Strength In Numbers
with Imani Dorsey
06 Aug, 2020 · Soccer
Imani Dorsey, NWSL Soccer Player, discusses her incredible journey in sport, sheds light on her challenges with mental health, and emphasizes the importance of balance and a strong support system in molding our lives on and off of the field.
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Welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast. I'm your host, Stef Strack, the founder of Voice In Sport. As an athlete, professional, and mom, I have spent the last 20 years advocating for women and innovating across the sports industry. Now, I want to bring more visibility to female athletes and elevate their voice. At Voice In Sport, we share untold stories from female athletes to inspire us all to keep playing and change more than just the game.
Today, our guest is Imani Dorsey, a professional soccer player for Sky Blue FC in the NWSL and a former Division I athlete at Duke University. During her collegiate career, she was named ACC Offensive player of the year in 2017 and with 29 goals, she ranks fourth all time in career goals at Duke. Imani found her love for soccer at a very young age, and it has provided her with so many opportunities in her youth, through college, and now in her current professional career in the League.
She was the 5th overall pick in the 2018 NWSL college draft, and she was named NWSL Rookie of the Year. Today, Imani shares her battles with having to adapt to changing positions, balancing life and sport, and finding her strength in being part of a team. She also openly discusses her mental health journey and encourages girls to surround themselves with a strong support system. Welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast, Imani.
Thank you. Happy to be here.
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It's exciting to have a professional soccer player, who grew up idolizing some of the same professional players that I did although I'm a bit older than you. So, tell us about the sports you played and the journey to making it to where you are today.
I started playing sports at a young age. I've always loved being athletic. I think probably the first sport I remember playing was T-ball at a very young age… not very well. We were too young to really know what we were doing, but it was fun. And then, I got into soccer, very young as well, probably five or six. And really, I was enthralled by it. I loved it so much and that's really what I stuck with until college. I didn't really play other sports through high school, just soccer.
And then, went to Duke, played there for four years. Now, I am at Sky Blue after being drafted and this will be my third year in the league, which is incredible to say because it really just feels like I graduated. Soccer has been such an incredible opportunity for me to meet so many incredible women, so many lasting friendships that I am so fortunate for just to learn from and be exposed to so many different perspectives and personalities and just learning how to succeed in a team environment and thrive. And, I've been very fortunate for that.
You have to be able to work with others and it shows a lot that when you make it as far as you have, that you have been able to transition into those new teams very successfully because when you go from high school to college and then college to pro, you're always entering into sort of a new situation. So, let's talk about some of those transitions first. Let's talk about the transition from high school to college. What was that like for you and looking back now? Is there any advice you would pass on to girls who were about to go through it?
I remember I was so excited. Some people come in and they're very homesick from the beginning and I was just like, “No, I am here, and I am having a great time.” But, in terms of the soccer, I struggled my freshman year, quite honestly. I struggled more than I thought I was going to, which was a challenge in itself, but I think it just made me better moving forward. I was playing center forward my freshman year, and I am really a winger. I am not a center forward at all. And, I was just getting thrown around by these big girls in the ACC, and I don't really define myself as a physical player. I have embraced that much more since college, but that was definitely something that I had to get used to and be more comfortable with moving forward and just learning to be more comfortable with what I can provide to a team.
I can be very hesitant trying to get a feel for where I fit in with a team, and that was something that I was trying to feel out my freshman year at Duke. And, I remember my coaches being like, "Dribble, you don't have to pass all the time. Dribble and go forward and do your own thing." And I was very surprised by that at first. But, I think in transitioning, the biggest thing that I was challenged with was the physicality and learning to kind of find my own place on the field and what unique about me I could offer it to the team and kind of filling a gap that needed to be filled in some way.
Off the field, I felt like the transition was pretty fluid for me because I felt like I was very willing to just give myself to the program. One of the older girls on our team made it a mission to say that this Duke team will fit you, you don't have to fit the team, but that was something that I think came later. I think initially it's always good to kind of come in and be prepared for anything, be prepared to play anywhere, and be ready to have a different coaching style and different competitive atmosphere than you're used to.
And, that can be hard to emulate and hard to fully grasp. But, I think-- getting into training environments that you're not necessarily used to. If you're in a club environment for however long we are up until senior year of high school playing with the same players for so long, go play with older players, go play with boys, put yourself in uncomfortable situations, and it'll help you adjust to a different team, I think, quicker.
That's great advice. I love what you said about being open to trying new positions because that often happens. You head to a school for college, regardless of what level it is, and you're asked to play a totally new position. So, how do you embrace that as a player? What's the mentality you take into something like that? How do you be successful in something that's brand new?
