Take Up Space
with Rachael Adams
13 Aug, 2020 · Volleyball
Rachael Adams, Professional Volleyball Player, describes her journey in sport as rewarding, perfectly imperfect, and fun. Rachael shares the importance of learning every day, positive self-talk, nutrition, and enjoying the journey.
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Today our guest is Rachael Adams, a professional volleyball player, Olympic bronze medalist, FIVB World Championship gold medalist, and former Division 1 volleyball player at the University of Texas at Austin. Growing up as a multisport athlete in an extremely athletic family, Rachael gravitated towards volleyball and she began to improve rapidly. Her focus on fun and her mindset of learning every day has carried her to great success. Today, Rachael shares her amazing journey in sport, and discusses the importance of nutrition, positive self-talk, confidence, and making the journey fun. Welcome to the Voice In Sport Podcast, Rachael. Super excited to have you.
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Thank you for having me Stef.
Let's start with your journey in sport. I would love to know what sports you played when you were younger and what was your journey all the way up to becoming a pro volleyball player?
One can say I was destined to play sports. My dad is 6'-9", my mom's 6'-1". My dad played in the NBA for a few years before playing professionally overseas, I was sprouting. I was becoming a huge weed, like just growing and growing. So people always thought I would play sports, but I wasn't spectacular. Even at a young age where people are like, "Oh, this is like a prodigy, she's going to be great." I was definitely uncoordinated. I wasn't the best one on my team by any means necessary. I had no spacial awareness. There is nothing, quote unquote, like, she's going to be great.
But I did play sports. I played soccer, volleyball, basketball, mainly to be with my friends. And also, cause I was tall, I was supposed to play sports and my parents put me in sports, but never pressured me or pushed me or be like, you have to do this or that -- just let me have fun, be with my friends. I thought going into high school, I was going to play basketball. I had a great program. My dad played basketball. Even though I played volleyball and basketball in grade school, I just was like, yeah, basketball is going to be my thing. In grade school I did join a club volleyball team, cause my best friend was on a club volleyball team. She had a traveler's bag and it had ribbons and bows and I was like, I want to be on a club volleyball team.
So, I joined one. The coach didn't really teach me too much about volleyball. In grade school, if you play volleyball, you go from one position to the next. But when you do club volleyball, everyone has specialized positions. There's no overlapping, there's rotations and there's a lot more rules and it becomes a lot more complicated and the coach never took time to teach me anything and laughed at me at some points and put me in when there's like one point left in the game. And I just felt absolutely horrible. I was like, "Mom, I don't want to do this anymore," and she's like, "Okay." And that was that.
So when I went into high school, I thought basketball was going to be my thing. I spent the night over at one of my best friend's house, and the next morning she had an incoming freshmen volleyball camp. Then she's like, "Hey, do you want to join me or sleep in?" And I was like, "I'll come." I don't know why I didn't pick sleep. I'm someone who loves sleep, nothing has changed. But I joined her. I asked the coach if I could bring my summer reading book and he said, "Sure, you can read." Five minutes later, he was like, "Do you want to join?" And I said, "Sure." I was horrible, all these girls have been playing club volleyball since a very young age. So I had technically no business being there, but the coaches believed in me and they took me by the hand and taught me everything. And then my goal was just to learn every single day I got into the gym and my dad always told me to be a sponge.
So, I became a sponge and every time someone told me something new, I'm soaking it up. Like, how can I get better? How can I get better? So every day I was just like, I want to get better and still till this day. I turn 30 next week and I still want to get into the gym every day and just get better. Like, how can I get better? Like, it never gets old for me. That's what keeps me entertained over all these years. After college I went to Texas and I played for four years. We went to three final fours and won national championship finals, and then I continued to play overseas. My first contract was in Poland and I played in Poland for two years. Then I played in Italy for three years, Turkey for two years, and then I had a contract in Japan for this year.
