra: When you come in as a freshman, it is intimidating, but every single person on your team has had those same exact questions.
[00:00:32] Stef: Sierra also emphasizes the importance of building a healthy team dynamic.
[00:00:37] Sierra: once you really buy into the mindset that you're doing things as a, as a team, you're more successful
[00:00:43] Stef: By focusing on relationships with teammates and coaches, we as athletes can build our support networks, which improve every athlete inside and outside of sport.
Finally, Sierra talks about the importance of people we surround ourselves with.
[00:00:56] Sierra: don't undervalue how important your environment is cuz it just, it goes a long way, and if you can help cultivate that environment for other people, it's gonna help them a lot if they just have that comfort, just like it's gonna help you.
[00:01:08] Stef: We learn just how incredible of a leader Sierra is in the gym, and we talk about how her strengths as an athlete translate to the professional world. Her love of learning is evident in all that she does. She shares with us how to navigate finding internships and the new world of NIL. I loved speaking with Sierra because she encourages us all to strive for excellence in our sport, while also emphasizing how important it is for us as student athletes to pursue interests and careers.
Before we get started, if you'd love this episode and this podcast please support us by giving us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Sierra, welcome to the Voice in Sport Podcast.
[00:01:50] Sierra: Thank you. I'm excited to be here.
[00:01:52] Stef: Well, you are originally from the suburbs of Chicago, but you now call yourself a Nashville, Tennessee as your home that's where your parents and their family are. So can you share with us what it was like to grow up and when did you get started in gymnastics?
[00:02:06] Sierra: Yeah, so I had a great experience growing up. So I'd say I kind of went through the levels of gymnastics pretty fast, so I ended up skipping level five and I think level eight. So it's okay if you don't really understand the levels, but basically level 10 is like the main level that collegiate programs recruit from, so I got to level 10 right around sixth grade.
I think that was my first year of level 10. And then unless you're going like the elite route, which is kind of the Olympics and just competing in world competitions, you pretty much just stay at level 10. And personally, from a young age, I had decided that I wanted to do collegiate gymnastics and I didn't necessarily want to go that elite track.
So, once I hit level 10, that was pretty much what I did for the rest of my middle school and high school career. But yeah, after hitting level 10 in sixth grade, basically collegiate gymnastics recruiting was super, super early around the time that I was getting recruited. Like I started getting letters in the mail come like sixth and seventh grade from various colleges.
It was just super, super fast, but it was also just the precedent and I knew that was gonna happen. So it wasn't like very irregular to my situation it was just if you're doing really well and you're at level 10, you're kind of at that young prime age and you're competing well, colleges are gonna come.
So that was my experience there, letters started coming in, and then what you do from there is you started to kind of have those conversations with college coaches, whether that be like on the phone with them or like through your coach. It kind of depended on your age and certain NCAA requirements that they have, but I basically ended up talking to Michigan and what ended up happening actually is I was like on TV watching gymnastics once and it was, Michigan was competing and I was like, Oh, cool. Like I'll look into this school. And since I was little, I've always loved education or I loved school like more so than my sport.
Like I just like, I love sitting in a classroom. I love like just learning for fun. Like I consider it one of my hobbies. So I definitely wanted to go to a school that was strong academically and then from there it'd be also, super cool to do gymnastics on top of it. So once I looked it up, I was like, Okay, wait, michigan's like a really good school academically and athletically. Like it'd be so cool if I got to go there. And it really was just like the stars aligned. They liked my gymnastics and like my, I don't know, my a, my academic successes too. And it just ended up being a good fit. And then from there I took in unofficial visit come like the summer-ish before freshman year, and then I ended up committing to Michigan in October of my freshman year, so I only took one unofficial visit, which is kind of uncommon. I think a lot of people tend to like see as much as they can and which is something that I also like, recommend. It's good to see what's out there and I think you can limit yourself by only going to one school, but I was pretty confident that it was the right fit for me and like to this day, I have no regrets. I think it was the perfect school for me to go to.
[00:04:52] Stef: What about for the young women out there that might feel like they have pressure to like make a decision that early? And obviously every sport is a little different, like you said with the recruitment process, but what advice would you have to young girls that are trying to decide what school to go to and and then they feel pressure to make a decision?
[00:05:09] Sierra: Yeah, it's a really good question because I think I hear that a lot from younger gymnasts and just younger athletes in general. I think the first thing you need to do is separate what other people want from you or for you from what you want for yourself. I think there's pressure from parents, there's pressure from coaches and teammates, and like there's outsiders who are like, Oh, I've heard about this school like, you're good enough to go to this school. And it can just be a lot like when you have too many opinions coming at you, it can just leave you super overwhelmed. So, I would suggest just writing down like what are the main factors that you prioritize when you're looking at a school? Like is it the relationship with coaches? Is it academics before athletics? Is it the resources that they have? Is it location? So all those things are super important and really just keying in on those items will help the process kind of start to be more simplified, and then you'll kind of know which next steps to make from there.
But definitely figure out what you want more so than what other people want for.
[00:06:04] Stef: Yeah. How do you do that if like you have everybody whispering in your ear, your coaches, your parents, you know, like how do you find that inner voice and make sure you're listening to that?
[00:06:13] Sierra: Yeah. I think a big thing for me is just confidence. Like my entire life, my parents have always told me like, be confident and there's no reason for you not to be confident. So, I think it gets better with age, but really just trust yourself. I think that's something that any young athlete should learn how to do, like trust your training, trust kind of how you feel about something. Like if you have a gut feeling, you're probably right. And just really learn to do what kind of the back of your mind is telling you to do. So when you do have these people coming and whispering to you like you can acknowledge what they're saying, but also come back and be like, Okay, yes, Like I hear what you're saying, but like I know that I'm probably someone to perform best in this situation under this coaching, probably closer to this school than what you're telling me about this school.
