When I hung up the phone after talking with Mia Hamm, I put on my helmet and sprinted out to the huddle, ready to help my teammates move the ball 90 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
At least, that’s how I felt. I had the feeling that I had just been coached – not in football or any other sport, but in life.
In 2012, ESPN chose Mia as the greatest female athlete of the last 40 years. Personally, if I earned a comparable honor, it would probably be the second sentence out of my mouth – maybe even the first – every time I met someone.
But Mia isn’t like that at all: “I didn’t achieve what I did all on my own, not by any stretch. I was brought up to treat people right, to be grateful, to set the best example. My parents taught me that humility has to be part of that.”
If she weren’t a humble person, you could understand why. Her list of achievements is absurdly impressive: two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame (and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and World Football Hall of Fame), four-time NCAA Women’s Soccer Champion with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (her win-loss record at UNC was an unthinkable 94-1), college All-American, ACC Female Athlete of the Year, two-time Olympic gold medalist, professional soccer player, Women’s World Cup Champion. There are too many others to list here.
How did the toddler who wore corrective shoes and struggled to walk properly end up as a hero to millions? For Mia, sports began as more of a social pursuit than an athletic one.
“As a military family, we moved around a lot,” Mia said. “I was an emotional kid and sports helped me connect with the other children. We would move to a new town in the summer, and I would start going to practice. Then by the time school started, I already knew a lot of the other kids from playing soccer together over the summer.”
Sports, Family, and Growth
Sports were a big part of Mia’s childhood. “My Dad would referee and coach. And I had older siblings who played sports,” she remembered fondly. “My brother Garrett was a huge influence on my life. He let me follow him around and included me in all the neighborhood pickup games. He could have been like, ‘I don’t want my little sister tagging along with me!’ But he wasn’t like that, he was so full of love and acceptance. I looked up to him so much, he was the coolest guy in the neighborhood, he even had the coolest hair! Everyone liked him and I just held him in such high regard.”
But sports can be a cruel metaphor for life; with the glory of victory comes the heartbreak of loss. Mia’s family suffered the ultimate heartbreak when her brother Garrett died in 1997 of complications from aplastic anemia, a rare blood disorder. In typical fashion, Mia found a way to make something positive out of her grief by launching the Mia Hamm Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting awareness of aplastic anemia and raising funds for families in need of a bone marrow or cord blood transplant.
In 2015, Mia broadened her outreach on health issues when she signed on as a Live Fearless Ambassador for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina. Her goal – pardon the pun – is to inspire people, especially moms and their daughters, to live healthy lives to the fullest.
“My mother was a great role model for health,” Mia Hamm reflected. “She was a ballet dancer, which kept her active. She was an outstanding cook who understood the importance of eating right. She didn’t buy a lot of processed food, she made pasta sauce from fresh ingredients. We didn’t eat sugar cereals, we hardly ever had soda in the house.”
From the Field to the Family Table
Now Mia wants to pass on some of what she learned about nutrition from her mother: “Food is fuel for our bodies, so we should make sure that fuel is as clean and healthy as possible to get our bodies running properly. In school, kids’ brains need energy to learn. That energy needs to come from fruits, vegetables, fresh foods.”
And as most parents know, issuing dietary commandments probably won’t get the desired result in children’s eating habits.
“The last thing we want to do is forbid things,” Mia said. “Because as soon as the kids are out of the house, they’ll try to sneak stuff. It’s better to have open conversations about diet and health. Do we need to eat all the Halloween candy as quickly as possible? No, we’re not trying to break a record for how many pieces of candy we can eat in a 72-hour period. But occasional treats are OK and it’s important that we give kids the space to make some of their own choices.”
Mia advises parents to take a similar nurturing approach to their children’s athletic interests.
“All parents want their kids to do well in sports, but keep in mind that it’s not about you, it’s about your kids,” Mia said. “As a parent, you’re there to guide them through the process of learning how to win and lose with grace, to lend support when it’s needed. I coach my daughters at soccer and they’re not playing because at eight years old they already have plans to play in a World Cup match – they’re playing because their friends are playing. We need to remember that our kids’ priorities are probably different from ours.”
“Still, sports present parents with plenty of opportunities to teach our kids about things that are important in life: if you sign up to play, you have to bring energy and put in the effort; when your coach is talking to you, you need to listen and be respectful; be an example of sportsmanship whether you win or lose.”
“Kids are going to make mistakes as they learn a lot of these skills for the first time. For young kids, winning isn’t as important as learning about giving your best and making progress. If you’re blown out in the first game 8-0 and lose the second game 2-0, that’s progress.
As the ultimate soccer mom herself, Mia Hamm empathizes with parents – mothers, in particular – who find it difficult to make time for themselves and their own health.
“Over the last few days, I’ve been traveling and I haven’t been able to exercise,” she said. “Exercise invigorates me, I get energy from it. And I don’t have the same energy today, I’m a little more irritable. As mothers, we can’t allow that to become a permanent condition. We have to invest in ourselves because first of all, we’re worth it. And secondly, we have to set a good example for our kids. We don’t want to be teaching our kids to approach life with an ‘Oh, I’ll get to it tomorrow’ attitude.”
“Mothers need to take breaks, unplug from all the devices, go for a walk – find some peace, even during routine chores. I can find peace when I go by myself to the grocery store late at night, it’s almost like meditation. That quiet time separates me from the stresses of the day, it helps me let go of things that might be bothering me.”
As we ended our conversation, I could hear Mia’s adorable three-year-old son – named after her dear brother Garrett – calling his mother. If the phone interview was a time-out from the beautiful insanity of Mia’s life as a wife and mother, the break was now over. She hung up the phone and went back into the game.
And I did the same, heading out to the huddle, charged up and ready to play for the win.