So, now I'm going back to Turkey, for this next season. Oh, I was in the Olympics too, 2016 Olympics. No big deal. I forgot about that. Minor detail. We took home a bronze medal, so it wasn't the gold, but it still is really cool to be able to take home a medal. Not many people in the world are Olympians, but not many Olympians have medals. And so realizing that I was like, "Okay, I do get to bring something home, but I'm still itching for that goal." So now we have one more year to prepare and that'll be in Tokyo, so hopefully I get chosen to go there. And so that's where I am.
What a great journey. And I think it's so interesting that you started out with volleyball, went to basketball, then made your way, but it didn't seem like winning or going pro was at the front and center of why you played volleyball and basketball when you were younger. So can you talk a little bit about that? Because I feel like sometimes there's so much pressure in sports to come in and go to the Olympics, or come in and go to a division one school. Can you just talk about that mindset? It is interesting to see an Olympian who has a medal, who went pro, who did do division one, sort of start their journey in sport with a different mindset.
I mean, it's kinda crazy, cause I never had this vision for myself from the beginning, and honestly every level opened up a new opportunity once I got there. For example, when I was graduating from Texas, I was majoring in advertising and I thought I was building my resume to go to New York, to join an advertising firm, to be an art director. I had no plan to go overseas cause, with the NCAA, they didn't allow you to talk to agents. And so that next level was so unknown to me and how to get there, how to do it. And then I talked with someone and they're like, "Hey, you should speak with this agent." And then I did. And he's like, "Oh, I can get you a contract in Poland." And I was like, "Okay, cool."
That's when my professional career started. So literally every step of my career, I don't want to say it was an accident, it just happened, and my parents never put pressure on me, you know, "You have to do these lessons" or "You have to get a scholarship to college" or " We have to make these trips to do this." I was fortunate enough to bring college attention to me, that I was able to choose where I wanted to go. And I'm sure parents only do that cause they want their kids to have the best option and set them up for success. To this day, I'm still having fun and I reevaluate my life it seems after every four years, you know, high school's four years, college is four years, Olympic quads are four years. And so I'm just like, "Hey, do I still love it? Yep. Okay. Let's keep going."
I love that you keep fun and that passion at the front and center of what you do. I think that can be a good compass for any girl out there that might be struggling in sport. We all know it's part mindset and part physical when you're trying to continue your journey in sport. Did you ever have challenges with confidence? And if so, how did you deal with that during those different phases of your career?
Since I did start volleyball so late in my career, I immediately was on the court feeling I was lacking, you know, lacking and skills, lacking in experience. And obviously I wanted to get better every day. But at the same time, I felt like I wasn't enough. And even getting a scholarship in college, I just kept carrying that same story around with me. And it wasn't until two years before the Olympics, where coach came up to me, you know, I was starting and he's like, "Why does it look like you don't deserve to be out there?" I'm like, "What are you talking about?" Like, "I'm fine." But it was that comment that really made me go internal and think about like, "What am I thinking about myself? Why am I playing small or not taking up space?"
And I realized I was telling myself these negative stories. And thankfully we had a sports psychiatrist that talked to us as a team, and he talked to us about positive and negative self talk. And he's like, "How is your guys's positive self talk?" And I was like, I don't talk to myself, what are you talking about? But he's like, "When you make a mistake, how do you talk to yourself? When you're trying something new, something difficult, how do you talk to yourself? When you make a mistake are you like, "Oh, I suck," or, "Why can't I do this?" or, "I'm not able to do that." He's like, "During this practice, monitor how you talk to yourself."
And I realized I was telling myself I'm not a good server. And every time I'd miss a serve, I would be like, "Oh, you suck, why can't you just serve it into the core?" That's definitely not lifting myself up or making me stand tall. It's definitely bringing me down. And so, once I started to realize that and how much power is in our thoughts and our words and what we tell ourselves, I wanted to make sure I was lifting myself up and not tearing myself down. And that summer after I would miss a serve, I would say, "Okay, I missed a serve, what can I fix? Was it the toss? Was it the direction? What is the technique ? And so that summer I got best server at the tournament.
