Mallory Pugh doesn’t remember feeling pressure at a young age, but she does know that it eventually caught up to her.
Speaking on the latest episode of Snacks, Pugh, who was the youngest player to debut for the U.S. women’s national team since 2002 at 17 years old in 2016, said she feels as though she handled that pressure well at the time. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t there.
“If I were to go back to that time when I was 18, 19 years old, if I felt the pressure, I’d probably say no,” she said. “But, looking back at it now, I think it was indirectly affecting me.
“I don’t think I was thinking about it, but any time someone is young and thrown into the fire almost, it’s gonna affect them one way or another.”
Pugh scored in her debut for the USWNT and later became the youngest player to score a goal for the United States in an Olympics. But she struggled to maintain that form as her career with the USWNT continued.
“As my career progressed, I feel like I was in this spot where I was kind of stuck and there were all these expectations put on me early on and I kind of like, didn’t pay attention to those and then they caught up to me and then I started paying attention to them,” said Pugh, noting that notions that she was going to become the next Mia Hamm added even more pressure.
“I feel like I came to realize that I wanted to create my own path, and I don’t want to have these labels on me,” she continued. “I think I kind of got really upset, too, when it was like ‘the youngest this’ and ‘the youngest that.’
“I feel like all of that started to catch up and put a weight on me and then eventually I just felt like I was stuck and couldn’t move from it.”
In 2020, Pugh began to work with mental health coach and sports psychologist Armando Gonzales. While the COVID-19 pandemic bringing sports to a halt was tough, it also gave Pugh some space to step back from the pitch and work on other areas, which Pugh called “a blessing.”
“I was able to slow down and reflect and work on my mental side of the game,” she said. “I feel like I never did that before to the extent that I do now and I did.
“I realized that I wasn’t OK and then I started working through that and on that.”
But the adversity wasn’t over. Amid the Olympics being postponed, Pugh dealt with injuries that left her out of USWNT camps. Eventually, she was left off the Olympic roster for the Tokyo Games.
“Obviously the time was very hard, but I was like, this is exactly what I needed to be able to grow,” she said. “See what I could do for me personally and see what I’m capable of instead of all of these people putting labels on me.”
Since then, Pugh has grown into an instrumental part of the USWNT attack and is in the running for NWSL MVP this year after playing some of the best soccer of her career.