Transcend With Confidence
with Kendall Ellis
05 Oct, 2020 · Track and Field
Kendall Ellis, Professional Runner, dives into the transition from high school to college, the truth about becoming a pro, and her battle with performance anxiety, confidence, and mental health and how she ultimately overcame these obstacles.
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 Kendall Ellis. A professional runner sponsored by new balance, a VIS League member and a former division one student athlete at the University of Southern California. She became a viral sensation for her performance at the 2018 NCAA outdoor track and field national championships when USC made an unreal comeback in the women's four by 400 to win the team title.
Today, Kendall talks about the highs and lows of her journey in sports. As she dives into the transition from high school to college.
She opens up to us about the process of becoming a pro and her battle, starting in high school with performance anxiety, confidence, and mental health. In today's conversation we hear Kendall's story about how she overcame these obstacles. And we really hope you enjoy this episode as we continue to help break the stigma around mental health.
Kendall, welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast. We are so excited to have you here with us today.
Thanks for having me.
Let's start with your journey. I would love to know, when did you start running and when did you identify that was the sport for you?
I came from a household where my parents were very big on me and my two older sisters being well rounded. So it was an instrument, doing well in school, and playing sports. So I started like a lot of other little girls. I started out in dance. I was doing tap, jazz, ballet. And then, both my older sisters played basketball, so I decided to start playing that and I quickly realized team sports weren't really my thing ,wasn't really for me.
I didn't like the concept of I could have a really great game, but we would still lose if no one else was. And I just, it didn't sit right with me. So, we had a few really good family friends, who their children were in track. And my mom said, I always came home from school saying how fast I was and how I was beating all the boys recess.
And. She was like, okay, well let's do something with that. So she put me in track and I've been running since then. I went to the University of Southern California for college, and then I decided to go professional after my four years there. And I represent team USA and new balance.
What a great journey and starting at seven and sticking with the sport is pretty incredible. Especially when you look at the dropout rates for young girls that happened around, 14, 15, and then in high school. So what do you think kept you going all that time?
I think because of how much I enjoyed it. I really, really loved going to practice. I had a lot of friends on the team. So getting to go to competitions with them and the long bus rides and the hotel nights, that was all really, really enjoyable for me. And then beyond that, I found that I was good at the sport and it was really rewarding to work hard and practice and then go to a competition and come home with a metal.
I've always been really competitive. So for me, I thrive off of competition and I thrive off of seeing how good I can be at something. So since I found a sport that I was good at so early and was still succeeding at year after year, I decided to stick with that one.
Can you talk about your transition from high school to college. What were your biggest challenges?
One of the biggest challenges was the intensity of practice and competitions. In high school, they're more so local competitions until you go to the state championships where then you see everyone. But when it comes to college, your traveling almost every week to go see competition that you will see again at nationals.
So it's just on a greater scale and kind of making sure that you are prepared week after week to be your best self. It was also a matter of the workload in college is much different than that of high school. So trying to balance being a student while also being an athlete and succeeding on both the classroom and on the track.
What would be three pieces of advice you would tell your freshmen self going into college (Kendall Laughing) now that you know what you know now.
I think I would tell myself one, watch the late night (Laughing) snacks. It's really, really easy to get caught up in college life and being up late, studying and doing work. You may want to snack and it's not always the smartest thing to do. I would also tell myself to have fun, continue having fun. There's nothing wrong with going out with your friends.
There's nothing wrong with enjoying the perks of being in college, you know, all in moderation and whatnot. But don't think you can only be an athlete or you can only be a student. And I think the other thing I would tell myself also going along those lines was, don't be afraid to get involved.
You're an athlete, you have your teammates of course. But don't be afraid to make friends outside of the team. Don't be afraid to get involved in clubs and activities that aren't necessarily sports related. There's a lot to do in college and I kind of wish I would've explored that a little more.
So you mentioned one of the things you would do a little differently, looking back on your college experience was around nutrition.
So now as a female professional athlete, what have you learned about fueling your body and what would you pass on to younger female athletes?
I've learned that quantity definitely isn't necessarily a bad thing. I think a lot of times we are especially as women, we're told to eat less in order to be smaller skinnier. And there is a time period where was trying to do that. I was trying to get my weight down and I was like, okay, well, if I just eat less, that'll solve all the problems.
But in reality, that wasn't what needed to be done. I actually needed to be eating a lot more than I was eating because of the workouts I was doing at practice. And then out of calories and fat, I was burning, I needed to supply my muscles with energy and fuel to be able to do what it does at practice. So, nutrition has definitely become something very important that it's not just as simple as I thought before, you know, just eat what you need to eat, and you'll be fine.
