USWNT and NWSL Jess McDonald spoke exclusively to 90min about the inherent pressures of being a female athlete and experiencing peak international stardom during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
McDonald began her career with the Chicago Red Stars in 2010 prior to signing with Melbourne Victory FC in the Australian W-League. She recorded 13 appearances with the Australian side, scoring seven goals to inspire a Grand Final run. She returned to the NWSL in 2014 to feature for Portland Thorns, and then played for Houston Dash and Western New York Flash before landing with the North Carolina Courage.
In a partnership with Always, McDonald has made it her mission to encourage girls to stay active and gain confidence by promoting her journey as a female athlete.
Having started with the Red Stars in 2010 before going abroad and now returning to the NWSL to play with the North Carolina Courage, how have you seen women’s football develop and progress over the last decade?
It has been so cool to be a part of the whole development of women’s professional soccer. Seeing the W-League when I was in Australia at the end of the 2012/13 season to now seeing the incredible players going down there to improve the competition level. It’s getting better and better every year. As you can see in the Olympics and World Cup, it’s not so easy anymore for the USWNT, everyone is caught up and the competition has been really good in developing globally.
As a player, what is the main difference in representing your country vs your club?
The atmosphere with the USWNT is so cool now with the fanbase that we have, we are filling up stadiums as female soccer players globally. The league in Mexico, they are filling out stadiums. You see the World Cup in 2019, every single stadium was filled. It’s a beautiful thing to see that our support is absolutely outstanding, globally. Social media, too, has a huge part in helping us build more of a platform as female athletes. It’s very humbling to have a fan base the way that we have.
We saw a peak of interest in the USWNT during the 2019 World Cup. How did it feel to gain international stardom in just a couple of weeks?
It was amazing, definitely life changing. We probably wouldn’t even be talking if that had not happened, to be honest. It wasn’t something we expected, either. I truly believe that since we had filed our lawsuit against our employer U.S Soccer, all eyes were on us right then and there. As soon as it happened, we all thought it was time to prove ourselves. Just seeing the support that we had throughout the entire tournament, stadiums filled in France, a country we are not even from. We had everyone chanting “equal pay”, that lets you know how much of a movement this was and how big of a platform we had as female athletes. The support we were getting, not only from other athletes but females globally. It was eye-opening for every female out there, for the little girls who want to be in our shoes. We didn’t know it was going to be as big as it turned out to be. It was beautiful to see the support that we had, outside of soccer and coming from people globally. It was an incredible feeling to see the rise and peak of our support system.
With being a female athlete, we know there is an innate pressure to prove yourself. How did you balance the stress of being at a World Cup with the added pressure of the lawsuit hanging heavy on everyone’s shoulders?
We love pressure - that’s one thing I can tell you about the USWNT. It really was us against the world, that’s how we felt. The only thing we had at that time and moment was each other, and that’s all we needed. We had a mission and we went for it and it happened. It was one of the most incredible feelings, knowing the ride that you went on and the process you went through in order to be successful and win a Gold - we fed off of that pressure. We always thought “we are not going to tell you with our words, we are going to show you with our actions” and that is exactly what we did. We proved ourselves, not only to ourselves as individuals but everyone else. It was a good feeling to know we could accomplish something so difficult when all eyes were on us. One thing I can tell you that we love is pressure.
We recently saw Simone Biles withdraw from a competition and bring to light the importance of prioritizing mental health as a female athlete. How do you manage to create stability for yourself as an athlete, female and human being in such a stressful environment as a whole?
I would definitely say my childhood started me off on the right foot. I grew up the only girl in my family and also grew up in a time where we did not depend so much on electronics, we were always outside and active. I always saw myself as an underdog, I was the only girl and I was always picked on by the boys. I wasn’t allowed to cry or “act like a girl”, so I was able to apply that mentality into my career and into my life now. I’ve been learning a lot about the brain lately because of my business called Soccer Resilience, we help those in need of mental training. I learned that we have over 50,000 thoughts a day as individuals and over 80 percent of them are negative.
Me being the only mom on my team, I’ve been the only mom for many years and I see that I have that chip on my shoulder. I want to inspire my son, that pushes me day in and day out. I show him that it takes hard work to be successful. I love what I do.