Welcome to our National Women’s Soccer League 2021 preseason preview! This series features interviews with core players from each team to talk about the preseason vibe and get a sense of where each team is heading into a new season - particularly on the heels of the weirdness that was 2020.
Up first: Jess McDonald and the North Carolina Courage. Jess spoke to AfXI about the mental toughness required to adjust to preseason and doing things the Courage way whether you’re a vet or a rookie.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. It was originally recorded on February 5.
All for XI: They announced kind of a newish structure to the season, we’ve got Challenge Cup to start things off. Regular season doesn’t start ‘til mid-May. No Olympic break. How does that feel for you guys? How are you adjusting to the new reality?
Jess McDonald: With the Courage, we’re adjusting really well. I mean, we’re still going into preseason and into the season with the same mentality. Either way it goes, we’re just excited to play overall. And, you know, that’s what we train year round for, is just to play games. So it’s nice to get more games in this season. It’s really refreshing to be honest. You know, at the pro level, we’re all smart about our bodies. If we need to take a break, we’re able to be smart with our recovery and things like that. So I think that this year will go smoothly. I’m excited for a new adventure with the Challenge Cup, and then a longer season coming in. So I’m excited. I know my teammates are to simply play.
AfXI: Last season was weird, obviously, between Challenge Cup and Fall Series. I don’t think anybody is taking it as a referendum on what a team is going to look like in 2021. Just because rosters are different, situation was different, bubble was really different. I don’t want to consider last season a wash. But you know, North Carolina, they didn’t win the Challenge Cup. You guys are used to being winners, you had a little bit of a shake up. You lost Crystal Dunn. So I guess on that front, on the performance front, looking at 2020, and now looking at 2021, what’s the vibe in preseason after last year was so weird?
JM: Yeah, last year was definitely strange. Challenge Cup was definitely different. You know, losing when we did was a bummer, but we kept our heads held high. And obviously, we’re always excited to to start the new year. And with that being said, I think with a lot of the core of our group being here still, you know the personality hasn’t changed. When it comes to on the field goals that we have amongst each other, every single day, only thing we want to do is improve as a team. And that’s our goal throughout the season is improve each game, improve each practice session as well, and push each other day in and day out, and just kind of have each other’s backs. That’s what the Courage is all about obviously, coming out on the same page and putting in the work every day of training. And I can tell you right now, this team is working very hard. No doubt about that. And either way it goes, even with new personalities that we have on the field, I think that we’re going to stay sharp and we’ll be ready for upcoming games.
AfXI: I think that North Carolina is probably psychologically one of the most fascinating teams in the league. Because everybody comes to NWSL and talks about how, especially if you’re an international like, oh it’s so different, Americans are different, right? The training environment is different. But I feel like North Carolina just blows that out of the water with how intense and prepared you guys always seem. So how is it like integrating the new kids? Are you kind of lowering them slowly into the fish tank? Or is it like, welcome to North Carolina, get ready?
JM: Oh, absolutely welcome to North Carolina, get ready. This is what you should expect, and this is what we expect out of you. And with that being said, this team has been tremendously, very, very welcoming to any personality that’s come on board. But you know, once you come into our environment, you’re here and you have to be on the same wavelength as us. You can’t just pop into a pro environment and think you can ease into it. No, once you’re in here, it’s first day of training, you’re going to have to put in some work. And so those are the high expectations that we’ll always have for every player. But at the end of the day, we are very welcoming. They do tell people what to expect. And I think our coaching staff also has a lot to do with that as well. Paul Riley is really good at kind of pumping us up a little bit and letting us know, hey, this is our mantra, this is what we’re about, this is what we’re going to be doing, this is what I expect of you, and more.
AfXI: Everybody tries to stay fit in the offseason, but there’s just no substitute for being back in it. Are you guys all kind of struggling to get back out, like beep tests and everything like that? Are some people coming back just blowing the results out of the water? How’s that going?
JM: I think with a lot of the experience that we have on this team already as pros, especially on the Courage - because we still have a lot of the Courage girls here - we know exactly what to expect in this environment. We know how to survive this environment. And so we come into preseason already mentally prepped. It’s really mind over matter at the end of the day, especially when we’re doing fitness. And so the fact that we already know what to expect, we’re able to focus on that and have a smooth transition coming from pre-preseason into preseason.
AfXI: I’ve noticed that every single year, new things crack every time I stand up. It just gets harder and harder and harder to maintain fitness and get back into it. I’m obviously not a pro athlete. But you know, you’re a veteran. Your body has been through things maybe a 21 year old has not, including having a child. For you, are there things that are helping you make that jump back into preseason? Is it the experience that tells you in the offseason, I gotta maintain a higher level than other people? Because that makes it easier to transition.
JM: It’s definitely taking care of my body for sure, especially as I get older. And in the offseason, I always have to keep my focus at a high level. Being a pro, that’s automatic, that’s already a given. Whereas at the same time, it’s also mental. People have no idea the mental and psychological toll that being a professional athlete in general puts on you. And so it’s all about managing that. And first and foremost, that’s the most important. It’s the mental part of it. And so as long as my mental game is as sharp, so will my physical. And so that’s how I tried to apply it each year coming into each season as a pro. And so this offseason was very different.
