If you’re a soccer fan you already know who Erin McLeod is. A veteran goalkeeper who’s played at the highest level for Canada (Olympics, FIFA World Cup, the list goes on…) Erin knows the kind of success that is truly the stuff of most Canadians’ dreams. If you Google her, you will read an impressive list of accomplishments from a woman known for her calm confidence, her leadership and dedication to the sport she loves. You will discover she is an artist, a musician, and a philanthropist.
And you will also learn she has struggled to overcome multiple potential career-ending injuries, who has seriously grappled with her identity, her self-worth, and who has battled disordered eating patterns. In this conversation, you will learn how in spite – actually because – of these struggles, Erin is now back on top of her game in every way.
She spoke to me from her home in Sweden where she plays for Växjö DFF.
This has been a really interesting year for a lot of reasons. The Women’s World Cup happened this summer and I didn’t participate in it because I was dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome in my feet and so I had to give up my seat.
I’ve had a lot of struggles with my identity. Because, as you know as a 4-time Olympian, that so much of your identity as a high level performing athlete is actually in being able to do your sport. I can say fairly that I went into a depression. I was married to Ella Masar at the time who was a wonderful partner and very supportive. But it took a toll on her, it took a toll on me, and on our relationship.
Emotional depression, change, questions around identity…this is really tough stuff. How did you keep going forward when you felt stuck and you were injured and your marriage was ending?
Not for lack of effort by either of us but sometimes relationships have expiry dates… At the time I read a book by Cara Alwill Leyba – Like She Owns the Place – about female empowerment. It was timely because I was reading it as I was going through this and I kinda started building a small tribe – all of them women, actually (that’s just coincidence) – who really showed up for me, who were wonderful people to lean on.
It’s funny when your identity’s been caught up in sport and when that’s been taken away from you multiple times, you realize that your identity has nothing to do with your sport. It’s like this huge epiphany!
And I also had this knowledge, like a switch come on in me in January when I had gone through so much emotionally, that I can get through anything. Obviously that’s one level of pain and I know there are a lot harder things people can go through, but at that moment in time it gave me this confidence. In a weird way it changed my perspective on life – football is just a game. It helped me realize what’s really important.
You know Simon Sinek’s book Find Your Why – I did that a year and a half ago. [Laughing] I’ve read almost every self improvement book that exists, and my ‘why’ – when I go back through my journals – was just about inspiring myself and others to see what we are capable of. Very simple. It has nothing to do with football.
You know, a lot of the answers we always search for happens when you’re hurt and in a heart space.
When it’s just you and your heart, and you start to listen to your heart, if you really start paying attention, that’s where you find unbelievable strength.
Was that hard for you to need other people and to realize that you can’t do this on your own? Was it hard to reach out to other people?
Yeah… I’m very good with mindfulness, and a lot of the things you learn that make you good at emotional control – which is a very powerful tool – can also make you good at hiding your emotions. So it got to the point where the pain was just too much and I couldn’t hide it anymore, especially around the people that I love.
So you learned that who you are exists beyond anything you achieve or do in life. It’s the soul and spirit of who you are and that’s what people see and are attracted to. And that’s also what is available to give to others too, right?
Absolutely… It was fascinating because 100% I feel so lucky about what I’ve been able to do, but there’s no doubt in my mind that what I’ve been doing – and I’ve been on the National Team since 2001 – that I’ve really been preparing myself and learning the tools for what I am going to do next.
I’m doing a mindfulness program with a friend for young children ages 4-12. My sport has been a vehicle where I can push myself and improve… [but] there’s always been so much shame attached to making mistakes.
I was reading over some research and children start as early as three and a half years old learning fixed or growth mindsets. Like to be cool you have to get things right all the time and I just look back at my career and think if I could have understood what is so important to learning and improving, and if I could not have killed myself over making mistakes – how much more enjoyable would my life have been? And truly, the sky would have been the limit!
[Our society] puts so much pressure on kids, especially in social media, on to everything that’s external. What we really want to do in this program is to have the kids focus on who they are and what they want. To empower young people to follow that no matter what.
[We teach them] the tools and even breathing techniques that we incorporate every day. They have journals where they write about their goals and who they are. We talk about mindfulness and we also talk about awareness and learning to separate from our thoughts, that we are not our thoughts.
And no matter what happens over the next year and a half – which I think is the expiry date on me and my career – I have a new passion that I’m so grateful for that literally started in January 2019. I started going to work and creating this program – yeah! Changing the lives of children…I can’t think of anything more rewarding.
So, for you, what was it that ultimately got you back on your feet when you had the problem of disordered eating? Was it the realization that if you wanted to be an elite athlete you couldn’t do it anymore or what was it?
