Joanna Lohman knows what it means to celebrate small victories while enduring larger battles. Joanna is a professional soccer player and renowned public speaker. She’s worked with major organizations like the Department of State, Proctor and Gamble, and TEDx to spread her message of authenticity across the world.
But throughout all this success, she had to face her biggest challenge in life — an ACL tear. As a professional athlete, this kind of injury is devastating. The road to recovery is both difficult and long. Throughout her efforts to heal her body, she practiced gratitude for the small achievements while seeing the beauty in the imperfect present.
Joanna’s injury isn’t the only difficult journey she’s been on. Her story is also one of self-discovery through identity and sexuality. Joanna inspires others to love their true selves regardless of what others might think or say. She sat down with Marla Isackson for Mind of a Mentor to share her story.
The following article is a transcription of Episode 9 featuring Joanna Lohman on Mind of a Mentor. To listen to the following interview, use the link below.
MI: Joanna, thank you so much for joining us today.
JL: Thank you! I’m so proud to be on Mind of a Mentor and Like a Boss Girls. With that intro, I have a lot to live up to, don’t I?
MI: Well, you’re pretty awesome, and that’s why we’re very excited to have this conversation with you! What I’d like to do is start from the beginning because I really want you to tell your story. Let’s start with Joanna as a child.
JL: I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, not far from where I live now. I have an older brother and an older sister, and I was the youngest of three. My mom and my dad have basically been my heroes since day one. I started playing soccer at the age of six, and I grew up in a community where I almost felt like I was being raised by a village. That made such a difference in terms of my youth. I’d spend basically every day of the summer at the community pool, I felt like I really belonged to something bigger and something greater and that was a very important piece of how that community ran.
My first soccer coach was actually my best friend’s mother, and I was part of a team made up of my best friends, which were mostly boys at that age. Honestly, my entire journey through soccer was very wholesome. At the age of 13, I joined a team called Bethesda Soccer, and again, that consisted of a lot of young women in my community and was coached by one of the player’s fathers. So it really felt like it was a family. Luckily for me, I grew up playing sports and learned so many essential lessons that I’ve taken with me throughout my life.
I think it’s so important to realize that life is, of course, about finding your own personal purpose and happiness, but it really revolves around being a part of something bigger. When you play a team sport, especially with people you’re so close with, I think that’s emphasized everyday. Also, I felt lucky that [growing up], I truly believed it was a meritocracy. I believed if I worked harder at something, that I would get incrementally higher. That was consistently reinforced at home, through school and also through sports.
I built this idea that I never wanted to give anything but my best. One of my favorite quotes is, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift”. I still think about that every day, every morning when I wake up. No matter what I do, I want to give all of myself in that moment. Whether that was soccer or school, I tried really hard. Even now, when I walk off the field and someone compliments me on a game and they say, “How do you do what you do?”, I answer with, “I just try really hard!” I’ve found that that’s really a lot of life — just putting yourself out there and trying. I learned that from a very young age, and I think it’s been one of the best things that I’ve carried with me through my life.
As I grew up playing youth soccer, I made the state team, and then the regional team, and eventually, the national team. I started with the Youth National Team, and then the Women’s National Team. I attended Penn State University, where I was four-time Academic All-American and three-time Athletic All-American, and I just really, really wanted to become a professional soccer player. I had that drive and that determination, and I worked really hard to see if I could get there. And now here I am! So it’s been an incredible journey for me.
MI: You mentioned that you started playing soccer when you were six. I’m thinking of my son — he played soccer when he was six and it was basically all these little kids clumping together on one end of the field. I can’t even wrap my head around the journey from there to playing soccer professionally — so I think that’s unbelievable.
But let’s talk about what you learned in terms of playing this sport as you grew up. My sense is that playing sports can help people create discipline in their life and helps them learn about being on a team. Can you talk a little bit more about when you were younger, as you were growing up and playing on all of these different teams — what were the life lessons you started to learn at an earlier age?
JL: This is so important to speak on. I think at a young age, through playing sports, you learn that there’s usually a winner and a loser, and I think even more so now, it’s so important for kids to learn how to lose. It’s important that you fall down and pick yourself back up again, and that your parents (even though we all love them) aren’t there to hold your hand and pull you up. You’re forced to figure out how to get up on your own.