So just be very clear with what you want, but also like, obviously don't shut doors, take in what people have to say, but really just trust yourself and remain confident. Try not to be swayed too easily .
[00:07:06] Stef: Such good advice. Okay. Well, we know that you were set to graduate in 2020 from high school, but you actually graduated a year early. Can you share with us how you graduated early and what your motivations were at that point in your life? Because why rush it?
[00:07:22] Sierra: Yeah. It's actually funny cuz I talk to my dad about this all the time because I committed so early to college, like in my high school career, I think it kind of had me in this mindset where I was like, Oh, I'm so eager to get to Michigan. Like I'm looking forward to it. I know all the girls there, and I'm like, It was just honestly so exciting to think about that I kind of, in a sense, like rushed my high school career, and I don't know if that's like a good or a bad thing. I think I was someone who wasn't able to go to all the football games because I had practice and I didn't necessarily have like that huge high school friend group because once again, I was leaving early to go to practice and more of my community was with gymnastics and more of my identity was with gymnastics than like my own high school.
So basically what ended up happening was, since I'm someone who likes learning, I ended up just taking like online summer classes almost every summer, like I do best when I'm busy. Why not take like this online accounting class if I can take it? And then it was just coincidentally that come around. It was like February of 2019, I was on the phone with my, with one of my college coaches who helped recruit me, and he was just talking about like the potential of me coming early, like coming a year early.
And it was kind of new, this was something that. He had planted this seed like maybe a couple weeks earlier, but I had like laughed it off cuz I was just like, Oh, like he wants me to get there and like , I wanna be there too. But I still obviously like don't graduate till 2020. And what ended up happening was they basically had a scholarship that opened up because of something that happened with a recruit who was in the class above me, and what he did is like, he called me and was like, Okay, we do truly like have this opportunity where you can come early if you want to. And we looked into it and I did have enough credits to graduate and my school district was one of those districts that allowed you to graduate early because it really just does depend and it was kind of a perfect combination of things that allowed me to graduate early.
I ended up having the conversation with my parents where I was crying and stressed for probably like two to three days because I had like a week to figure out if I was going to stay or if I was going to graduate early . And when looking at those pros and cons, I wasn't someone, like I said, who enjoyed high school and I was really excited to go to Michigan. I felt like I was mature enough to go to Michigan. It was just more of the fact that like, Oh wait, I'd be leaving my family maybe like six months, not even six months, six months from now and like over a year before what I had mentally planned for. And then in addition, like you don't get to go to prom. You don't get to walk across the stage at graduation with the friends that you've known since kindergarten, and you also don't get like another JL Nationals. So like the club version of nationals. And those had a lot of weight for me. But I think it just came down to the fact that I felt ready to go to Michigan and that was the decision that we made and we just really went with it.
And I am super excited and happy that I did end up graduating early, cuz I think I learned a lot. I grew a lot and I and now you know, hindsight's 2020, the Covid pandemic did come and I would've never had prom or been able to have another nationals or walk across the stage at graduation. So I think it was a decision that definitely worked out for me, and it just taught me that you can't plan out everything.
Like I love being someone who has every single thing planned out, and like I know when I'm doing this. So like when I was given the opportunity to graduate early, that obviously had me like I was a wreck because I was so overwhelmed with the fact that this like perfectly planned out next two years was potentially going to be disrupted.
But yeah, it just taught me that things do work out and if you're given a good opportunity, don't be hesitant to take it because you don't know everything about it.
[00:10:48] Stef: Yeah. Well, and like you said, like really try to tap into that inner voice and like, what is it that you wanna do? And it, and it's hard when you have like lots of things going on outside your life too, outside of your sport. And it's something we're gonna talk about today, like your identity out of sport and what it, what it really means to make sure you're tapping into both right, your sport, self and your, your outside of sports self because it's so important to do both. But I first wanna talk about that transition to college for you because, you know, like many of us, we, we move from high school sports to college sports and there is a lot to take on in that time.
A lot of the girls at the Voice in Sport community are either about to do that or they just did it or they did it two years ago and they wish they could try to do it a little differently. So I wanna unpack your transition because, and you know, in the sport of gymnastics, you're really going into a team situation when you get to college, so what was that transition like for you when you moved from high school to college. And what I guess tips do you have for the other girls that are about to do it?
[00:11:50] Sierra: Yeah. I really enjoyed the transition from high school to college, and I think one of the things that made it very easy for me was the fact that because recruiting was so early, I basically knew over half of the girls that I was gonna be on the team with for over a couple of years before I even got there.
So you come in, you kind of already have friends, and obviously this changes depending on the sport that you're in, like when like NCAA rules have changed now where athletes aren't even committing that early anymore. So, you might not necessarily have that sense of community immediately. But what I do suggest is kind of regardless of if you have known people or you're going to meet them, really get to know your teammates and lean on them because it's super cool to come in as a student athlete in college and just already have like this built in foundation and community of people. You find that like other people come in and they're like, Okay, I literally know my roommate and we just met yesterday and I don't know all the resources. I don't know what to go to for this and that.
But when you come in with a team, you have people who have been there for two to three years already, or you have seniors or you have fifth years and they have so much expertise and knowledge that they're really great to lean on. So when you come in as a freshman, it is intimidating, but every single person on your team who's older than older than you has had those same exact questions.
So don't ever be afraid to reach out to teammates. And the same goes with coaches and just the resources that have been made available to you because they help so, so much. But just going back to my transition, I'd say it was a phenomenal transition because of the fact that I met so many people and you like you just said, like gymnastics is a very individual sport up until college. So coming in and having that team atmosphere was super exciting for me because it just, it taught me a lot too, like I got to finally be on a team where I'm with like 15 other girls and everyone is just as hardworking as me.
