Athletes Unlimited: A New Way to Play
Most of us know at least the basics of softball, volleyball and lacrosse and that the team with the most points wins. Athletes Unlimited has introduced a new scoring model for professional athletes that goes beyond the points on the scoreboard. In this episode, Scott Sturgeon invites Haylie Wagner, a professional softball player with Athletes Unlimited, to share how their new way to play differs from a typical softball game, her journey to becoming a professional athlete and what she’s learned along the way.
Scott Sturgeon: Welcome to another episode of Your Life, Simplified. I’m Scott Sturgeon. Thank you in advance for tuning in, and I’m just going to say up front, I’m excited for this episode. Our guest today is Haley Wagner. Haley is currently a professional softball player. She’s played for a variety of teams throughout her career. She started with the Michigan Wolverines — Michigan grad, go big blue, graduating from there, then playing for the Pennsylvania Rebellion and the Chicago Bandits since 2017. Most recently, and what I think is probably the most interesting, is playing for a brand-new sports league called Athletes Unlimited. So, on our episode today, we’re going to get to know Haley a little bit and get into her background. What really makes her tick, what really makes her awesome. Also, athletes Unlimited and how this novel league has really been cool for not only just softball, but women’s sports and empowerment for women as well. So, Haley, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Haley Wagner: Of course, thanks for having me.
Scott: Excited to have you. So, I think probably the best way to start, if it’s all right with you, is maybe just giving a little bit of background on yourself.
Haley: I am originally from Orange County, California, and ended up at Michigan. It was one of my last college visits that I went to go on and I absolutely fell in love with the place, the atmosphere, the architecture, the family feel that Michigan provided and the tradition that they had. Went through my four years, there are lots of ups and downs. Had some injuries, had some failures, successes, bolts, mentally that got me to where I am today, which was the Pennsylvania Rebellion, then the Chicago Bandits, and now Athletes Unlimited.
And without everything that I have gone through and all those ups and downs, it’s really amazing to think like would I be here today, if those didn’t happen. So, just being able to go through everything and look back, I’ve done a lot of reflecting the past six, seven, eight weeks since athletes Unlimited started of just how I got here today and how grateful and thankful I am. And my experience and journey growing up is just something that I would never change, if it leads me to here. So, I absolutely love being from California. I love Michigan, Midwestern at heart. I think California will always be home and being able to continue to play softball six seasons after graduating has been awesome.
Scott: That’s really cool out of the gate. We have to know that you’re brave for swapping Orange County weather for Ann Arbor weather. I mean that in itself is a testament to your character. So, that’s awesome. Thank you for sharing so much. I think one of the things I really wanted to key in on is outside of your resume of what you’ve done and where you’ve been. What do you think are some of the specific things maybe you’ve achieved or successes you’ve witnessed, or even setbacks you’ve had that you think have really formed and shaped where you are today?
Haley: We’ll start with the setbacks and the failures because I think that’s where everybody grows and that’s where everybody learns a lot about themselves and how they continue and being really resilient. So, I think for me throughout my college career, I had two injuries my sophomore year and one was in November, my lower back, and then super regionals in like late May, I threw my arm out and I wasn’t able to play in the World Series that year. So, that was a tough year. And just starting in November, going through the entire next year and rehabbing in the summer was really difficult. And I think what has made me successful is how I bounced back from it and also committing to my rehab and knowing that my trainers, my physical therapist and I are doing whatever I can to be better and to be the best version of myself.
And as long as I follow these steps and trust everybody around me, I will be okay. And that goes on to even losing games, giving up a home run or not hitting my PR on squats or anything to that extent is that it’s really how you bounce back from it and how you figure out how do I get better? So, for pitching specifically, my motto when I’m pitching, I give up a home run it’s okay, what happened? How could I have made that pitch better? And I’m not going to do that again, but you can’t dwell on it. You have to have a short memory in softball, especially as a pitcher. And you really just have to think, okay, I gave up the home run, there isn’t anything I can do about it. Can’t go back in time. How am I going to get this next batter out?
So, I think I’ve been successful through the adversity, through the resilience and really figuring out how to be mentally tough. And that is something that’s really hard for anybody to do, specifically pitchers and softball players, because we are so critical on ourselves. We want to be perfect, but we can’t be perfect in this sport. I think another thing that I think has made me successful is just having fun and trusting myself. I love going out there. I play because I have fun out there. I don’t know if people can tell when I’m out on the field, but apparently, I’m always smiling. I’ve been smiling for as long as I can remember. And that’s something that I love to have out there and be able to put on the field and make my teammates happy. But when it comes to the pitching part, I’m focused. So, I think just having fun, being committed to it, trusting myself and doing my part to help my team is something that I’ve really bought into over the past five, six years. And I think that’s really made me successful.