As a kid, I played with boys a lot and they were often bigger, faster, and stronger than I was. I had a brother, and I was always playing with his friends, and they never took it easy on me. I’d come home with a bloody lip, a black eye, and I just loved it. I felt like when I set foot on a field, I was set free. I think when we play a sport, we lose a lot of the inhibitions we have in everyday life. You run and chase a ball and let go of self-consciousness and doubt. You really can just be yourself on the field, and you’re playing with people that — even if you have a lot of differences with them; cultural, racial gender, socioeconomic — you’re all on the field for the same reason. So it really levels the playing field, so to speak.
You work as a team to a common goal, and again, I think that’s so important in life. We’re not just isolated humans; we’re all a part of something. You’re a part of a family, a community, a church, or whatever is your passion, and it feels so good to know that you belong and you’re a part of that.
In addition to all of those things, you’re really vulnerable when you play sports. I was thinking about this the other day while working out. When you play a sport, you push yourself physically to your maximum, but you still often don’t get to that end goal. You don’t get what you want. That’s a hard thing to swallow for a lot of people. But when you’re vulnerable and really put yourself out there and fail and look probably a little bit silly, it’s still that resiliency and that strength that lets me think at this age, at 35, when I fall down, I still know I’m okay. I can get back up again.
If something bad happens in my life, I’m going to be okay because I’ve been through that so many different times. Those are just essential life lessons that kids really need to learn. That ability to problem solve and to figure it out and to fail and to come back the next day and still want it just as bad.
MI: So, is that something that you learned from your experience as a young player, or is this something also discussed by your coaches? I’m just curious because it’s always been a perception of mine that the coaches are all about “win, win, win”, but that doesn’t necessarily sound like your experience. So, talk a little bit about advice your coaches gave you and how you synthesized it to make it your own.
JL: Absolutely. I think as a parent and as a leader and as a coach, you obviously want your kids to succeed — but success comes from doing things the right way. Although clearly success doesn’t always come from doing things the right way. There have been games when our team has played amazing, the best we’ve ever played, but we still lost. And that’s life, right? That’s a lesson you have to learn, too. Everything may go as planned, but you still may not get that end result.
I think, for my family at home — especially my parents — they always emphasized the idea that the most important thing is being a good human being; being compassionate and treating others with respect. Regardless of how well you play on the field, that’s only one part of who you are as a whole. The person you are as a whole is so much greater than your individual parts.
My parents supported me so much. They came to every single one of my games and practices, but sports were never the end-all-be-all. I still had to get my schoolwork done. Same thing with my coaches and other leaders in my life. Sport is a part of who you’re going to be, and winning and losing is a very small part of that. Even if you lose, you’re not a loser. It doesn’t define you as a person. That’s really important for coaches and leaders to understand. These circumstances and these instances, these games, are just a small part of who their players or students are.
The beauty comes from being well-rounded and balanced, and really understanding that what happens on the field is a very small piece of the universe, right? When you walk off that field and shake hands with your opponent and say “good game” whether you won or lost, that’s the most important thing. If you really strive to do the right thing, to be a good athlete and a good person, no matter where you end up, that I think is the true definition of success.
On Mother’s Day: 1. Hug your Mom so hard she may pop 2. Teach Mom the ShakuShaku dance (swipe right to witness our sick moves!) 3. Pay tribute to your 96-yr old Grandma because she is a QUEEN! (swipe double right) . . ✅✅✅ Shout out to all the amazing Mother’s out there who make this world a better place. 👏🏻❤ . Shoutout to: @ordegafrancicsa17 Dance outfit: @geniunevalentine (Thank you!!!) . . #MothersDay #MyFavoriteHuman #loveyoumom #devotion #familyphoto #heartandsoul #homeiswheretheheartis #queens #matriarch #bestfriend
MI: I think this is amazing, Joanna, especially when the message today seems to be “win at all costs”. The fact that you really developed this sense of self-awareness and compassion is an amazing thing, so I really applaud you.
Did you play for your school team or was it mostly traveling soccer teams?