Everyone is just as determined and everyone wants us to be like, a super competitive, amazing team. And in club it's a little bit different because not everyone has the same end goal, but you come in as a student athlete and everyone has a goal. They want your team to be as good as it can be while getting an education. And that's something that's super, super amazing. So definitely suggests just really leaning on your team teammates and just taking in the learning experience because you're gonna learn a lot just from the people around you because they have experiences that you don't. And I'd also just say like going in with an open mind, be excited about college. I have learned so much like every single year of college and I don't think you believe it till you're like done with freshman year cuz you finished freshman year and you're like, Oh my God. Like I learned so much this past year. There were so many different issues or problems that came up that I like tackled pretty quickly.
And it felt like the end of the world at the time. And then next thing you know, I feel so much older and I have so much more perspective. Yeah. Like I said, just really use that community and just go in being excited to learn, cuz you're gonna learn no matter what happens.
[00:14:41] Stef: Well, fostering like a supportive and competitive team dynamic is so important, right? Like you want to do both. And so it really obviously depends a lot on your teammates. It depends a lot on your coach and the environment that he or she creates. So for you, like it sounds like you had this really great balance of like everybody supported each other, yet everybody was super competitive.
So how do you keep the right balance there and like, What, because obviously, I mean, it's hard, right? You're, you, you are, you are kind of there in your spot and you wanna try to keep your spot. And so oftentimes I feel like athletes have this com, you know, mentality of like, I'm gonna compete with my teammates.
So how do we, how do you, I guess, create like a healthy environment in that way? And like, did your coaches do things or did your teammates do specific activities or, you know, team building things that created a great community.
[00:15:34] Sierra: Right. I think that's a really, really good point to bring up because something that I've noticed kind of after my freshman year after more so seeing other freshmen come in is like the adjustment from being individually competitive to like competing as a team is something that comes differently to every person.
Some people kind of just like swoop right in. They're there for the team. , no matter what they want, what's best for the team. And then you have other people who come in and they're like, Okay, wait, like I competed individually my entire life, Like I wanna do as good as I can do. And yes, I'm on this team, but like they're still just a little bit more hesitant.
And I think what really is the best, I think the best way to kind of balance those two, like the competitiveness, but also being really compassionate and close as a team is prioritizing the relationships within the team. So like over my, going on fourth year at the school, we've had different teams where like say like my freshman year we weren't as close, so then you might have had more people who kind of felt like they had to compete against one another.
But my sophomore and junior year, we have been as tight as can be and it's kind of, it just is hard for us to come up and like want to compete against someone else. I think we get super excited to compete as a team against other schools like we get truly excited like in the locker room or during a competition cuz we know like we're all building off of one another.
Like one of my teammates will go hit a basically perfect routine. I'm going and it's not like, oh gosh, like I have to beat her score. It's like, no, let me keep the momentum so we can go like crush this other team by like over a point or go get another school record. And I think once you really buy into the mindset that you're doing things as a, as a team, you're more successful individually, but also as a team.
So it's kind of something that it has to click and it takes some people some time for it to click, but once it clicks, you realize like, okay, wait. If I want, if I really like, actively want everyone on my team to get better, I'm also gonna get better because I have to get better in order to stay relevant in order to stay competing or in lineups, and I think it's just a super cool transition that is kind of unique to our sport because some team, some sports are very team based kind of your entire life, but because we have this transition, it makes it hard in the beginning, but it's also very, very rewarding.
[00:17:42] Stef: Absolutely. Well, who did you have as your role model growing up, you know, through your high school, your middle and high school club experience, but then also in college, because a big reason why we created the platform at Voice in Sport is to connect incredible athletes with their role models so that they, you know, have somebody to talk to.
Maybe they don't have a great team dynamic or a supportive coach then they can lean on the Voice in Sport community to have mentorship. So did you have that experience growing up you know, with a mentor or a role model? And if so, what'd you learn from that person?
[00:18:13] Sierra: I'd say. In terms of like role model from afar, I would say that's Gabby Douglas. So Gabby Douglas obviously won the Olympics and was the first African American to do so, but she was like a role model that I might not have even like known that much about. But I just remember like being a young gymnast watching her, went on tv, she's obviously like so phenomenal and impressive to watch.
And I think from then on I just like loved following her career it was just super, super cool to just see someone that looks like myself do gymnastics, but obviously like she was a role model in the sense that like when she went to compete, I was her biggest fan and I was always watching.
But in terms of like day to day, I'd say my role model or more, so my mentor was just my head coach. His name is Nick Becker, and he's coached me since I was seven. So he coached me from the age of seven to 17, and I think because of the fact that we're practicing gymnastics around 20 hours a week. Like I know him extremely well. He knows me every very, very well. And he started to get to know, like my personality and like, oh, when I was stressed, like we would unpack it and I think he just ended up being someone that I could go to for anything and everything, like my parents are obviously like my day to day role models, and mentors because I go to them like over anything. Like to this day, like I'm a college student and I'll still call my mom like four times a day to ask the smallest question. But I think Nick came in and was still like that second father and it was just a great relationship to have with the head coach and it kind of also, He's probably someone who I learned the most about leadership from, because I found him a really good and motivational leader.
He always was challenging me to do better. And if he asked me like, Oh, like how well do you think you can get at nationals? Like, how high do you think you can place? So I'd be like, Oh, you know, like I'll go like top five. And he's like, no, you can win. Like you can win you like you have the capabilities to do so.
And I think him consistently telling me these things helped obviously one increase my confidence, but then it also just helped me be more aware about like what I can do, but also what other people can do. So I, when I see other people who are struggling with something, I'm like, no, like you can also really do this. And I wanna be kind of that voice for teammates and just people that I interact with.