I have two good stories for this because first, like my freshman year becoming a center forward, which was something that I was not very used to and not very comfortable with. In this past season, moving to outside back and playing outside back for the first time in my life. I've been a forward my whole life, but about August of this past season at the NWSL, I started playing left back and that's kind of my position now. It was definitely difficult and kind of confusing and scary, but I think the best way to approach a new position is, one: if you're playing-- if you're starting, you're starting. If you're getting playing time, that is always good; that is not a bad thing.
You make it work for you, and you come into the position humble. You ask the people around you that play the position what advice they have. You watch film and take pointers. I think definitely moving to the left back position because it was kind of a different world on the back line, I was listening to every word my center back told me.
I would do whatever she told me and whatever my goalie told me. But, I think that allowed me to learn quicker, and it was also having the ability to make mistakes and learn from those. Those are a given and it's going to happen. But, I think being able to go back through film with my coaches and for them to tell me, "You need to adjust your feet quicker here. You need to get back into the line quicker." I've learned so much more in the last couple of months playing left back from watching film than I feel like I actually did during the season, and I'm so excited to actually implement that during hopeful season.
That's so interesting. I guess, partly in my mind, I figured that the women that make it to the top sort of have always been in one position. And, that's really inspiring to hear that you've switched several times, and that's encouraging because you might think, "Hey, I can only make it in this one route," but as you develop and you get to a different level, there's always going to be different roles for you to play on the team.
Definitely. My first call up into the national team was in November, and I got called in as a left back and never in a million years would I have thought I would be playing with the full team as a left back. But, that's my position now and that's what the coaches are wanting to groom me into and see a potential opportunity there, and I'm like, “If I can play the with the full team, I will do whatever I can to do that.”
So, it definitely has been an adjustment; I'm not going to say it was easy. It was very difficult and challenging and scary, at first. I remember my first game at left back was in Portland, in front of like 18,000 people. And I'm just like, “Oh, what do I do?” But, I remember my faith is really important and just trusting in God, and trusting in my teammates, and that they're not going to throw me to the wolves. They put me here because they believe in me. And, I ended up scoring in that game as an outside back; it was just crazy!
Wow. That's so inspiring. Well, let's talk about the confidence thing, cause I'm sure that could have a damage on your confidence being asked to step away from a position you're trying to perfect and then all of a sudden you're like, "Hey, can you try this other position?" So, in general, I want to talk about confidence, but also related to that transition. What advice do you have to girls who are maybe getting challenging feedback, and it's getting a hit to their confidence? How do you pull through from that?
Confidence is all about what you feel like you bring to the table personally. And, I think a lot of times, if we were to ask ourselves, “What are we good at? What do we think that we offer and bring to a team?,” sometimes we struggle with that. I know I personally do, because I remember growing up, I was like, "Oh, I can do it all. I do everything." I didn't feel like I specialized in one thing; I felt like I was good at a lot of things and tried to minimize my weaknesses, but there's nothing wrong with acknowledging what you bring to the table and using that as your superpower.
What you know is where you can get confidence. I know that I gained my confidence from my training and preparation. I don't have crazy rituals before games or anything, but I definitely feel more prepared for a game when I feel like I know that I've done the work and the preparation to handle what is thrown at me.
I also got a lot of confidence from my family growing up, my friends, surrounding myself with people who I know that are going to lift me up when I need that help sometimes, because even though our confidence does have to come from us, sometimes we just need a friend to help us when we're down. That's also a very important thing-- just surrounding yourself with people who encourage you and challenge you to be better, but also not in a negative way.
Right. You don't want to be around people who bring you down because it's so important to have a great support system.
Then, the transition from college to pro: what decision process did you go through to decide to actually go into the pro league? When we know that the pay isn't great, but yet not very many women make it to that level. There's not very many teams; there's nine teams. So, what decision process did you go through to decide in your junior or senior year of college, to continue on to be pro or not? And then, what advice would you give to girls that are in that same situation today?
So, my goal in college, my goal forever, a dream is to be on the Women's National Team because they have just set the bar at such a high level, and I think every young girl in America at one point wants to play for them to play soccer. But yeah, that was my goal. And that still is my goal. And for a while, I knew college was a step that I can take to get there.
But after that, as you were talking about, the professional scene for women, there's been a couple of failed leagues. It wasn't entirely sure what a professional career would look like. But thankfully, as I came into my sophomore, junior year, the NWSL was really picking up steam, and I really got into it and started watching and following these players and seeing how much talent and opportunity was there. And, that made me really excited. So, then my next step was like, “Okay, do I want to play in this league? It looks really intense and am I going to be up for it?”