And I was like, "Are you serious?" All I had to do is like lift myself up and, you know, not just berate myself for making mistakes and how I speak to myself. And so I realized how powerful words were and how we can either take up space or play small, by the way we speak to ourselves. Even going for new job opportunities or you starting this new brand and branching out to something different. Like, you could easily be like, "Oh, I'm not capable of doing this," or " I'm not enough to do this," or, "Who do I think I am?" So once you are aware of those words, you can tell yourself a different story. You know, I think of it like putting down that book and picking up another one and reading that one. That's how I am in my career. And, it's not like I am just perfect and like, okay, yeah, now I'm just positive Betty and whatever, but I have to catch myself and be aware of how I speak to myself every day and in all moments, even outside of sports.
Yes. I love that. And it's so important for us as leaders, as friends, as females, as female athletes to take up space. It is so important. And guys somehow get it down. And we sometimes think about everybody else or positive talk about everybody else except for ourselves. So I think those tips that you just shared are really important. So thank you for sharing that. For the girls that are out there right now, thinking about how they build confidence in their game, so that they are kind of stepping into the court, ready to transition to those new levels, whether that new level is high school to college or college to pro, what advice would you give to these girls who are trying to build their confidence as they're heading to that next level? How did you do it?
Obviously the first thing that comes up is so cliche: Believe in yourself. Just keep showing up every single day, putting in that work, keep going for it, building confidence in yourself and trusting yourself and keep going towards the difficult things and not shying away from them. Cause then you're telling yourself , "Oh, I can't do that," or, "I can't do this type of skill." That's not going to build confidence. So do those things that you think you can't do and prove yourself wrong and try out for that team that you don't think you're going to make, or make that play, or do that skill. I think that's what builds confidence, is doing things that scare you and doing things that you're telling yourself that you can't do.
I totally agree. And putting in the work and the preparation definitely gives you that confidence too. So as you were heading into your first year of college, if you can remember, what would you say was the biggest shock in that transition? And what would you tell the girls that are heading into college next year?
Maybe just the time management. Obviously in high school, you still have to manage your time, but in college, it's literally all over the place. Now you're flying to different states to play games and you're flying on school nights and you're landing on school nights. And just being able to manage everything on top of sports. Now you have tutors and reporting to academic advisors, and you want to have fun, there's more people to meet. So just managing your time and, get a planner. I love planners. I know your academic counselors are going to make you get one. Just have fun. Embrace it. Meet new people. Be open.
I have one of my best friends in my phone as “Soccer Leah” still from when I met her freshman year, I didn't want to change it, but we're best friends now. So just opening up and getting outside your sports and meeting new people. But volleyball wise, I would say the most shocking thing would be the demand, not that it's a job, but, it is a higher level of expectation and level of commitment. Just do your best and don't put so much pressure on yourself to be perfect or get everything right away. Just be gentle with yourself and your unique journey.
Being gentle is a great way to describe it because it can feel like you have a lot of pressure and a lot of different things pulling on you when you head to college, so taking a step back and being kind to yourself is always a good thing to keep in mind. As you transitioned to go to pro, what would you say has been the biggest shift for you and what keeps you at the top of your game today?
I mean, that was an even bigger transition, just because you're in a foreign country, it's a different language, you're alone. Going into college, you have a grasp on, like, who's going to be there, what girls are going to be in your class. Every college is pretty cookie cutter from the most part, but every league, every country overseas is so different, so you can't really compare your experience to someone else that played in the same country or the same team. And it's just different, for example, as the middle blocker in college, they don't want middle blockers to touch the second ball. In professional they expect you to touch the second ball, to have these skills.
I felt like a complete freshmen all over again. You know, you come out of college like, "Yeah, I went to Texas, I'm so good at volleyball." And then you're completely humbled. That's all I can say is you get humbled real quick. These girls have been playing professional volleyball for years and they have a unique skill level, just because they have a professional league unlike America. And, it's just definitely more advanced. I was just like, "Oh my God, I'm so bad" again, like, "Jesus, I thought I got over this, can't I just be good and understand the game?" But you just have to be easier on yourself and be like, "One day at a time, one practice at a time." Get a grasp on it little by little, and what keeps me at the top of my game is I like to get better every single day.