JL: When I was younger, I played on my high school team for three out of the four years, and that was more for social reasons. It was fun, and I wanted to be around my friends — but even more so now, I would say for the college aspect of it, to get identified [scouted for a college team], it’s mostly with your club teams. That’s where most of the emphasis was.
MI: How did you make your decision on where you wanted to go to college? I would assume that had a lot to do with your professional aspirations, but could you tell us about the whole process of going from high school and playing on club teams to making the decision as to where you were going to spend your college years?
JL: This is a really pivotal piece for a lot of youth players now. College seems to be a huge pressure for them. Where they’ll go to school, if they’ll get identified, if it’ll be Division I, Division II, etc. Luckily for me, I was good enough to know that I was going to go to a Division I, and I was also a good student. I really tried to find the schools that I knew would be a challenge for me, academically. That was my number-one priority.
I also wanted to find a school where I would make an immediate impact. I think that for a lot of kids, they want to go to the cream of the crop; the elite. I understand that is a desire for so many people — the name of the school, etc. But I think really contributing is such a big part of who we are. I didn’t want to sit on the bench for even my freshman year, let alone as a sophomore, junior and senior. So I wanted to find a school where I was going to fit in both as a student and as an athlete, and that fit me socially.
I didn’t really want to go down south. I always kind of felt like I was a “north” girl, so I looked at schools like UVA, Duke, Michigan and Penn State. I ended up choosing Penn State because I felt like I could make a huge impact as a freshman and I really enjoyed the school. I enjoyed my teammates and the coach.
I still do a lot of personal training and work a lot with clients and do mentorship, and I always tell the players I work with that there are 365 Division I schools. College is really what you make of it. You will find a school that fits you and it doesn’t have to be the number-one soccer school in the country. Find a school that’s really going to fit you as an athlete, as a student, and also as a person, because really the last thing you want to do is get there and sit on the bench or really not enjoy your classes or not like the social scene, and ending up having to transfer.
It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not necessarily ideal. So really take the time, because unfortunately, recruiting has gotten younger and younger. These kids are recruited at 14 or 15 years old and they don’t really know which school they want to go to. They’re really not even fully developed athletes yet, so there’s a danger there. I think kids really need to take the time to identify which schools fit them.
Ain’t too proud to snorkel. Even when I have to beg my 8yr old niece to borrow it. 😈😎 ————————————- Sanur, Bali – Indonesia 🇮🇩 Today was spent on the southeast coast of Bali on Sanur beach. A delightful day spent playing in the water with those I love the most. #joraya #crabs #boatclimbing #sanddiva #beachraces #dragonslayer #Seetheworld #Travel #snorkel #Neverstopexploring #globetrotter #rainbowwarrior #lostkids #bali #indonesia #auntjojo
MI: So I want to get into the mentoring piece in a moment, but before we get to that, I wanted to explore a little bit more about your experience at Penn State. Obviously, playing college is a very different set of expectations than playing high school club sports. What was it like transitioning to college soccer?
JL: It’s actually pretty intense. In college you have a very short season and a lot of games in that short season. It’s a fall sport, so you start in August and you’re done in late November or early December. It’s a short period of time. And then you’re starting classes, so it’s a lot to adapt to.
I think that I created a lot of great habits for myself in high school. Every day when I got home from school, I would do my homework right away, and then I’d go to soccer practice. I think habit formation is such a huge part of success. It comes from getting enough sleep, how you eat, getting your schoolwork done, understanding how you learn, and for me, that was taking really in-depth notes and then reading those notes over and over again when I studied for tests in college. I just knew that that was the best avenue for me to learn. I had to sit down in a quiet room, I couldn’t listen to music — that was the only way to absorb all the material for me.
So I think, again, [we need] that self-awareness of who we are, [knowing] what’s the best way [for us] to learn. If my friends are studying in a group, it’s okay if I don’t go to that group if that’s not the best thing for me. So I was really independent in that sense — I was going to do what was best for me in order to get the best grades and be the best athlete. Those aren’t always necessarily the most popular decisions, or the “cool” ones, but I was okay with that because I was really driven in terms of who I wanted to be.
I wanted to be a straight-A student and I wanted to be a professional soccer player, and there are choices that you have to make for your journey that will either help or hurt you [in] getting there. So honestly, it sounds silly but college wasn’t that hard for me because I think I had those habits built, even since middle school.
