WomenSport International Newsletter

Global Voice of Research-Based Advocacy for Women in Sport

Special Edition: April 2023

Periodically, the WomenSport International Newsletter spotlights like-minded organizations that encourage increased opportunities and positive change for women and girls at all levels of involvement of sport and physical activity.

In 2023, young female athletes clearly don’t always get the out-of-competition coaching or support they need. The U.S.-based online platform Voice in Sport aims to fill that gap with a combination of athlete mentors, sports psychologists, Title IX advocates, and more. This Q&A by WSI chief editor Lucas Aykroyd takes a closer look at the organization's mission.

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Inside Voice in Sport: How an Online Women’s Sports Platform Supports Young Female Athletes

When superstar gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from multiple competitions at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (staged in 2021), her revelation that she did so for mental health reasons sparked both heated controversy and important conversations.

It’s those kinds of conversations that Voice in Sport (VIS) is looking to continue. Launched in 2021, the interactive online platform advocates for women’s sports, women in leadership, and equality. Geared for girls and women aged 13-23, VIS brings together more than 300 people from more than 20 countries.

That includes roughly 150 pro and collegiate athlete mentors, 80 sports psychologists, nutritionists, and women’s health experts, and 30 young female creators seeking careers in sports education, journalism, or business. There are also some 100 high school and college advocates who get training about Title IX and engagement in both sports and civics. The VIS space is free of coaches and parents to enable athletes to express themselves without inhibition.

Online group meetings cover topics as diverse as “Advocating for Yourself in Sport” (with seven-time U.S. Olympic track and field gold medalist Allyson Felix), “The Importance of Carbohydrates” (with nutritionist and wellness coach Karla Ilicic), and “Finding the College Program for You” (with University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign gymnast Mia Takekawa).

We caught up with four key VIS movers and shakers to investigate how the platform spurs the growth of women’s sports. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Stef Strack is the self-funding founder and CEO of VIS and has hosted more than 100 episodes of the VIS podcast. The former University of Montana soccer player previously spent 14 years as a Nike executive. Strack lives in Girdwood, Alaska with her husband and two children.

Jessica Pidgeon runs for the University of Delaware women’s cross-country team and is a member of the VIS Creator team, made up of college athletes or media majors who author content for VIS.

Brianna Pinto plays professional soccer for the North Carolina Courage of the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League). She doubles as a VIS mentor.

Dr. Kimberly O’Brien is a clinical social worker in the Sports Medicine Division and Female Athlete Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as a research scientist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The former co-captain of the 1999 national champion Harvard women’s hockey team serves as a VIS Expert on mental health.

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Stef, what was the inspiration for creating Voice in Sport?

Stef Strack: I grew up ski racing with a super-supportive family. I wanted to go to the Olympics and had all those dreams. But I certainly faced a lot of challenges growing up in Alaska as a female athlete. There was a lack of visibility in terms of role models and limited future opportunities.

When I went to college and played Division One soccer, there was no league at the time for me to play in after college. So I quit after my second year in college to focus on my studies. After going to Nike for 14 years and then serving as a the CEO of a fashion company, I wanted to create something that would help young girls have a better experience and a more equal future in sport.

How did your time at Nike influence what you created?

Strack: My thought was, “What if we put girls’ voices at the center of everything we do, 100 percent of the time, and innovate on a digital product? Would that help solve the problems?” I felt like things were still not changing fast enough for girls in sport.

My years at Nike gave me a lot of experience. I took the product experience and applied it to something that I felt would have a larger impact globally for these girls. Let’s create this global digital platform that offers mentorship and access to mental health and nutrition services, bringing people together to create better services for young girls through one-on-one and group sessions. But I also wanted to empower that whole community to fight for equality. So we ended up building these programs along the way that solved all these different problems.

Kimberly, how does someone with your background in mental health add to VIS?

Kimberly O’Brien: My training is in clinical social work, and I do a lot of work with athletes on a wide variety of things. What I hope to bring to Voice in Sport is the ability to speak with athletes about the importance of mental health and mental skills, not just in sports performance, but everything in their lives.