And, also my nutrition and the way I take care of my body. I love stretching. I love foam rolling. I love making sure I drink water. What I eat. Think of your body as a car and make sure you put good fuel in it. Literally, my body is my job. My body is my career, and if I want it to work the way I want to, if I want to make it through a five set match, if I want to perform at a high level, I have to put stuff in it that allows me to do that. I can't eat a Twinkie before a game and expect to not be gassed by the end of the game and expect to be beast mode with a Twinkie in my system, you know? So I try to make sure I have good fuel and I've learned what my body needs to operate a high level. I think that definitely allows me to stay in the game for a long time and just hang along as long as I have.
Yes. Dialing in nutrition and hydration is such a key component to being a great athlete. No matter what level you're at, it's something that I also wish I would have had a bit more attention to when I was younger. It's a great tip to pass on to the younger girls. Think about how your body is fueled by the right hydration and the right nutrients. It's not always easy, especially when you head into college though. So who did you lean on in these transition periods, when you went to college and then when you went to pro? How did you learn about nutrition?
It started out in college. We had a nutritionist and my world was definitely opened up when she started to teach us about reading labels and how to read them. Cause you think like, "Oh, just look at the calories," but there's more on a label than just calories. If you look at bread, she's like, you want the first ingredients and say whole wheat bread, whole wheat flour, not enriched flour or something. I'm like, "Oh, wow. I never knew there was a difference." I just picked the whole wheat and thought it was real whole wheat, but ingredients are everything.
Fast forward to that -- I was also in Italy. It was my second year in Italy and I had horrible acne. At this point I was 24 years old and I couldn't understand why I had inflammation everywhere. And I started researching and it said try taking out dairy, try doing this and that. First of all, I'm in Italy. Italy, like not eating dairy -- the cheese, the gelato, the Parmesano -- everything is cheese and dairy. I'm like, "You know what, I'm just going to do it," and so I did, and my skin literally cleared up in a month. I was reading about how cheese -- I'm not trying to convince anyone not to eat cheese, like everybody's different. I'm not against cheese. I'm just sharing my personal story.
I was reading more on how cheese can cause inflammation. My skin was literally inflamed. As an athlete, fighting inflammation is one of the biggest things for, like, injury and just our body and how it recovers. And I'm like, if this is just my face, imagining what's going on in my body, that I couldn't see. That just sent me on a path of being like, wow, everything that I put in my body really does make a difference -- something that's more like an anti-inflammatory food against cheese or things that have high hormones. That just sent me on the path of just learning about my body and how it reacts to certain things.
And everyone's different. Someone may not react to cheese like that, but I just decided to listen to my body. If my body tells me it doesn't like it, I don't eat it. I know some of my friends, they're like, "Oh, I get acid reflux when I eat this, but I'm still gonna eat it." I'm like, "But why? Your body's telling you to not eat it, you know?" That's just an example, I just try to listen to my body and the cues that it gives me. And that's just me learning about it.
There's so much power in listening and testing to figure out what's right for you because everybody's different. And everybody's going to need a different amount of fuel and a different combination of foods to really make them perform well. So I love the idea of learning, exploring, and making it a priority. And I was in Italy with my first job at Nike. And so I very much understand the pressure of Reggiano Parmigiano cheese and Pecorino.
It was difficult. At every team dinner, people are ordering risotto and Parmesan cheese. And after the games, we would go on a bus ride back to our city and they would bring in a stockpile of individual pizzas for every teammate. So the bus would just be filled of this pizza smell and I'm like, “Oh, I'll just eat my vegetables,” but I was like, "Ah, do it for the skin. Do it for the skin."