The typical fruits, vegetables, high protein. It's a lot more complex than what it appears to be.
So what have you learned from your sports nutritionists now that you have as a professional athlete that maybe these younger girls don't have access to yet, but you can pass on some of that knowledge.
I have learned refueling your body right after either competition or practice is extremely important. Within those 20 minutes after doing a workout, your body is at its most vulnerable and that's when you need to refuel it with something protein. Whether it's a protein smoothie or it's something with peanut butter. But just getting something in your system to go ahead and start the recovery process will always be a good thing.
Yeah, it's so critical to do that within a very specific window right after you compete. Because that's when your body's needing that sort of refueling. So that's a great piece of advice to pass on. Well, one thing that goes kind of hand in hand with nutrition is body image and confidence and it's something that's unfortunately not talked a lot about within the community of athletics. But we're going to talk a lot about it here.
So confidence. This is so important because we know female athletes especially at a younger age, actually drop out of sport because of confidence issues. So we all know we have ups and downs and we have highs and lows in our sport journey. Can you talk about a moment in your sport journey that gave you a lot of confidence and what it did for you. And then alternatively , a moment that you lost your confidence and how did you get it back?
I can say 2017 world championship trials. I was a junior in college and coach and I decided let's go for the team. Let's see if we can make the team. And the initial game plan was kind of just to go for the relay, you know, get top sets, make the relay pool, and that'll be your first introduction to a USA senior team.
And I was like, cool, sounds good to me. We go over the race plan and everything, and we decided to attack each round as if we're trying to win. Because shoot for the moon and if you miss, you'll land amongst the stars as that was kind of the mindset we were going in with. So ran every round I got was trying to win and we get to the finals and he's like, okay, you know, don't approach it any differently. Run like you're trying to get first place.
I got third. And that meant that I would be making it for the individual 400 and not just the relay pool. So you're very excited. I ran the fastest time I'd ever ran and it was just, Oh my gosh, We made the team we're going for the individual. We thought we were just going to go with relay.
So it was a very, very critical moment in my career as a whole just because we weren't expecting to do what we did. I wasn't expecting to run as fast as I did. And it was just a very, very groundbreaking moment for me that had my confidence on 10. And I was running with professionals, I was the only college women who made it.
So it was just really, really exciting and definitely a confidence booster for me. And then we got to the actual world championships a few months later and I hadn't ran any competitions prior to that meet and since making the team. So I wasn't feeling at my very best cause I'm the kind of person who I need competitions to do as my confidence. And I'm at the meet, feeling really nervous because I'm one of the youngest people there for team USA. I had never been on such a large stage before. So nerves were high, competence wasn't there and it showed. It definitely showed in the race. I didn't make it past the first round. I ran terrible to put it simply.
And I think at that moment, that was the most embarrassed I'd ever felt. And for me, my confidence was just shot. It was shot, it was done for. And I really struggled to get it back up months after that.
So after that devastating moment, you're in a dark spot. I think we all have been there as female athletes. The important thing is how do you move past that and get to the next. So, what did you do or looking back at that moment now, what would you tell others that maybe have just gone through a disappointing moment?
How do you get your confidence back?
For me it was give yourself a time to be upset. There's nothing wrong with being disappointed. There's nothing wrong with being sad about it because your feelings are valid and you have a legitimate reason to be upset about something. So I never want to shy away from feeling what you feel.
You have a right. But then it's like, okay, Kendall, it happened. It's over with, you can't go back and change it. So what can we do moving forward? You know, how do we prevent feeling like this again?
How do we prevent feeling embarrassed? How do we prevent a performance like that? So kind of just focusing on what's done is done. It's in the past, I can't change it. But what can I do in the future to not feel like that again?
Yeah, and I think it's also helpful too to surround yourself with support network. And an amazing group of people to believe in you, pick you back up. So how have you built that for yourself through your college experience and on then through the pros. Who is your support system?
I have an incredible support system. I still train as a professional with the same coach that I had in college. But I can say from the age of seven years old to high school. So 18, I had the same coach and we are still very, very close to this day. I still call him on a weekly basis to talk. And I think remembering your roots and kind of who is there from day one, who is seeing you at your very best, who's also seeing you at your worst.
Surrounding yourself with those people, really, really make the journey so much more enjoyable. I have my current coach and training partners. They only see the best in me, they never let me get too down on myself. They never let me pick at my flaws, there's always constructive criticism, but it's only to help me. It's going to make me better. Those are the people that I really enjoy having in my corner because they only want the best for me.
