Empowerment was the overarching theme from keynote speaker Mia Hamm at Thursday’s 2023 Soirée Women’s Leadership Symposium in Little Rock.
“When I first made the national team, my attitude was like, ‘I don't care what I have to do. If I don't play one minute, one, I'm gonna be ready, and two, I'll do whatever you ask me to do,’” Hamm said. “If that's being the best cheerleader, I'm in.”
Turns out, Hamm did get to show her skills on the field. For 17 years, she played professional soccer, winning two World Championships and two Olympic gold medals.
In 2012, the marketing icon was hailed by ESPN as the greatest female athlete of the past 40 years because of her exemplary performance on the field and as one of the most important and recognizable female figures in soccer history.
Growing up in the South, Hamm was one of six children. On the weekends, while her mother was teaching ballet, her father loaded up everyone in the VW van to go to the soccer fields, where the kids played on teams and he coached or refereed.
“Back then, you would go to the soccer fields and there'd be this paper in the middle of all the fields, and you'd see what field you were on and what time,” Hamm said. “It was a whole day affair.”
According to Hamm, she was always a good athlete and very competitive.
“For some of my teammates and siblings, it wasn’t very fun for me to participate because I had to win everything.”
After spending some time playing in San Antonio and North Texas, at age 14, she tried out for the Olympic development team in Dallas, and just one year later, she became the youngest woman to ever appear in a match for the U.S. Senior Squad at just 15.
“That was where all the really good, especially girls, select teams were. I went there and I realized that hey, I can kind of hang with these girls. I'm not bad. I made the team. And from then on is where my life kind of changed,” said Hamm, whose focus quickly became soccer. “Just being put in that environment, I really learned that that's where my passion was.”
Her start on the national team led to a career that included shattering records, like number of intentional goals (158) and assists (144), and guiding the U.S. to gold at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia and winning the 1991 and 1999 World Cup games.
Collegiately, she played at the University of North Carolina where she led the Tar Heels to four consecutive NCAA Championships and was a three-time All American. She was awarded the ESPY Female Athlete of the Year in 1998 and in 1999, the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year in 2001 and 2002, named to FIFA’s best 125 players in 2004 and was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2007.
When she first joined the national team, she quickly noticed that all of the players were also athletic.
“I learned that I was still a really good athlete, but I wasn't a very good soccer player. I didn't know the tactical side of the game. I just kind of used my athleticism to make up for some of those deficiencies of where to serve the ball or when to serve it,” Hamm said.
“You know, every player was going to be fast. How can I make myself a more complete player?”
Though taking ownership — via her fitness, by watching the game and talking to teammates and “trusting the process” — she found she could better understand how to solve problems on the field, and that experience has served her well off the field, too.
“My coach in college did a really wonderful job at, when he organized training sessions, it wasn't just to accomplish a certain aspect of the game, it was to help you be able to problem solve once you get into the game and in that environment,” Hamm said.
“…But in the end, what he would always say was, ‘Experience will always dictate what you do.’ And I was like, that is such a cop out answer. Like, what does that even mean? Experience will dictate. As I grew as a player, I understand now. … You learn through the mistakes that you make on the field.
“Experience is really just messing up a whole lot.”
She believed as a veteran player, helping the younger players understand that mistakes are part of growth and development is part of the job, and she saw it as her responsibility to share as much information with others as she could.
“A lot of the time there's this fear of, well, I can't let her know everything I know because then she might take my position, and that's not the way I live my life. If she's better than me to do it, then that means that the sport is growing and evolving and she's getting better,” Hamm said.
“And if I really care about this program and this team, then that's what's going to happen. I have to be confident in myself that if I do step away or she takes my position, I'll find another kind of path for myself.”
Hamm retired from soccer in 2004, and find another path she did. Today, she lives in Southern California with her husband, former baseball player Nomar Garciaparra, and their three children and continues to serve as an inspiration to young girls, both in and out of the sporting world.
Her active presence within the soccer community, advocacy for Title IX and gender equality and the work of her foundation all serve to solidify her GOAT status for generations of athletes.
Hamm and her husband are among several co-owners of the Los Angeles Football Club of Major League Soccer. She is an author and an investor in the Angel City Football Club, which has formed deep roots in the Los Angeles community through outreach and impact work, including initiatives in education, food security, sports equity and LGBTQ+ and gender equality.
As if that wasn’t enough, Hamm also dedicates her time to raise funds and awareness for families in need of marrow or cord blood transplants and to the development of more opportunities for young women in sports through the Mia Hamm Foundation.
“It's not about protecting yourself. It's about caring about the people around you. That you believe they are worth that investment and your time,” Hamm said. “And so that's the way I approached what I did. It was, ‘This is everything that's in my brain. It might not be a lot, but I'm going to give you what I have, and do with it what you want.’”