MI: That’s a really important point. I agree with you in terms of having enough self-awareness to figure out what works for you and what you need to do so you can achieve your goals. I think [that] is critically important. What I find amazing is that you were able to figure this out fairly early in life, because it usually takes a lot more time. That’s amazing.
My question to you is, what role did your college soccer coach play as you were on this road, in terms of developing as a college student, and second, as a premiere college soccer player? How did that work with your coach? Was it different than your experiences in high school?
JL: That’s a great question. It’s funny because the coach that I came to college for left after my freshman year. He left to go coach at the professional level. At first, that was scary for me because you get to a comfort level with your head coach and sometimes change is difficult. Luckily enough, our assistant coach was bumped up to our head coach, so it wasn’t a great degree of change. Of course, it’s still a different personality, and I went from having a male coach to a female coach, so that also comes with variations. [Fortunately,] I think I didn’t necessarily need much direction in terms of, “Okay, go get your school work done. This is what you have to do.” I kind of knew myself at that point.
I think a lot of the development I had in college was more in me as a person and a human being — like being away from your parents and what that feels like, and being thrown into a party scene. You have access to a lot of things you probably never had access to in high school. How do you juggle these things? How do you say no? How do you show that you have the discipline to go home on the weekends?
Because you’re not necessarily a normal student. You’re a student athlete, and that comes with its own challenges. For me, I really thrived in that, because I thrive in environments that have a bit of structure to them. I’m very independent, but I like to be independent in a structured environment. I like to have autonomy in terms of how I make my decisions, but I love knowing that, for example, I’m going to soccer practice from 9:00 – 11:00, and then I’m going to study hall for two hours, etc. I think [that] having my coaches set up that structure for me in the day [would have] really taken the choice out of it. It takes all of that brain power of,”What am I going to do today?” and says, “Okay, this is where you’re going to be. This is why you’re going to be there.” It allows me to really thrive and blossom as a human being.
When you wear a rainbow cape to work and crash an elementary school field day (scroll right)…just a typical day in the life of the Rainbow Warrior. Shout out to the kids who crushed me today at the bouncy ball race. Even bigger shout out to the boy who tried so hard he face planted. You remind me of me 😎 #Thisisactuallymyjob #peterpan #foreveryoung #nevergrowup #countdowntocapitalpride #sogay #kidatheart #rainbowwarrior #winning #allabouttheffort #notsmarterthana5thgrader
MI: The transition from high school to college is really one of the biggest challenges for a lot of young people. It’s a huge change, as you said. You’re away from your home, away from your family, you have to make your own rules, you have to make your own way. So I love your point that having the benefit of the structure that goes with being a college athlete made the transition a lot easier. That’s pretty extraordinary, because I know it’s a very challenging time in life.
JL: Yeah, I think especially going to such a big school like Penn State with hundreds of thousands of students, you can also feel lost. You feel like you’re surrounded by thousands but you’re all alone, because you don’t really know what direction to go in. But for an athlete, you immediately have a team and a family that you’re a part of. You have that structure, especially if you’re in a fall season sport. I felt like that was a huge asset for me.
If I ever struggled — because college has so many avenues to get help — if you’re struggling, all you have to do is reach out to a coach, to a guidance counselor, to a teacher, and they’re really there to help you. I got really close with my teachers because I wanted to learn, but I had to miss classes a lot. So what do you do when you miss class? You have to figure out a way to make up that work. So I think you build relationships with people that are very important throughout your four years. You learn right away, “How am I going to swim? [Because] I don’t want to sink.”
MI: That’s a really important point about college being a community. There are people who are there solely to help their students. I think that’s a great point to reinforce.
So, as you were going through your college experience, as a student athlete, probably kicking butt on your academics, what were you learning about yourself as a person? Any insights that you want to share?
JL: I had such a transition through college as a person. I went into college thinking I was straight. I was dating men, I had boyfriends, I was even engaged to a man [during] my senior year of college. And then I had an experience with a woman and at the end of my fifth year in college (I had to take some time off [of school] to play on the national team), I ended up discovering that I was gay. So I basically did a whole 180 in college.