It's so important and it's also really important to have those people in place when you're transitioning from one part of your career to the next. So let's talk about when your transition from college to the pros. Can you talk about your last moment in college sports, winning that four by 400 at USC, and then the transition to pro life.
Yeah, my college career and did in viral fashion, (laughs) I can say. Earlier that day, I had lost the open 400 and that was super disappointing for me because I expected to win. It was expected that I was gonna win, and I didn't. So that was very disappointing, but the meet wasn't over, we still had a team title to win.
We still had more events to go. So putting your own disappointment aside and thinking about the greater good for the team. We had the four by four relay. We were pretty far behind at the time I ended up getting the baton. But we came out with the win and we ended up securing the national championship.
We got the title of something we'd been working for for years at that point. And it really is truly was a team effort.
And everyone just really, really put on their best effort and was looking out for the next person in order to accomplish the team goal.
It's incredible what you did. And for those of you that haven't seen it, you should definitely look it up on YouTube, to see how amazing she pulled through for her team at the end. So you finished with a bang in college and then you transitioned into becoming a professional female athlete. So can you talk to us about what does that transition look like?
What are the things that you should be prepared for?
Yeah, I think a lot of times professional athletes don't like to talk about what the signing process is really like. I don't know if there's a sense of fear or maybe potential backlash, but it's often under wraps for the most part. So as far as I knew and the stories that I'd been told it was you run fast and you do well in college.
And then you signed with the shoe company. It was that simple as far as I knew. And, I had the titles, I had the records, I had everything that you were supposed to have on paper. But for me, I didn't sign until maybe six months after that national championship and I had never heard of anyone in that situation before.
So I was very, very confused. I was very sad, very alone because no one I had known had ever been in a situation like this before. Not someone of my caliber who had the accolades. You know, it was run well, get a contract and that just wasn't happening for me. So for me, the transition was very, very difficult because it was a period of six long months where I don't have a source of income.
I am no longer a student athlete. I'm living in Los Angeles on my own, trying to figure it out. I was the only one that year in my team, in that circle who had gone pro and wasn't still a student in college. So this is my full time job at this point.
And it was just so incredibly lonely and such a difficult place to be in that I didn't know what to do. I wasn't sure how long this would last for until finally come six months later. I ended up signing a contract with new balance and it was professional from there.
That's amazing new balance got such an amazing athlete, yourself. So way to go new balance, but would love it if you can break down a little bit of the signing process for the female athletes that are either in the process of it, or they're about to go through it. What do they need to know, what would you tell these other girls to be more prepared for?
I would definitely say do your best not to compare yourself to others. It's extremely difficult, especially in today's day and age. And everything is broadcasted on social media and you're seeing the success that others have. And they just signed this contract with this company and you're wondering why is it not me?
Or what's taking so long. Honestly, and truly try not to compare your situation. You don't hear all the conversations that go on behind closed doors and you may never know what those conversations were. But at the end of the day, it's just a matter of focusing on what's for, you will be for you. It may take two months.
It may take six. It may take a year. You just don't know, but keep your head up. It is definitely possible. It's more than possible to be professional, even without a specific shoe company backing you. It's more than possible to be a year into being professional and then get a contract. it's not something that's never been done before.
So. Definitely just practicing patients . Keep your head up and keeping a good group of people around you is useful during that time.
You mentioned it when you're talking about the signing process, but even in sport, just the mental side is so important to focus on when you're trying to accomplish a goal. So can you talk a little bit about. The mental health journey that you've been on as a female athlete. Have you had moments in your journey from beginning to now where you are today, where you've struggled with mental health, and can you share a little bit about your journey?
Yeah, definitely. I've been running since I was seven years old and I've always, always, always been very, very anxious before competitions. A lot of people chop it up to nerves and having butterflies, but for me It was that times 10 and it would be panic attacks before race. It would be throwing up and shaking and hyperventilating.
It was just a whole production every time I had to go and compete. And that had always been the case from seven years old through high school. And for me, the turning point was really my junior year of high school where my parents and coach sat me down and were like, okay, have to do something.
And I think what really, really sparked their concern was the fact that my coach has seen me do things in practice. He would see me hit times and that wouldn't translate when it came to competition. It was just consistently. And it was like, okay, if you can do these things in practice, what's the disconnect.
