March is Girls Sports Month. USA TODAY High School Sports has partnered with the Women’s Sports Foundation for a series of pieces in which female athletes share their views on topics such as leadership, mentoring, perseverance and the important role athletics has played in their lives. The Women’s Sports Foundation is dedicated to providing safe and equitable sports opportunities so that all girls receive the significant health, education and leadership benefits sports provide both on and off the field. The WSF shapes public attitude about women’s sports, gets girls active by supporting community organizations with funding and resources, ensures equal opportunities for girls and women, and supports physically and emotionally healthy lifestyles. You can find the WSF on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Visit WomensSportsFoundation.org for inspiring athlete content and resources for parents, coaches and student-athletes. For previous Girls Sports Month coverage, click here.
Jessica Mendoza is one of the most respected U.S. softball players in history. She was a feared slugger throughout her 13-year international career. The outfielder, a proud Stanford graduate, was a four-time collegiate All-American and an Olympic gold and silver medalist. Add in her tenure on three other world championship teams, and Mendoza batted a combined .372 in 129 at-bats with nine home runs and 44 RBI.
Yet, what Mendoza might be more proud of her evolution as a leader than anything else in her career both on the field and off. She is a former president of the Women’s Sports Foundation (2011 and ’12) and a current member of the Board of Trustees and the Athlete Advisory Panel.
She spoke with USA TODAY High School Sports about how sports are critical in helping girls develop confidence and leadership skills.
USA TODAY High School Sports: Give us the best example you’ve seen in your athletic career of leadership. Who are the leaders you’ve been around and traits they’ve shown?
JESSICA MENDOZA: I think it’s just a selflessness. I think a lot of times you get caught up in your own role, and the most difficult part about being a leader is you have to put yourself last. You have to expect the most from yourself, but just as much from your teammates. The best leaders have been able to put themselves on the back burner and be able to figure out what each teammate needs to be successful. In women’s softball you have 18 different women who all have different personalities, and a true leader is able to figure out what each needs to work.
USATHSS: What makes a great leader? Does a leader have to be dominant or vocal to be effective?
JM: Leadership comes in different forms. You have vocal leaders who can get everyone up on the same page, and then you have quiet leaders who just show what leadership can be by diving all over the field. Then you have the leader who may not play every day but are the psychologist on the bench and can pinpoint what the team needs because they have that outside perspective at the moment.
USATHSS: Are there specific challenges relating to team dynamics for female athletes?
JM: It’s the personalities. When you’re asked to handle a lot of pressure, you’re going to the Olympics and expected to win gold. This isn’t body talk. This is your livelihood as your sport. You will see different personalities react differently. You won’t get along with everyone. I’ve yet to be on a team in 26 years where I got along with everyone. I love the challenge of being able to get along on the field. When we’re between the lines, what is it about you that I need to make sure that we’re successful.
I also think with girls and women, and it could be with guys, too, but with girls and women there tends to be a group, maybe three, four or five of us, to be on this page. You find these little micro groups pop up that can be the end of your team if you let them take over and have the trend of individuality rise. When they become cliques and they turn to negativity, they can be such a bigger deal. When it’s just my problem it can be handled very easily.
USATHSS: Are great leaders born or made?
JM:I think it depends on the type of leader. A vocal leader is born. A vocal leader will be more in your face, and I think that is born. I think the one’s that are made are often the best ones, because they’ve sat back and had to almost be a student of leadership. They’ve had to define it themselves and figure out what it means to them. Sometimes the born leaders don’t know all the characteristics that are needed to be a leader.
USATHSS: Talk about a time off the field where you were able to draw upon your experience as a leader on the field.
JM: I would say there have been a few over the course of my life. For me, it’s really just given me the confidence to be myself, and know that there’s this unique person. A lot of times we get caught up trying to blend and be like everyone else. When I first started playing sports, I just wanted to blend in. At some point, I realized I actually wanted to be better, and to do that you have to be different. For girls and women, different is scary. Different means to stand out, and a lot of girls and women are afraid of that. For me, I’ve applied my leadership by waving my flag for who I am off the field. Take me, leave me, but I am going to stand strong as who I am. And that’s allowed me to find others who are like that. I’m not some perfect person, I own my mistakes as much as my successes.
USATHSS: Is there a difference between leadership as a coach and an athlete?
JM: Yes, I think there is. When I think of a coach, there’s some relatability, but there is also a hierarchy there of respect. Most coaches, you listen, this is the lineup, it’s not up for negotiation. It isn’t a conversation. I’m telling you something as a leader and you can come back at me with your thoughts. A leader as an athlete is your peer. I think you get so much more from the athlete leader because you’re relatable. You’re going through the same things. When you tell me to get my butt up at 5 a.m. to go work out, I’m going to listen because you’re doing it with me. Coaches are phenomenal leaders, but I don’t know if they’re as effective all the time because of that relatability.
USATHSS: Which leader did you look up to most during your career?
JM: There were a lot. When I was coming to high school, which I think was a very important time of my life, a leader that I had was one of my teammate’s older sisters. She was on the varsity high school team, to me she might as well have been the biggest superstar I’d ever seen. At a micro level, she was everything. She would come early or stay after and take BP with us, and I just idolized her. What stood out the most about her was her work ethic. She was an all-state shortstop and she was taking ground balls with 13-year-olds. She would be diving all over the place, with this look of intensity. She wasn’t out there to have fun. If she missed a ground ball, she wanted another one. It influenced me that if you want to get to that next level, it’s never enough. If I went to five practices and had six games this week, maybe I still need to go work on my backhand.
Especially at the younger level, I don’t think people realize how important it is to have a local leader. I had someone in front of me who I could talk to and ask question.
USATHSS: Teenagers are often self-conscious during their high school years. Did you have the confidence to be a leader while still in high school? If so, what gave you that self-belief?
JM: I was a different kind of leader in high school. I was a leader by example. I didn’t have the knowledge or confidence to lead in any other way. In high school I was the one who would stay after practice and get all the extra cuts to make sure I was better. I feel like the rest didn’t come until my junior or senior year at Stanford. I wanted to win and I was at a place where they hadn’t really won before, so I realized that our whole class that had come in had a lot of information to provide on how we could win a national championship and win the Pac-12. We couldn’t keep showing by example and had to vocalize a lot of this. I wasn’t afraid to get in someone’s face or reiterate something that coach had said. Before I was caught up in “as long as I’m doing good, I’m leading this team,” but I knew there was more I could do than rely on ability.
I think right now the thing that has helped me, too, is I’m the first female analyst for Baseball Tonight on ESPN and one of the first to ever cover MLB. My confidence has helped me cross into something that has never happened before. I’m trying to get that confidence, because sometimes I feel like I’m 13 all over again.