March is Girls Sports Month, and as part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ third-annual Girls Sports Month celebration, we’re speaking with some of the most influential female athletes, coaches and celebrities in the sports world. UCLA assistant softball coach Lisa Fernandez, a three-time gold medal-winner who was recently inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame, discusses growing up in sports and how it shaped her as a person.
USA TODAY: How did you get started playing sports?
Lisa Fernandez: My mom used to play in a women’s slow-pitch softball league every Monday and Wednesday, and she would just take me along. I grew up going to the parks and being around the game. My dad is first-generation Cuban, and to have his support in terms of allowing his daughter to be athletic and to go to the fields and play ball was instrumental.
USAT: So was it your parents who mentored you and got you really interested in sports? Was that who you looked up to?
Fernandez: I think so, absolutely. But when I look back, I think of all those women in the league. They were all role models for me. I started to look at these women and say, ‘look at this lady! She can run and hit and field.’ And here they were, moms, that would get together two times a week and play slow-pitch softball games. I’m sure some of those women probably didn’t realize the influence they had on me, realizing that it was okay to play and be athletic and be aggressive. I really admired those women. I was very blessed and very fortunate.
USAT: Was there ever a time in your life when you realized that perhaps your ability was going to take you places?
Fernandez: I think at least part of my success is that I’ve always had somewhat of an underdog mentality. I never have ever viewed myself as someone who was physically superior to someone else. But I knew early on that I had a different mentality than everybody else. I didn’t recognize at that moment, when I was in it, but now that I’m older and I can understand it a bit more.
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I always wanted to master skills. And I knew early on that my mom recognized that in me. She used to buy puzzles and she would time me. To me, that was normal. I remember playing kickball, and there was a kid that was better at dodging the ball than me. So what did I do? I would get a friend to repeatedly throw the ball at me as I tried to learn how to dodge the ball better.
It even got to the point where my mom would play a game with me and I would try to figure out any way I could to beat her, and she finally had to draw the line and say, ‘if you’re not going to play the right way we’re not playing.’ I would resort to cheating if it meant I would win!
But I had to learn to play the right way. I think, though, it was that mentality that allowed me to become what I would ultimately become. I always felt if someone else could accomplish it, I could too, if not better, and I was going to do everything I could to figure out how. And having role models was huge. If I could see someone else do something, why can’t I?
USAT: What was it specifically about that mindset that allowed you to be so successful?
Fernandez: You know, for some people, they could miss their spot on a pitch by an inch and think, ‘well that’s good enough.’ But for me, not only was it not good enough, but it didn’t deject me from believing that I could do it. That’s probably the biggest thing.
There are two ways that people can look at failure. Some people see failure and run away from it and they ignore it or think it was a fluke, or you can look at failure and think, ‘what am I going to do about it?’ And they can use it as a motivator. I’d be interested in figuring out if that’s the difference. One views failure as a motivator, and one sees it as a helplessness.
USAT: Do you feel a certain responsibility to cultivate this love of competition with your own children?
Fernandez: I think it’s invaluable. You have to have it. I think that’s life. I think it’s important to learn the skills you learn in competition. My mindset may be a little over the top. People will say, ‘Lisa, you’re so competitive’ and I really don’t think I am, that’s just the way it is. Why wouldn’t you want to do something better? I never thought of it like that. It’s just what I do.
With my son, I do try to be more even keeled. It’s not so much about winning as it is about giving your best. Did you do everything you could to be the best you could be on that day? Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. When I competed, I was always worried about not performing well. It was almost that that fear of not being prepared, with failure as a motivator, is what kept me on my toes.
USAT: You were just inducted into the hall of fame, and your high school ERA was 0.07. What can you tell us about those days?
Fernandez: I was very fortunate. I definitely competed. I can appreciate my career much more now than when I was in it. When I was in it, it was just my job. That’s what I trained for every day, and I had that fear of failure and disappointment. Now, when I look, I think, ‘dang, I was pretty good!’ But the game has changed, and I realize that things probably wouldn’t have been the same. Either that or I’d figure out a way.
In 2000, after we won two gold medals, they decided to move the mound back, and they changed the ball and moved the fences back, all with an attempt to level the playing field for Team USA that they wouldn’t be as dominant. I remember thinking about retiring after 2000, and when they did that, I was like, ‘are they saying I can’t? Screw that, I’m in.’ So I figured out a way. Maybe my strikeouts were down, but the end result was the same. You’ve got to figure out a way. Maybe you’re not going to strike everybody out, but you’re going to jam them up, and learn how to pitch, and learn how to put yourself in situations that are going to give you the best chance to prevent the other team from scoring any runs.
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