[00:20:21] Stef: I love that. Well, mentorship is so important. We think it's like really, really important to see yourself in sport, see yourself reflected in sport but also have those tangible conversations with people that you feel like are actually gonna support you. And it's awesome that you had that. Not everybody has that in a coach, and so what, what advice do you have to the young girls who feel like they're stuck in a, in an unhealthy relationship with a coach, and they don't know what to do? What advice would you have for them?
[00:20:47] Sierra: Yeah, I would say as hard as it is, try to find somebody else where you can voice your concerns to, so whether that be, like if there's other teammates and they're kind of on the same page with like this one specific coach is unhealthy or they're not creating a good atmosphere. Sometimes it just takes a conversation with the coach.
Like I have started to learn this as I grow up. Like some coaches are actually so passionate about a sport that it actually comes off a different way. Where it comes off like they're pushy, they're not listening to me like they're, they get frustrated super easily, but sometimes it's like they want you to do so well that they kind of lose the fact that like you a person, your feelings matter. Like your experience should be positive as a whole. So I think that's one thing is just kind of just test and see how other people are feeling too, because if it is a group conversation, I think that can be super productive. On the other hand too, like when you are a young athlete, your parents are kind of the ones who can help you kind of navigate those decisions. Like for gymnastics, a lot of times if there's like a coach misalignment, you might go and switch gyms and it can be very intimidating because the coach is the reason that you're leaving and it's not necessarily your teammates. So it can be super hard to step away from teammates that you've, you have known for years that you've grown up with.
But sometimes you do find that when you leave, you are, you grow so much more in different environments like you're athleticism and how while you're performing can really take off if you're with somebody who is building you up rather than tearing you down. So I would say I suggest just being open to the fact that it might be beneficial for you to leave and get training elsewhere even though it's super intimidating cuz I know I'm someone I'm, I get when I'm like comfortable, I'm super comfortable. I don't want change, like love the people I'm surrounded with and I get super used to them. Where when I'm in situations that might not necessarily be the best, I really try to avoid leaving them, but it can be really beneficial even though it's intimidating.
[00:22:37] Stef: Absolutely. Well, it's so important. That's why a big reason why we call our self Voice in Sport is we want every young, every young girl out there to use their voice and to speak up. And that might mean a small conversation with the teammate or your parents or a coach or anybody that would listen and, and be there to offer support.
So definitely think it's important to speak up if you guys see something that isn't right. But for you, you, it sounds like things were working out pretty well because you got to college and then as a freshman you were named Big 10 Freshman of the Year and Rookie of the Year at University of Michigan.
So, the next year after that, you were Big 10 Gymnast of the Year, and you were part of the NCAA championship winning squad. So, such an incredible accomplishment very early on, you know, even sometimes you don't hit your stride until your senior year or something like that in sports, in college, so you stepped into a lot of leadership positions though, during your time on the team.
And I wanna talk about what leadership really means to you on a team. How does it, you know, how do you show up? What is your leadership style? And were you always a leader on the team? Is this something that you grew into?
[00:23:43] Sierra: I'd say I'm one of those people who tends to gravitate towards leadership positions, and I think it's more so I just get excited about being able to help people and about being a resource to people. I think I've been in situations where I'm not necessarily led by the best leadership, and I think I always learn a lot from there.
So, like I said, like in club, my coach was a phenomenal leader, but like in terms of girls on the team, there wasn't, at least early on in my career, there wasn't anyone for me to look towards to, to just learn from, like there were people who were older than me, but sometimes older doesn't equate to being a good leader or being someone who knows that much just because it depends on what your experiences are and kind of what your mindset is.
But yeah, I think I just learned from having the lack of leadership at times from more so like teammates, not necessarily like coaches and staff that it really just helped me have that desire to be a leader for other people. So, the way I really approach leadership, I'm not necessarily like the loudest person in the room or the one who's gonna be like yelling and bringing the energy.
I think I'm a very, very, like, even-keeled person, like people know what to expect from me, and I think that can be really positive as a leader because it's like there's stability when things are changing all the time. Like you have that one person to come to and you know what they're gonna say, you know if you bring something to them, you know, they're not gonna like lose their mind cuz they're just pretty calm and just, Like I said, like you know what to expect. But yeah, in terms of leadership, I really just try to be that reliable, responsible person for people, and I just want everyone to be confident and feel their best.
Like if something's going on, I wanna know what's going on, and I wanna really try to help you navigate the situation because it's gonna make everyone's lives easier. If you're overwhelmed and you come to us and we figure it out pretty quickly, I think it just makes the team better because obviously like when there's less drama on the team and like just less hiccups, everyone feels better and they can all commit to the sport and practice versus having all these like external factors that kind of deviate away and take away from what you're trying to do. So yeah, I really just gravitate towards those leadership positions because I just want people to be in a better space and feel like they have consistency in the day to day, I'm also just someone who's very like type A and loves structure and logistics and organizing, and sometimes you just need a leader who will get those things going. So that's also why I fall into those types of positions.
[00:26:02] Elizabeth: Thank you for listening to the Voice in Sport podcast. My name is Elizabeth Martin, a soccer player at Emory University and producer of this week's episode. If you enjoy hearing from Sierra Brooks and would like to get the chance to talk to athletes like her, go to voiceinsport.com/join to sign up for free membership and gain access to exclusive episodes, mentorship sessions, and other weekly content.
Don't forget to follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok at Voice in Sport. Now let's get back to the episode.
[00:26:26] Stef: Well, you know, I think one of the things we always try to talk about at Voice in Sport is just like how important it is to use your voice to have conversations around topics like body image and confidence and, and things that, you know, I think as women athletes are sometimes faced with because society has a, a certain view of what beauty looks like.
And then we come in as these fierce, like strong, incredible women and might not fit the mold of what the media is kind of throwing back at us as like the ideal. Which we're trying to crush all of that at Voice Sport. But, you know, it's hard because social media is so prevalent in young girls' lives and it can really take people down a really bad place.