Why is it not happening at the track meets? And I think everyone knew that I wasn't reaching my full potential and they didn't want something like nerves and anxiety to be the reason why I wasn't as great as I could be. They didn't want that for me. And they didn't want to see me go through that week after week.
So, sat me down. We decided to go with the sports therapist who definitely changed the game for me. Definitely changed my experience, my relationship with track and field. And getting that kind of help and having someone who can help me identify what I was feeling and why I was doing that way. And then tell me how to calm that, and what to do in order to really start succeeding in track and field made a world of difference.
And how old were you when you had your first sport psych?
I was a junior in high school, so like 17 .And I was super, super resistant being a typical teenager. I remember first maybe three sessions I didn't say a word. We just sat in that office and we looked at each other and I was just like, I'm not talking (Kendall Laughing) because I don't want to do this.
I don't have a problem. I was very, very resistant and now I love my therapy sessions. I look forward to talking to him and seeing how I can improve.
Why do you think you were so resistant. Do you think it's society sort of the unfortunate taboo that they've placed on mental health that affected you?
Yes, I think so. Because at that time, it was 2013, 2014 and, you know, therapy today it is now very encouraged. It's sought after and it's kind of this thing. Yeah, I have a therapist like you don't. It's become very normalized, which is great. But back then, it was just like I didn't want to tell anyone I was going to therapy.
It was a stigma associated with mental health and therapy.
We are here to break that stigma of voice and sport and that's why we are so thankful for female athletes like you to come on and openly talk about the challenges that you faced in your sport journey and how it has really helped you by changing your mindset, So after you initially engaged with your sports therapist, what did you end up learning from them in your early years that helped you set up for a successful college experience?
I learned how to one, identify what I was feeling and why I was doing that way and kind of learned about what my triggers were and how to minimize those feelings. It was discussed early on that it'll probably never 100% go away. You're going to get nerve based. It's good to show them nervous.
It means you care about what you're doing. But, the extent that I was feeling nervous, sometimes months in advance of a competition, I could get myself worked up and my therapist definitely helped me. And introduced me to different tools that I used throughout college and one of my favorite being visualization, not just seeing yourself in the race, in the venue, in the middle of competition, but going so far as to " YouTubeing" the crowd noises.
So my body and brain could feel like it was in that environment again, knowing that it was okay. So when I really was in that situation, if you haven't done this before, you're okay the first time you'll be okay again. And just sitting myself then those moments and immersing myself and embracing what I used to be so scared of.
So if you're a female athlete out there and you know you're just not doing well on your journey, but not quite sure why or what the triggers are. I think it might be helpful to share a trigger, maybe a personal trigger that you've dealt with. And how you then used your mindset to really push through and overcome it.
Right. I think one of the things I used to do constantly in high school, especially a bad habit, was look up my competitions previous races. I would always look up what time they most recently ran. I would try to see what they were doing in practice. I was just so consumed with what everyone else was doing.
And I remember it would be right before race, the heats to come out. I'd see who I was running again, so that instantly run to Google, to look up their name, see what they had done the week before, and it was just such a bad habit. It became so normal for me to do that. And I was telling my therapist about it and he was like, just stop.
You need to stop doing that because you're looking up a person and seeing that she ran this time, week before that's sitting in your head.
Let's focus on you. What did you do that was great in practice last week, or what did you do in that last track meet that made you feel really good and you had a great result from that. So, eliminating my need to see what's going on with everyone else. And focusing that energy back on myself has been one of the best tools for me, because at the end of the day, you can't control what anyone else does, but yourself,
So how focus when you're actually in the race to run your own race and not focus on the other runners.
Sticking to the plan, sticking to whatever race plan that you and your coach have come up with. Is what makes me not focus on what's going on around me. Because if I'm telling myself, okay, coach says, I need to push in at this point, push in here, push in there, then that's all I'm focusing on. I don't really have time or the energy to see what's going on to my left and to my right, because I'm so focused on executing the plan
It's great advice. You know another shocking stat out there, 48% of girls in college face anxiety or depression, and these are girls in college sports. So there's some of the most determined, passionate, accomplished women and they're getting to college and they're facing anxiety and depression.
So given that you have leveraged and leaned into the fact that having a sport psych is a great thing, what advice would you give to the girls that are in college and might be facing some of these challenges on the mental health side? What would you encourage them to do?
I would encourage them to not be shy about it. A lot of times you'd be surprised to find that a lot of your teammates feel the same way. I had conversations with my teammate, who I thought she was the most confident person walking this earth. And I opened up to her about my struggles and how I was feeling.