Okay, well, that's a perfect segue into what I want to talk about next. Because nutrition kind of goes hand in hand with mental toughness when it all comes down to body image. I'd love to hear what your internal narrative is to keep yourself in a positive mindset about your body. Whether you're an athlete or not, you're constantly thinking about your body because it is your machine and it is helping you perform. So can you share your journey, younger or now, to how you've been thinking about your body as an athlete?
When I was younger, I was just naturally thin, my nickname was Slim Jim. I didn't really change much until I got to college. I was still on the thinner side, but I quickly learned my body definitely reacts fast. So if I lift weights, I'm going to gain muscle. If I'm not lifting, that muscle's going to drop off. So it's good for me, but it's also hard ‘cause when we're on long trips outside the country, we don't get to lift that much. I have to make sure I'm maintaining my muscle.
But even as athletes, when we do lift, we have bigger bodies than normal girls, we have stronger thighs, and I had to really just remind myself, like, this is allowing me to do what I want to do. I have naturally strong thighs and legs and glute muscles, and glute muscles are so strong. So I love my body. But sometimes when I am lifting heavy weights, I look in the mirror and be like, "Ooh, my thighs are getting bigger," but I have to remind myself, "You know what? This is allowing you to jump higher." Just love my body, ‘cause it is forever changing and evolving. Even during this COVID, we're not able to lift so much, but my body's definitely getting a little bit leaner than it usually is able to get since we're not lifting so much weight. But I'm just trying to be gentle on it, you know, not looking in the mirror and be like, "Oh, your muscle's going away."
It can be hard though, right? We know that facts out there show that these young girls can fall out of sport because of confidence and body image, like what we're talking about today. And I wish that I could tell my younger self a few things about my body. You've been through a long journey. What would you tell your younger self about your body and about the internal thoughts to have in order to be keeping yourself in a positive place?
Just love on your body. It's able to do so much -- able to run, able to jump. Don't compare it to other people's bodies or even other people that don't play sports. I'm naturally muscular. I have muscular arms and to love how I do look fit, and I do have muscles, and I can be muscular. Honestly, just love your body. We all have different bodies and it's allowing us to do so much.
Yeah. And then not compare yourself, is easy to say, hard to do. But it is sort of an internal dialogue that you have to be aware of. Like you said at the beginning with your confident self-talk. So in training yourself to be kind to yourself and have positive self talk in those moments can really go a long way for girls.
Yeah. Just like in sports. Your mind is listening. If you wake up in the mirror and you're like, "Ohhh," talking bad about your body, it's not going to lift you up. Instead love yourself. I know it's easier said than done, but it's just you and you for the rest of your life. This relationship's forever. Let's support ourselves.
And write it down. If you're having a hard time, you can also write it down, put it on your wall.
Affirmation! I am all about affirmations. One of my favorites is, "I am strong. I am capable. I am enough."
Yes. I love that. I tell my daughter every night before she goes to bed. Well, I'm trying to train her to do it. She's six. So I say, "Okay, Sienna, I am kind, I am strong. I am beautiful. I am smart. Say it.” And she does. And now, now every time I say, "Okay, Siena," she's like, "I know mom, I'm strong. I'm smart. I'm beautiful. I'm kind." I'm like, "Yes. Yes you are."
I can't wait to do that for my future daughter, also if it's a son, that's huge for me. Like, I wish I could read this story to my younger Rachael self and just remind her all these things and I can't wait to pass that on for sure. I love that you do that.
It's funny because I don't feel like I have to do it for my son. And the interesting thing about having a son and a daughter is you see the things that are happening in society to sort of form confidence issues. That is when the moment hit me that I actually do have to approach my daughter and my son in a slightly different way, because I have to combat the societal pressures that young girls face that young boys don't. It was part of why I started Voice In Sport, these small moments where I saw my daughter facing society pressures or images that she felt like she needed to be, and she's only six. There's a lot of power in, one, talking about these things, two, positive self talk. So I appreciate you sharing all of those stories.