So, you know, what are the conversations that you have with your teammates around body image and confidence and like, what can you learn from that, like those conversations you have had with other women on your team that we can share with other young women that might be struggling out there because it is, it is so important to kind of have that confidence and love for your body. You know, when you're in a sport, especially when you're in a sport like gymnastics where you have like, you know, it is in some ways judged by the aesthetics of your style of how you look. And so how have you dealt with that? How have you and your teammates dealt with that?
[00:27:47] Sierra: I think one thing that we tried to advocate for is just, you know, when you feel, feel your best. Like it's not a number on a scale. It's not like how when somebody goes to take a picture of you what it looks like, like you personally know. Like I can tell you, like given a certain week or something, I'm like, Okay, like feeling really good this week. But then I'll have another week where I'm like, Okay, like I probably need pay attention to what I'm doing or just be more intentional with, not necessarily like what I'm eating, but truly just like what your healthy habits are like, am I getting enough sleep? Am I drinking enough water? Am I eating enough?
And I think that's just kind of the mindset that we have as leaders. We don't avoid the topic, but I'd say we also try not to bring attention to it. Like I don't think it's beneficial to always have conversations about what your body looks like or what it feels like, or like how much you weigh, because then people do start to pay more attention to it, and more times than not, that can kind of stray. Negative thoughts about it, Not necessarily positive. So we definitely just obviously try to bring it in where it's like, you know, when you feel your best, everyone is the best person to ask in terms of like how you're feeling. It's not a coach, it's not even like a dietician or anyone like that who should be able to point out and be like, Okay, wait, wait, like you need to eat more, you need to do this. Like people know when they feel their best and it's also important to just like use the resources around you. Like at Michigan we have so many resources. We have dieticians, we have people to talk to, like athletic counseling about literally anything, like not even athletics. You can go to them basically like as therapists, and a lot of times that can help people on our team just navigate different situations that they're in because as student athletes, you do have a lot of pressure.
Like there's athletic pressure, there's academic pressure, there's so much personal stuff that goes on behind the scenes too that a lot of people who are on the outside disregard cuz it's like, no, you have athletics, you have academic and you have academics. But no, it's like I also have a family at home. I also have all these like intricate relationships with all the people here that I go to school with, and it can just be a lot.
So when it comes down to body image, that's just another thing that goes on top of it. Like when we go on social media, that can even be indirect pressure, just seeing how somebody else looks. So we really try to advocate for reaching out to people when you need help and you can lean to your teammates first for that, or whoever you're most comfortable with, but also just, you know, when you feel your best, and if you do feel that something's not okay or something's off, like everyone is an open ear.
[00:30:03] Stef: I I love that. Well, we're, we're doing a series right now on suicide prevention on Voice in Sport for the month of September. And this is one of the topics that we were, we were talking about is it's so important to talk about mental health and there's still a stigma about talking about mental health and going to see therapist is gotten so much better than it was 20 years ago when I was in sports and in college playing division one soccer. That was like a dirty word then. And now it's like, it's accepted. But I, I guess just from, from your perspective, I would really love to hear, what, what would you like to say to other young girls out there that might be still hesitant to ask for help or go see a therapist or a sport psychologist?
What would you wanna tell them? You know, now that you have been like yourself, you're a successful, one of the best in college, what would you wanna whisper to them about this subject?
[00:30:54] Sierra: Yeah. I think the first thing would just be like more people use therapy or athletic counseling or performance counseling than you think. Like no one really goes on Instagram and is like, Oh, I had a, like, I had a session this morning for an hour where we talked about this and all of that. So you don't think it happens that often, but it really happens a lot more frequently than you think.
Like you take my team, for example, whenever we have somebody come in, say it to freshman and they're thinking about going to athletic counseling, it's like, Oh, I see this person and I see this person, and like, Oh, they helped me and this was going on, and it's just a super positive conversation, there's no stigma around it, and I think it's super productive for us.
But like there's 15 of us. It's obviously like a place where the culture's strong. Everyone's very comfortable about talking about it. But if you're in a position where you're hesitant, I say just make that, take that first step, like whatever it is, if you need to talk to your parents about it, about the possibility of you sitting down with somebody and you think it's really beneficial, like have that conversation with them and then even after that, like schedule that first meeting just don't wait for things to get better because I think a lot of times you have an issue come up, it's taking up all of your head space. It's kind of disturbing your peace, but you're like, Oh, like it's gonna blow away in like two weeks. Like it's gonna get better. And a lot of times it does get better, but it's not completely eradicated or it can come back.
And I think just even having one conversation with somebody can be so productive. Like I have sat down with our athletic counseling with yes, athletic related stuff, but also just like personal life with like other people on this campus, like I just sit down and it's like, okay, like I'm overwhelmed. There's a lot going on.
Like, please just listen to me as I like dump this all on you. And sometimes that's so great. And I encourage you to sit down with somebody else because like I said, yes, you have your teammates, yes you have coaches, but when you talk to people who are really experienced in this, they can talk to you about like, what's gonna be best for you?
Like, what are the next steps that you need to take? And it's just really productive. for everyone that I know who has gone and done that because they're gonna give you concrete steps. Whereas like if I had a teammate come tell me all these things, like I can give them my best guess on like what's gonna be really good. But sometimes when you talk to these experts, it's really gonna get you there. And also be preventative too. So if you have an issue, and like I said, you're hoping two weeks from now it's gonna go away, might go away, but it also might come back. And if you talk to somebody, you might find out like what's the best way to navigate the situation if it does come back so that it doesn't take two weeks, so that it takes maybe one week for you to feel better and be in a better head space.
