VIS Podcast #24 | Jenna Gray - 2 Sport D1-Athlete Guide (2023)

Jenna Gray,Professional Volleyball Player, shares her journey in sport as a 2 sport D1 athlete, and she discusses the challenges she faced with confidence, seeking validation from others and finding balance in sport and life.

Jenna Gray


Welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast. I'm your host Steph Strack, the founder of Voice In Sport. As an athlete, professional and mom, I have spent the last 20 years advocating for women and innovating across the sports industry. Now I want to bring more visibility to female athletes and elevate their voice at Voice In Sport.

We share untold stories from female athletes to inspire us all to keep playing and change more than just the game.

Today, our guest is Jenna Gray, a two sport, all American and javelin and volleyball at Stanford University. Jenna was a three time pack 12 setter of the year, and made the NCAA all tournament team three years in a row. Finishing her tenure in college by receiving the Honda sports award in 2020. And now she's joined the big league as a Mentor on the Voice In Sport platform.

In this episode, Jenna shares her incredible journey in sport. And how she successfully played and dominated in two separate division one sports in college.

She opens up about her struggles with self confidence and guides us on how she learned to overcome those thoughts of quitting looking for outside validation and adjusting to her new strong body during her college career. She also emphasizes the importance of strong communication, both on and off the court. Finding a good balance and how female role models have inspired and shaped her into the athlete and person that she is today.

Jenna, welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast. We're super excited to have you here with us today.


Thank you for having me. I'm excited.


So let's start with your journey. When you started playing sport to now, what was your journey?


I've always had a ball or a bat or some type of sports equipment in my hand, since I was young. I'm the youngest out of all my siblings and also just out of my entire family. I'm the youngest cousin and everyone. So I kind of grew up just trying to keep up and play sports with all the older kids.

I played volleyball, basketball, swimming. I did some dancing, softball. I play tennis for fun with my friends. Dodge ball, like any random sport you can imagine.

Just growing up, doing all of that made me realize how much I love sports and it was just such a huge part of my life. Then as I got older, I played competitive, awful, horrible basketball and soccer. And slowly had to wheedle those down until high school. I had to decide between soccer and volleyball.

I picked volleyball. Play volleyball for my freshman and sophomore year and got bored. So my junior year I tried to join the softball team at my high school and they didn't let me because they knew I was going to miss too much.

People told me to join track. They're like, Oh, it's super flexible, it's individual. I think they wanted me to do more jumping stuff, like triple jump.

But I did not want to, my shin probably could not handle that. So I did javelin with my brother-in-laws who was the coach, and then it just happened to kind of click. So, did that my junior and senior year, and then the Stanford track and field coaches found out about me through an article. And didn't realize that I was actually going to Stanford and did not realize I was going to be on the volleyball team. So after season was over my freshman year at Stanford, we started the conversation with me, the track coaches and the blackball coaches about whether it would be possible for me to train, stay healthy, and do all of that.

Luckily everyone involved was very understanding and they were like, you know what, if you can do it, who are we to stop you? So that kind of started my journey playing volleyball and then throwing jabs at Sanford.


It's already tough to be a division one athlete and balanced sport and social life, but then to add two sports in there. How do you balance all of that at one time?



It's definitely hard. I'm lucky that the track team, they were like, you know what, in the fall and the summer it's all volleyball. I don't touch a jab at all for half of the year. And then in January, I'll pick it back up and it's hard because I have to do my full volleyball off season training.

So we are lifting heavy weights. We are conditioning. We're working hard. Then in the spring, I'll start off with my meets and everything. So balancing it is really hard, but just finding time to especially prioritize. I mean, school comes first.

So my coaches understand if I have to miss or be late to something because I need to get work done. But also just being really great at scheduling and looking ahead and figuring out when I need to get something done so that I can get sleep, do well in school, have a social life and then another big thing is just communication. I've had a lot of practices where I was like, could come in, it won't be great. I might get hurt so I don't think I should. And my coaches are like, you know what, thank you for letting me know, don't come in today. I think it's actually better for your train if you don't.

So I think just communicating too with everyone involved.


What do you say to all the girls out there that are in high school and they're playing multiple sports and maybe getting pressure from one coach or the other to drop one?


