• Haylie McCleney

Thoughts from a World Championship Summer

It has been a little over a week since Team USA won gold at World Championships in Chiba, Japan, and every time my mind goes back there I can't help but smile. Our summers can get extremely long due to the travel, being away from friends and family, and the volume of games that we play, but ultimately the summers are so fun because of the amazing people and experiences that we get to share. This summer was no exception.

I have always loved the quote, "You are who you surround yourself with." That has been so true in my life and in my softball career. The times in my life that have been the darkest are when I am hanging out with the wrong people, not necessarily in the sense of influence (although sometimes that is the case) but more so in terms of mindset, and how those people effect my psyche. Maybe on the outside things are not toxic, but negative and self-centered people can have an insane effect on your mood and your performance. I think that great softball players are happy softball players. Great teams are happy teams. When I reflect on this summer, the thing that I am most thankful for are my teammates. We put the team first, we trusted each other, we eliminated insecurities (when we are all competing for Olympic roster spots, like that's crazy), and we just had fun together.

That is what stands out the most to me. FUN. Most of us are well into our twenties, some even in our thirties, and we played in the most high pressure games like we were back in 12u. If you saw us on the bus after practices or games, you would probably agree. Most people think the higher level that you get in softball, the more business like it becomes. I thought that. Yes, we take our jobs seriously. We take the Olympics seriously. But there is always a fun, joyful, happy component to it. That is what separated us from the rest of the teams and allowed us play with a sense of freedom, which helped us to accomplish those improbable comebacks against Japan.

I am now 24 years old and I find myself learning more about the game and about life than I ever have. I like to think it's my own wisdom, but I refer back to my earlier point, you are who you surround yourself with. Not a single person ever accomplishes anything on their own. There are people in the corner pushing, motivating, analyzing, and aiding that success. I would like to share some lessons I learned this summer from my amazing teammates and coaching staff that helped us win that gold medal.

1. The higher the pressure, the more freedom you should have. I can't tell you how many high pressure situations we got thrown into, especially in our two games against Japan. Whether I was up or one of my teammates was at the plate, or if we were on defense, we all had a sense and a belief that something good was about to happen. That energy, vibe, whatever you want to call it, made us feel like we were never out of a game, no matter the adversity we were facing, and I believe it directly influenced the outcome of each moment.

2. Always have faith. This is similar to number 1, but I want to go a little bit deeper here. You don't have to believe what I believe, and I don't have to believe what you believe, but we all have to believe in something. I choose to believe in a really gracious, good God. And boy did he have our back. My faith is what got me through those pressure situations. My prayers in the outfield, in the dugout, talking to my teammates.. . there were countless moments. One quick story, after Japan hit a two run homerun in the top of the 10th, I looked over at Janie Reed, who was in left field, and I yelled "Stay faithful!" Mainly for my own sanity because I was a bit concerned, but Janie just looked over at me and smiled in agreement. And wouldn't you know it, we scored 3 runs in the bottom of the 10th and won the gold on a walkoff.

3. Recovery is critical. Switching from the mental and spiritual side, I wanted to touch on the physical aspect (I'm a strength coach, I can't resist). I dedicated myself to proper recovery this summer, and my body has never felt better playing in August in my entire life. It is not that I foam rolled a ton, used compression therapy, or cold tubbed. I decided to get enough sleep, drink more than enough water, and take a post-game cool down seriously. I think people know to sleep and hydrate, but they just don't do it. Making a conscious decision to make sleep and hydration a priority is what made the difference for me. Add in the post-game cool down with foam rolling and stretching for about 10 minutes, my body felt amazing. It definitely paid off, and I'll address some of these topics further in a later post.

4. Dreams come true. This point is last, but it is surely not least. I watched the 2008 US Olympic team in Birmingham, about 30 miles south of my hometown, on their tour before the Beijing games. I remember wanting to be like those athletes one day, playing on the biggest stage. I was in the eighth grade when softball was voted out of the Olympics, so that dream of playing in the Olympics quickly faded in my mind. My biggest dream at that point was to go to college and play, but when I was put on Team USA in 2014 after my sophomore year at Alabama, the Olympic dream came back and got bigger. I wanted 2020. Two years later, on August 3rd, 2016, that dream became possible and softball was voted back in. As fate would have it, FOUR YEARS after I dreamt my new dream in 2014, I can now say that Team USA will officially be in the Tokyo Olympic games, the first team to qualify. Even though things looked so dark for awhile, we all kept the faith, we got softball back in, and now we can say that WE are in. The feeling is surreal, and the same thing can happen for you and your dreams. Whatever the dream, keeping dreaming it. I promise you that it is possible.

I am so grateful to be a part of the USA family. This summer was definitely one for the books, but the work is only beginning. The best is yet to come.

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