College gives you that time to explore who you are — because again, you’re away from what you’ve always known, you’re introduced to concepts that you may not have been [introduced to] in your hometown, and you have the opportunity to really be the driver of your own life. For me, that was a bit tumultuous. I think, for all of us, the journey of self-discovery is never smooth. It has its ups and downs. Going from being engaged to a man to being gay was not only hard for me, but hard for everyone around me, because it was a humongous change. That isn’t necessarily always smooth.
For me in college, personally, it was essentially [about] discovering who I was. When I look back on college, it’s interesting because I have fond memories, but it’s almost like I was a different person. I am so much more like myself now, just from that journey — so looking back on that person, I almost don’t recognize her. And that’s not a negative thing. That just shows the growth that I’ve had as a person. You have to be extremely vulnerable to really self-discover like that; to look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Who are you?” I’m so much better off because of it, and I’m really happy now with who I am. I would never take away anything that I went through to get to where I am now.
MI: Let’s talk about that process, because even in a perfect situation, it’s not always easy. Any guidance or tips that you have for our listeners in terms of how to best go through a transition like this? There are definitely some action steps that you took to get from point A to point Z.
JL: Yes, I would love to. I think that in this day and age it’s even harder, because I think there’s a whole other layer with social media that I didn’t have when I was in college. I didn’t even have a cell phone until I was probably a junior in college, so the whole idea of Instagram, Snapchat, all of that stuff wasn’t really at the forefront.
I think the first thing is to not numb [our] feelings. I think with social media, we often share the best 1% of our lives. We are losing the importance of introspection. Our faults, our flaws…we just want to numb every feeling so we’re just feeling good. I think it’s so important to feel. If you’re sad, be sad. If you’re angry, be angry. If it’s happy, then feel happy! Unless you understand how you’re feeling, you’re never going to make the connection to your brain and your body and to who you want to be.
So I think that’s step one — existing and allowing yourself to live. I think I’m [at] my happiest when I get so into a moment that I’m lost in it. I’m so engaged in that moment. I think that often, as a society, we have a bad habit of not allowing people to feel sad, or to feel unhappy, but it’s such an important part of discovering who we are and what we like and what we don’t like.
I’m confronted with that a lot in everyday life. If there’s a day when I’m sad, people say, “Oh, don’t be sad,” and I think to myself, “I want to be sad. I want to allow myself to be sad.” I think it’s really [about] being brutally honest with yourself each and every single day about how you feel and consistently checking in. Is this what makes me happy? Luckily for me, I have a life in which every day I basically get to wake up and say, “What am I doing today?” That makes me hyper-aware of what I want to do and what I don’t want to do.
Throw back to last week when I became a lifelong @vikings fan after speaking at their LGBTQ summit. Headed back to where the magic happened on September 23rd, 2018 to watch the Vikings play the Bills and party in MINNEAPOLIS. SKOL!!!!!!!! Shout out to @travietrav_dmv for taking these awesome pics. #skillz #nfl #vikingslgbtq #lesbian #sogay #rainbowwarrior #minnesota #minneapolis #inclusion #diversity #equality #lgbtqtrailblazer #visibility #standforsomething #youcanplay #playwithapurpose #tbt #advocate #activist #pride
MI: I think that’s incredible. I appreciate that. As you’re going through this whole self-discovery process about key important life issues, at what point did you realize, “You know what? I have what it takes to be a professional athlete.” Can you just talk about how that transpired?
JL: Yeah, I don’t know if there was necessarily ever one moment. I think that, for me, I just always loved the process of getting better. That, in itself, was a gift. Sports forces you everyday to show up, and you have to bring your game. You can’t necessarily hide. So every day to get to play the sports that I love and get a little better was a day that I was grateful for.
I do remember…just after the 1999 Women’s World Cup when the Women’s World Cup team beat China in the final at the Rose Bowl. Brandi Chastain ripped off her shirt after getting the winning goal and really became an overnight success. The Women’s ‘99 team [went] to the White House and they invited local youth players to come and greet the ‘99 Women’s World Cup team at the White House. Luckily, I was one of those players that was invited. I just remember the reception that they got and the power that these women had and what they had accomplished.
