The Power of 3
with Kayla McCoy
24 Sep, 2020 · Soccer
Kayla McCoy, Professional Soccer Player openly speaks about her journey in sport and all the highs and lows with injuries, nutrition, balance, and the transition from the college level to pro.
Welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast. I'm your host, Steph Strack, the founder of Voice In Sport. As an athlete, professional, and mom, I have spent the last 20 years advocating for women and innovating across the sports industry. Now I want to bring more visibility to female athletes and elevate their voice at Voice In Sport.
We share untold stories from female athletes to inspire us all, to keep playing and change more than just the game.
Today, our guest is Kayla McCoy, professional soccer player for the Houston Dash Jamaican Women's National Team member and former division one student athlete at Duke today. Kayla speaks openly about her incredible journey in sport and all the highs and lows with her injuries, nutrition balance, and the transition from college level to pro.
Kayla reminds us that in life, you face adversity every day. And it is about how we overcome those obstacles that make or break us in life. The motivation comes from you and no one else, patients humility and hard work has paved Kayla's path in sport. And we are incredibly excited to have her here with us today.
Kayla, welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast.
Thank you for having me.
Let's start with your journey. We know that you played basketball and did a little bit of swimming growing up.
Let's hear about how you made that decision to go all in on soccer.
Yeah. I mean, like you said, I played basketball. I swam along with soccer, I think I started swimming at six. I started playing basketball at maybe eight. And I started playing soccer at four. So all of these sports were such a big part of my childhood. It's such a big part of growing up and I think I stopped swimming when I was 12.
So I swam for quite a while competitively and then I was just playing basketball and soccer for a while. Then once I got into high school, I basically decided that I had to pick one. And I ultimately chose soccer mainly because I just realized that I think I just loved it more. I loved the teammates that I played with.
I loved the sport of soccer. I loved watching soccer. I felt so much joy and freedom on the soccer field using my feet. So ultimately, I did choose soccer and that's the route that I went.
I think it's really hard when you're younger and you're at that age around 14 15, and practices start kind of picking up. Especially if you want to start being competitive in sports. And if you're playing multiple, it can just sort of be this decision point that happens. And either people are pressuring you to do it, or you just can't seem to manage it all.
And so what advice would you have to those girls that are in that moment right now, when they're trying to figure out what to do?
I mean, that was such a tough decision for me because my older sister played basketball and so I wanted to be just like her. And so that's what I wanted to do, you know? But ultimately, it's a decision you have to make for yourself.
If you're being pressured by somebody to choose and you're not ready to choose, then don't choose. You don't have to pick one or the other. It's on your own time. It's when you decide that this is what I want to do. This is what I want to put a hundred percent of my sports life into, and then you can decide.
I think I felt pressure from coaches that I needed to choose because you know, sometimes practices conflict or you have to miss things for one sport over the other. But I'm super grateful that I never felt pressured from my parents. And they encouraged me to pursue whatever it was that I wanted to pursue for as long as I wanted and to kind of make the decision when I was ready.
So I felt very ready. Once I kind of was able to determine that soccer is what I want to do. I think the decision is so much easier, but you have to feel that way for yourself.
You can't have somebody tell you that you need to choose if you're not ready. I think that's what I would say. It's a tough decision especially in America where people grow up playing any number of sports to try and decide which ones to do,. Which one you like best is such a tough decision.
And one that I definitely don't think you should make before you're ready.
I agree and it's so important. Make sure you're really listening to your own heart and your own voice at the end of the day. Because when you choose, you're the one left with the sport. You have to be the biggest driver of yourself to continue on to the levels you have created for yourself.
So you focused on soccer and then you transitioned into college. You went to one of the best universities in the U.S., Duke University. So what tips would you pass on to the girls If they're trying to decide number one, where to go. And then number two, how to prepare for that first year in college.
For me, ever since the beginning, academics was super important to me. My parents instilled that into me. And so when I was looking for a school, I wanted a school that would challenge me soccer wise, but also challenged me academically. And I feel like the majority of people do not have any idea what they want to do going into college.
But for me, I was always interested in studying medicine and Duke has just a phenomenal medical track and medical program. And so, when I was looking at schools, I knew what I was kind of interested in and that helped me kind of narrow down where I wanted to go. But, I think that one of the best pieces of advice I got before going into college was that as a student athlete, you can kind of fit your life into three different categories.
