Julie Foudy, Olympic Gold Medalist, ESPN/ABC Broadcaster, and Sports Leadership Academy Founder
By Ryan Traynor, Editor-in-Chief
Most of you probably know the amazing Julie Foudy for being one of the most accomplished female soccer players in the world. After all, she played on the USA National Team for 17 years acting as Captain for 13 of those 17, participated in 4 Women’s World Cups and 3 Olympics for the USA Team. She is a two-time World Cup Champion and she is also a 1996 Olympic Gold medalist, 2000 Olympic Silver medalist and 2004 Olympic Gold medalist. Julie was inducted in the US National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2007. What you may not know, however, is that Julie Foudy has made a difference off the field as well in sports administration as an advocate for athletes’ rights and conquering childhood obesity. Julie currently sits on the board of Athletes for Hope (AFH), a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization focusing on charitable and community causes. Julie is the global spokeswoman for Global Girl Media, a new non-profit helping young women around the world find their voice through journalism. She is also an ambassador for Beyond Sport, a global organization that promotes, develops and funds the use of sport to create positive social change around the world. Julie has been instrumental in a number of women’s rights and child labor issues around the world. The world governing body of soccer, FIFA, awarded her the FIFA Fair Play Award, the first woman and American to receive the award, for her work against child labor in the stitching of soccer balls. Julie was recently named as one of the “100 Most Influential NCAA Student-Athletes” for making a significant impact or major contributions to society.
Julie founded the Julie Foudy Sports Leadership Academy in 2006, along with her husband Ian Sawyers, and is currently its director. The week-long Academy is for girls ages 12–18 and weaves together sports and leadership. The Academy has received national and international attention for creating leaders both on and off the field. In 2006, Julie also founded the Julie Foudy Leadership Foundation, a non-profit, 510(c)3 public charity, whose mission is to build on a foundation of sports and fitness to empower young women from all socioeconomic backgrounds to become leaders who positively impact their communities.
In 2013 ESPN Films teamed with Julie as producer to release their film Nine for IX: ‘The 99ers’, a film about the 1999 Women’s World Cup Team, using Julie’s personal behind the scenes footage. She appeared in the HBO documentary Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team.
In addition to all of these fabulous charitable, film, and sports activities, she is currently an analyst for ABC/ESPN and the NBC Olympics, director of her Julie Foudy Sports Leadership Academies, motivational speaker, and mother of two children.
(Amazing Kids!) AK: What has been the biggest highlight of your career?
(Julie Foudy) JF: One of the highlights is getting the opportunity to play for so long for your country with so many amazing women and teammates. Rarely do people get the opportunity to play for their country, and to be able to play for almost two decades was so special. So I always consider that a highlight. But I must say, had I known having kids was so much fun, I might have had about ten, instead of just two. I might have started earlier. So that is also one of the highlights – being a mom. I enjoy working at ESPN of course, but I love that balance of being able to challenge myself at work and then racing home to my kids.
AK: You took a well-publicized trip to Pakistan to validate that child labor was not involved in the making of soccer balls. Can you describe the inception of the idea for this trip and your experiences on it?
JF: At the time, the soccer ball industry (meaning the people who were making soccer balls) had an issue with who was actually making soccer balls and being able to regulate that. They wanted to make sure kids were not stitching them. So Reebok, my sponsor at the time, came to me and said, “We are setting up a factory in Pakistan and would love for you to help open it and check it out. We’re doing things differently. We’re actually bringing the workers to the factory so that we can ensure who is stitching the soccer balls.” (rather than people doing it in their homes, which was a problem) So I made that trip because I also cared about kids and making sure that they weren’t being subjected to child labor.
AK: You were the first woman (and American) to win the FIFA Fair Play Award. What things about you do you think made you stand out for the selection committee to break the previous boundaries that were set for this award?
JF: Being an athlete and caring enough to do something about it. You see a lot of athletes who say, “That’s not really my problem. I’m just an athlete. I don’t know what happens with the shoes or products I endorse.” Especially at that time, there was some controversy with Michael Jordan and Nike – with where their shoes were being made. So I think it caught people by surprise that there was an athlete that was willing to go over and check it out, make sure things are right, and care about it on a different level – which has been one of the things I’ve been interested in. Who you represent and what you represent is so important to me. That’s probably why.
AK: If you had to choose your own teammates for your soccer team, what traits would you look for? Are these traits the same or different from people you would choose to work with on one of your business or nonprofit activities?