[00:33:19] Stef: Absolutely. I think that's so important and such a great point. Well, thank you for sharing that. I love that you've been using the resources at your school and, you know, been taking full advantage of understanding like the impact and the power of your mind as well as your body. I wanna kind of pivot now just to talk about your experience as a leader outside of gymnastics because you're also somebody who is incredibly driven outside the gym, so let's talk about how do we, I guess, develop ourselves outside of sport? And I know a lot of young girls, you know, face this, this is why we have a subject, we always have one of these sessions, like once a month at VIS, which is building your identity outside of sport.
So what was that journey like for you? Was there a certain point where you're like, All right, I've got, I've got more to me than my sport and my performance. It sounded like for you, it, it happened a little earlier cuz you loved school and you loved a lot of other things, but share that journey and any advice you have for others out there that might be struggling.
[00:34:18] Sierra: Yeah. So I think for this, like, yes, as you said, like I've always loved school, so I've always like yay identified as like, Oh, I'm, yay, I'm a good student. Like I'm smart, I can do school. But there's also like, okay, I'm a gymnast. And I think as I got older, gymnast started to more so like take over my identity not in a negative connotation, but just like, Like I said, I was leaving school early to go to gymnastics and I was very successful with gymnastics. And I think when people heard my name, they're like, Oh, that's Sierra, she's the gymnast. It's not necessarily much else just because they didn't know me, like I understand that complete, I would say probably say the same thing about other people, like when you don't know them that well, you're gonna just kind of point to what you see on the surface and for me, that was gymnastic. But I think I would say it was actually after my freshman year of college when it really hit that I'm like, Okay, yes, like I'm a gymnast, but I do want to pursue these other things on the side and I don't wanna be completely engulfed in this sport because I love this sport, but at some point it comes to an end and at some point I'm going to be getting a job and like I wanna be okay. Because what I've learned is there is a true identity crisis that comes for most college athletes when they're done or when they retire their sport because we grew up doing these sports when we're so little that we grow up and it's like, Oh, what do you do?
Like you're in class and they're like, Oh, share on fact. And you're like, Oh, I do X sport. And it's just very, it's a habit. And like I said, no one's to blame for this because we spend so much time like perfecting our craft and talking with coaches and trying to figure out how to get better. But yeah, when I hit freshman year, it was actually after obviously the Covid pandemic and when Covid happened, we couldn't train. Couldn't train anymore. So I was back home like in the middle of March and was home I think, until mid-July. But basically we're home, all of the gyms are closed. So like I can't practice, like I can go flip in my backyard, but you know, like it's not the same.
And I think it was really this point where I was like, Oh my God, I have so much time on my hands, like what do I wanna do? And I think that's when it kind of flipped where I was like, okay, I do need to be more career oriented because I've been saying like college athletics will end at some point and I also do love learning, but I also want to be able to kind of know what I wanna do before I graduate and have to figure everything out like in two months in a random summer.
So at this point, that's when I decided, I was like, Okay, I'm gonna like look into internships. And I found like a digital marketing internship to do over the summer when I was at home with no gymnastics. And I think that was super good because it was fun to just see the things that you learn from sport are super beneficial and they have so much value and they translate right over to what else you do.
So I was still super hard working and I was still creative and like a good leader in the sense of like spearheading different things and making sure that things were delivered on time even if it depended on other people in this little internship that I was like, Okay, wait, like there is a lot more to me and I wanna make sure that I continue to voice this and continue to put myself in positions where I can explore these other things.
And then I'd say since freshman year, I've just made sure that like even in school, I'm like really taking classes that I wanna take and like really am engulfed in them. And once again, prioritizing school, which is something that I've always done, but just giving it a little bit more value now where I'm just like, Okay, like I want to identify with things outside of just my sport.
And I think since then I've just done more like internal exploring of like what do I like to do? And I know that like at this point I can confidently say like I truly do just enjoy learning that's kind of where it groups in with me liking school. Like I will look up random topics or like read random books cuz I just wanna learn more about it.
But I like photography and graphic design and there are those things that I probably would've missed if I just was so engulfed in gymnastics for so long. So I definitely just suggest to everyone else, like find other hobbies. They're not gonna take away from your sport. You're not gonna suddenly like drop off in performance because you found out there are other things that you like. Like I think we all have so many different dimensions as people and as athletes, you have to find those too because it's probably gonna help you even learn more about yourself as an athlete too.
[00:38:11] Stef: I love that such it's such great advice. Well, after doing these different internships, and some of them have been in like digital marketing and you have photography background and you have all these things actually that will help you build your brand as an athlete. I would love to kind of learn I guess from that, like what advice would you have to other young women athletes who, who want to promote themselves that you know, with NIL for front and center. There's a lot of opportunity around this, but it also can come with a lot of extra stress. It's like, Oh, now I have to create my brand. Like, okay, that's, that's extra pressure too. So how do you approach, I guess, first of all, how do you go in into this new world now with NIL, with the right mindset so that you don't like almost take it too far and spend too much of your energy on it, but at the same time, you make smart moves to promote yourself. What's that balance look like for you?
[00:39:07] Sierra: Yeah, fantastic question. I think for me, I, when it first came up, I was like, this is just weird because it happened after my sophomore year. So obviously like my first two years of school as an undergrad or as an underclassman, like NIL was completely out of the picture, like we could not do anything with companies.
Like you would be ineligible. It'd be like a hot mess. So you're like, okay, whatever. It's just not a thing that we had to deal with. And I think when it, The rules did change after my sophomore year, it was overwhelming in a sense. It wasn't too overwhelming, but I think no one really knew what to do as student athletes.
Like you go on Instagram, like July 1st, everyone had that little like story and it's like I'm open to deals with companies like DM me, but like you were really, people were just doing what they were seeing other people do and it was literally just chaos. But I think after where at like over the year mark now and like people are starting to try to figure out like what they actually wanna do.