It's the athletics, it's academic and it's your social life. When you're going into college to determine what you prioritize out of those three, because ultimately it's going to be difficult to excel at all three of those things.
And I was told that you can excel at two of them probably. And then the third one might kind of trail along in the back, you know? And, not that if you want to excel academically and socially, that you won't be able to excel soccer wise too.
But you just kind of have to pick two things that you want to focus on going to college and prioritize those things. And for me, that was athletics and academics. And I still had a social life. Don't worry but, it just wasn't my main priority going into college.
And I think prioritizing what's important to you really helps set the standard for how your four years are going to go. And you want to make sure you prioritize what's important to you and not what's important to your parents and what's important to your coaches. Because like we talked about earlier, the motivation has to come from yourself and so you have to be motivated.
No one else can motivate you from the outside. And then I would also say that as you transition from high school to college, to just be all in for the team. Just be willing to throw yourself completely into, getting to know your teammates and building relationships. To work hard in practice to buying into the team culture, and the values of the team, because it might be a little bit of a shock as far as the level or your playing time.
But if you can really invest all of yourself into the team and being a part of that and build relationships and trying to improve as best you can, then I think that you will find so much more happiness and joy within what you're doing.
Because it can be a bit of a shock coming and being the best player on your high school team and then coming into college and you're not the best player anymore. Maybe you're not starting. Maybe you're not playing at all, it's a big transition.
It's a big jump, but I think that taking the mentality of, I'm just going to go with it and I'm just going to go for it and throw yourself into it a hundred percent, regardless of what your expectations were beforehand. Then you'll have so much more fun with it.
How do you deal with the confidence part of coming in when you were number one or two at your last high school team, and then you are on the bench your first year? How do you work through that? What are some practical tips you can pass on to the girls cause it probably will happen to half of them?
Right. I think that one of the big things going into college that catches people off guard when it comes to playing time or when it comes to their level and stuff, is that your coach is gonna say a lot of things to try and get you to come to their school. And whether or not those things actually happen or are totally accurate as far as they might say, Oh, we want you to play as soon as you get here, but then you get there and you're not playing.
So I think that it's important to kind of come in with just this humility and I hate to say low expectation, I don't think you should ever have low expectations for yourself. But I think if you come in with this expectation of I'm new here, I have to earn my spot. I'm going to have to outperform people that have been here for years if I want to get on the field.
So coming in with that humility and willingness to work hard and embrace your role and position on the team is so important because if you come in expecting things to be just handed to you or if you expect just cause your coach told you you're going to play that you're going to play, I think you'll be faced with more disappointment in the long run.
So, I think for me, I went into college with pretty low expectations of playing time and all that stuff, because I knew I was going into a very talented program. And I think then once I did get the chance to play, I was just like, Oh my gosh, so excited. I get two minutes, you know what I'm saying? You get to appreciate things more when you have lower expectations. (Kayla Laughter)
I can see this happening and a lot of girls facing this. So if you were to just whisper something into your ear, your freshmen version of you sitting on the bench that first (Kayla Agreeing) year, what would you whisper to her?
I think I would just tell little me to be patient and keep working. It's so easy to come in freshman year and if you don't play in the first game or the first month, or even the first season to just be so frustrated and so unhappy. But, I think ultimately if you keep working, if you keep doing those little things, if you keep mastering things that you're good at, and make yourself stand out. That eventually you will get that chance and your coach will see that and respect that.
So, I think patience is such an important thing and going above and beyond. Being willing to talk to your coach and be like, Hey, what do I need to do to be able to be on the field? What do I need to do to play more minutes? Asking your coach if they're willing to stay after with you to work on something you're not as good at.
And so I think it takes humility to put your team ahead of yourself in your own personal agenda and wanting to be playing while also, never being content and satisfied with where you are> but still trying to strive and achieve to be better and improve. And I think you'll get your chance.
I think everybody will get a chance. It's all a matter of what you do with that chance.
I think it's such great advice because you don't want to sit there your first year and be like, okay, I got a total playing time of 20 minutes over the whole first year. I'm going to quit.