JF: Great question! I would definitely choose my teammates and my coworkers the same, because it is the same. That is the beauty of a sport – what you are doing on the field in trying to accomplish something is similar to what we do in life, work, and everything else. You have to have people who not only are incredibly committed to getting better individually, but equally important, incredibly committed to the team, and the unit, and understanding that together, and as a whole, you make a much stronger entity than a bunch of individuals that care deeply about something but don’t work together. So, that was the blessing of our team for so many years – that we had, not just incredible athletes, but incredible people who understood the value of putting the team first. It doesn’t mean not working your own tail off and being competitive, wanting to score and all those things that come with winning and success. But it also means, at the end of the day, you’re hugging your teammate because you’ve won collectively together. And that is exactly who, when I think about the people I bring around me in nonprofits and in our Leadership Academy, including the stuff we take on in any venture at ESPN, that’s who I gravitate to. I gravitate to those same types of people who are incredibly driven as well, passionate, and competitive. I want a heartbeat. I need a pulse in people or I’m not interested.
AK: Sports injuries, especially concussions, have been occurring at younger and younger ages. Women soccer players Brandi Chastain, Cindy Parlow Cone, and Joy Fawcett, among others, are bringing awareness and calling for the end of heading a ball by kids until high school. What is your opinion on this? What steps should sports administrators, athletes and parents take to prevent injuries in sports, such as concussions?
JF: I like the women soccer players’ approach. They’re talking about not heading until kids are 14 years old. I agree with that. Because our brains are developing and our heads are still growing, just developing the strength in the neck and the muscles around the neck to be able to head a ball, I’m all for that. I’d be all for banning heading entirely, actually. (Laughs) I was never a huge fan of it. But for young kids, it just doesn’t make a world of sense. For a lot of young kids, outside of punting the ball and maybe some goal kicks, it is hard for them to get the ball in the air anyway. So you shouldn’t be spending a lot of time in training working on heading – it just isn’t going to happen in a lot of games. So, I like it, it is good to be conscious of it. It is good that we are putting rules in place, in terms of how we’re checking athletes and looking at concussion symptoms, and not just shoving kids back on the field in whatever sport they play. As sports get faster and more intense, and higher paced, then there is more contact and its physical. I think it is good for parents to be asking questions and for us to be addressing these issues.
AK: Do you think the trend of colleges recruiting athletes at younger and younger ages is good or bad for the sport?
JF: I think it’s absolutely CRAZY! Nonsense! Frustrating! It’s awful for both kids and coaches. I don’t think coaches want to do it. I was just with a friend who coaches kids collegiately and she said, “We’re having to look at freshman, and trying to make a decision on a 14-year-old and where they are going to be at 18, 4 years later, and the changes their body goes through.” It’s complete insanity. These kids commit verbally, but the school isn’t tied to them legally to commit a scholarship. But they committed to going there, so other schools aren’t offering them scholarships. So what is going to happen in 4 years if you want to go to a different place, or do a different academic pursuit? It saddens me. I think that is one of the negatives to the intensity and the way youth sports have turned. We didn’t ever have that pressure growing up. It wasn’t about playing for scholarships. It wasn’t about having to make a decision about where you were going to go by your freshman year because you’re worried that all of the scholarships are gone already. It is super silly. The stakes in men’s football and basketball, and some of the other men’s revenue sports have pushed that pendulum. I don’t get it. I don’t get why you can’t get all the coaches together to say, “Stop this nonsense. Is this really what we want to do?” Can’t we create some type of agreement amongst the coaches? Why isn’t the NCAA saying you cannot do this? You shouldn’t be able to formally or informally get any type of commitment. The kid should not have to decide until their Junior or Senior year.
AK: In 2006, you founded the Julie Foudy Sports Leadership Academy. You weave sports into the development of leadership skills in your sports academy. What facets of sports do you believe bring out leadership qualities in athletes? How does your academy implement these ideas?
JF: The things that sports teach you are: 1. How to develop really good habits. 2. How to deal with working with a team and getting the most out of your teammates through communication and tone. 3. How to deal with setbacks and loss. I think I learned some of my most valuable lessons about life by having to endure hardships. It’s no fun just to keep winning. It’s easier, but sometimes it is so valuable to lose and to go through that gut-wrenching pain of losing, whether it’s a game on a Saturday or it’s the World Cup final. Those are the things that you look back on and think, “Gosh, I learned so much about me, and so much about being a good teammate. I learned so much about what makes a good teammate.” So, all those things, and you don’t have to participate at the Olympic team level, National team level, or even at a collegiate level to learn those things. You learn those by playing, by participating. And that is why I’ve always advocated for sports – because it teaches you these wonderful things about leadership.