Meeting them that day, I thought to myself, “I know this is what I want to do. I want to become a professional soccer player. I want to be on the women’s national team.” Once that kind of got into my brain, I just worked and worked and kept getting incrementally better and making higher level teams. Eventually I got to the women’s national team, but on that team, I was never one of the stars. I had to grind every single day to even be recognized and I was one of the last players cut before [what] I think [was] the 2007 or 2008 World Cup. So I never really got there, and I never played in a World Cup or at the Olympics — but you know, now I’m a women’s professional soccer player, and I really do feel like I have accomplished my dreams.
It was only about two years ago when the women’s national team was back playing in the World Cup. They invited my club team to watch the game at the White House, and they also invited some youth players. It was an incredible culmination to my journey — that at that point, I was standing up in front of the room, speaking to players that were me — these players who were wanting to become professional soccer players. I stood in front of them and said, “I’m a living and breathing example of someone [who has] achieved my dreams. I was sitting in your place in 1999, wanting to be a professional soccer player, and here I am today, speaking to you guys [about] it.” That was super powerful for me.
There were a handful of moments when I just knew I was on the right track. I kept putting one foot in front of the other and just kept going.
MI: So you went from college to the U.S. women’s national team?
JL: Yeah, I went from Penn State to the women’s national team — but also we’re in the third resurrection of a women’s professional soccer league, so I’ve also made it through two failed leagues. I consistently had to figure out a plan B and try to keep my dreams alive by going overseas or figuring out different ways to keep playing.
Watcha reading?! 👀 . . The 2018 issue of Kicker! the official by-kids, for-kids magazine of America SCORES. So proud to team up with this great organization and share a bit of advice, knowledge, and LOVE. Shout out to our local affiliate @dc_scores – these kids are doing BIG things!! . . #kicker2018 #americascores #community #leadership #youth #poetryslam #inspire #mentor #checkitout #hrc #equality #opportunity
MI: It just struck me in listening to you, that the position that you play is midfield, which is the position my son loves to play. Tell me what interests you about being a midfielder versus playing in other positions. The midfielder really does help move the game along. You’re driving the game. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
JL: I think the position I play is a true reflection of who I am as a human. I think as a midfielder, you’re a link. You’re a link between the defenders and the forwards, and you’re always involved. You’re running a lot, and I love to run. I think [that] as I’ve gotten older — and I’ve had some of the best years of my career as I’ve gotten older — I’ve truly understood my role on the team. My role has never been the star. My role for the Washington Spirit was to be the engine in the midfield. To run and chase and defend, win the ball back and give it to a player who is better than me to score the goals.
As a younger player that’s really hard to swallow, because you want to do it all. You want to be the one that gets all the attention, but now I’ve really let go of that. I think the true beauty is just contributing to the team and understanding that my strength is to win the ball as a defender and midfielder and give the ball to someone who is better than me. It doesn’t offend me. I think [that now] I really understand the weaknesses that I possess as a player — and the strengths — and I truly try to focus on my strengths.
MI: You are in the professional soccer realm, but you also mentioned some of the mentoring work that you do. Can we talk about that part of your life? How did that come about? What your focus, and how these two [parts of your life] work together?
JL: I think I’ve gained so much knowledge from the experiences I’ve been through as an athlete, as a female athlete, as a gay female athlete, and a gay female athlete in a sport that has failed multiple times on a professional level: problem solving, resiliency (in terms of figuring out a plan B), and playing overseas and traveling a lot [have given me the] perspective of not only being a female athlete in America, but being a female athlete in the entire world.
I really love to share my experiences with the players that I coach and also the women that I mentor, because these are not stories of blinding success. They’re often stories of failure, or falling over and picking myself back up again; of having to adapt and change and mold and push [myself] out of [my] comfort zone and getting comfortable with that. I think parents really find that to be extremely beneficial for their kids, because going through school now is quite a struggle. There are a lot of awkward and uncomfortable moments where [kids] trying to fit in and they don’t; there’s a lot of bullying now in terms of gender expression and popularity. I try to use soccer as a vehicle to teach life lessons and as a way of showing discipline, deliberateness, purposefulness, and [as a way] of really understanding who you are, setting goals, and getting there.