I think I suggest just once again, just like when you're picking out a school that you wanna go to, lay out your priorities, because I think for me, I was like, Okay, my prior priorities remain academics and athletics. Like NIL is there, but it's more of a subset, like if I have time, then I can do that and I can look into that, but I really don't want it to cause me to be more stressed where I need to like go see more athletic counseling.
I don't want it to make me really just have this additional pressure because I think when people do feel overwhelmed by NIL, it's literally just pressure that they're putting on themselves. And I just suggest like really try to minimize the pressure that you're putting on yourselves. Don't try to put like a monetary goal for yourself. Like, I'm gonna get this much in NIL deals because there is very much an ebb and flow with them. Like it's not gonna be like you go on an Instagram one day and it's like, Oh, I have 20 companies like reaching out for me and they want me to do X, Y, Z. Like it takes a lot of time for those deals to happen and it also just takes like networking and building your brand and just like right place, right time. So really just have it in the back of your mind is what I suggest. And then still focus on academics and athletics because if those things are doing great, it honestly might just help you get those deals or help you meet the people who are gonna help you kind of build your brand.
But I wouldn't say like suddenly put all of this work into NIL because I think it can pull away from other areas because I think as a student athlete, we don't have a lot of free time. Like if you're a high school student right now, you probably already feel that way, but when you go to college, you truly don't have tons. So trying to make a huge place for NIL is just gonna be, I think, counterproductive.
[00:41:33] Stef: What are some things that you have learned in the first year you and all of your teammates about NIL don'ts like ni? If you could list like, okay, top three don'ts, what would you say?
[00:41:44] Sierra: One thing I would suggest don't dilute your brand. I think I've seen a lot of student athletes where they, you go on their Instagram now, like you go a year ago, it's just pictures of them doing their sport or whatever it may be. And then you go now and it's like just a ton of deals. Like, it's like no more personal posts. You kind of like lose what their voice is or what they stand for because they're just taking every single opportunity that they can get. Like nothing that we should do is free. I've been told this by other people who are kind of experts too, like, don't undersell yourself like because they're gonna send you like a free shirt.
Like don't go post because like you're worth more than $20 or whatever the monetary value is for what they're sending you. So really be intentional with the deals that you're seeking out. And then I think another thing, just a red flag, like contracts wise, if you have to sign a contract for a deal, make sure you have somebody who is an expert in that area read it over. Because I remember that was another thing like right when NIL happened, I don't remember the company, but basically so many student athletes were signing like this deal with this company. And then they actually had like, they signed some right, that basically like gave away their right for like the rest of time.
And it's just like, you do not wanna be in those situations. So if you're worried, like just have anyone read it over, like your parents might not be experts, but they probably at least have seen more contracts than you have at this point in your life. So really use them in an ask and don't rush the process.
Like you do not have to sign a contract on, like if they give it to you Monday, you don't need to sign it by Tuesday, like look it over, make sure you're confident about what you're representing, like you want it to be really in alignment with who you are as a person. Like you have a deal that's kind of this random company you haven't heard of before, but they're gonna pay you well.
Like is that something that you would want on your feed? Like really just taking a step back and asking those questions before you moving, you move forward?
[00:43:27] Stef: Yeah, I think doing the research on the companies is so important, right? Like who's, who's the founder? Who's their, who are their leadership? Who, what do they do? Like, I think like, you know, it's something that everybody needs to do more of before they even go and purchase something, right. And it, I think that if we, we talk about it a little bit as like the conscious consumer.
It's like it is getting the, we are getting more conscious of like the brands we are purchasing from, but it's this, it is taking time, right? So I think that as a young athlete who's maybe now not used to, brands reaching out to you. You gotta just be very intentional, like you said, be, you know, spend the time researching who they are, if they really, really care about you a week isn't gonna matter. A week of you researching who they are, looking at the contract looking at their leadership team and trying to figure out, okay, wait a minute, who, who exactly is running this company and what exactly are they doing?
[00:44:29] Sierra: Yeah, exactly. Quality over quantity.
[00:44:32] Stef: That's right. That's right. So important. Okay. Well one of the things that you consistently say on your website, and, you know, phrases that you've said many times is always ready to learn more, and it's clear from everything you've said today that you have this incredible curiosity and enthusiasm to learn.
So, how do you apply that to sport, you know, and academics and what can other young girls learn from that? Because I think it's such an incredible quality to have. But you just have found this passion for it. So where did that come from? And what can you share with other young girls out there?
[00:45:06] Sierra: in terms of where it came from? I'd say still, it's probably still school, but it's more so like, I think learning is a very, very amazing opportunity that most of us have. Like the fact that we can go to school and learn from these people and they teach us so much, so many valuable things that we can take with us for the rest of the rest of our lives is just incredible as is.
But I think as I got older and got, honestly got in college where you kind of can shape education in the way that you want. It was just super cool for me to see that. And I think I've run into people who might not necessarily like school because they don't like what they're learning and they just don't really see themselves in it.
And I think I kind of wanna encourage people to just find the things that you do like learning about, because I just don't believe that like there's anyone out there who like hates school as much as they think they do. Like if you were learning about the things that you really found valuable or you found cool, or you found interesting, then you would be doing it so much more and you would just honestly get so much more value out of it. So I think I kind of took that perspective where I was like, okay, like I find learning fun and I also wanna like help other people find learning fun. And then from there it was just like I continued to seek out the things that I know I find interesting and just go from there.
And I suggest for younger athletes when it comes to like learning and applying that to your sport, like what that entails is also like learning how to be leaders. So like learning and just seeing how that kind of comes to you first and in front of you. Like watch how your coaches interact with other athletes and just kind of get takeaways from every single day cuz there are small things, like I'll have somebody come and talk to me on my team and I'll learn something from them. I've learned how to be more empathetic and you honestly just like learn a lot about yourself and dealing with other people through your sport, whether you realize it or not. Like we have so many interactions with other people regardless of if you're in a team sport or an individual sport, like we still go and interact with so many people. So I'd really leverage those opportunities to just learn more about yourself and like where you thrive best also.
