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Five Lessons Softball's Haylie McCleney Learned In 2020

By Haylie McCleney | Dec. 26, 2020, 11 a.m. (ET)

Haylie McCleney poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on Nov. 20, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.


The last time softball was played in the Olympics, I was an eighth grader at North Jefferson Middle School in Morris, Alabama. It was 2008, and Japan upset the United States in the gold medal game. I remember watching some of my heroes play in that game like Laura Berg, Caitlin Lowe and Jessica Mendoza. 

Even though that team got the silver medal, I thought about how cool it would be to play for Team USA one day and play in the Olympics. The thought quickly faded as softball was voted out of the Olympic program for the 2012 and 2016 Games.

Even as that dream of playing in the Olympics had been buried for a few years, I tried out for the U.S. Women’s National Softball Team in January 2014 and was selected to the roster for the World Championships in Amsterdam. While I was not going to be an Olympian, as a sophomore in college it was still a piece of the dream I had always had. I was going to put on the same jersey of my heroes I had watched just six years ago. 

During my time on the national team from 2014-2016, our goal as an international sport and world ranked #1 team was abundantly clear: to get softball back in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. When Tokyo was named the host city, our hope was alive again. Baseball and softball are their equivalent of football in America and soccer in Europe. 

After six years of relentless work with the Japanese Softball Association alongside multiple other countries, softball was brought back officially to the Olympic program in August 2016. 

Our dreams were back alive. Our eyes were on 2020. 

For the past four years, my life has revolved around making the 2020 Olympic Roster and competing in the Games. It seemed to come up in almost every conversation I had. 

Question: “Well now that you have your Master’s Degree, what are you going to do?” 
My answer: “Find a job and train and play in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.” 

Question: “Why don’t you move here or apply for this job?” 
My answer: “I’m training to be in the Olympics and need to prioritize that.” 

Even the answer to the question “When are you getting married?” was always “after the Olympics.” 

The Olympics. The Olympics. The Olympics. 

2020 was supposed to be THE year. The year the 12-year absence of the best sport in the world ended and it was back where it belonged. The year my 12-year dead dream came back to life. THE year. 

Then COVID-19 hit. 

I have always been an optimist, but honestly this year has tested that. The Games were postponed and my wedding was postponed. Even when my fiancé and I had a glimmer of hope after purchasing our first home, our renovations were postponed for months. We still have not been able to move in. 

I think it could be easy to sit here and mourn and complain and be angry about everything that has happened. I could stir up all the negative emotions this pandemic has caused, but what good is that? 

This is an opportunity to overcome. I want to look back on this pandemic years from now and be proud of the way I have handled it and how I took the punches when they kept on coming. I want to envision and live the happy ending of a gold medal in 2021 after enduring the rough chapter of 2020. 

I want to learn. I want to grow. I want to adapt. I want to come out of this on the other side better, improved and appreciative of all the blessings I have in my life because I do have so many. 

Here are a few of the lessons I have learned and the perspective I have gained over the last year.

1. Little Things Are Big Things
2020 was supposed to be the year of big things – like planning a wedding, competing for a gold medal and playing softball as my full-time job for the first time in my life. What 2020 ended up becoming was a year of the little things. 

Most of my days consisted of doing all of the little things as best as I could. Things like consistently training even though I have no idea when my next softball game is or checking to make sure my home was making construction progress. I spent time helping my fiancé in any way I can as she fights on the front lines working at a senior living community, taking care of my new puppy and doing common household chores. 

What I am realizing now is that those little things are going to add up to big things to hopefully come in 2021 and beyond. We all have a job to do and a role to play. It might not be the job we envisioned during this time period, but we have a moral obligation to do it as best as we possibly can. 

I’m grateful this pandemic made me shift my focus from the big to the small. I know this is going to help me down the road. 

2. Discipline is Freedom
This year I have experienced more free time than I would normally know what to do with, and that freedom can be a blessing or a curse. What I learned is that I can either make this alive time or dead time. I can use this to get better or get worse. There is no in-between. 

The more disciplined I am with my routine, my structure and my schedule, the more free I actually feel. 

I train every day. I read a book every day. I journal every day. I pray every day. It is my discipline in these things that opens me up to experiencing the world in the best way possible daily. 

3. What’s in your Power?
Control the controllables. I cannot control the majority of what is going on in my life. 

I cannot control the pandemic numbers. I cannot control what my Team USA schedule will be. I cannot control construction delays in my new home. I cannot control camps and clinics and speaking engagements being cancelled. 

The only thing I can control is how I react and respond to all of this. It is a daily battle, but I am choosing to respond in a loving, compassionate, empathetic and understanding way. 

I am choosing to look at each obstacle as an opportunity to put my money where my mouth is and become a better human being. This pandemic has made me double down on that and I am grateful for it.

4. Calm amid Chaos
The power of a deep breath and a slower pace is astounding. 

Before COVID, my life sometimes felt too fast for my liking. I had too many obligations, too many places to be and too many things to think about. There was not enough time in the day. 

During all of the chaos and cancellations brought by COVID, I realized how much slowing down and limiting myself increased my quality of the work I was doing. The ability to stay calm in a storm is difficult to learn without the storm. 

COVID is my storm. I am slowly but surely learning how to be calm in it. Again, I likely never would have learned this lesson without the pandemic. I’m grateful for it. 

5. Less is More. 
I am used to training in state-of-the-art facilities. I am used to having whatever equipment I need a short drive away to either the gym or the batting cages. I am used to hopping on flights to go to training camps with the National Team. 

That all looks completely different now. 

I have less opportunities like that, less equipment in general, and that has forced me to be creative with my training. I have tried body weight workouts I never otherwise would have tried. I have taken up outdoor running, something I very rarely did before the pandemic. 

I had to make more out of less. What actually happened was me realizing that less is more. Less means less stress, less anxiety, less worries and more of what actually matters. 

Less training led to more time with family. Less softball allowed me to purchase my first home with my fiancé. Less became more. Less opened my eyes to a better world. 

This has been one of, if not the most, challenging years of my life. The more I continue to endure, the more I am grateful for the obstacles and the adjustments that I have had to make. It has all been an opportunity to continue to improve as an athlete and as a human being. 

I’m looking forward to 2021 and beyond, not just because one of my long-time dreams will be realized, but because of the person I’m becoming. May we all continue to use this pandemic to push us forward. 

Haylie McCleney

Outfielder Haylie McCleney was Alabama’s sixth four-time All-American in program history when she graduated in 2016. With the U.S. softball team, McCleney has won two world titles (2016, 2018), world silver (2014), two World Cup of Softball gold medals (2015, 2014) and Pan American Games gold (2019). McCleney was named to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team in October 2019.

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Haylie McCleney