I was in Jakarta, Indonesia at the time. I was over-exercising and under-eating. It became something I tried to hide, as a lot of people with eating disorders know, and my whole family got involved… One day my mom sat me down at the dinner table. She looked me in the eye and she was crying… She was pretty blunt. She said, “You can continue to do soccer, or you can continue to kill yourself, to starve yourself. But you can’t do both.”
That was the wake up call for me though I can’t say that I changed right away and I think an eating disorder stays with you… But after that I got a little bit better. I don’t think it ever really leaves you but I do a lot of mindfulness and self-compassion and self-love and I can look in the mirror now and I’m proud. But that has been a lot of work.
Did you work with a food counsellor or a counsellor? Did you have to go back into childhood issues or was it more pragmatic than that?
Funnily enough, with the national team we’ve always had a nutritionist. So, I ended up having a lot of pretty personal consultations with these nutritionists because like with any sport, I imagine, they pay a lot of attention to weight and body fat, so that was always a trigger for me.
I also worked with a counsellor about a multitude of things: I was finding out I was gay, I had a shoulder surgery and wasn’t playing soccer and having body issues as a result – there were a lot of things going on.
So how do you feel about your identity in sport?
Right now I’m in an interesting place because there’s a chance I’ll get invited back into the national team; there’s a chance I’ll get to go to the Olympics. But, there’s a chance I might not. And I will have played all of my days with Canada. That could be over. I really came to terms with that before the World Cup.
What was so cool for me watching this World Cup was watching so many of my teammates and how they are changing the world. These women are incredibly inspiring and I feel so lucky to call them my friends. And so I really looked at that. I have teammates who are literally half my age! Like I’ve been a professional athlete the entire time they’ve been alive. And to me that is cool; that’s pretty cool to have hung on for that long.
I’m in a place where whatever happens now I have the emotional tools because of what I’ve been through and I really feel that my soccer career has prepared for what’s next.
Are you purposeful in who you choose to surround yourself with? Obviously on team it’s not so much of a choice, but outside the sport are you purposeful with who you choose to be in friendships with and what you will expose yourself to?
Yes, absolutely. Giving time is the most precious thing and you only have a certain amount of it every day. And the amount of love and presence…there’s only so much of that that you can give. I have had to cut some people out of my life, to be blunt, because I got to a point where I want to live a very purposeful life.
I’m surrounded by people who push me to want to be a better human being. I feel very lucky to have that every day and I’m also very careful with my time.
I don’t have a million friends, but the ones I have in my life I would do anything for and they would do the same for me.
Do you think they came to you once you started to make a change internally? That people are attracted to certain energies?
I definitely do think that it has to do with your worth. I think my worth has always been connected to things that are external and, quite frankly, determined by them. Not always determined by me. I have really found my worth and it continues to evolve; just believing that I am worthy of the love in my life – that has really opened doors. Some of the people have already been in my life for years and some are coming in now. The connections are more real in both.
I want to talk about your art. Can you speak to how those creative pursuits help you and balance you?
I’m a thinker. Turning my brain off is hard. What drew me to art at the beginning, well, I was obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and just wanted to draw them – but it’s kind of the only time I don’t have another thought in my mind. I’m totally at peace. It’s like being in that ‘zone’ feeling in sport, that flow feeling is what I love about art. It’s really healthy with life – and football – because you’re getting vulnerable in creating something that has never existed before.
It is a liberating experience for me. There’s a mindfulness aspect in the creativity, it’s something that I love and I find that the more balance I have in my life, the better I am at everything including being a good partner, friend, and daughter…
Knowing that some people reading this are not going to be in such great place, is there some advice you’d like to share with someone who might be struggling with their feelings of self-worth right now?
The biggest pointer that I got is to look in the mirror every day and say I’m worth it. I’m worth it. I’m worth it. And it has nothing to do with what I’ve accomplished. I mean, I’m very proud of what I have accomplished, but I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that I haven’t been able to keep a relationship until now because I had no self-love.
Another way is that I picture my 5 year old self sitting on the couch, with her mullet and Reeboks, beside me and I imagine how I would love to talk to her. Think about how you would love to talk to your 5 year old self and ask why you don’t talk to yourself that way now. I always come back to that and it gives me more compassion, more self-loving because no one wants to be mean to a kid.
And reaching out. It’s the hardest thing you can do but if you can reach out you will find a common thread. Struggle is a connector – it doesn’t matter what you do or where you come from, we all struggle. The second you don’t feel alone, you start to feel grateful and the right people start to show up and then you must never let them go.
Thank you for talking to me today. It takes courage to be as open as you have.
Thanks so much. You’re such an inspiration to me so whatever you need, I’m on board.