I was really just focused on trying to be the best college player possible. I wasn't really thinking about professionally. I just wanted my team to do really well. The sport was so much more fun when we did well. But, I think it was really going into my senior year, and being a captain and just a leader on the team, I just wanted the team to have a good season. So, I was just working so hard to ensure that happened. And then, we thankfully had an awesome season and ended up in the final four again, and that puts you in a great position to get drafted. So, the chips kind of just fell into the right spot.
Once I got drafted to Sky Blue-- I'm from Maryland originally and my family still lives there. So, it's not far from home and I still get to play with players that I adore and look up to, and to be a part of that environment was very surreal, but something that I was like, “Why not try it and go for it?”
It's exciting to hear that you still have the dream to make it on the US Women's National Team. I hope to see you on that team someday.
And, I'm curious to know, during this journey: was there ever a moment where you thought you wanted to quit? I'm not sure if you know the stats, but there are some alarming stats, especially in the ages of 13 through 17 where girls do quit sport at a much faster rate than boys. And so, I do think it's important to talk about why. And so, have you ever thought about quitting and if so, why and how'd you stick with it?
My challenges more so came in college, but it's definitely been something that I have thought about from a young age because for a long time, my goal has been the full team, but my goal for a long time was also just getting a full scholarship. I was like, “I want a scholarship. I want to pay for college. If I can do that, that's awesome.” But, in a lot of ways, I feel like sometimes you have to sacrifice kind of your schoolwork and potentially setting yourself up for another career. Even in high school, I was thinking about: do I throw all my eggs into soccer or do I throw my eggs into other extracurriculars and everything?
I committed to Duke my sophomore year of high school, and I felt like I had the opportunity to pursue school a little more because I had committed to soccer. But, in college, I thought about that a lot because there are a lot of demands on your time, and you have to prioritize what you want to do. And sometimes, it becomes hard to feel like you're putting in enough effort into either. The women's game, we're not getting paid as much. It's not necessarily considered something that you can really make a comfortable lifestyle out of. So, women in the sport don't really expect to be in the professional soccer career for a very long time. And, for that reason, you're like, “Okay, well I need other skills. I can't just have soccer on my resume. I have to do other things.”
So, I think that contradiction hurts the sport because women have to make a choice that men don't often have to make in the same type of way. And, that's definitely something that I dealt with a lot in college because I would give up opportunities to do internships to be able to train. I wouldn't pursue clubs or extracurriculars as much as I would've liked to potentially, but I know that now as a professional, I try to do that a little more so that I have that option after I want to play. I think that's the biggest way that I dealt with quitting because sometimes I'll be like, “What am I doing? Why am I doing this?”
And, ultimately right now, it's because I want an opportunity with the full team. But, before, if you're not necessarily hitting that goal or having that consistent happiness, and there's other things in your life you feel like are more pressing, I do see why some girls leave the sport earlier than they'd probably like to, which is unfortunate and really upsetting because soccer is such a great sport and I feel like it's opened up so many pathways for me, even outside of the sport.
You know what? This is why we're creating VIS because it is unfortunate that at the highest level, there isn't the support we want to see for female athletes… yet. And, I always throw in yet because we created VIS to help get after this. Part of it is we need to bring more visibility to it. And, the other thing is that inequalities are still actually there for female athletes. And, just speaking about these topics is going to help drive things forward. And, I do believe that as a female athlete, because our journey is so strong with inequalities and challenges that we really have to support each other.
So, I really like what you said about thinking about the other aspects of your life because it not just helps you get through those earlier years so you don't burn out, but it also helps you later when you can use your platform, your strength from sport, and you can do something really powerful.
Couldn't agree more.
Let's talk about mental health. This is an important one. We talk a lot about physical strength, and no doubt, it's important to have that physical strength, especially when you're going into college. That's a big shift but talk about the mental side. What challenges did you face mentally and how did you overcome?
Concerning mental health, everybody has one or two things that they really kind of struggle with throughout their life or their career. For my career, I've always struggled with the pressure that I put on myself and the pressure to win. Especially from a young age, it felt like I had a responsibility to perform for my team to win. Even though I would downplay it, that was definitely something that affected my actions and how I prepared. Even though I think, in some ways, a little bit of pressure is good because it helps you perform, and it helps you push through, too much of it is crumbling. It becomes debilitating, and you don't want that.