[00:47:06] Stef: Well, we've talked a lot about mentorship today and leadership and learning from your experience from club to college and the success that you have had. So thank you so much for sharing all of those insights. I'm sure it'll be so valuable to our young girls at Voice in Sport. So what is one single piece of advice though, if you were to take a step back and tell your younger self one single piece of advice for a younger girl in sport today?
[00:47:30] Sierra: I would tell her, I kind of touched on it earlier but really have confidence in yourself and put yourself in environments where you feel your best, like you wanna be in environments that you're surrounded by people and networks that build you up rather than you kind of feel like you're fighting against.
Like I think there's so much value and not having to stress about the people that you're interacting with because it just continuously like helps you feel better about yourself and you just kind of have more smoothness to your life and just more confidence for every single step of the way. So just don't undervalue how important your environment is cuz it just, it goes a long way, and if you can help cultivate that environment for other people, as you start to grow and you see somebody who might not necessarily have like the best friendships or relationships, like try to step in and be that person because it's gonna help them a lot if they just have that comfort, just like it's gonna help you. Like when you have that comfort and you know somebody's there for. , you get to grow so much more and not really worry about those small, nitpicky things.
[00:48:30] Stef: And to all the girls out there that want to become a leader on their team, what advice would you have for them to be that leader?
[00:48:35] Sierra: First I'd just say find your leadership style. Every single person is different, and I think that's something that I learned pretty early on. Like I have interacted with other leaders on teams and they're like, they're the loud ones. They're the vocal ones, or they're the ones who have like those super motivational talks and I'm like, Okay, I like might be more in the middle, and I lead kind of by doing and I lead by my work ethic. And I'd say just really figure out what's best for you. I think if you try to force somebody else's leadership style on your own, it isn't as effective because it's just not like who you are as a person. So, really just figure out kind of one, like why you wanna be a leader and like what kind of leader you want to be, because I think from then you're gonna be super effective and everyone's going to really look to you because you've done something so well right in front of them.
[00:49:19] Stef: Yeah, it's such great advice. Every style can have a really big impact on people, the people around them and leadership styles don't come in like one form. And I think for a lot of, a lot of years, like whether this was in business or in sport, like we would celebrate just a certain type of leader. And so then a lot of people sit there and think, Well, I'm not that loud person, or I'm not that outspoken person. I guess I'm not a leader. No. like, it's the opposite. Like there's so many different forms of leadership and I, I think it's so, so important what you said.
And lastly, we would love to know, you know, there's a lot of work we need to do to get to equality for women in sport. We're doing our part, we're writing legislation right now to help, help strengthen Title IX for the US but our, we have nine global goals that we're really trying to get after at Voice in Sport long term to help, you know, create a better future for women's sports. So from your perspective what is one thing that you would like to see changed for the future of women's sports?
[00:50:18] Sierra: think we've obviously, like so much has been done and it's so much better and we always, one thing that I always like see or see talks about is kind of like the media representation. So in terms of like even viewership or like the opportunities for women's sports to be on tv, it has gotten so much better.
But I think one thing that would be super cool to see it just kind of see the fan bases of women's sports increase because of that, I think one of the reasons, or one of the arguments for like having more males on TV is like, oh, they bring in more money or they have like more people who are watching, but that OB obviously also stems from the past where like they're on tv.
You can build that connection to those players, you can watch them and it's just so much more convenient, easy to watch some, where I think female sports should have that exact same. I think equality there like I think any person in the US or wherever you're at should be able to root for any women's team and just be able to find them with ease and have that convenience and not have paywalls.
And just like those little restrictions here and there, that kind of limit that chance of equality. And I think that's gonna be huge because I think the narrative behind female athletes should be the exact same as men's athletes. And they should be on the posters that are on people's walls, like no matter what their gender is. So I think that it's something that would be super cool to see in the future of women's sports
[00:51:38] Stef: I agree. Well, thank you so much Sierra, for coming on the Voice in Sport Podcast. We're so excited to see what you do after college with all of the incredible experience you gained, you know, in gymnastics, but also outside. So we're excited to keep watching, to see what you're gonna do.
[00:51:55] Sierra: Thank you so much for having me today. I had so much fun.
[00:51:57] Stef: This week's episode was produced and edited by VIS creator Elizabeth Martin, a soccer player at Emory University. We are so grateful to speak with Sierra about the ways in which she leads by example and encourages us as athletes to really consider how we can identify and use our unique leadership qualities.
Sierra offers wonderful advice on how to navigate opportunities like brand deals and internship positions. Overall, professionally, academically, and athletically, Sierra highlights the importance of building relationships to better ourselves and the people around. We're so appreciative that Sierra shared her story with us today and can't wait to see what she will achieve in gymnastics and beyond.
You can follow Sierra on Instagram @sierrabbrooks. Now head to the feed on Voice in Sport and check out some of the incredible free resources that we have here at VIS. If you're interested in team dynamics, check out the article about how to navigate toxic positivity in team environments. You can also take a look at the session page and filter by 'college' or 'mindset' and sign up for one of the free or paid sessions with our VIS League or VIS experts.
Please click on the share button in this episode and send it to another athlete that you think might enjoy the conversation. And if you're interested in more crossovers between athletics and business, you might also wanna check out other episodes like Jasmine Spencer where we talk about professional soccer players going into the world of entrepreneurship.
See you next week on The Voice in Sport Podcast.
Sierra Brooks, a gymnast at the University of Michigan, NCAA Champion, 2022 Big 10 Gymnast of the Year, and 13x All-American shares with us her dedicated relationship with athletics, academics, and discusses what it takes to be a great leader!