I also mentor a young woman who doesn’t play soccer at all. For those experiences, I really try to show the lighter side of life. Even as a 35-year-old, [I try to show a] youthfulness and vulnerability and putting myself out there and allowing her to see that; sharing various ways that I still allow myself to be vulnerable and allow myself to be put in positions of failure. How do you adapt to that? How do you build that resiliency? I think [that] for me personally, it’s really [about] trying to build strong, confident young women who really want to make a difference and who believe in themselves.
We tore our ACL’s one day apart and supported each other through a very tough year. Now, we are back in our @nwsl uniforms chasing that dream. Love you @amyrodriguez8 – you da f-n best. 😃❤👊🏻 . . #aclclub #weback #Arod #Johawk #Dynamicduo #oneyearlater #bettertogether #supportsystem #itwillbeokay #embracethestruggle #nwsl #washingtonspirit #utahroyalsfc #nwsl #prosoccerplayers 📸: @isiphotos
MI: In terms of where you are right now with your career, how do you continue to evolve and change, as you (quite frankly) get a little older? What’s the process of figuring that out?
JL: That’s such a great question, Marla, because I’m going into, believe it or not, uncharted territory. I’m coming off of a knee injury and I am going into a season where I don’t know how my body is going to hold up. I’ve been so terrified of having to retire. I love the game so much; it’s so deep into my core. [At the time] when I hurt my knee, I was terrified of 1) having to retire, and 2) having a significant injury — so looking back on tearing my ACL and the recovery process, I often tell people [that] it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I think that when something you’re so scared of happens, and [then] you thrive and get through it, you build this incredible sense of strength. It’s so empowering to know that you can get through that. It also gave me a chance to see life without soccer without having to totally lose it yet.
As I was redefining myself as [someone who was] not a professional soccer player anymore, who was I? That was a situation where I really had to redefine myself and I was able to do it. I saw life without soccer and it wasn’t that bad. With this season, I don’t know how it’s going to go. That’s terrifying and exhilarating because on the first day of preseason, I could do great, or [following] with my knee [injury], I could say, “You know what? I don’t know if I can do this anymore.” Knowing myself, I think I’ll be fine, but that’s a lot to conquer.
Every day now, I’m working my way back. [I’m] trying to get back, but I need to be really compassionate with myself and understand that if I can’t, it’s going to be okay. I’m not just a soccer player. I’m so much more than that. There are so many dimensions to who I am as a person. If I lose that one dimension, it is going to be heartbreaking — I’ll be shattered and I’ll be so upset — but I know after this past injury and recovery process that I’m going to be okay. I’ll figure it out, because I always do. That’s a really cool idea, to know that no matter what happens, I’m going to figure it out. I hope that kids listening today understand that. There are so many dimensions to who we are and if you lose one, you don’t lose yourself. You can really find other things that you’re passionate about. So hopefully people will stay tuned to my journey and we can all figure this out together.
MI: It’s interesting that you’re talking about this because, at some point in time, I think most of us have to pivot within our careers. Things happen and your focus changes. As you start to frame what life may look like at some point — and I certainly hope you’re healthy and [I wish] all good things for you this year — but when you’re [eventually] pivoting, who are you going to talk to about how to figure it out? Maybe [you have] some advice or tips and tricks that could help [men and] women who have hit a bump in the road, or may have had to make a career pivot based on a change. What’s the best way to put that [transition] together?
JL: I’m going to have to call you everyday, Marla! That’s the first thing I’ll do, so get ready for that.
MI: Any time!
JL: I think you find someone that [has] had the career and job that you’ve always wanted and you emulate them. You ask them to mentor you. If they say no, that’s okay. That happens. But if they say yes, think about all the knowledge and experience you can gain. You can shadow them and hopefully they can give you action steps to take to gain some experience into becoming who they are. There are a few people in my life that, outside of soccer, have a career that I think I would truly enjoy and thrive in. I have a good friend named Simon Sinek — he’s an author you might’ve heard of.
MI: I’m such a fan of his!
JL: We’ll have to see him together! He’s someone that is a huge wealth of knowledge for me. His entire company, Start With Why, is about finding your why, helping people find theirs, and I want to inspire, I want to speak, I want to really spread happiness and joy, and I need to figure out the best way to do that. So I think, like I just said, find someone who is doing that and copy them! Imitation is the highest form of flattery, right? So [I would suggest] choosing mentors, finding guides, and not being afraid of asking for help.