(Kayla: Exactly) And that's where I think you have to also look at your entire role on the team is not just about what you play and how many minutes you play. But what are you doing around the rest of what it means to be part of a team?
So, let's talk about that, cause you have been at one of the best colleges and the best college teams, and then you went on to play pro. So, what do you think really makes a difference for the players that stand out and can be successful at those top programs and then into the pros?
I definitely think that the most successful players are the ones who are able to recognize the things that they're really good at and be really good at those things. No player is going to be the fastest, the most technical, the most athletic, the best at scoring goals. And also the best of defending.
Each individual person has their own strengths, that they ultimately have to identify themselves and work on improving and mastering those. And not to say that you can't improve things that you're not as good at, you should definitely do that.
But I think that at the highest level, when everybody around you is good and everybody around you has different strengths, it's so easy to look at other people and be like, Oh my gosh, you know, she's a better goal scorer than me, I want to be more like that. Or, Oh my gosh she's faster than me, I want to be more like that.
But you just need to take a step back and look at yourself and look at your own game and be like, here's what I do well, and I'm going to make sure I stand out for the things that I do well. That's really hard to do because you're constantly comparing yourself to other people, especially other people that play the same position as you and being like, Oh, she's better than me because she does this better than me.
But then also like you are probably better than her in some ways, and so I think that you should really grasp onto those things and make those what makes you the strongest player.
I love that. We're taught a lot to look at our weaknesses and focus on those and build those up and there is a lot of validation to why you should do that to become better, but there's also a ton of value in looking at your strengths and saying, okay, how am I going to master that strength and really make that the reason and the way that I shine.
So, before we moved off of total college experience, I love that you described these three buckets, right? That you have as part of your college experience, social school and sport. You picked obviously the academics and sport.
But you said you had a social life and I just want the younger girls to really understand, what kind of social life do you have when you're in college and you're playing a sport and you do have a focus on school and you were trying to get good grades. Do you really have a social life?
And if so, what does that look like?
Okay. Compared to someone that doesn't play a sport, they would probably be like, you had no social life, but to me and other athletes, I thought I had a social life. And I think within college I was involved in a lot of other things outside of school and outside of my sport, whether that be clubs or different organizations or volunteering, or even just friends.
I had a lot of friends that were athletes. I had a lot of friends that weren't athletes. I think it's so important to diversify yourself in terms of what you do, because if sport is all you do and all you think about, it's so easy to let that define you and to let the successes and failures of that dictate how you feel about yourself.
But, when you have things outside of sport, say you're doing well academically. That helps you steady your view of yourself. Even if your sport isn't going well for you right now, but hey, you're getting an a in this class, that's something to be proud of.
School is really tough. My sport was pretty tough, but I was involved in a campus ministry group. I was involved in female student athletes who want to study medicine very specific.
How many people were in that group? (Stef Laughing)
This is my own club and I am the one member. No, (Stef Laughing) but there's actually quite a few girls in that who had common interests outside of their sport. Then I was involved in volunteering. And then outside of that, just the friendships and the relationships that you have. My freshman year, some of my closest friends were the people that all lived on the same dorm floor as I did.
And we would all go to dinner together and we would hang out together all the time and, you know, that gives you , nice break from the pressures of sport and the pressures of school. Because college athletics and academics, it's a high pressure situation a lot of times.
So,you need that release and you need other areas of your life where those things aren't necessarily going your way. You need to find joy and validation in other things, so that's important.
Stef: Yes, very important. So let's then talk about your transition from college to pro because I'm assuming then you took all those learnings from your experience and balanced all of that into the pros. But, then in the pros, you are all in, that's your job. So what has the transition really been like?
And to the girls that are thinking about transitioning to pro what should they consider before making that decision?
I would say the transition was harder than I thought because I love my sport and I enjoyed school sort of sometimes. But it was hard. So,I was so excited to be able to just do my sport and no school with nothing else and I was like, this is gonna be the best thing ever.
But, I got out of college and I came into where sport is essentially now my whole life. And what I was talking about earlier about how it's so important to have things outside of your sport that help you find validation and confidence from suddenly after college, I didn't have those things anymore.