I think it's really hard depending on your situation. I was just really fortunate and I think my message would be more to coaches to let kids do it because there's so many studies that show it's way better for people to be trained in doing other sports and working those other muscles.

And also just for mentality and burnout and all of that, it's a lot better. But hopefully finding coaches and that support system that is pushing you to do it. And they're like, you can do it. Just keep trying, keep going. Cause believe me, there's been a lot of times that I've wanted to quit.

I literally tried to quit my sophomore year. I tried to quit track. I went to the track one day and I was crying because school was really hard. And I was talking to my track coach and I was like, I think it's too much. I felt like I wasn't good enough to really justify doing all of that. And he was like, I think you just need to take a moment and calm down. I'll do whatever we can scale back. We'd been practicing twice a week. He was like, we can practice once a week if you want, I don't really care.

I just want you to sit around and I'm so thankful for him because then he was like, you know what, just try this next week and go to this meet. And that meet I PR by three meters, which is ridiculous. And then, at NCAAs that year, I PR at the championships by like three or four meters.

It's kind of scary when you feel like you just hit your wall and you're done. You might actually just be like inches away from your breakthrough. So I think finding that support and feeling like you can do it, even when it's hard. Hopefully finding coaches that support you, because I think it's ridiculous to make kids choose.


Who were your role models? And what would you say to the girls out there that might not have a role model close to them in sport?


I think my number one role model was my sister. She's seven years older than me. And she's the reason why I wanted to be a setter. She played at the University of Virginia. I loved watching her. I wanted to be like her. I got dragged going to a lot of her practices and tournaments. But it gave me an opportunity not only to play, but just watch her and analyze and see what I wanted to be like. And then I think as I got older, I really looked up to a lot of the Stanford centers. And I think I was super, super fortunate that Kathy, who I believe was around like 2011 when she set here, actually was my assistant coach freshman year.

And I remember when it got announced, I was freaking out because I was like, I'm not worthy for the staff to be watching me, let alone coaching me. She's been such a great mentor for me and has taught me so much about not only just the technical aspects of volleyball, but the mentality and just life too.

I still talk with her, we keep in contact. She was my coach for one year, but I'm extremely thankful for her.


Let's talk a little bit about confidence because we know that's one of the reasons why it can be a challenging journey for female athletes. Was there a moment in your journey where you lacked confidence, or were criticized, and how did you overcome that?


don't think people truly realize how much athletes in general and especially college athletes get criticized. And at the same time, I have so many people supporting me and on my Instagram and just being so kind and so nice. But just, for some reason it sticks a lot more when people are saying mean things about you .

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And in high school, when I committed to Stanford. I remember I already had doubts in myself so I think just having that in the back of my head. And then there are websites like Bali talk and it's just a forum for people to talk about college volleyball, professional Bible.

And I think the idea of the site is awesome. but I would go on there and there are threads about recruits and all of that. And there's like Stanford threads and my name came up a lot and it was usually negative so I think just once I got to Stanford I really didn't think I had a shot of the plane and I finally made it on the court and I think. The hardest thing for me was I felt like I was the worst player on the court and you always hear the phrase you're only as good as your worst player.

And so every single day at practice, I was like, you know what? I'm working hard. I don't want to be the person that holds us back. it was hard feeling like you belong there because everyone is so, so talented. And then I again would go on that website after games. When I thought I played well, looking for validation.

And finally took until after my freshman year, I haven't looked at it since then, because I just knew I never left.

That website makes me feel good about myself. And especially as I got older and gained more perspective from the people that wrote on it, no one truly understands the game. Besides you, your coaches and your teammates, no one knows what you guys go through and what your plan is at practice and what you're attempting to do and just how hard it is.

So, at the end of the day, as long as you can be proud of the effort that you gave for yourself, your teammates and your coaches, and they see that as well and are proud of you, then that's really all the validation that you need.


What if a girl is stuck right now and she's in that phase, how did you get out of it? Did it just take time? Did you have a support system or were you starting to do positive self talk to get yourself out of that?


