Always wanting to give back to today’s youth and to the game in which she’s spent a lifetime, soccer legend Julie Foudy agreed to become a part of the Steel Sports Advisory Board along with other prominent figures in the sports world.
These former athletes and coaches act as Steel Sports ambassadors, promoting their mission of transforming the existing youth sports culture to help create an environment where athletes compete at a high level while learning life lessons.
Steel Sports CEO, David Shapiro, recently sat down with Foudy for an exclusive interview about her childhood and the role her parents played in shaping her as an athlete and person, the current youth sports landscape, her Leadership Academies and the main issues facing U.S. Soccer at the youth level.
Julie Foudy knows all about pressure.
Between playing 17 years on the United States Women’s National Soccer Team and becoming an analyst ESPN after her career was over, she has constantly had millions of eyes on her expecting greatness.
As a U.S. captain and co-captain, Foudy won two FIFA Women’s World Cups in 1991 and 1999, two Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2004 and was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2007.
While she’s used to dealing with the pressure and high expectations that comes with her job, she sees youth athletes today having to face those same feelings far too often, whether it’s from coaches or parents. Growing up in southern California, Foudy’s parents wanted her to simply enjoy playing sports, and that’s a message she’s passing on to her two children, Isabel and Declan.
“Really it was about the enjoyment of being on a team and playing outside and being around friends,” Foudy said. “That’s the thing we’re constantly pushing with our kids at this phase of 7 and 9 (years old) and really saying after they play, as hard as it can be for a parent, I really just try to stay with, ‘I love watching you play. I love watching your smile.’”
As she got older, Foudy was given the freedom to figure out what she wanted to do athletically and in life, but she was pushed to branch out so she could figure out what she loved doing the most. Her parents laissez faire approach helped spark Foudy to think independently and become accountable for the goals she set.
Not many high school seniors get the chance to play for their country, but that was exactly the opportunity presented to Foudy. The U.S. National Team wanted her to join them in Italy, but it conflicted with her high school graduation. When Foudy asked her parents what she should do, they put the question right back to her: “What do you want to do?”
She decided to go to Italy, earned a starting spot on the team and never looked back from the decision she made independently.
“If my parents were there to support me athletically, great, but they were always there supporting me and pushing me to do other things,” Foudy said. “And so I frame my support of my kids in the way, hopefully, that my parents were in that I want to open up doors for them to play whatever they want and push them to train and be the best them they can be, the best player they can be, but ultimately the kid has to love it and decide they want to do it.”
Foudy always played multiple sports, and it wasn’t until she arrived to Stanford University in 1989 that she began solely focusing on soccer. Even cross training for soccer during her professional career included playing other sports, and she would often compete against her husband in pickup basketball.
That passion for sports beyond soccer is a big reason Foudy believes she never burned out on the game and loved it so much she played well into her 30s. She knows coaches around the world won’t like her view on sports specialization, but she feels kids will stay in the sport longer if they are given more freedom.
“I find with kids, I’m saddened by the fact that because they’re playing so much of one thing, it’s natural they’re going to burn out on it, and we’re driven in this society to push our kids to play one sport and do it all year, and it’s too much,” Foudy said. “Your bodies can’t handle it and neither can your mind, and so they’re not fresh. So we’re losing kids at 15, 16 (years old), who I think with a little more balance would stay with that favored sport longer and eventually play at an elite level.”
Foudy believes player retention is a major issue facing the U.S. Soccer Federation. She wants to see a better club model across the board where teams are staying together longer, focusing on chemistry over winning. While players are always pushed to play more, Foudy thinks a “less is more” philosophy will aid in retaining players.
Another hot topic she feels needs to be discussed more is concussions. Her former teammate Brandi Chastain recently promised to donate her brain to Boston University for research into Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, and heading is responsible for more than a third of concussions in youth soccer. The USSF has taken steps to ban headers for players 11 and under.
After retiring following the 2004 Olympics, Foudy had a desire to teach kids all the great things they can learn about life through sports. She had been conducting a regular soccer camp for years, but it was time to take it to another level.
Through her lifetime in soccer and other sports, Foudy learned how to be a good teammate, how to deal with adversity and setbacks and how you can grow as a person through losing or failing. She wanted to pass these lessons on to young girls so she and her husband Ian Sawyers started the Julie Foudy Sports Leadership Academy in 2006.
The weeklong overnight camps are held in New Jersey, Chicago and northern California for soccer and lacrosse. Foudy saw the need to change the message from winning and performance to more about enjoying sports and using them as a way to build character.
“I felt like why don’t we do a good enough job as a community and as parents and as a society to teach kids that sports are this great vehicle, whether you play in your rec league or at the Olympic level, you’re still getting all of the valuable life lessons,” Foudy said. “Shouldn’t we be talking more about that rather than how many goals my daughter scored last week and what scholarship offer she’s been getting and what level my club team now plays at. … I was a little fed up with the conversation and how kids were being talked at, and I felt like we needed to do something more overtly related to the beauty of sports and how it makes us better human beings.”
The Julie Foudy Sports Leadership Academy is there to help teenage girls find their voice and confidence as a leader not just on the field but back in their communities as well.
“Leadership is for everyone,” Foudy said. “I think that’s a big misconception among girls as well that I don’t look a certain way, or talk a certain way or have this pedigree or this training and instead believing you can do it, which is super powerful for a teenage girl to realize.”
Besides taking an active role with her academies and being a staunch advocate for women’s and children’s rights, Foudy continues working as a lead analyst and commentator on ESPN and ABC.
Now, she has a new challenge in joining the Steel Sports advisory board. She is excited to see Steel Sports so focused on creating positive environments for kids through sports because there aren’t enough of those opportunities in today’s society.
“If you can find activity in sports, and it comes in so many different forms and shapes and sizes as we know, but if you can find that and make that a habit for life, I just think we all as a society benefit,” Foudy said. “And I know how much it’s helped me. I watch it with my kids. The confidence and the things you learn by just playing, and I think we’re so focused on you have to play at the highest level to ever learn these things, it’s so not true. If you can get the right people teaching it the right way, you can hit home with a lot of kids, and that’s a powerful tool.”