It's funny that you said that this story keeps coming up. There was a speaker at this conference and she was talking about the societal difference between men and women when it comes to applying for a job, and she said, "Men will apply for a job and knowingly not fulfill, like, thirty percent of the requirements, and women will not apply for the job unless they fulfill a hundred percent." Like how crazy is that?
Yeah, and it goes back deep rooted into this conversation of confidence. Somehow these young boys gain more confidence when they're younger right away. And so to tie it back to sport, these girls are falling out of sport for confidence reasons. And, so why? How can we arm them and fuel them with things that will really help enable them to get into the right mindset, to get past those hurdles, and then we got to do a better job just in general, as a society to try to change some of these norms that we put out there as signals to all these young girls. This is why we're creating this platform. It's going to take all of us together to do it. And it's so important.
Yeah. It's really important. Certainly with TikToks out there and social media, telling them to be like this, or act like this. I see 17-year-old girls and I look back at when I was 17. I was like, I did not look like that. They look so grown these days, you know? And I don't want younger girls to feel like they have to look like this or that.
What would be your one piece of advice that you would tell your younger self, a younger version of Rachael in sport? What advice would you give to her?
Take up space. I felt like I wasn't enough, but I was more than enough from the beginning. In all aspects of my life. I was a little rambunctious when I was younger, and I always felt like, "I'm too this or too that," but I was more than enough. I didn't have to be more of this or less of this. I'm enough exactly how I am in this moment and how I was in that moment. I don't have to wait when I was younger to have all these certain skills, to take up space and keep my head high. I would just tell her, "You are enough exactly the way you are."
Great advice. These are two questions I ask every female athlete that comes on Voice In Sport. So what is your superpower that you gained from sport and how are you going to use that to drive something positive outside of sport?
My super power that I have gained from sports is just being able to encourage others. I feel like I have a draw to share my experiences that I have gained through sports and share them with younger girls and others and try to lift them up just cause I wish I could go back and lift myself up and tell myself these things. So I want to do that for other young girls.
Love that. And what are the three words, three single words, you would use to describe your journey in sport as a female athlete?
How do I describe it? Rewarding. Trust it, trust the journey where it takes you up and down. It's never going to be a straight shot, but it's always rewarding and all the things that I learned from it and how I grow from it. So, rewarding. I would say... perfectly imperfect because all the imperfect moments have shaped me to who I am today, and I wouldn't want it to be perfect. There's no fun in a perfect journey where you don't fall down and didn't appreciate when you do get up.
What would be your third one? I don't want to put a word in your mouth, but you did say something that was really important at the beginning about why you loved sports.
Is my journey fun? I've enjoyed it.
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The good times and the bad times, obviously in the bad times, I'm like, "Can I just get outta here?" Like, "Is it gonna get better?" But those are the best parts of the journey. Basically I'm thankful for the good parts, the bad parts, the parts that make you want to turn around and give up or question it or fall down or doubt myself. It's all made me who I am and stronger today. So I'm definitely thankful for it all.
Amazing. Thank you so much, Rachael, for your time. It's so inspiring to hear somebody who has had a journey that started with fun all the way through to building confidence and the power of self-talk. So thank you for sharing all your stories with us today.
Thank you Stef. And thank you to everyone listening. I'm definitely sending all my good vibes out to everyone and just remember, believe in yourself and keep going on your journey even when the times are difficult.
Thank you, Rachael, for sharing your remarkable journey and the power of positive self-talk, having fun, and learning every single day. We have a choice...“Take up space or play small... by the way that we speak to ourselves” ...those are wise word coming from one of the best players in the world. Mastering our inner voice will lead to success on and off court and Rachael is proof. Lift yourself up - don't tear yourself or others down. You can follow Rachel on Instagram @rachaeladams.
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Host: Stef Strack
Producer: VIS Creators™ Madison Neuner & Anya Miller
Rachael Adams, Professional Volleyball Player, describes her journey in sport as rewarding, perfectly imperfect, and fun. Rachael shares the importance of learning every day, positive self-talk, nutrition, and enjoying the journey.