I've been so lucky with the support that I've had. My high school coach is amazing. She taught me so much in terms of life in volleyball. I think she was one of those people that believed in me, before I did. Freshman year I had voiced my concern with being the person that held our team back to one of our, fifth years, the star player on our team that year.

And she was baffled, she was like, you absolutely deserve to be here. I don't know why you're thinking of yourself like that. So I think just hearing that from a player that I really looked up to and respected and knowing that she also believed in me, I was like, if I can get her to believe in me then why can't I believe in myself?

So I think there were a lot of times where I had a great support system, but I realized that I've underestimated myself a lot and that's a big flaw.


I think we all can relate to that. And we've all had those moments. So thank you for sharing that with us. let's talk about, body image because that's another thing as a female athlete can be pretty tough. Did you have challenges and how did you work through that through your career?


Yeah, I've had two big changes with my body that have been hard adjusting to. A lot of it started when I was younger, I was kind of a small fry. I also played up a year in volleyball. So I was just developmentally going to be smaller than everyone else, but I was a late bloomer.

So I went into high school being really, really small. The college coach told my sister, "Your sister's good, but she's just too small. She'll never cut it." So that was pretty hard for me. And also seeing other girls that had already gone through puberty and were stronger than me.

It was one of the things that my mom told me. She was like, either you can look as like, Oh, you can't do it. Or people being like, you won't do it. And I'm like, Well, then I'm going to do it and I'm going to prove them wrong.

And I'm really lucky that my sister went through a lot of the same things as me and I got to learn from her experiences before. Her favorite quote was it's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog. I just grew up as little feisty scrapper, but I was fortunate that I hit my growth spurt around sophomore year of high school.

And by the end, I was six foot which is awesome for volleyball. But I think to this day, I still have a little bit of that feisty attitude. At that point I had really good body control because I was so small. Just having control with my hands and whatnot. So then once I grew into it, it was really, really awesome.


So then when you got through your freshman year in college, did you have any challenges then? Or were you already lifting weights and doing all that in high school?


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I barely did any weightlifting in high school or any of that. And then you get to college and you are lifting a lot. My last two years at Stanford, we lifted at every single day. And especially in off season, you get bigger. My weight fluctuates a lot throughout the year, because certain points I'm putting a lot of muscle on my body.

And I think that was a hard transition for me too, because I was so used to being naturally skinny and then alternating to a size where my jeans don't fit me. I have stretch marks on my legs just from lifting and how fast that my quads had grown.

And that was pretty difficult for me. And also just in college, you gain weight, you're on your own, it's your own diet. I had hard time figuring that out too. But I also look back especially now that I'm not lifting as heavy as I was before.

I started to realize with my body, you can do so many incredible things with it and seeing how strong my legs were and seeing how explosive I was and all that. I really miss it. I miss being big, I miss my shoulders being big.

And looking at my body as something that I used to perform and feel good and feel comfortable in rather than something that is meant to be looked at and judged.

Definitely started to turn the corner for me. And at first I did think that I was going to go to college. I'm going to have a six pack and I'm going to be so toned And that was not the case. But realizing that sometimes it doesn't matter what your body looks like, it just matters how it performs. So I definitely got a lot more comfortable with my body and how it looks in wanting to be strong.


Let's talk about the mental side of the game. We know it's just as important to have mental toughness as it is to have physically strong bodies to succeed in sports. Talk to us about how you mentally prepare leading up to a game? What are some of the tips you could share with us?


I have had so many years to perfect and I'm sure I'll, keep adding to my pregame rituals. But for me, it takes a really long time and I just stay at the gym all day. I sit in the locker room. I listen to music. I watch film. I take a really long time to just blast music and do my hair, do my makeup.

I have the same hairstyle that I've been wearing for games for the last 10 years. I just do a little French braid and then a ponytail. I don't actually know how to braid my hair. So I've been lucky that I can finally one person on the team to do it for me.


And you said 10 years, the same way every time before a game.


Yep, club, high school, college all of that same hairstyle. I have to. I read every single college match. I've never not done it because it makes me anxious to not have it. A lot of what I do before games makes me more comfortable and takes away the nerves. For me, it's taken a long time, but for other people it's just rolling into the gym 10 minutes before putting your stuff on and ready to go. So I think just figuring out, and it's a little bit of trial and error finding what you really like. Taking away nerves, it's just being prepared. You do your physical preparation at practice, knowing your game plan, having it memorized so that you can go into the game and not have to think. A lot of people are like, what's running through your head in the game and I'm like, nothing.