For many of these girls, sport has been a huge part of their lives for their whole lives. And sometimes we don’t realize how much how many sports-related skills are transferable once we get older and maybe aren’t competing anymore. Mental health is one of the biggest pieces of that.

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Jessica, what led you to join the VIS Creator team?

Jessica Pidgeon: I love writing. I always have. Taking English classes, putting my thoughts into words, you name it. So being on our writing team has been really cool. I got to interview a sports psychologist, a sports dietitian, and a professional runner for some of the articles that I’ve written. It was a way for me to bring attention to topics that I think would benefit female athletes.

I did one story on prioritizing process over outcomes, reframing your mindset when you’re setting goals. That’s something that was kind of a game-changer for me, and I wanted to share it with other female athletes. I did another story on nutrition and dodging diet culture.

Where do you fit into this mix, Brianna, as a pro athlete?

Brianna Pinto: I have loved the mentorship part of it. It’s incredibly rewarding to reflect on all of my experiences and the adversity that I’ve overcome to get to where I am today. But getting to host sessions with younger athletes, I’ve learned from them as well. Sports evolves over time, and they see sports in a different way than maybe even I did.

One interesting thing about elite youth sports is that you have to specialize earlier and earlier. Now, I played all the sports: basketball, tennis, baseball, tee-ball. Of course, soccer won out for me. But regardless, I love coaching girls to be the best version of themselves and to reap the benefits of playing team sports.

As the CEO, Stef, what kind of hours do you put into VIS in a typical day?

Strack: I wake up at 6 am, get my coffee, and prepare for meetings before my kids wake up. I spend a lot of time pitching potential global brand partners to sponsor online sessions, other content, and VIS memberships. Then I help young girls onboard to the platform or answer questions that they or their parents might have.

I have meetings with teams, clubs, and colleges that use our platform globally. One is the [NWSL’s] Portland Thorns Academy. We do sessions on mental health, performance, body image, nutrition, and so on for them. So I talk to coaches about creating sessions in a way that’s really meaningful for the girls.

And I spend time with my tech team. We’re a global digital platform, so we’re always looking to improve the user experience and include new functions. Additionally, I meet with the girls on the VIS Creator and VIS Advocacy team. Sometimes it’s Title IX training, something it’s feedback on their writing.

Then I also host our podcast with Olympic athletes and others. I often go till 10 pm. So I’ve never been busier or worked harder in my life, but I’ve also never been more fulfilled. I feel like I’m having an impact on the young women who are part of this community and seeing real change happen.

Jessica, as a runner, how have you benefited from this platform?

Pidgeon: Going to the different mentorship sessions, I focus primarily on ones hosted by runners, just because they understand the things I’m going through right now. I’ve used the sessions to gain mental tips for racing, fueling tips for hard workouts and races and things like that.

I’ve actually made a really good connection with Laura Thweatt. She’s a professional runner who focuses on longer distances like marathons, and I’m a 10K runner. I attended a group session with her. I was going through an injury, and she gave great tips on how to get through injuries. It really resonated with me. I reached out to her to set up a one-on-one mentorship session. We’ve just continued to foster a connection.

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Social media is such a huge part of how people – especially young women – connect nowadays. Kimberly, how do you advise VIS members in terms of their social media use from a mental health standpoint?

O’Brien: There are positive and negative sides. Girls see different people to compare themselves with in sports, and they can feel like they’re not doing enough after watching other people training. But there’s also the flip side, where it can be inspirational to be able to see athletes you admire and absorb what they do day to day. So it’s all about the perspective of the person who is engaging in social media.

My role is to help those athletes figure out, “Okay, how does each of the different platforms affect me? When does it feel good or not so good? And then how should I curtail my use according to that?” From there, they can make a social media plan for themselves, so they can engage with it in a beneficial way.

Brianna, what’s one big-picture challenge you’ve had to face that you talk about?