Scott: That’s awesome. It’s a very core level, both of those things really trusting in the process, seeing your failures, but then quickly being able to overcome them, learn from it quickly and to say, all right, not doing that again, moving on. And really just enjoying what you’re doing or trying to find joy in it. That’s stuff that’s applicable to anyone. That’s really cool. Very simple. I like that very like very refined, but that makes total sense.
Haley: Yeah. You can’t complicate things in the sport of softball or anything really in life. You just keep it simple and just go with the flow.
Scott: Exactly. We were talking earlier that you had your own Wikipedia page, which I think is so cool. And maybe the coolest part of the whole interview. Yeah. That’s a joke. But your record, your college record was like 118. Is that right? And pitching so clearly not a whole lot of home runs given up period, but the few perhaps that occurred, good to learn from them.
Haley: Yeah. My career at Michigan was successful. I’m very proud of it. I love it, but it wasn’t just me that did that. It was my coaches and my team, my teammates, the different teammates throughout the years, just really buying into what they’re believing in. And knowing that every day I’m going to throw a bullpen or every day I’m on the field, I’m getting better. And I give so much credit to my teammates, specifically my three coaches, Carol Hutchins, Bonnie Soul, and Jen Brundage. They have completely made me into the athlete I am today. They made me into the Michigan woman I am today. And without them, I would not be the person or woman I am today. And I’m so thankful for them. Jen Brundage, specifically for my pitching, we went through it all together, all those ups and downs and injuries and some little arguments in the bullpen, but lots of smiles. This has happened and I wouldn’t trade any of that experience for anything, because like I said, it led me to where I am today and I’ve only grown from those experiences.
Scott: That’s outstanding. Very cool to hear. What you’re doing, in general, is awesome for you. Not just women but also specifically for younger women or girls who are playing softball or playing any sport. I have a daughter coming in December, so, I’m starting to get very introspective and think about what are the things I would aspire for her to do or people for her to look up to. And so, I think of someone like yourself who has achieved really cool things, in a relatively short period of time. And I think my question to you is when you think about younger women or girls looking up to what you do, what does that feel like? Is there pressure there? Is it inspiring? Is there kind of an emotional component of that?
Haley: I think if anything, it is inspiring just knowing that I think back to when I was younger, like 10, 11, 12, and softball wasn’t as big then. NPF wasn’t really well-known and pro softball just wasn’t really on the map as it is now. So, I love thinking that I’m a pioneer for these younger kids. I love kids. I love youth and children. I will work with them the rest of my life. It’s something that just I’m drawn to. I just love working with kids and helping them. And it is inspiring knowing that me and these other 56 athletes with AU and everybody playing NPS, giving that platform for these younger kids to know like, “Hey, I can play pro ball, but I have to go through all this first.” It’s inspiring knowing that they have something to look forward to.
When I was younger, I loved playing softball. It was great, but I felt like I didn’t have this big dream that I wanted to do. And I’m hoping that all these experiences that we have, these younger kids are able to look at. Whether it’s softball, basketball, volleyball, lacrosse, field hockey, like anything. I really hope that these younger kids know that they can achieve anything if they put their mind to it and they just stay mentally tough with it. It’s not going to be easy the whole time.
Scott: Absolutely. It’s like you said…the idea that there’s a career path there and that you can pursue this thing that you’re really passionate about, I think is awesome. And I think you’re right. It’s for a little girl who’s coming up, whether they’re playing soccer or softball or volleyball or whatever it is to see pro athletes really performing at that super high level, I think is really inspirational. So, kudos to you.
One of the things we wanted to really kind of dive into was Athletes Unlimited and your time spent playing for the league. What your experience was like, or even kind of just the background on how it came to be. So, actually just for our listeners who aren’t aware, could you give a quick overview of what Athletes Unlimited is all about?
Haley: Yeah, of course. So, Athletes Unlimited is a new professional league, not just softball. We are actually launching volleyball in February 2021, and then there’s also a couple other sports in the works, but basically it reinvents the sport, whatever sport it is. So, for softball, it’s not so much about just playing the game of softball and winning a game and just having that record. It’s points that we’re going for…individual points, team points and ending points.
So, for example, a single is 10 points, a double is 20 points, a triple is 30 and a home run is 40. If you get caught stealing, it’s -10 points. For pitchers, we get four points for every out that we record and -10 points for every earned run. Then, it goes into the innings where if you score a run and the other team doesn’t, you win that inning, but then they also roll over. So, if nobody scores until the fifth inning and somebody scores in the sixth, then they get 60 points. Then, the winner gets 50 and then there’s also MVP points. So, really this just changes the game and keeps everybody on our toes and really makes us think about a lot of things and really focus on the game more. I think specifically as a pitcher, it’s like, wow, I don’t want this person to get a triple cause I don’t want 30 points and it’s based off the leaderboard and it still keeps that team aspect, but also keeps it really competitive individually.