And one of the most important things I teach the kids that I talk to at the Leadership Academy is that leadership is personal, not positional. And by positional I mean that you don’t have to be the captain or the superstar, or an Olympic gold medalist, or the President, or a politician. Everyone can lead; you just need to figure out what your style is. There are so many great styles of leadership that I got to live with and watch on the National Team that are so different – from the quiet leader, to the more verbal leader, to a combo of both.
AK: How has assuming the role of a broadcaster changed the way you see the game?
JF: You have to watch the game differently than a player – you have to watch it like a coach. You have to watch off the ball so much. Try and disconnect emotionally sometimes and stay really objective, rather than subjective. This can be hard sometimes if your former teammates are out there or you obviously want your country to do well. But, to be the best broadcaster you can be, you have to stay objective.
AK: What should parents do to encourage self-confidence in their young athletes?
JF: Another great question! Parents should let kids be more independent by not trying to do everything for them. It all comes with good intentions, but we as parents, try way to hard nowadays to make everything perfect for our kids. And in the process, they’re not falling, they’re not growing, sometimes they’re not doing, because we do for them. The way you become confident is by failing. Teach them about getting up and failing… and failing being a good thing. It is part of the process. Taking risks and failing… and failing being okay. If you do everything for your kids, how are they going to learn, how are they going to grow? Unless you’re doing, you’re not growing!
AK: Who has been a mentor in your life that has helped you achieve your dreams?
JF: I’ve been really lucky to have a lot of neat people in my life – both men and women. I think it started with my parents in no really coordinated way. It’s just the way they parented. It was, “You want it – go after it. We’ll support you, but we’re not going to be screaming down the sidelines that you’ve got to tackle harder, or run faster, or study more.” So, they opened up the doors and then I got to choose where I was going to go, and how I was going to dictate that. They pushed when necessary, but it was driven by me rather than them. That was a good lesson early on, and a form of mentoring, that was wonderful.
And then I’ve had people like Billie Jean King step into my life when I graduated from college and still, to this day, is a dear friend and mentor. She’s a person I go to with questions and for advice. She helped our sport and our team tremendously back in the 90’s and early 2000’s just by learning from her, and having her say, “This is what we did, and what you should do – what we learned.”
So I think I’ve been really lucky along the way to have good people in my life. I think it is so important for women to “turn and pull” and help other women and men. And spend a lot of time doing that in a productive way.
AK: We can learn so much from people if we just ask them the right questions.
JF: I think a lot of people are afraid to ask. I say to young kids, “Adults love it when kids are inquisitive and asking questions, and are more than willing to help. So you just have to find the courage to raise your hand and ask the question. That’s the most important thing because then you’ll find a team of people that want to help.”
Figure out what your team is like. How many people have friends and family members around them that when they say, “Oh, I want to do this” or “I want to do that in life. And this is my dream and my hope.” and that person in their life says, “That’s silly” or “That’s crazy. You’re never going to get there.”? It is important to surround yourself with people that, when you have your doubts in life (and you will), and when you have your stumbles (because they happen) and when you have obstacles (because that’s life), you have your team around you that tells you, “You’re fine. Carry on! Trudge on!” I was lucky to find that through sports. That’s what we did as a group together, with our team. If anyone doubted, we had each other. I think that’s a benefit of sports, it gives you a power of a group around you that helps you be better than sometimes you think you can be.
AK: Do you have any other message you want to give to our readers?
JF: The one thing I would say is, I look at kids playing sports today and I see young kids being so serious and intense. I think back to being on the National Team and growing up playing, and there was laughter and joy. It was fun! I think we as parents and coaches forget sometimes that it should be fun. The kids should be laughing. Of course you want to win and be competitive, but you can’t be successful unless you are laughing. And that is why our National Team was so successful for so many years – because we laughed our way through it and knew the joy of playing. That joy gets lost sometimes in youth sports. I hope kids remind parents when they read this, that it should be fun. A lot of coaches think that you have to be serious to be winning. I think that joy and winning go hand-in-hand. You have to be enjoying it and finding joy to be winning. You have to be laughing. I think it is great when you walk into a practice and you see a team celebrating, cheering, and laughing. I think that is a great balance. Joy is what makes you want to get out there every day to get better. It makes you hungry to learn more.
We are so grateful to Julie Foudy for sharing her thoughts with our readers at Amazing Kids! Magazine. She truly is someone who demonstrates every day that sports can help you become a “Leader in Life.”