And I was like, I just go play my sport and then I just come back home for the rest of the day, and I live with people that also do my sport .So, we just talk about that all the time and then that's all you do and so I think the transition was tough because I had to get to a point where I was like alright, I needed to do something else. I need to get involved with volunteering. I need to read more books. I need a new hobby. I need to do something else because if I just come back from practice and I sit the rest of the day, thinking about how practice went, that can be such a draining and even damaging way to live.
And so, that for me was the biggest transition into pro life. But on top of that, when you go from highschool to college level jumps, right. You're like, "Oh wow, everyone's good and then you go from college to pro and you're like, wow, everyone's (Kayla Laughing) amazing".
So, I mean, it was college all over again. Going from being one of the best players on my team back to bottom of the totem pole. It's just waves all through life and just top bottoms up. So, that was definitely a big transition for me and having to refine my confidence and relearn how to play with a new group of people who now this team is totally different because this isn't a team of people who you go to practice together.
Then you go to class together, then you live together, then all that sort of stuff. You go to dinner together. This is a team of people who this is their job> this is their livelihood and so you come in and you train, and these are your coworkers and yes, they're your friends and they're your teammates.
And that relationship is important, but that's no longer the priority you go in and you do your job and then you leave and some people you just don't really hang out with outside of training. And so that was such a big transition for me too and I was just like, I really do miss the camaraderie of my college team.
I miss how close we lived to each other, how close we were as a group, how much we knew about each other. In the pro league, it takes a lot more effort to reach that level with people on the team. You don't know where you're going to be, the uncertainty of not knowing whether you'll be here next year or next week for that matter, it's a very uncertain place to be.
The pressure and the team environment is very different than it was in college.
Yeah, it makes you really look back I bet and be thankful for that time that you had in college because it is such a unique experience to be going through sport and school with an amazing group of females. So, it's a great thing to look back on and appreciate.
So, let's talk about that whole journey. You've had a long career, a lot more to come. You have probably faced adversity and so I want to go into the injuries you've had and how you have dealt with them over the years.
So, I tore my ACL twice, two different knees. And then I ruptured my achilles in college. I actually tore my ACL for the first time the summer after my freshman year of high school.
So I was pretty young, although that's getting more and more common these days, which is sad. But I was pretty young and I just remember being devastated because I was at the top of my game. I was playing great. I was confident. Colleges were looking at me and then suddenly done. And I just remember for a while I was in a pretty low place mentally.
I was just really sad. I was like, is this the end of soccer for me? And that's a very real thought for athletes when you're injured. Is this the end for me? And will I ever get back to the player? So ultimately, I was out for 10 months and I came back and I recovered well and I was playing well again.
And I was able to still get recruited and all that sort of thing, and everything worked out well. And then in college, my sophomore year I ruptured my Achilles. Freak accident and I feel like that just really doesn't happen very often. But, that was another really discouraging and disappointing thing for me because I'd come off having a really successful freshman season and I was just looking forward to sophomore year going from there, seeing what I could do.
And I was still a young player in the team so there weren't these huge expectations. So I had this bit more freedom and then suddenly an injury came and, I'm out for the season.
And so that was a really difficult injury to get over. But, I think learning from that experience, just continuing to be around the team, continuing to be involved with the team really helped me recover from that and bounce back from that. Because if you are injured and it's so important not to isolate yourself, because it's so easy to just be like," I'm just going to go hide away and I'll come back when I'm ready".
But my teammates really were so influential in helping me bounce back from that injury. And then this past year, I was playing with the Jamaican team and I had made the World Cup roster. And I was so excited and a week before the world cup, we were playing a friendly and I tore my other ACL. And that one was just absolutely crushing because we had been looking forward to the World Cup. That's something that you dream about playing in for female soccer players. You watch those games and you're like, I want to be there one day and I had this opportunity and I was going to do it.
And suddenly it was just taken from me and I think all three injuries were so challenging in all different ways. And I think that coming back from an injury versus another injury is never the same and every person's individual recovery process is not the same. I came back from one knee in 10 months and I came back from the next one in seven months. Everyone's process and recovery is not the same. However, I think just to provide some encouragement that you can come back and be just as good, if not better than you were before you were injured. And I think that has been proven time and time, again, both in my career and in other people's career.