And she had those same feelings often as well. Do not be ashamed about it, talking to your teammates, opening up to your coaches about it. Just you talking about it, even if it's not necessarily a professional therapist. But just getting it off your chest and not having to carry that by yourself can definitely be helpful in its own right.
And what can we all do as teammates? If we see one of our teammates struggling, but they're not speaking up, what's the best way to approach a teammate in that scenario.
I think just, boosting them up. I had a teammate who before I even verbalized how I was feeling, she would see now that a little hesitant before competition. She came over to me and highlighted something that I do very well. She was like, no one can finish as good as you Kendall.
You're the the best finish I've seen. So if your teammate doesn't feel comfortable, necessarily opening up and letting you know what's going on, but yeah. You may suspect that they're feeling something or even if they're not, it was nice to give someone a compliment. It's always nice to highlight.
Hey, you had a great practice today. I'm excited to see you, Ryan. I'm excited to see what you're going to do. And you know, just giving them that kind of boost even if they're not necessarily feeling that way themselves.
We believe there is a lot of power that female athletes harness by playing sport.
So what super power do you gain from sports and how are you going to use it to drive something positive outside of sport?
Confidence. I think that is definitely something I've gained from being an athlete and kind of becoming a prominent athlete in my sport. I get so many messages and DMs from young women, asking for advice.
And they're always very, very surprised when I respond. They're always like, Oh my gosh, I didn't think I'd get a reply. And I always sound like you feel free to DM me whenever you want. Like, I will always reply because I know how I would feel if I were to reach out to somebody I looked up to and they just ignored my message.
But, I never want to be that to somebody else. I always want to make sure that I'm in a position for a reason. And if someone looks up to me or someone wants a piece of advice or encouragement that I'm there to give it because I would like that growing up.
I love that it's a great, superpower to have and I know that you're going to do a lot of amazing things with that.
What are three words that you would use to describe your journey in sport as a female athlete
The three words I would use to describe my journey in sports so far would be transition, transform, and transcend. And I say transition because. Everything in life is transitional, going from AAU sports to middle school, to high school, to college, and then professional, there have always been new levels and new things to achieve.
And it's a bit of a process. You have to get used to the new things that are introduced at each level sport. And then transform because sometimes you don't have to become an entirely new person. But you learn so much more about yourself at every new level and they're just new things that you never would have discovered before.
And it's kind of a little bit of a transformation. Going from a seven year old, just having fun on the track to now a 24 year old professional who has other people looking up to her and other people she would like to make an impact on. Transforming into a woman and a role model for others.
And then transcend because a lot of times you just have to rise above. You have to rise above certain situations that may not be fair, or it may not seem like you're getting equal treatment. And you just have to rise above it and be the bigger person, understand that everything happens for a reason at the end of the day.
It'll all be good.
I love your three words and I love alliterations, so, okay. (Stef and Kendall Laughing) So if you had to think about your younger self and just give one piece of advice to all the female athletes out there, what would you tell them?
It's so cliche, but it's my favorite piece of advice to give because I wish I would have done this when I was younger, but have fun. I know there's so many moments that I have robbed myself of by just being really, really nervous and kind of taking it. Too seriously, not enjoying the time that I got to spend with my friends and my teammates and traveling to all these places that I've never been before, because I was so stressed and worried about the upcoming competition.
So there's so many moments that you should just have fun with and enjoy, and remember that, the sport and maybe your career and maybe something you really enjoy and love doing. But don't forget that. Don't forget the innocence of it all. And that you started because you were having fun, doing something.
Thank you so much for sharing so many personal stories about confidence and mental health. I know that it'll help a lot of female athletes out there, and we really appreciate you sharing your voice.
Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Thank you Kendall for being so open and sharing the struggles and triumphs of your incredible journey. It's so important to prioritize our mental health and break the stigma about seeking help during our journey. We all face struggles in our lives, and it's important to talk about them. And Kendall reminded us today to lean on our teammates during those tough times, because it is likely that they're feeling the same way at the same moment as you are.
The willingness to be vulnerable like Kendall and ask for help is never a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength and power and power is also the definition of his and Latin. It's. One of the reasons we picked the name for our community As Bernay Brown once said, vulnerability is not winning or losing. It's having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness. It's our greatest measure of courage.
So together we can break the stigma surrounding mental health and continue to change more than just the game. We're grateful for all the wisdom that Kendall shared with us today. And you can follow Kendall on Instagram and Twitter at K E N D. I underscore Kendall.
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Host: Stef Strack
Producer: VIS Creators™ _Arielle__ and Anya Miller