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Turning failure into fuel

Soccer icon Abby Wambach on leadership, failure and forging your own path


What do you do when it’s time to leave everything you’ve ever known? How do you retire from something that has been your identity for decades? These are questions that every athlete must eventually face – and many struggle with depression and anxiety after retirement.

Humans are innately social. The support that our “wolfpack” provides is invaluable, and sports are the ultimate pack: You train together. You eat together. You experience the highs of winning and the lows of failures together. It’s no wonder so many athletes feel lost and alone after retirement.

Abby Wambach certainly did. Yes – even the illustrious and internationally renowned G.O.A.T. of American soccer struggled with retirement. She had to learn how to recreate her wolfpack and feel that sense of belonging once again.

In this episode, Abby discusses her new book, WOLFPACK: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game, in which she outlines the eight new rules of leadership. Abby is interviewed by Tony’s right arm, creative partner and former ESPN writer, Mary Buckheit, who has covered Abby’s career through the decades.

Who is Abby Wambach?

Hailing from Rochester, NY, Abby Wambach is an iconic striker, two-time U.S. Soccer Olympic gold medalist, FIFA World Cup champion and long-time captain of the U.S. National Team. She was the United States’ leading scorer in the 2007 and 2011 Women’s World Cup tournaments and the 2004 and 2012 Olympics. (She missed Beijing 2008 due to a broken leg.)

Leading the charge for the Red, White and Blue for some 15 years, Abby has made plays alongside the great Mia Hamm, Alex Morgan and everyone in between. Wambach led the USWNT to victory in the 2015 World Cup just before announcing her retirement from the sport of soccer. She is STILL the highest all-time leading scorer in international soccer history, with more goals (184) than any other player in the game, male or female.

Since retiring, she has written two books and spends her time making the rounds on stages and podiums sharing her secrets to success at colleges and universities, corporate events and culture conferences. No wonder Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world and there’s an official Barbie doll made in her likeness.

Make failure your fuel

During her time playing soccer, Abby was celebrated around the world not only for her talents, but also for her patented style of leadership and resilience. Her teammates have called her legendary, inspiring, unbelievable and a tremendous champion. Where does the incredible leadership ability come from? Her ability to make failure into fuel. Abby says: “Always find a way to turn failure into something that’s going to serve you or serve the world.”

Keep moving forward

After her retirement, Abby faced her greatest challenge of all. She was depressed, numbing her feelings with alcohol and prescription drugs. Eventually, she faced a choice: Continue to spiral downwards, or turn her despair and fear into action. She decided to keep pushing forward. She accepted that life happens for you, not to you. She even began to see the worst thing that ever happened to her – her DWI – as the best thing, because she never would have met her wife without it.

Create your own path

Part of Abby’s journey was digging into her limiting beliefs. She began to question the messages she had been given and the way that her beliefs had been shaped. She says, “We have to figure out where we are and what we believe now, and draw lines back to how we came to believe some of these things.” Then we can create a new blueprint for our lives that will bring fulfillment and happiness.

Episode notes

[02:50] Overview of Abby’s first book, her memoir: Forward
[03:10] Labels and identities
[04:02] Team players and the need to belong
[04:18] The gender spectrum
[05:10] Growing up as an ever-evolving human
[05:30] Elizabeth Gilbert on how weird it is to be a human on planet earth
[06:10] Unwinding labels, getting back to our wild, and being kind
[06:42] Outgrowing materialism and excess
[07:03] Intro to Wolfpack
[07:33] New Rule #1: Create your own path
[07:45] Reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park
[08:15] Crafting the commencement speech for Barnard
[08:29] Little Red Riding Hood: flipping the fairytale
[08:59] Importance of questioning beliefs
[10:04] Dare to venture off the path
[10:33] You were always the wolf
[11:05] Interview with Robin Roberts t-shirt: “Ain’t No Little Red”
[11:42] Everything is a warning or an example
[12:11] Looking up to the ‘99ers, growing up playing sports
[12:35] Michael Phelps’ struggle with post-Olympic blues
[13:13] The tough transition that is retirement from competitive sport
[13:35] Abby’s fear of death/retiring from soccer
[13:58] Depression after World Cups and Olympics
[14:23] Using alcohol and prescription drugs to numb transition
[15:00] Abby’s experience at the ESPYs receiving the Icon Award
[15:38] Abby decides to turn despair into action
[15:55] The USWNT filed a gender discrimination lawsuit
[16:35] After soccer, Abby recreates her wolfpack
[17:17] Tony’s wolfpack
[17:42] Same team, one big family, human brothers and sisters
[18:29] Abby’s inspiration for Wolfpack (was not “The Hangover”)
[18:59] “Who you spend time with is who you become”
[19:16] Oprah: “You become what you believe”
[19:42] Being in the stands at the 2019 World Cup in Paris, France
[20:08] New Rule #3: Lead now, lead from wherever you are
[20:31] Abby’s approach to sports with her daughters
[21:16] It’s OK to feel disappointed; Not OK to let it affect the team
[21:35] Abby’s response to benching at 2015 World Cup
[22:33] The philosophy of Team vs. Self
[23:03] Abby’s best self
[23:39] Abby’s decision to do what’s best for the U.S. team
[24:20] Abby’s opportunity to put leadership philosophy into action
[24:51] We all have moments in life that we will get “benched”
[25:00] What determines the kind of life you get to live
[25:25] Abby’s wisdom comes from experience
[25:57] Abby’s new definition of leadership
[26:24] Rule #4: Make failure your fuel
[26:54] Abby’s recovery and 3 years of sobriety
[27:18] How the worst thing that ever happened gave way to the best
[27:50] Finding the good in every “failure”
[28:00] Abby’s call from jail to her mother
[28:30] Turning hard times into something that serves you
[28:58] Abby sorts out her feelings after addiction
[29:20] Helping others step into their light
[29:44] Recreate daily habits
[29:58] In sobriety, there’s no more shame
[30:20] The biggest cultural addiction right now
[30:31] Rule #5: Be FOR each other, not against each other
[30:54] When you score, start pointing
[31:37] The importance of acknowledging others
[32:00] Curiosity instead of judgement
[32:15] There are limited seats at the table for women
[33:00] The scarcity mentality is what holds us back
[33:30] The “all boats rise” mentality of the USWNT
[33:47] What Abby thinks when Alex Morgan scores
[34:07] Using others’ success as a challenge
[34:39] New Rule #6: Believe in yourself
[34:48] Throwing away the old story about blended families
[35:01] The realities of divorce, and remarrying with kids
[35:27] Dropping egos in divorce for welfare of children
[35:50] Giving your kids permission to love their parents
[36:01] Co-parenting with Glennon Doyle and Craig Melton
[37:03] The scars caused by bad-mouthing exes
[37:37] Creating a healthy family dynamic
[37:55] Tony stops in to thank Abby for many talents and contributions

"you are allowed to be disappointed when it feels like life's benched you. what you aren't allowed to do is miss your opportunity to lead from the bench. If you're not a leader on the bench, don't call yourself a leader on the field. You're either a leader everywhere or nowhere." abby wambach

Everyone experiences struggles in life – even soccer icons like Abby Wambach. We all must learn to discipline our disappointment and keep pushing forward, no matter what. We must drop our egos, unravel our beliefs and change our stories. As Abby says in the podcast, “Throw away old stories and write your own story. It’s possible.”

Team Tony

Team Tony cultivates, curates and shares Tony Robbins’ stories and core principles, to help others achieve an extraordinary life.

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