No, it's very inspiring to see you as a professional soccer player on one of the very few teams that there are in the NWSL. You're there yet, you've had these three major injuries. I think it's very encouraging to share your stories. So I am wondering, since you have unfortunately had so many big injuries, you are a good person to ask this question.
What are three tips you would give to girls that are going through injuries right now in terms of coming out on the other side, stronger
The first thing I would say is that after an injury, regardless of how serious it is or how long you'll be out for, to just give yourself that time to be sad, to be disappointed, to be frustrated, that's fine. Take as much time as you need.
But I think in order to come back, to bounce back from that injury to return to your sport, I think it's so important to after you've had that period of time of sadness and disappointment to find that motivation again to start working towards recovery. Because it's going to be very difficult to work towards recovery.
If you're still sad and mad and all those are valid feelings. But you need to kind of put those aside when you're ready to find the motivation to do the work and to recover and get back to where you were, if that's what you want to do. I think the second thing I'd say is you really have to do the work you have to put in the work you have to put in the work outside of even what.
You doing PT for that hour or two a day, if you can. And I say this cautiously, because a lot of you who might be listening to this are the type that your physical therapists are going to tell you to slow down and do less. So don't overdo it. But if they give you free reign and they give you a sheet of exercises and they tell you to do it this as many times as you can, then you have to hold yourself accountable and really want to get better and push through the mundane and the boring and the seemingly pointless exercises that they give you. Sometimes they're not pointless.
I love that you called that out because I think that's how we all feel about those things that you receive. Like really? You want me to sit here with a straight leg and just lifted an inch and do that a hundred times?
Exactly. And that's valid, I can't tell you I probably did not even a thousand, 2000 leg raises. Like what is this even doing for me? I don't know. But anyways, they are worthwhile and they will pay off in the end to continue doing the little things and stay on top of it as much as you can. Recover, ice and recover. If it doesn't feel great to be honest about your body and just be like, I maybe need to take a step back. My third thing would be to while you are out of playing, and not able to do the sport that you love, that you would just take the time to reignite that passion and that flame and that love of the game.
That maybe when you're playing, you take it for granted or you're having a hard time. And so you are like, I hate this sport , why am I even doing it? You get injured and you miss it and you want to get back to it as quickly as possible. Harness that passion and harness that fire so that when you are back to playing, you just have this extra sense of gratitude for being able to play.
Of passion for the game that will hopefully carry you long into your career, even after an injury.
So we just had three tips: it's about injuries. I want you to tell us three tips about how to transition from high school to college, and then three tips from college to pro.
Kayla : Three tips for high school to college. I would say, tip number one is what are your priorities? Figure out what it is you want from your college experience. Do you want to be the top goal score at your program or do you just want to make best friends on your team? Do you want to get honor roll and Dean's list academically. Or do you just want to pass?
You know, C's get degrees. That's what my brother always says.
Don't get CS. But it all depends on what you value and prioritize. So I would say number one, figure out what your priority is going into college. Number two, I would say to throw yourself all into the team, to trainings, to your environment, to the city that your college is in go explore, learn about the city, build relationships with your teammates.
Go all into the experience and don't waste time worrying about things you can't control. Don't waste time doing things that you don't really want to do. I mean, obviously you have to do some things that you don't want to do, but if you can control it, don't waste time doing things that aren't going to benefit you and who you are. And just take full advantage of college and see what happens.
See where it takes you, say yes to things that you normally wouldn't say yes to. That's what I would say. And then the third thing. I kind of already mentioned this, but I'm going to go back on it is build relationships. College is such a perfect time for building relationships. My dad used to always say there's only two times in your life where you're around so many people of the same age as you and that's in college and the nursing homes.
So, college is a great place to build relationships, to build contacts, to build lifelong friendships, whether that be with teammates, with other athletes, with non-athletes, with professors. Build those important relationships and those are gonna last you throughout your whole lifetime.
Those are great tips. Okay and what about three tips for transitioning to
Three tips from college to pro I would say tip number one would be to identify your strengths. We talked about this a bit, but I think while you're still in college, it's really going to help you in your pro-life. If you can identify your strengths and what you're good at, nobody's on a pro team just because the coach likes them as a person. I hope your coach likes you as a person, but most of the time they're there because they think you can add value to the team. So figure out what it is that helps you add value and really focus on those things. Tip number two, I would say, find things to do outside of your sport, for sure. Whether that be picking up a new hobby, learning a new instrument, reading more, taking a class, you probably have time to take classes. That would be something else that I would definitely recommend. It gives your mind a break from your sport. And the third tip I would say is as much as you can control your confidence yourself. And control your joy of the game yourself. So don't let your coaches dictate your confidence.
