Letter to My Younger Self

Karen Bardsley:
Getting Big

This article was originally published in March 2020 as part of our Mental Health Awareness week coverage, but is being resurfaced to celebrate 10 years since City signed Karen Bardsley.

Dear 19-year-old KB,

Hey, I have something I want to say to you.

As you’re standing there at California State University’s Titan Stadium, carrying the weight of Ken Ravizza on your back, feeling your body crumble, as he tells you you’re terrible, that you’ve just made a mistake and that you’re never gonna make it, I want you to: ‘Get Big.’

You won’t understand what this means just yet but you will… For this moment, where you learn to stand up tall, push your chest out and ‘get big’, will prove to be one of the most pivotal moments in your career and your life.

I know it’s been a rough few months. Ready or not, you’ve already had a lot of things thrown at you at such a young age. As I speak to you now, you’re on the verge of your comeback from a very severe injury but there’s one thing stopping you: yourself.

The injury has impacted more than just your physical state. It’s had a serious effect on your mental wellbeing. You’re back fit again but you’re having serious issues with your confidence. Overthinking everything, you’re constantly asking yourself: “Will I be the same person I was? Who am I if I don’t have football? What else will I do?”

You’re really struggling mentally and people don’t necessarily realise to what extent. In a dark place, you’re relying on painkillers to help you cope. You’re questioning why you even bother if you’re not good enough and whether life is even worth living.

You’re in a real bad place and you need help, and that’s when you first meet Ken Ravizza: one of the world’s best performance consultants.

And how important a role he will play.

He’s the one guy who is able to make things make sense to you, putting everything you’re going through into perspective. You won’t realise it until a handful of years later but he is a very wise man – and how right he will be about everything.

At the beginning, you didn’t buy into everything he was telling you. You were frustrated and angry and as he’s asking you to visualise your bones mending together in your head, you’re thinking: “He just tells this to everybody. What is this even doing for me?” It’s only now, as I reflect on my career, that I’ve realised: if I hadn’t have gone through that with him, I might not have come through to the other side.

So now, here you are, a teenager stood at the University’s Stadium in Fullerton. You’re almost ready to come back but the thought of playing games again has made you nervous. You’re scared you’ll get hurt again. You’re afraid of what the future will hold if you aren’t the same KB you were. And Ken has brought you here to overcome that fear.

He asks you to stand in goal and take a look around; to stand up and feel confident. Then, he walks over and leans his body weight onto you, calling out your insecurities, telling you you’re not good enough; that you are destined to fail.

“These are the things that are weighing you down,” he says. “You can’t listen to them.” Then, he tells you to stand up tall again, stick your chest out and get big. You do as he asks and you realise: being confident in your body language can translate into your mind. You can tune out those negative thoughts. You are strong enough to lift the weight. You are strong enough to overcome those feelings. KB, this is the moment your future changes for the better. You believe again.

From then on, your mental rehabilitation keeps evolving. Between you, you and Ken figure out that you need a focal point – something that makes you feel confident at a game – and Getting Big becomes your mindset. And what a difference it will make.

You’ll find the joy once again that you felt when you first started playing and there were kids running around wearing shin pads outside their jeans at the American Youth Soccer Organization! There were some who had thought ‘girls didn’t play football’ but your interest had already been sparked by your family, and now it was your passion.

Growing up in an apartment in Camarillo, California, you’d watched random games on a Spanish channel at your next-door neighbour’s house – football was always on! – and then when you moved to Chino Hills, Grandad would call and talk about football all the time, asking how your football was going. He’d send kits from England – Peter Schmeichel was your hero – and posters from magazines. It was our thing – something we shared, even across an eight-hour time zone, thousands of miles away!

Your love of football came from a very emotive, heartfelt place and although you’d been good at softball, you knew you were so much better at football – not that great outfield but you just loved running around. It got to a point where you weren’t playing as much as you wanted to because the coach kept playing his kids instead… So, you transitioned into goalkeeper and loved it. You just wanted to play at first but then it clicked that you enjoyed diving all over the place. It’s a unique position – almost a sport in itself – and it matches your natural attributes, although who knew then we’d be this tall?!

As you got a little older, you knew you wanted to become a professional footballer – and that dream will be realised – but via a journey with a lot of challenges and learnings along the way. After University, you’ll go through the Draft process in America with Julie Foudy watching on as a guest speaker and with your Get Big mindset, you’ll have the confidence to say to yourself: “This is it. This is your chance. Go for it.” You’d never wanted anything more in your life.

Having that mindset creates what will turn out to be another pivotal moment with one of the best – and maybe most important – saves of your career. You’ll watch a cross come in from the left and anticipate the header. The ball connects and is flying into the top bins but you get big and somehow pluck it out of the air. You know right then it’s a sick save but unbeknown to you, that moment has been captured on camera and will catch the attention of a man named Paul Blodgett, Goalkeeping Coach at New Jersey franchise Sky Blue FC, and – after a super intense and pretty ruthless month-long pre-season training camp in North Carolina – your professional career will begin.

I won’t tell you all the amazing things you’ll go on to achieve – I’ll leave that for you to find out – but in terms of advice, first and foremost: always believe in yourself. Back yourself more, and if you have an issue, don’t be afraid to address it. Remember what Dad embedded at a young age: ‘Try not to live with any regrets.’ If an opportunity comes along, take it because you can always go back but you can never know what could have been.

Another of my biggest learnings has been to invest more in people. Along the way, I’ve let relationships slide because of my own insecurities and hesitancy to invest time in people, because I’ve been afraid of getting hurt. I’ve always been an outgoing, bubbly person but I didn’t want to risk it. There are a lot of times I’ve been my own worst enemy because my own perceptions did not match reality.

It’s important to have that support around you. There will be other points in your life when you wonder if you have what it takes, and you’ll make lifelong friends who will help you throughout your journey. After a spell out of the team at Pali Blues, friends of your amazing host family the Belinskys – Damien Carville and his wife Amy – will encourage you to push through the tough times, telling you better things will come. “Don’t give up. This won’t last forever.” Sometimes, you need to hear that, take your mind off football and focus on what you can enjoy, maintaining a balance between your work and social life. Find out what makes you tick; what excites you to get out of bed in the morning and have a ‘good’ day.

Going through life, you’ll find that things aren’t always great but understanding that has got me through. With the right support and bravery to discuss things, you can get through it. When I reflect and look back on all the times I’ve doubted myself and asked myself whether I should just pack it in, I realise that my experiences have led me to where I am now – I would have never done what I’ve done if I hadn’t kept persevering.

Finally, be empathetic, and don’t ever let someone tell you you can’t do something. If you believe you can do it, you want it badly enough and you’re willing to commit, you can make it happen.

This mindset has shaped my journey – our journey – and I could not be more proud.

Get Big.