Jessica's Journey: Playing many youth sports sparked golden career
By Greg Bach
Legendary softball player Jessica Mendoza, one of the game’s most prolific hitters, began her journey to greatness playing every sport imaginable growing up.
She ran track and competed in the high jump; she played tennis, soccer, basketball and softball; and she participated in ballet, dance and gymnastics.
“Pretty much everything you could think of my parents signed me up for,” says Mendoza, an outfielder on the 2004 U.S. Olympic softball team that captured the gold medal in Athens and won the silver medal at the ’08 Olympic Games in Beijing. “So many kids are being asked to play one sport these days and when I look back it was nice to be able to kind of just say, ‘Ok, softball season is over. Now I’m going to go to another sport and have fun with it and not think about my at-bats and what I need to do to improve, but instead think about a jump shot and maybe work on my lay-ups and my defense and something totally different.”
In today’s youth sports world, where specialization and burnout monopolize the landscape, Mendoza never tired of softball because she was too busy competing in other sports, ultimately learning and developing all sorts of skills that would help her become one of the most feared hitters in the game.
How’s this for production: She was a four-time first-team All-American at Stanford; she still owns school career records in batting average (.416), hits (327), home runs (50), slugging percentage (.719), runs scored (230) and stolen bases (86). And along with those Olympic medals she helped the U.S. win three World Championships; and she was named the Most Valuable Player in the National Pro Fastpitch League in 2011.
“Soccer and basketball were two other sports I played into my high school years and I felt just gaining things like explosiveness and the cross training of doing things that you didn’t get within the sport of softball really helped me,” she says. “Also, it was nice just to have the break of playing other sports.”
Mendoza, who you’ve seen on ESPN since 2007, recently made history by becoming the first female analyst on an ESPN Major League Baseball telecast when she worked a Monday night game between Arizona and St. Louis; and she followed that up less than a week later by working ESPN’s prime time Sunday night contest with Dan Shulman and John Kruk between the Cubs and Dodgers.
Mendoza spoke with SportingKid Live in this exclusive interview less than 12 hours after her historical telecast. Here’s what the married mom of two had to say on everything from coaching kids and connecting with youngsters to her golden Olympic moment and the adrenaline rush of being on camera with millions watching:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: You played for a lot of great coaches throughout your career, so based on your experiences what would be your advice to today’s volunteer coaches?
MENDOZA: It would be to be encouraging and make it fun. And if you can remember why you did things when you were 8, 9 and 10 years old it was because it was fun. There’s no other reason. You weren’t thinking about a scholarship and you weren’t thinking it was going to look great on a resume. It was really about just a smile on your face and enjoying the people around you. So I think if you’re coaching the No. 1 most important thing is just make it fun. Come up with some creative games at practice. If you can make sure every player has a smile at some point during the game or practice then you can call yourself a successful coach.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How can coaches help kids stay positive?
MENDOZA: I found the best coaches were the ones who were able to be honest but in a way that makes you still feel good about yourself, and it’s a fine line. And especially with female athletes I really believe you need to feel good to play good. I think it’s important to point out the things a player is doing well first, earn that trust. And then when you’re pointing out things they need to improve on do it in a way that still makes them understand that you are trying to get them to work on something but also in a way that makes them feel like, “wow, I’m really good. I should really try to work on this specific skill.”
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How can coaches make those special connections with all of their players?
MENDOZA: First of all, it’s understanding and getting to know your players because every person is different. What makes them tick? What gets them motivated? When do you need to kind of pull off and when do you need to kind of light their fire to be able to ignite them and get them going? I definitely believe that if you understand your players you’re going to be that much better in having a connection and getting the best out of them.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What’s it like to have an Olympic Gold Medal?
MENDOZA: I like to bring it to events. I’m really big on kids being able to put it around their neck. It’s something I want our youth to enjoy. I bring it to schools. My son now has started kindergarten and they have a Bring Your Parent to Work Day to talk about your job so I like being the cool mom that comes in with the Olympic medal (laughs).
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How have your experiences playing sports helped you going in front of the camera for ESPN?
MENDOZA: Honestly, when that red light goes on it’s so pressure packed and it really reminds me of being in that bottom of the seventh, game is on the line moment. I know it’s kind of a different analogy but when that light goes on there is so much nervousness combined with excitement. We have an opportunity to really do something and I love it. I never realized how much I craved it until I retired from playing and that is literally scratching that itch for me. That feeling that just knowing a ton of people are watching and you can totally screw up or you can totally kick butt and it’s up to you right now in this moment. And I think a lot of people react differently in those moments. I’ve always been someone that the reason I played, especially when I got to a higher level, was I loved the challenge of the pressure.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What’s it mean to you to be the first female analyst for an MLB game?
MENDOZA: Just the reaction from everyone, the support from inside the company and outside the company, it really made me feel good that there are a lot of people who support women doing sports. I also think it’s going to create a lot of influence on a lot of younger women to get into more things, not just in the sports world, that are male-dominated and not feel intimidated that no one has ever done it before.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How did your parents handle your participation in sports?
MENDOZA: It was a balance. My dad coached baseball and football at the college level. I wouldn’t call it pressure as much as I would say there was an expectation to be great, and it was like that in everything. You could go 3-for-4 with three home runs and it was “let’s talk about the at-bat you didn’t get on.” Now that doesn’t work for every person – but for me I had the balance of my mom who would be ultra positive and I could do no wrong. She would say “I love you and I support you and you were great today.” There was never a negative word that came out of her mouth ever. Yet my dad pushed me and every child is different, but for me I needed the combination. I needed somebody to kind of give me that extra nudge – I was good, I was athletic – but I was never able to settle on that. And I live my life that way. And as much as it can be exhausting thinking, “Ok, I’ve done this, I’ve accomplished this, what’s next?” that’s my personality and I was blessed to have parents that were able to both push that but also support it.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What’s it like to play for your country?
MENDOZA: Honestly within sports I don’t think there’s a better feeling than what the Olympic Games can bring. Just because you have a love for the sport you play – and you played it for decades in my case – but you times that by a million to really genuinely understand the passion you have for your country. We sometimes go through the motions with the national anthem that we hear so often, but all of a sudden with the Olympics you’re living in the Olympic Village, you’re meeting athletes from all over the world and you really realize how special it is to grow up here, and the opportunities for me as a female athlete that this country has provided and you get this sense of pride. You’re representing an entire country that you love and when you win and you are on the podium and now you hear that national anthem that you have heard millions of times before there is a sense that was never there before that brings more emotion than I have ever felt on a field.
A young athlete’s tragic death unites her family, coach, team and community to “Live Like Line”
Athletic trainer Kevin Parker used an automated external defibrillator to help save the life of an athlete who collapsed at practice. If a child goes down are you ready to respond?
Allysa Seely, Paralympic gold medalist in the 2016 paratriathlon and world champion, shares meaningful messages on chasing dreams, the power of sports in our lives, and more
U.S. Olympic marathon medalist Deena Kastor on the power of the mind in fueling performances and leading a successful life