By Greg Bach
Stephanie McCaffrey remembers the dream-crushing message delivered to her at the age of 13.
“I got cut from the Olympic Development Program regional team because they essentially said that I wasn’t a soccer player,” McCaffrey said. “They told me that it didn’t appear that I was a national team caliber player.”
Good thing she didn’t pay attention to those words that day.
Not a single one of them.
Instead, she went home and stuck with the sport because she cherished everything about it: the friendships, the teamwork, and the pursuit of improvement.
“I loved how the more time you put in outside of your team environment to become good at dribbling or passing or shooting the better you could be,” says McCaffrey, who recently retired from the Chicago Red Stars of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) due to an ongoing neurological illness. “It’s a skill-based sport where the sky is the limit if you are willing to put in the work.”
And it showed.
Plenty of opposing players can attest to the challenges that accompanied trying to stop her from scoring goals. Or creating scoring opportunities for her teammates.
She went on to star at Boston College, where she was a two-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference First Team selection. She was also just the fourth player in program history to score 90 or more points in their career.
Most notably, five years after being told she wasn’t good enough she was wearing Red, White and Blue and starting for the U.S. Under 23 National Team. In 2015 and 2016 she spent time playing with the World Cup champion U.S. Women’s National Team, even scoring a goal against Brazil in her first appearance with the team.
So, she has a message all young athletes of all sports need to hear and remember, particularly on those days where they fail to make a team; or when they turn in a disappointing performance and begin questioning their skills as their confidence dips.
“I remind kids that especially when you are young so much changes year to year so don’t get down,” she says. “Stay the course and make sure that you’re not letting other people define your dreams.”
McCaffrey was born and raised in Winchester, Mass., roughly eight miles north of Boston. She fully appreciates all the opportunities that she had to develop her skills during her childhood.
“We have a thriving youth soccer program with every resource you could possibly imagine,” she says. “Then on top of that my parents spent thousands of dollars on club tournaments, flights and travel to put me in position to be successful.”
It’s a common story of many elite level players. “Unfortunately, when you get up to the professional ranks a lot of people have that similar story, which is that they are predominantly white from a middle to upper class family that invested a lot,” McCaffrey says. “So it was always in the back of my mind to help change that.”
And she has.
She created Hidden Gems, which connects girls playing soccer in low-income communities with mentoring professional coaches from the NWSL. The 501 (c)(3) organization uses its funding to pay for NWSL players to coach in programs of existing non-profits in the youth soccer space.
“We want girls who haven’t had the easiest upbringing to finally feel like they have been chosen and finally feel like they are worthy of opportunity,” McCaffrey says.
There have been countless moments that showcase the impact of Hidden Gems – including in Chicago and Houston – and what it means to children and their families who have never had these opportunities before.
For instance, last summer Hidden Gems brought a group of girls out for a Chicago Red Stars game that also featured a panel of successful businesswomen speaking about confidence before the game. Afterward a youngster came up to McCaffrey and told her it was the first time she had ever been told to be confident in her dreams.
And then a mom of another child approached and thanked her, telling her that she never imagined an opportunity like this would ever be available for her daughter.
“It’s one small comment but it holds enormous weight,” McCaffrey says. “Because that’s exactly what we are trying to do.”
Two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and World Cup Champion Briana Scurry, author of MY GREATEST SAVE, on managing challenging moments and what young athletes in all sports can do to navigate them and stay focused on the present
Ryan Gareis, former University of South Carolina standout and current forward for the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League, on bringing energy, enthusiasm and a team-first mentality at all times
Orlando Pride midfielder Chelsee Washington, founder of 90/10 Performance Co., on helping young players manage mindsets and build confidence from within to perform at their best
Erica Suter, former soccer standout at Johns Hopkins University and author of THE STRONG FEMALE ATHLETE, on helping female athletes enhance confidence, reduce injuries, and boost performance