Balcer took issue with the officiating in OL Reign’s match against Racing Louisville. (Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images).

Bethany Balcer plays as a forward for OL Reign of the NWSL. Balcer played collegiately for Spring Arbor University, winning two NAIA national championships and and three NAIA National Player of the Year Awards. After being invited into training camp prior to last season, Balcer became the first NAIA player to ever sign a contract with an NWSL club. She went on to be named the 2019 NWSL Rookie of the Year. Balcer spoke with Just Women’s Sports about her unorthodox path to the NWSL, the impact of coronavirus on the upcoming season, and how she’s managed to keep a consistent mindset throughout her meteoric rise. 

Can you walk me through what your mindset was like when you went in to try out for Reign? 

We had meetings the day before our first day of training, and I remember just walking into the room, not even saying hi to anybody, and just slipping into the back. I was just so nervous not knowing anybody. There were other girls in the same position, but they’d all played each other in college, so I definitely felt pretty isolated. On the field, though, I had a good mindset. I wasn’t letting nerves get the best of me. I was just like, if this is meant to be, then it’ll happen. I tried to not see it as being as big of a mountain as it actually was, and that allowed me to play freely.

It’s a big mental battle because you don’t really know where you stand or what the coach thinks of you. But I just took it day by day, and over time I got more comfortable. And once I got the hang of the pace and the physicality, it just became really fun.

I think confidence is still really undervalued in terms of how it affects performance. Would you say it was a big part of your own success at that trial? 

I think what gave me confidence is that I knew I had nothing to lose. Like, if I made a mistake, it wasn’t a big deal, because they all were probably expecting me to. I mean, they were literally expecting nothing out of me, so everything I did was a surprise. They’d seen a lot of the other girls play before, but I was just a shot in the dark. And I think that helped a lot. Everyone loves a good underdog story, and that’s what it was.

That seems like a really healthy mindset. How do you keep that perspective in a competitive professional environment? 

For me, my identity has never been in soccer. I’m a go with the flow type of person, and even when I’ve had season-ending injuries, I feel like I haven’t been completely shocked. It’s kind of like, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. And I know soccer is temporary. I’m not going to play for forever. I just want to play for as long as I can, and when it’s time to hang the boots up, I’ll hang them up.

So you go into tryouts with nothing to lose. You make the team, you become a regular start. You start scoring goals. You’re named rookie of the year. You’re getting called up to the national team. You’re seeing this amazing progression in a short amount of time. Have you been able to keep that relaxed attitude as the stakes have gotten bigger? 

I’ve definitely been trying to because that’s what got me here. And I still think in baby steps. I’m like, okay, now that I’m on the team, how I can I start getting minutes? Now I’m getting minutes, how can I start being impactful? After that, it’s how do I become a starter? Even now, when I’ve “made it” in a sense and am getting national team call ups, I’m still thinking about the details of my game that I can work on that will help me stand out at the next level. I think I’ve done a good job proving I belong in this league and can compete at this level, and now it’s about honing my skills and figuring out the little things.

What was the biggest jump from college to the professional league?

It sounds so basic, but the speed of play. I remember the first week of training when I was here, I was sprinting all the time, going as fast as I could, and still falling behind. But that’s what’s required of every play, every minute. It takes a whole other level of energy and physical capacity. I mean, I feel sick after games now because I’m exerting so much to keep up. That’s not something I was used to. I’m way more fit now than I’ve ever been. And the fact that I was on cloud nine all last season, just from being on a team, meant I could go, go, go without ever thinking about how tired I was.

What was it like to win rookie of the year? 

That was crazy. I’m still super humbled by the fact I won that. I mean, there were people telling me throughout the year that I was going to get in, but I still wasn’t thinking about it. I was just focused on trying to win a championship. I just wanted to play the best for my team. But it was definitely special to have something to show for all the hard work over the last few years, both on and off the field. Like I said, I hope it proves to people that the draft isn’t the end-all, be-all, and that there are just so many different paths to get here.

I know there’s some uncertainty surrounding this season, but what are some goals for your second year in the league? 

I want to be a more clinical attacker. Definitely in college, I had so much freedom to just shoot whenever and kind of do my own thing. You don’t get as many opportunities in a game at this level, so now it’s back making the most of when I do get in front of the goal. Instead of just blasting it as hard as I can, I want to work on getting that finessed shot down. I got away with a lot in college just because of the level I was playing at, but now I have to watch for mistakes. So I’m working on cleaning up my touch on the ball and making sure my passes are precise. Little technical things like that. Ultimately, I really want to prove that I can be consistent, and that last season wasn’t a one-year thing.

How has coronavirus impacted your training going into the season?

Obviously corona has shifted our normal day of living. My heart breaks for those who are dealing with the illness. I still train individually, but we have ceased getting together as a whole team for obvious reasons.

How has the delay impacted your mindset?

Offseason is just a little longer this year. That’s my approach to it. The things we do now and the upcoming weeks can determine if we will be great or not. I think a lot of us players are looking at it as an opportunity to work a little extra and push ourselves even further. I hope everyone is taking proper precautions and limiting their interactions with others, because the sooner we can grasp just how serious this is, the better off we’ll be.

Even though the team isn’t training together, have you talked about what your collective goals are? 

As a team, we’re just trying to get our feet under us, because last year with so many injuries, players were coming in and out. We were signing new people like every week. It seemed like our locker room was never the same. Our starting lineup was never the same. And so I think this year Rob is hoping to not have any injuries so we can form a good team cohesion and learn how to take advantage of everyone’s strength.