I think my journey with mental health is definitely a roller coaster. We definitely have high points and we definitely hit low points. Over time, I've learned what works for me and what coping mechanisms help for me. I am not afraid to say it-- I go to therapy once a week, and I talk with somebody because that's a way for me to help get my thoughts out of my head and have somebody help me talk through what I'm feeling. And, that has been so helpful for me. I can't even describe how much less anxiety I have, which has been super helpful for me in terms of my sport. And, even from therapy, I've been able to learn different mechanisms of what also works for me, in terms of meditation and journaling.
Also, as we were talking about before, just developing areas of my life that aren't soccer-focused because a lot of my stress comes from the pressure I put on myself to perform in my sport. So, if I'm just sitting around and thinking about soccer all day, then I'm going to be more stressed. But, if I'm learning to draw, or do piano, different things that can have my interests other than, “Oh, how did I do in practice today?” Little things like that, that at the end of the day, are important, but they aren't everything. That was something that I knew in my mind, but the pressure of the sport can take away from that sometimes.
So, I think therapy has been a godsend for me, even just in the little ways. And, I've been really thankful for that. And, I've been thankful that my coaches are supportive of that. My parents encouraged me on that, and it's not something to look down on or see as a weakness, but rather you're taking care of yourself, and you're preparing yourself to be a better player because of it.
And, you are hands down stronger of a person for actually talking about it. And, that's what we want to make sure that all girls hear is we all have challenges on the mental health side, and they can come in a lot of different forms, and it's the power to speak up and to talk about it and to be vulnerable that really actually helps you through it.
And, it makes you a better person. It makes you a better friend. And so, I appreciate you sharing that and thank you for passing on those tips that you've learned because meditation and journaling can be really strong tools for any person, but definitely as an athlete.
I'm happy to share my experience. If I can help somebody, in any way, learn something a little earlier than I did, then I will call that a victory.
Another aspect that's really important to sport is feeling good about yourself. And, most of the time, I believe as female athletes, we step onto the field, the pitch, the court, and we feel strong, and we are psyched that we are powerful, and we're ready to go. It's the off-the-field moments that sometimes can be hard as a female athlete because you're strong, and you might not look the way society is showing on Instagram or other social media outlets. So, can you share a little bit about your journey with your own body and challenges that you may have faced as a female athlete?
Body image is something that unfortunately everyone, I think, deals with--men as well. Insecurity is something that is easy to creep up on us, especially as we're growing up as adolescents, and our bodies are changing a lot, and we're feeling a lot of different things. And, we're just getting a lot of different messages from so many different people, especially our culture--like in the movies we watch, in the TV we watch, in social media--those get into your head and that's something that's everybody's having to filter through now.
Body image is frustrating for a female athlete because you want to be the best of your sport. And, sometimes it feels like, “Oh, well for me to be the best in my sport, I have to sacrifice what I feel like my physical appearance is supposed to look like,” which shouldn't be the case at all. And, as I've gotten older, there are a lot of women on Instagram, female athletes especially, who are just showing off their bodies and showing how powerful and strong they are. Serena Williams is one of my idols, and I have a picture of her on my wall in my room, just because she's incredible. And, it's so upsetting to see how much adversity she's had to go through when she's literally the best tennis player to ever play the game. It's just ridiculous, the ways that people find to tear other people down.
At the end of the day, I still struggle with it myself, trying to figure out the best way to deal with hate. I've had a couple of experiences and it's just like, “Why are people mean? it doesn't make sense.” But, I think the best way that I combat it is having role models like Serena, but also being surrounded by incredibly strong, powerful, beautiful women. My teammates are literally the coolest people, and it lifts you up and makes you feel stronger when you're surrounded by a group of people who are just like, “You know what? We're awesome, and we love ourselves and we're going to love on each other.”
Yes. And, for those moments where you are by yourself and you're not around all those amazing women, recognize the thoughts that come into your head and try to reframe them into something positive. We need to be strong for ourselves and remind ourselves that we are strong and beautiful, and that there is not one ideal body type.
I couldn't agree more. I remember, in college, our sports psychologist told us one time that we would never speak to our friends the way that we speak to ourselves. I thought about that and I was like, “That is incredibly true.” I am so hard on myself, and I would never speak to my sister or my best friend like that because I want to lift them up. So, I'm like, “Why don't I feel the same way about myself?” Over time, just continuing to reiterate that positive self-talk and be aware of that negative self-talk. I think a lot of the times we're not even aware of it, but we can just spiral down into someplace that is not positive or healthy for us. But, being aware of that and being able to stop it and give yourself a compliment, or two compliments, or three.
Writing down affirmations about your body is a great way to get started. So, as a professional or even earlier on in your career, did you ever face challenges where people were commenting about what you look like or how you played, and how did you overcome that?