Don't let how much you're playing dictate your confidence, how you're performing, dictate your confidence. Train yourself to dictate your own confidence. And I say this as somebody who's trying to learn how to do that for myself. Because it is so hard, it's really hard to do. But I am working on not letting external forces dictate how I feel about myself and how I perform.
And that is so important, especially at the professional level.
Those are also really great. So I ask all of my guests about their journey in sports. So it's another three questions.
What are three words you would use to describe your journey in sport as a female athlete?
I would say, challenging. My sport has challenged me that has put me in situations that challenge me. It has forced me to grow and it's torn me down in ways that. I never thought that soccer would ever do that to me. (laughs)
has been a challenge. And, my next word is actually rewarding because I think in spite of those challenges, I have found the sport to be extremely rewarding and not even. Solely on the field and in my performance, it has been rewarding and the relationships I've built, it's been rewarding. And, the places that soccer has taken me places that I would have never ever gone before.
And it's been rewarding in so many different ways that I will always look back on my career and be so grateful that I played grateful that I stuck with it. My third word would be have fun. I think it sounds like such a lame three letter word, but I think it's so important (laughs) that your sport is fun for you.
It's a very common thing to say, especially within female athletics, that as soon as I stop enjoying it, I'm going to stop doing it. And I think for me throughout my entire career, I just love to play and it's so fun. And so there will even be times when I'm like, this is not fun.
Running beep tests is not fun, but then I take a step back and I'm like I love playing soccer. It really is fun overall. And I think that until I don't find it fun anymore, I'm going to keep playing.
It is a short little word, but it's an important word. And it's a good word for you.
My last question for you, Kayla is if you could just tell your younger self a piece of advice for your journey in sport, what would you tell all of the girls out there?
I would say firstly, don't ruin your experience by stressing and worrying about things that are out of your control. I think looking back on my career, I spent so much time worrying about the future, worrying about what my coaches thought of me and expected of me. That I missed out on so many things, just because I let worry kind of inhibit my joy in the game and the fact that I loved where I was and I loved what I was doing.
And so that would be the first thing I said. But more importantly, I would recommend that athletes out there, let them take their sport as far as it can. Don't let your sport dictate how you feel about yourself, but use that sport to get you into school, get that free education.
If you love to play, use it to take you as many places as it can. I mean, soccer has taken me to Africa. It's taken me to Asia. It's taking me to Europe. Soccer has taken me places I would have never ever had the chance to otherwise. It's introduced me to so many people. It has given me an education at one of the best Universities in America.
Let your sport pave a way for you to do things that you never thought you could. Use that sport. Enjoy it, love it. And play for as long as you possibly can and want to that's what I would say.
Well, those are two really amazing things, but I'm not going to let you get off the hook now without a third, since everything was great.
Okay well let me think. The third thing I would say is, have fun with it. Have fun with it. There we go. Done.
Done. Thank you so much, Kayla. It was amazing to have you on the podcast. What we covered today will help a lot of girls. So thank you for taking the time.
Good! Yes. Thank you for having me
Thank you, Kayla for sharing your journey with us. Your reminder that motivation must come from within is so powerful and very insightful when it comes to injuries, plane time, or just achieving our lifelong goals. Your advice on how to prioritize what's important and working hard to pursue our dreams are tools that will help us all find success in sport and beyond.
We are so grateful for all of your wisdom. You can Kayla on Instagram at K underscore McCoy, underscore 12.
Please subscribe to the Voice In Sport podcast and give us a rating. You can follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and tick tock @voiceinsport. And if you are interested in joining our community as a member, you will have access to exclusive content mentorship from FEMA, athletes and advocacy tools.
Sign up @voiceandsport.com. And if you're interested in accelerating sports, science and research on the female athletic body, check out voice in sport foundation.org and get involved.
Host: Stef Strack
Producer: VIS Creators™ ____Arielle____ and Anya Miller