The NWSL season doesn’t last all that long. Even including preseason and the playoffs, NWSL typically runs from April through late September or early October. That gives players six months without their teams, during which time they’re still expected to pay rent and put food on the table while staying on a training plan for next season, assuming their contracts get picked up for another year.
Some players stay in market; the rest scatter, headed home or overseas to another league that either runs off the NWSL calendar or is willing to let players sign up for a partial season.
Staying in the team’s home city usually means finding a secondary job, something to help players stretch their salaries over those extra six months. With a team salary cap of $278,000, not many of the players are making the league maximum of $39,700; it’s likely that non-rookie players are closer to making something in the $10- to $20,000 range, with perhaps amenities like housing or a car lease thrown in, depending on the team.
Rachel Wood is one of the Boston Breakers who chose to stay in town during the offseason. Others like Kristie Mewis tried non-American leagues; she went on loan to Bayern Munich. Some worked on graduate degrees or coached locally. And some, like Wood, picked up jobs that would allow them to train and understood their employee would be leaving once the season began.
In between the 2015 and 2016 NWSL seasons, Rachel allowed me to follow her and film some of her offseason. I got to watch as she searched for a job and found ways to stay on track without the structure of a team environment. We talked about the things that go into being a pro athlete - not just the physical training, but the demands of honing a mental edge that allows her to sustain that physical peak.
We also talked about things that people just talk about. Pets, families, college, jobs, our neighborhoods, favorite coffee spots and bulk shopping chains - it put an emphatic note on players as people, with their own inner lives and fears and dreams. As much as fans have expectations of players, most of them expect much more of themselves, and it can be a balancing act keeping that drive to succeed from becoming overwhelming.
“I was always a people pleaser,” said Wood during filming. “Learning that you have to be true to who you are instead of what other people expect you to be or what other people think you should be - it’s a really tough lesson to learn but once you do, it’s made me quite a bit happier.”
Part of those expectations tie into Wood’s identity and how being a pro athlete can become overwhelming. It can create problems when players are out or injured: if I’m not a pro athlete, then who am I? How will I be valued, if I don’t have an on-field performance to offer for evaluation? When so much of your life gets boiled down to quantifiable results that say you are or aren’t good enough to play, it can be easy to start conflating what you can do with who you are.
“I can’t speak for anyone else, but I put far more pressure on myself than I feel that I get from society,” Wood said. “For me, the pressure comes from myself. I’m a Type A personality so I put a lot of pressure on myself to stay fit. To look the part. To mentally be sharp. And even at my job now, we don’t work on commission, but if I haven’t sold enough for the day, I feel like I’m not doing my part to help the team.”
When I asked about her work, a couple of months after she found an offseason job, I expected an answer about how tough it is to balance the demands of being a pro athlete with having a second job. There was some of that, but she also chose to take the positive from it too.
“For me, not really being an athlete and being in a completely different job has been really liberating,” she said. “I feel like it’s given me more confidence to be an athlete. I’ve been working at Kate Spade since the end of November, beginning of December, and it’s a completely different environment.... I’ve found that sometimes when you don’t play soccer and you step away from it a little bit you realize just how much you love it and just how much you miss it....”
“Even coaching, when I coach in the offseason,” she said, “It’s still you’re around soccer, you’re around the game. Like I’m hopping in and playing with my [high school team]; they all want to beat the pro. It’s hard to keep that persona up and if you do it for an entire year, it can be incredibly isolating because you feel like you have to protect, sort of hunker down and keep that professional athlete image up and keep it safe and really have it on display, versus working at [Kate Spade], no one’s ever seen me run, no one’s ever seen me in uniform. It’s been a really nice break.”
In that break, Wood gave us a glimpse of who she is off the field and what it’s like when there are no big endorsements or federation salaries, just the desire to play soccer and the will to make it happen.