Growing up, I would be going to national team camps, and they would be all over a year, and sometimes they would be during seasons. So, I had a camp one time--I think it was my senior year during the middle of my high school season. I went to camp and came back, and we actually had a game on Saturday, and it was a big game. I flew home that morning, was very tired, and they always advise, “Don't play or train for two or three days after. Give your body a break.” And coach was still like, “You have to play,” and I'm like, “Look, I don't want to play. I'll bring my stuff, I'll warm up, but I'm not starting, and I'm not intending to play.”
Five minutes in, we get a PK scored on us. And so, he looks at me and he's like, “Are you going to play now? Come on.” I'm like, “Okay, fine, whatever. It’s a high school game. It's not a big of a deal.” [I] play in the game. We ended up losing 1-0, and everybody's bummed, but I'm just still mad that I even played in the game to begin with. But, I'm in the car going home, and I'm on Twitter, and I see a tweet from one of my teammate’s brother, and the tweet reads like, "Shout out to my sister, such and such. She was the real national team player tonight." And, I was just so taken aback because I felt like it was so out of left field and so unwarranted. The fact that I still remember the tweet is so ridiculous, but it was something that really stuck with me because hate and criticism sometimes isn't even from a place of logic; it's just unfair and unreasonable.
But, becoming a professional, that is something that is a part of the game. And, especially in the women's game, there are people who are always quick to be like, “You're not as good as the men; you're not as talented.” I remember in college actually, Duke posted on Instagram, I had gone in a streak of scoring six goals in a row and somebody commented like, "Well, it's easy, those goalies aren't good." It's something that still frustrates me because I don't think it's fair at all.
But, just kind of remembering that you're the one on the field, and you're the one that has this awesome opportunity is something that keeps me grounded in it because, at the end of the day, they're not going to take away the fact that I am a national team player or that I did score six goals or that I am playing in front of crowds of 20,000 people. Nobody's going to take that away from me. I'm grateful for where I am. And, I try to keep that at the forefront of my mind.
What is the superpower that you think you have gained from sport and how are you going to use it to drive something positive outside of sport?
I love soccer for the creativity and the freedom that it gives me as a player, but I think what's kept me in the sport is the fact that I feel like my superpower is thriving with the team. I get better when the team is closer knit because I like to feed other people, and I like to feed off other people's energy. And, I've continued to realize that that is something that translates outside of sport. Learning how to get along with people and utilize other people's strengths and understanding people's vulnerabilities and where they're coming from to get to a goal together-- that's so important for just everyday life. And, I think soccer really taught me that you need everybody and that you should enjoy and get to know the people that you're playing with because you're doing it together.
So, what are three single words you would use to describe your journey in sport as a female athlete? They don't have to be all positive. They just have to be honest and real.
I'd say invigorating, draining, but rewarding.
Very true. What is one single piece of advice you would give to all the girls in sport out there?
My one piece of advice would be: give yourself permission to not be okay and take care of yourself. Sometimes, we feel this need to always project this front that we're okay. We're always taught that we have to be tough, and we have to be gritty and push through things which is important in sports. Determination is good, but not at the cost of your own mental health and your wellbeing.
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Sometimes, you just need to take a second to acknowledge that things aren't going the way that I want them to and lean on your family and your friends for that help. You don't always have to do it yourself. It's important to find that strength in yourself, but sometimes you just need a friend to pick you up.
Cherish those things outside of your sport that make you happy and let yourself do them. I think also today, kids are told that they have to specialize so early and be training crazy hours,--that's not a bad thing,--but it's also okay if you want to do something else sometimes too. So, it's okay to not be okay.
That's the whole point of our podcast: to talk about the things that none of us really talk about because we think it's not okay or we're embarrassed. It is our mission to bring more visibility to female athletes like yourself and bring more visibility to these topics. So, thank you for joining us.
Of course. Thanks for having me. I'm so happy to provide my insight and hopefully help some people on their journey as well.
Thank you, Imani, for discussing the ups and downs of your incredible journey is sport and emphasizing the importance of surrounding yourself with people who are supportive. Imani reminded us that it’s okay to give yourself permission to not be okay, especially when you are struggling. There is so much power in sharing our experiences and openly discussing the power of therapy. Imani has a picture of Serena Williams on her wall, and we are adding an image of Imani up on our wall. We will continue to support you as you strive to join the U.S. Women’s National Team. You can follow Imani on Instagram @imdorsey.
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Host: Stef Strack
Producer: VIS Creator™ Anya Miller