Pinto: Getting burnt out. I think that was a really big challenge. Because I always had big goals. I wanted to represent the national teams, I wanted to play professionally – the things that I’m doing now. But there was a lot of sacrifice. I missed out on a lot of things that a normal kid gets to go to. I missed my senior prom and countless birthday parties. I had to choose to do fitness over going out with friends. That takes a toll on you socially.

So I try to emphasize a proper work-to-life balance, even at a young age. I talk about time management to make sure that you’re fulfilled in every aspect of your life. Because, while sport is great and it brings so many different opportunities for all of us, it’s important to be fulfilled in every area so that you can give the best version of yourself when you step out on the field.

Growing up, I would have really benefited from an older female perspective, someone who has reached the elite levels of soccer. They could have told me how to cope and not be so stressed over things that seem like they’re the biggest issue in the world.

As a Black pro athlete, how do you advocate through VIS for better representation in the soccer world?

Pinto: Something I’ve been really passionate about is diversity, equity and inclusion at every level of our game in the United States and across the world. I firmly believe that representation is the supreme motivator for people in many fields. If you can see yourself in a role that you eventually want to be in, you can believe that you can get there

I think my persona is fairly unique in the sense that I’m a midfielder and I’m Black. There haven’t been a whole lot of girls like me. So I looked up to Crystal Dunn, and she went to the University of North Carolina, where I attended. She was a positional number 10, an attacking midfielder, and she was extremely dynamic. But as she reached the national team, she got moved to outside back.

Now, that was partially due to the needs of the team, and it’s special to get to represent the national team at any level. But because I’m a midfielder, I want to emphasize the notion that Black players can be intelligent. They can be savvy on the ball. They can be deceptive. They can have tactical understanding that’s as good as any other player on the field. I feel like that hasn’t been reinforced as much as it should be.

So on the Voice in Sport platform, I get to talk to young Black girls, girls of color, and instill belief in them.

On that note, Stef, what did it mean to add Allyson Felix, a Black icon who is the most decorated woman in track and field history, as a “Founding Athlete” with VIS?

Strack: I think Allyson is the epitome of what we represent here at Voice in Sport. She is a force. She has a strong voice. She wants to see a better future for her daughter. When I was looking for a “Founding Athlete,” I really wanted to find somebody who was value-aligned, but who also wanted to dive in, take action, and fundamentally do that through creating new ways forward, versus going into the system that already exists and trying to change it.

And Allyson and I had that in common, right? We both started our own companies. She started Saysh, her own footwear company, and then there was me with VIS. So we felt if we could come together as two women who are passionate about advocating for change, bringing it about in innovative ways, then we could be an unbelievable force together.

You’ve also mobilized VIS members, including Cornell volleyball player Sydney Moore and Saint Mary’s of California runner Molly Dreher, to draft a proposal regarding Title IX enforcement that was introduced as legislation in December. Can you give some details?

Strack: It’s called the Fair Play for Women Act of 2022. It is sponsored by U.S. Senator Chris Murphy and Representative Alma Adams. The bill strengthens Title IX through three main areas.

First, better education around Title IX at all institutional levels, kindergarten to grade 12 and at the collegiate level.

Second, better reporting and transparency around that reporting – reducing the loopholes, like counting male practice players as women in order to be compliant with Title IX.

Third, stronger enforcement of Title IX. Because when you look at the evaluations that the young girls have done through the VIS Advocate Program, over 95 percent of the schools are out of compliance with Title IX, but there’s no enforcement mechanism from the Department of Education or from the NCAA. So the bill is fundamentally to strengthen the purpose of Title IX through those three pillars.

In the big picture, what have you accomplished with VIS and what have you learned?

Strack: It’s that idea of, “If you build it, they will come.” And we built it. And now brands, leagues, and teams are coming in, and that is really rewarding to see. I’ll never forget when the first person signed up after the platform went live. Then more girls started applying, and they were coming in and going to sessions. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing.” It’s grown from there.

At the end of the day, when you’re building something that doesn’t exist, you never really know how it’s going to do. You learn that the best thing that you can do is stay really close to who you’re trying to serve, which is the girls. Just make sure you’re constantly listening to them.

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