Today’s priorities as a coach: 1. Teach the girls about GALENTINES Day – February 13th – where ladies celebrate ladies. 2. Teach soccer I think we got it right 😁❤ #GalentinesDay #ParksandRec #Lead #empower #rainbowwarrior #coachjojo #inspire #priorities #squadgoals #bettertogether #thebeautifulgame #growthegame #weruntheworld #leslieknope #pawnee
MI: I think that’s an important point you’ve mentioned a couple times throughout our conversation because you’ve gone through some challenging times. We mentioned the ACL tear, and some of the knowledge you learned about yourself in terms of who you are and your sexuality. It sounds like (I’m going to make a leap here) mentors really helped you work these things out. Is that correct?
JL: Yeah, I’ve had terrific people in my life that have really extended their hand to help me. For instance, I worked in commercial real estate for a few years. That enabled me to build even more skills in terms of business, and also to build a wealth portfolio that’s allowed me to be a professional soccer player — because as we know, we don’t really make millions. That was because an older gentleman I worked with really believed in me.
Just recently, I had someone that really helped me with PR and helped me to take all the ideas I have and figure out which ones are the best ones. Again, this was someone who did it pro bono and really just believed in me. So identify two or three people who really believe in you, and make sure you trust and truly respect and admire them, and ask them, “How can I get better?” What can I do? Everyone really wants to leave a legacy, and a legacy is left through what you teach each other. I think people really want to help you if you do it the right way.
MI: We’re almost out of time, but we’ve talked about a couple of very important things. One is the importance of a mentor. The second thing we talked about, which really made an impression on me, was [the importance of] understanding your [personal] learning style and the way you approach challenges to help put some structure around ongoing life problem solving. Any other key tips that you want to share with our listeners that you feel are really critical?
JL: I think what I really learned through my injury recently is that you really have to let go of a lot of things and I think it’s important now. There’s something that I learned called the Stockdale Paradox when I was injured. There was an admiral in the Vietnam War named Stockdale and he was a prisoner of war for seven years, and he figured out how to survive for those seven years. The paradox says, essentially, that we can never lose hope. We always have to realize that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but we have to brutally accept our circumstances.
When I got injured, I had to believe that one day I was going to get better, but was okay for me to realize that those circumstances in that immediate moment. It sucks, right? It hurts. It’s painful. I think [that when] we try to sugarcoat things, it never works out. I think it comes [from] self-awareness; being able to let go of who we want to be, or who we “should” be, and really accepting who we are in that moment. That will allow us to get better. If we accept ourselves for who we are — our imperfections, our faults, our flaws — and realize that no one is perfect, and truly love ourselves for [the] person [we are] in that exact moment…it’s incredible how much weight you [can] let go of when you just come to that conclusion.
That really helped me to get through a lot of tough times, career-wise — to realize, “Okay, this is just a circumstance. This problem is not bigger than who I am. I will conquer this.” But it’s okay to admit that I’m hurting. It’s okay to admit that I need help. It’s okay to admit that I’m in pain. It’s not forever, it’s not eternal. The quicker we can admit that, and feel that, the easier it will be for us to get beyond it.
For young kids growing up, just realize that you’re not alone, and we all go through moments of self-doubt and pain and suffering, but you have to believe at all times that you can get through it. I just think that’s such an important concept these days, because there’s a lot of hard stuff when you grow up — but you have to believe (and I can tell you from personal experience) that it does get better. If you work at it, reach out for help, and find the right people, there are people who can help to guide you and get you to a better place. I hope people understand that.
MI: Thank you. I think that’s so important. As you were talking, I thought about the children’s book, The Little Engine That Could. A lot of what you talked about is in that book: “I think I can, I know I can.” So hats off to you for all that you’ve accomplished and all that you’ve brought to the world! I am excited for your season and excited to hear the next story and all of the next chapters in your life.
So again, I want to thank you so much for spending your time with us, taking the time to tell your story, and I want to thank everyone for joining us today. I’m Marla Isackson and this has been Mind of a Mentor. Thank you, Joanna!
JL: Thank you, Marla!
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