So, it was intriguing and exciting when I first heard about it. Myself, Gwen Speck and Vic Hayward took a day trip to New York and was pitched this idea. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into and we were instantly intrigued. We were excited that they wanted to empower women’s sports. And we were excited that they were even slightly interested with softball, but they weren’t sold on it yet. We kind of had to pitch softball to them saying, this is what would happen. This is exactly what this sport needs. And we pitched it to them. From there on out, it’s been, I don’t want to say smooth sailing, but things have just fallen into place and we figured everything out. And it’s been really cool to see the background behind the scenes of uniform colors, designing the field, working through a pandemic, having 56 athletes in one location with a shield and being COVID tested twice a week.
And just everything that’s gone with it has been really eye-opening and really exciting. And if you would’ve asked me a year ago or the beginning of this pandemic of would this have happened? I think a lot of us would have said no, because we really just had no idea what was going to happen. But the past six weeks and the experience that Athletes Unlimited has put together has exceeded. I can probably speak for all other 56 athletes, that it is one of the best experiences of our lives. And this is the most professional that we’ve ever been treated. And I think we would do it all over again. And we would stay in this shield forever if we could. And Athletes Unlimited has just been so special. And so eye-opening, and so intriguing that even after one season like this exceeded all expectations, we can’t wait to see what happens next year or in five years and just see how big this grows.
Scott: That’s really cool. I bet even in a normal year, without a rampant pandemic, launching a professional sports league is not a small undertaking. So, to hear that it’s been such a positive experience, I think is really cool.
Haley: I don’t have one bad thing to say about it. Everybody on the player executive committee, which is myself, Sam Fisher and Jasmine Jackson, we all go on these calls every single week and just talk about everything. What can be improved? What can we work on? What’s been positive and there’s always something you can improve on, obviously, but all the positive feedback that we’ve had from so many people has been so great. And it really is just like a testament of everybody behind the scenes and everybody that’s higher up. That all the little things that a lot of people don’t know about, like, yes, we’re playing softball. We’re the ones on TV, but this wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for everybody else behind the scenes.
Scott: It seems from my understanding of the league, that from the get-go the approach to how it was constructed was very novel. And I think really innovative in that you guys had a huge say in how it was run and, correct me if I’m wrong, like essentially an equity interest in the teams and the process like the ownership, if you will, over there.
Haley: We definitely have a big say in it. It’s a player ran league. We don’t have coaches. We don’t have GM’s, we’re basically everything. And we get to call the shots and we do have ownership in this league. I think that’s one of the really cool parts of it is that in the past we just kind of play and we play for this team. We have coaches. It’s just something we’re used to. And we don’t have a lot of say or only a couple of individuals have a lot of say, we just don’t know about it. So, I think everybody having a say in something and seeing how comfortable we all are together, like nobody was afraid to ask a question. Nobody was afraid to say like, “Hey PC, why isn’t this happening?” “Why is this happening?” “Why can’t we do this?”
And here’s what I think we need, or what we can improve on. And just that communication through all athletes and respecting each other in this league has been so awesome. And in the process of recruiting these 56 athletes, we not only looked at the best athletes out there because, one, it’s really hard to pick 56 athletes. Like it is so difficult. There are so many more amazing athletes that deserve to be in this league. It was so hard to narrow it down, but we didn’t just want the best athletes. We didn’t want people with the best social media following. We wanted good people who would represent AU and really have respect and play for the love of the game and growing the sport, not just for the money. And I think that’s something that we’ve done as a PC, a really good job about, and that everybody’s bought in and it just shows the testament of the softball players and how well and how committed they are to the sport and growing the league.
Scott: What do you think about this novel approach? I’m not aware of any other league that’s kind of built like this. What do you think this represents for the future?
Haley: I don’t want to say that it’s going to change the rules, because that’s just something really hard to change. But I do know, this experience is a new way for, let’s say college teams. I know Michigan and a lot of other states, I think Nebraska as well, I saw a couple other on Twitter, but they’re taking this approach of “whatever their mascot is” Unlimited. So, for Michigan, they’re doing Wolverine Unlimited. And I think this is just a good way to reinvent that competitiveness in these college athletes or in these travel ball teams. And just being able to fall in love with the game again. And for the future of the sport. I think it’s going to continue to grow and it keeps everybody excited and it gives people an opportunity to say, “Hey, if she can do that, I can do that. I want to, I want to play in this league. I want to have a part in it. I want to have a say in it.” And, the sky’s the limit from here. We have no idea what’s going to happen in the next few years, but just thinking about all the amazing possibilities and how successful year one is. The future of the sport, the sky’s the limit. And I’m so excited to see where it’s going to go.
