Julie Foudy is one of the most beloved women’s soccer stars in U.S. history. She played a capable supporting Scottie Pippen to record striker Mia Hamm, and has since gone on to blaze a trail for women broadcasters, providing studio analysis for both women’s and men’s soccer matches.
A two-time World Cup winner and the recipient of two Olympic gold medals and an Olympic silver, Foudy was a longtime co-captain of the women’s national team and a four-time All-American at Stanford before going on to serve as the President of the Women’s Sports Foundation and is now a writer and correspondent for espnW.
As part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ ongoing coverage of Girls Sports Month, Foudy, who now runs the Julie Foudy Sports Leadership Academy, spoke on leadership and why sports are so important for the development of girls today.
USAT: Why are sports so important for girls today? What do they mean for you?
Julie Foudy: Sports are important for girls because they teach you about all these great life lessons. That’s the thing about sports and why I’ve always advocated for girls to play. It’s not just the physical part and being healthy, it’s teaching you to be confident and work hard and work within a team and deal with setbacks and adversity. On any level and in any sport.
USAT: When did you know that you wanted to make sports your life work? What inspired that commitment?
JF: I’ve always thought, at one point I thought I was going to be a doctor and realized quickly no one would trust me as a doctor and it was too narrow a path for me. It’s not just sports, it’s teaching young girls the power of sports, helping them become great leaders, needing to unlock that leadership. They’re hesitant to raise their hand and use their voice. I knew that with our leadership academies, instead of just teaching how to kick a soccer ball or throw a lacrosse ball, let’s teach the things that I still use every day, giving a speech, walking into a board room. I’m constantly calling on the things that they taught me. That was much more broad than just being a doctor.
USAT: What makes a great leader in sports? Are they born or made?
JF: I think leaders are made. There’s not a box on the birth certificate you can check off. Leadership is personal not positional. Letting young girls understand that it happens in all shapes and sizes, that’s the beauty of leadership. It doesn’t have to be a CEO, or President, or captain. When you broaden that definition they realize they can lead through service. Leadership is personal rather than positional. Everyone has it in them and you just have to be courageous enough to unlock it.
USAT: Are there specific challenges in girls sports, whether from team dynamics or other issues?
JF: I think the things that stand out the most to me, we are so far ahead in our country thanks to Title IX. When I travel abroad and meet with women trying to play soccer or softball, they don’t have the opportunities, or a culture or society that encourages it. I constantly reflect and thank that we have that in place. Now 1 in 2.5 girls grow up playing sports, and you can’t match that in opportunities around the world. Having said that, even when you go to the highest level with women’s professional sports, it’s so hard to create a standalone league that is successful on a week-to-week basis. We’ve seen the struggles with women’s soccer, volleyball, so many sports. In terms of popularity, we still have so much to do there. I was just watching the women’s soccer team play in Portugal today and there’s excitement leading up to the World Cup. I just wish we could see it in the rest of the world.
USAT: What is it like to go from playing solely with women to working alongside men in a male-dominated industry (sports media)?
JF: It’s hard. It’s not easy, especially commentating on male sports. You get a lot of the reaction covering the men’s world cup, what is she doing sitting at the table with a bunch of men’s soccer player. You get those comments on Twitter. But alongside every one of those comments you get 100 that say “That’s awesome! I love what that says to my kid.” I used to worry about it when I came in to television, but just like sports I eventually said, “I can’t worry about what people think!” You draw on the things you learn from playing and get into that well of confidence. That’s what Ive learned over the years. Just be you and if they like you, great, and just be respectful to others and try to help people and you’ll be in a good place.
USAT: What advice do you have for girls who want to be involved in a particular sport but may not have access to it?
JF: Ask why. Ask the question. You and your parents. Why isn’t there this sport? Why can’t we start this? Why not for girls if we find enough, and if so, why isn’t there a group? A lot of my national teammates, before women’s soccer had taken hold, they played with boys. If they don’t provide a girls team, you can have an avenue playing with boys sometimes. But with Title IX with disadvantaged communities, what is it that the ones that aren’t playing, what’s happening with those and why aren’t they playing? For lack of access and opportunity, we can fix that. For lack of interest that’s another thing. The last thing in the U.S. we should have is a girl who wants to play sports but doesn’t have the opportunity to play.
USAT: What else do you think is important for girls and their parents to think about sports today?
JF: The most important thing I always think of is to laugh! Laugh and smile when you’re playing! Youth sports is so serious these days. Practice and games should be fun. People think winning and laughing are mutually exclusive. But you have to have them hand in hand. That’s why we were so successful for so long. we wanted to be out there playing. We sometimes forget it’s a sport and to teach. That’s what we’re involved for.