And, like I was saying earlier, we put a lot of stress on ourselves, as pro athletes, especially going into preseason, you’re preparing, you put a lot of stress on your mind, body, and your spirit. That’s just nature. And so this offseason, I had some fun, I was like, why do I stress? Why do I do this to myself? And I just had fun. I just played and it was nice to get touches on the ball, and just freelance this offseason just to see how it goes. And then bringing that positive spirit, positive mindset into this season. That was just a complete cherry on top. And so it’s all about changing your mental game, because it’s mentally competitive out here too. And it’s not something people talk about very often, is the mental part and the stressful part that comes into being a pro athlete. And so as long as I can manage that, I’m good to go.
AfXI: Yeah, it’s interesting you brought that up, and how you kind of freelanced this season. Because when I think about like, for a normal person, how many people fail their new year’s resolutions to work out every day, right? But for a pro athlete, you have to make the choice every single day to get up and just do horrifying physical stuff. It takes energy, literal calories in your body, to have mental energy. So for you, in addition to kind of relaxing in a sense in the offseason, is there something that you do or the North Carolina Courage encourages you to do to keep that mental energy battery at the right level?
JM: I wish we had more access to that. But we really don’t. We don’t talk about the mental part of it. You know, it’s like, once we have our first team meeting, everyone’s bought into what this team is about. And that’s pretty much it. But we never talk about the psychological side of things too often, believe it or not, not at this level or in the NWSL in general. But yeah, I mean, I think everybody, especially on the Courage, has been really good at staying on board with what we are about, regardless if you’re having a bad day, because we all have bad days. But we’re such a tight team, the camaraderie in the locker rooms is so incredible. So we know each other very well on and off the field where we can actually lean on each other. So if there’s anything that’s going on, we do not handle those things as pros, you know, we’re able to approach each other and help each other out. So I think that’s very important in any team environment is just that simple support sometimes that we need even as human beings, just having some type of positive support.
AfXI: I was hoping to close out with a couple of rapid fire questions.
AfXI: All right. Okay, so first of all, what kind of cleats are you wearing? And do you have some that you prefer?
JM: Yeah, Nike Tiempos. I absolutely love those. They feel great on my feet. And these are the cleats that I’ve been wearing for many years now.
AfXI: I think Dorian Bailey talked to [Plex Weather podcast] about how she buys cleats on eBay, because she has a specific make and model that she likes that just are great for her feet, and they’re not made anymore. So is that for you? Like you found something, if Nike stopped making them would you be like all right, I gotta go on eBay and stock up.
JM: I probably would be desperate enough to do something like that. Because our feet, they’re our job. You know, make sure that our feet are comfortable and if, by any means necessary, we need to stick with the same cleat then we’re definitely desperate enough to do so.
AfXI: How many cleats will you go through in a season generally? Between preseason, practice, games, all that stuff,
JM: I’d probably go through about 12 pairs.
AfXI: What are you watching or reading or playing right now?
JM: I am in the middle of reading again, actually, this book called Relentless. And it’s by Tim Grover, which is Michael Jordan’s mentor-slash-trainer throughout his career, and he’s worked with so many incredible athletes like Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and he talks about the psychological part of sports and obviously the physical as well. He’s also a trainer. So, yeah, it’s definitely one of my favorite books. This is my second time reading it. It’s just one of those books that kind of gets me pumped up a little bit.
AfXI: When I reread I usually find new stuff that I just didn’t notice the first time.
JM: Exactly. And that’s exactly what’s happening to me right now.
AfXI: Who’s the player on the team right now who you would say deals best with winter and who deals the worst with winter?
JM: Ooh. The worst with winter? Might be Kaleigh Kurtz. Maybe.
AfXI: Who’s dealing with it the best?
JM: I think Mary Speck. She’s from Long Island. She knows how to deal with it best.
AfXI: If you had to sum up your 2020 in a few words or a sentence - I mean, could you?
JM: Whew. My 2020 was like a roller coaster.
AfXI: And then if you had to sum up your hopes for 2021 in a few words, or a sentence.
AfXI: Okay. Both on and off the field?
AfXI: You guys got a new owner. Naomi Osaka’s on board. What was your reaction? What was the vibe with the team? Were you guys texting each other?
JM: So I was actually the first player to know this. Because I had to do a voiceover for a welcome video for her. Man, I had to hold that in for a few days from my teammates, from like, everybody. And I’m like, this is big news that I can’t share with anybody, one of the most incredible athletes on Earth. Are you kidding me? So I was freaking out for days - I have goosebumps right now, I can feel it. And I was ecstatic. And then we had finally announced it to the team and the girls immediately on our team chat they were like, so that’s pretty sick. Everybody was super calm. So yeah, we’re excited and obviously grateful for her to jump on board.
AfXI: If you have one last thing you want to tell fans ahead of the 2021 season for the for the Courage, what would it be?
JM: Thank you so much for your support for women’s soccer. I am most certainly looking forward to the season, this awesome new season that we have going on with the Challenge Cup and with the longer season so you guys stay tuned within the NWSL this year, and thank you once again for your support. And have a good day - year. Have a good year.