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Soccer star Jessica McDonald on being the only mom on her team: 'I love that chip on my shoulder'

Soccer star Jessica McDonald opens up about parenting and why it's important for young women to keep up with sports. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Soccer star Jessica McDonald opens up about parenting and why it's important for young women to keep up with sports. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of child-rearing.

As a mom, World Cup-winning soccer star and equal pay advocate Jessica McDonald is a force to be reckoned with, both on and off the field. The North Carolina Courage forward credits her success to the life skills she's developed by playing sports over the years, an experience she doesn't want other young women to miss out on because of puberty and menstruation.

"We all know that awkward stage and uncomfortable stage in our lives," says the NWSL star, who has teamed up with Always for its #KeepHerPlaying campaign, which finds that nearly one out of every two girls drops out of sports during puberty. "[Periods are] stressful to deal with overall in sports, too. We wear white uniforms. I'm 33 and I'm still self-conscious about it."

McDonald is hoping to encourage girls to stay in the game so they can benefit from the confidence, friendship, teamwork and other rewards she herself has experienced as an athlete. Closer to home, she's also making sure her son Jeremiah, 9, stays active in his own athletic pursuits, and setting an example for him on how to work through losses and other setbacks.

Here, McDonald opens up about empowering her son, helping her teammates navigate motherhood and why it's "OK" for athletes like her and Simone Biles to take a break when they need it.

Is Jeremiah a big sports fiend?

Absolutely. He's in swimming and basketball. No interest in soccer, which to be honest, I'm OK with as long as my kid wants to be active. He just asked to do track and field actually. So these are the kinds of decisions I'm allowing him to make as long as he's continuing to be active. I'm just excited to be in the stands for him, whereas he's always in the stands for me. It's always nice to show the same support that he's always shown me throughout his life.

How do you empower your son?

Teaching him real-life things. I don't want to be that parent that says, "Just because you participated, you deserve a trophy." No, you have to deserve it at the end of the day. And to show him focus, to show him discipline and patience, especially. That's what sport brings... And showing him that there's hardships throughout sport, but [he can] also have fun. That's kind of what it boils down to: Just having fun, but being competitive. Knowing at times you're going to make mistakes. Knowing at times you're probably going to lose games or lose meets or whatever the case may be. Knowing that you can come out of it even better than you were.

That's kind of the example that I'm trying to set for him by just showing him my journey. He's seen me through injury. He seen me lose plenty of soccer games. He's seen the adversity that I've gone through as an athlete and as a human being in general, and still being able to perform and get better and better as a person and as a soccer player as well. And so I just want to help continue to encourage him to keep playing. Keep your head up, have fun, have more of a positive attitude. Sometimes that comes with loss and failure, but just know that that's OK. It's OK to make mistakes; nobody's perfect. It's absolutely impossible [not to]. And in order to be successful, you have to go through losses. You have to go through failure, and that's how you learn to grow up.

Aside from sports, what are your favorite things to do with Jeremiah? What does quality time look like?

Where do I start? There've been times where, pre-COVID, I brought my kid out of school early and surprised him. I took him to the state fair one day, or I'll go and take him roller skating. Or I'll come and pick him up from summer camp and go straight to the movies and get him a big thing of popcorn and whatever he wants, any type of candy or whatever. Movies is probably our favorite thing to do together, and skating comes second. So it's a long list of things, but we definitely bond so much with each other and it's just a beautiful relationship that we have together.

You've had experiences in which you were the only mom on your team. How did you manage to carve out your identity as a mom and a player, and juggle those demands?

I love to talk about my childhood a lot because I grew up with boys. I was the only girl in the family until I was about 14 years old. I also grew up at a time where we didn't just rely on technology the way that kids do nowadays. And so I grew up as sort of this underdog with this chip on my shoulder and always had something to prove just because I was the only girl. I've been able to apply that same attitude throughout those times, especially during puberty. When I'm awkward and going through those types of issues, being able to push through that has helped me build my confidence and transition that into my career today.

Being the only mom, I love that chip on my shoulder. I love pressure. I feed off of anything that tries to go against me and it does nothing but fuel me. And at the end of the day, my kid really does inspire me to want to be better, do better and work hard day in and day out because I'm here to also set an example for him. Who am I to tell him to work hard if I'm not doing it myself? I'm just here to apply all of that into my career as a mom and as a soccer player.

Some of your former teammates have since become moms in the past couple of years. Have you been doling out any parenting advice?

I've had so many questions being asked of me coming from Syd Leroux and Amy Rodriguez. Not so much Alex Morgan yet; I haven't been in camp with her since she's become a mom, but it's nice to have moms reaching out to me. I've been in the NWSL since day one — I literally have the oldest kid in the NWSL — and so the things that I've dealt with as a mom [so I can] help them as female athletes to juggle the two or to cope with whatever adversity that they're going through with their clubs. We do go through a lot of stuff as moms... We're just pushing for a better lifestyle for moms in this league, and we'll continue to help one another and push forward for future moms.

You founded Soccer Resilience, which emphasizes the importance of the right mental mindset for athletes.

Sports have shaped me into the person that I am today, and that's going through adversity, that's going through resiliency. That's what sport comes with, is resiliency... Mental health is such a huge issue that is starting to [have] more of an awareness nowadays. We're here to help do mental training for players, coaches and parents even, because it's something that needs to be addressed. We go through crap and Soccer Resilience helps you cope with that crap and helps you cope with making mistakes and going through resiliency.

Given the Olympics and Simone Biles, there's been this big conversation about the importance of setting boundaries and prioritizing your mental health. Is that something that you have had to do in your career as an athlete? Have you had your own moments where you really had to make a choice between hitting the field or taking time for yourself?

Absolutely. There are points in times and seasons in my career where I've actually taken a break. And my head coach, Paul Riley, is such an understanding man and coach and human being when it comes to mental health and physical health as well. If I tell him in the middle of season, "Paul, I need to stay home and not travel with the team this weekend, I need to rest or work on this or work on that," he's all for it. This doesn't happen every weekend, but just once or twice in a season; sometimes we need that. Sometimes we need that break and that's OK, and we're here to show people that it's OK.

Simone Biles brought herself out of the Olympics because she needs to be able to cope. She needs to be OK, and her mental health is the most important thing at the end of the day... People only see us as athletes, whereas they need to see that we're also human beings. I just think it's so important to really take care of yourself mentally and continue to try and just cope.

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