Scott: Oh, absolutely. It’s very cool. So, Haley, for you personally, what are your future goals? Is it to continue playing indefinitely or, what’s the ultimate game plan?
Haley: I want to play as long as I can. I’ve always said I want to play as long as I can until my arm falls off or until somebody doesn’t walk or so I do want to do that. After this year, I can’t think of not playing. And I know at one point I will have to retire. At one point, I will have to stop playing, but I will play as long as I can. I will continue to do what I can to grow this sport and grow the league. In the off season, I do lots of camps and lessons with youth and children from ages 8 to 18. I just finished my master’s in social work at Michigan this past year. So, I want to take my social work, what I’ve learned there and put it into my lessons and camps and kind of build a workshop around leadership and life skills and mentoring.
Like I said, I love youth and children, and that is where I’m going to gear everything at — sports and youth and children. So, I will play as long as I can. I can’t really get a full social work job while I’m still playing. It’s difficult that way and getting licensed as well. It’s really difficult. So, I have this in my back pocket. I can still use my social work degree in other parts of my life. And I’m really excited just to see what this off season has in store for me because I’ve only planned my life up to Athletes Unlimited. Being able to just see what’s going to happen and where I’m going to go from here is really exciting.
Scott: That is exciting. What a cool opportunity. I would do the exact same thing. I think as long as you can do it, do it. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. So, really cool you’re able to take advantage of it. That social work background has to be super helpful. I know that actually is a component of Athletes Unlimited that each of you have a certain philanthropic cause that you support. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
Haley: Athletes Unlimited has their causes and they have athlete causes where we represent a nonprofit. That leader board that we have, those points turn into a bonus and Athletes Unlimited matches half of the bonus to the non-profit of our choice. So, each athlete has a different nonprofit, some overlap, but I did Community Action Network in Ann Arbor. That was actually my internship that I worked with for a year and a half in social work. They help under-resourced families in the Washington County community down in the Ann Arbor area. And they really give an opportunity to help improve the kids’ lives, the families, the community. I specifically worked in the afterschool program where I worked with the kids and helping them with their homework and doing some meditation and mindfulness and enrichment activities, really just building these relationships, knowing that they can achieve anything that they want to, no matter what circumstance they’re in.
And it also gave the parents a couple of extra hours to finish working so they can provide for the family. I also worked with the food pantry that we had there. I would go to food gathers and shop for food, and the families would come and shop for their groceries and just seeing how much it helps them in today’s world, specifically at the start of a pandemic, was really eye-opening. And I learned so much through the school of social work and so much through Community Action Network at Brick Elementary. It really opened up my eyes to a whole new world that I never knew existed, but I couldn’t really feel or put myself in their shoes. So, it’s just seeing the family’s eyes light up and just seeing how much it really helps. I have grown a strong connection to the Community Action Network, and I’m so excited to talk to them and tell them how much that my playing and my bonus will do for them. And, just seeing what that money will do to help grow Community Action Network, because what they’re doing is all from the heart and just improving people’s lives and it’s a special place. I hope that I’m able to go visit. I know it’s during a pandemic still, so it might be a little difficult, but I’m excited to go there and just kind of see how I can help in other ways and not just in an internship.
Scott: For sure. Well, what a great cause and what a perfect fit. To be able to marry your background from an educational perspective, but also having, in your professional career, the ability to really represent them and to bring some real benefit to them over the long-term that’s outstanding.
Haley: Thank you. It’s really cool. It’s one of the coolest parts of the league. A lot of people love that they get to pick that non-profit. I had a couple that I was going back and forth with, but this one is the most recent one. And it’s really touched my heart in so many different ways that I built a lot of good relationships with the kids there. Just knowing that I get to help them and their family in this small way it warms my heart. I’m so excited I got to do that.
Scott: Absolutely. So, Haley, I want to just go ahead and say, thank you so much again for taking the time to join us. What a really cool thing you’re doing. It’s completely unique to anything else that professional sports are doing right now. It’s awesome. The tradable to not only kind of combine a lot of the skills technically that you have acquired and in playing softball over the years, but also the ability to give back, which is just huge. So again, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Haley: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. This has been really fun. I’m glad that I got to share my story and that of Athletes Unlimited and Community Action Network. I’m really excited for the future and volleyball launching in February 2021. Thank you for having me.
Scott: Well, thank you. And to our listeners, I want to thank you as always for tuning in. We again, as always offer our full openness to any feedback you might have. If you have thoughts or suggestions for episodes for us, by all means, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks so much for tuning in.