Obviously you have your adjustments but you want to be kind of flowing and in the zone. The times that that does get broken, I have a set of breathing techniques. I stop, take a deep breath, try to slow down my heart rate and all of that. Because physiologically, that will also help your brain.

Also having certain movements and physical reminders to calm down. I'll actively shake my hands out before a point, to get ready for setting don't crack my knuckles. I always check my shoulders. Cause when I get tense, my shoulders will literally be up.

So I'll take a deep breath and drop my shoulders. So I think it's just finding ways to calm yourself down. I've asked around to a lot of people and sometimes what they do doesn't work for me. So you just ask around it's trial and error and see what you liked the most.


Do you still get nervous when you're heading out for a game?


I get nervous before every single game, especially the first game of the year . I won't calm down and my hands don't stop shaking until probably after the first set. When we were playing in the College of Charleston, it's a preseason game. There's just not much riding on it, but I am freaking out, I'm sweating, I'm clammy.

My hands are shaky. By the national championship, I was not nearly as nervous for that than I was to play the College of Charleston. Like a pretty big crowd, but not nearly the pressure that I was about to have. All the national championship match points specifically my junior year, I already had so much adrenaline. I was tired. I could barely set the ball on match point because I was so nervous and we were about to win. I mean, there's pressure in every single portion of the game. No matter what, so it's just, again, finding those ways to calm yourself down. But I will never not get nervous before a game. And I think the biggest thing I realized is in life, there's not many things that. You will probably be as nervous for then some of your sports games.

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I mean, the amount of butterflies that I get. I won't do any of that after, sports are over. So it's kind of like your adrenaline rush. Instead of thinking of it as a bad thing, I think of it as more of a privilege. And they always say that diamonds are made under pressure.

So you might as well enjoy it.


Yeah. And it's just a privilege to be playing a high level like that with other amazing female athletes. Cause we all know, unfortunately, the pro circuit for most sports for female athletes is tough. We can't make a big living at it yet. We hope to change that, to try to bring more visibility to female athletes.

That's step one. So thank you for being part of this jenna. It's been really inspiring. I'd like to end with my two signature questions for you . Three words that you would use to describe your journey in sport.


I would say unconventional, tears and family,


And then one piece of advice you would say to all of the girls out there playing sports.


My piece of advice. And it sounds so cheesy, but is make sure that you enjoy it and you're having fun. I would not be able to put in the amount of hours I have. it just, isn't fair to make your body goes through that if you don't really love it and enjoy it. So find the fun in the little things. I know practices are hard, but make jokes because there's no point in forcing yourself in doing all of this if it's not fun for you.

My main goal with playing volleyball was never to get a college scholarship and go play professionally. It's just been that I really love playing volleyball and I don't want to stop. So I will keep playing volleyball as long as it's fun for me in the moment it isn't, then that's when I'll stop. But I don't really see it hopefully not being fun for me.


Well, whenever you do make it to New York, I have a volleyball court, literally 10 feet from my door so we can play together too.


Oh, I'm jealous. That would be awesome. Yeah.


Thank you, Jenna. You're amazing. And I'm excited to see your continued success at Sanford and beyond.


Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.


Thank you so much, Jenna, for candidly opening up about your journey in sport and how it has shaped you into the confident woman that you are today. We know that this will act as a guide for so many girls that are in the thick of it today in division one sports contemplating, quitting and struggling with body image and confidence.

Thank you for sharing your wisdom and for being a part of the VIS League. You can follow Jenna on Instagram at J money. Y Y 2 2 .And on Twitter at Jenna gray 22. Please subscribe to the Voice In Sport podcast and give us a rating. You can follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and tik tok @ voice in sport. And if you're interested in joining our community as a member, you will have access to exclusive content mentorship from female athletes like Jenna and advocacy tools. Check out voice in and become a member. And if you're passionate about accelerating sports, science, and research on the female athletic body, check out voice in sport and get involved.

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