One-on-One: Fran Kirby x Jordan Henderson
Leadership, loss and lessons from two of football's best.
One-on-One is a series bringing you unscripted conversations between Nike elite athletes.
Fran Kirby and Jordan Henderson have had intense summers. Kirby—who, last season, came back from a career-threatening bout of pericarditis to become Chelsea's all-time leading scorer and win the WSL title—was injured on her second day of the summer games in Tokyo. Henderson—Liverpool captain and one of the foundations of the England national team for the past decade—saw his run-up to the Euros blighted by injury and his team beaten on penalties in the final. But set against a backdrop of athletes becoming even more vocal about the subjects that matter most, both players have seen these difficult journeys as a chance for progression. Spurred on by adversity and loss, illness and injury, they have become advocates and activists in their own right. Both have sought shifts in mindset, adaptations in roles and a better understanding of what it means to lead on and off the pitch. It's bigger than sport, and for two of the most respected English players of their generation, there are no losses now, only lessons.
Injury had a big part to play in both of your tournaments this summer. How did that change your approach to your roles as leaders in the squad?
Fran: Being a part of the summer games was really special, but when you get injured so early in the process, the first feelings you get are really raw emotions. When you know you've done something but don't know quite how bad it is … there's a kind of sadness. But in that situation, you have to manage your expectations—and I had to learn that very quickly. I became more of a squad player, not a starter. I understood my role and had to focus on what I could control: being a good teammate.
Jordan: I had a lot of similarities with Fran. I worked very hard to be at the Euros after not playing for such a long time, so getting in the squad was a big achievement for me. And when I was there, I was like, "Yeah, I'm fine. I'm feeling good". But quickly you know you're not at the level you were. It required a change in mindset to lead as best as I could. Of course, I wish I'd been fully fit from the beginning, but it was a huge summer for us as a team. And while it didn't end how we hoped, I think we brought so much joy back to the nation.
"Injury is the most difficult to deal with, to be honest. We can sit and talk about it now and it sounds easy, but it's not. I've suffered".
USWNT legend Abby Wambach wrote in her book about the concept of "leading from the bench". As players who are used to being very important parts of a first team, it must have been a humbling experience for you, adapting to these new roles.
Jordan: Yeah, you've got to put your ego to the side. At the start of the Euros, I was like, "I'm 100 percent. I can play". But I wasn't 100 percent. I think we all knew that. But I was still one of the leaders in the squad, so I tried to have better conversations with teammates. I wanted to make sure everyone was in a good place. Because ultimately, the aim is for the whole team to be successful and win the tournament. It's not just about you or the players that are starting or the subs coming on. It's about the whole.
Fran: I agree. Me and Jordan, we're experienced players now. In tournament football, there's a lot of players who are on the bench or who have just come into the squad. It's important to make them feel valued. I had a responsibility to help those who were in a position to win for the team. I would have been OK with not playing much but having a gold medal around my neck.
It must be a difficult balancing act, feeling that frustration and sadness while also being positive for those around you. How important is it that you show strength through your vulnerability? As experienced players, showing emotional honesty with your teammates must be inspiring for younger players.
Fran: Yeah, I think so. People could see I was sad. They could see I was in pain. I had to learn to show that emotion in the right way. Of course, I'm not going around with a big smile on my face when I've been told that I can't play in the first game, I can't play in the second game … I wasn't happy. But in showing vulnerability, that you're sad but still willing to work to get back to that level, it spurs people on. I was saying to the girls, "You've got to get through the group stages so I can get on the pitch". In a selfish way, I meant it. That was my motivation, trying to get them through.
Jordan: Injury is the most difficult to deal with, to be honest. We can sit and talk about it now and it sounds easy, but it's not. I've suffered. But I'm captain at Liverpool and one of the leaders in the England set-up, so that comes with responsibility. Sometimes, as much as you're frustrated and feeling down, you've got the rest of the group to think about. I've had injuries before, but this [a groin injury picked up in February that required surgery and a lengthy period of rehabilitation; he was out until April] was one of my darkest. Ultimately, you have to try your best to be an example as a person.
"I had a responsibility to help those who were in a position to win for the team. I would have been OK with not playing much but having a gold medal around my neck".
You've each won big, important trophies with your clubs—what do you think your highest point has been as a player? And how did you feel in the aftermath of that? Did that success affect you, positively or negatively?
Jordan: I'd say the highest point in my career so far is winning the Champions League. But I will always remember the days after we won it, there wasn't really a feeling of satisfaction. It was a little bit of … I wouldn't say "sadness", but it wasn't what I expected it to be. I expected to be on a high for weeks, having achieved something I've dreamt of my whole life …
Maybe I was coming down, but I struggled for days after that win. I couldn't comprehend everything that was going on, and what we achieved together. It was like, "OK, what do we do now? What do I do now?" Obviously the focus fell pretty quickly on the Premier League. We hadn't won it so long and we'd just missed out in 2019. So that helped, but that post-Champions League high … It's certainly not what I thought it would be like.
Fran: I know that feeling. I think the adrenaline runs out on you. You build yourself up with so much excitement, and afterwards, you're like, "Well, what now?" The biggest highlight for me would have been last season, coming back after an illness that kept me out for such a long time. [In late 2019, Fran was diagnosed with pericarditis, a career-threatening heart disease triggered by a virus that inflames the sac around the heart, after collapsing during a dinner with close friends and Chelsea teammates Beth England and Maren Mjelde.] I would have been happy regardless of whether we had won trophies, after what I had gone through, but after that title win, I felt very similar to Jordan. I had an amazing season and then it ended, and you don't allow yourself the joy of looking at what you've achieved. It's like, "I've done that now. I've got a couple of weeks off, and then I'm straight back in again". You don't get to reset.
How does your self-talk change after a big win compared to when you've had a really disappointing loss?
Fran: I'm not really sure. I feel it's harder to come back from a loss than it is to win something. I've won the league a few times with Chelsea and enjoyed it every time. But over the last few years, I've tried to teach myself to not get too high when things are going great and not too low when things are tough. Because then it's an emotional roller coaster. Constant waves of sadness, happiness, sadness, happiness … and those emotions affect everything that you do. They affect everything you love to do or that you loved to do before.
Jordan: Definitely. I think that's really important as an athlete. Not getting too high or too low. If I look back, I would say I found it easier to react to a loss—the Champions League final when we lost to Real Madrid or when we missed out on the league. It hurt so much that straight away, the focus was, "We need to do it again and we need to go one step further". After a loss, you get that fire in your belly to put things right.
Fran: We're in an industry where there has to be a winner and a loser, and you can't always win. Obviously, I feel the hurt of losing. I don't like to lose. I'm extremely competitive, even in training. I want to be the winner. But I had to try and change my feeling about it from losses to learning.
Jordan: I know what you mean. I always think to be successful, you need to lose. That comes from experience: You need to feel that loss. You need to go through the process of things going against you. When I was a young player at Liverpool, the adversity that I went through then was an important part of my journey and my development. It makes you stronger. It prepares you better for the next time. If I look back, without Liverpool losing the Champions League final to Real Madrid, do we then go on the next year to win it? Without losing the Premier League in the way we did, do we go on the next year to win it?
"We're in an industry where there has to be a winner and a loser, and you can't always win. Obviously, I feel the hurt of losing. I'm extremely competitive. I want to be the winner. But I had to change my feeling from losses to learning".
How does the pressure change as you move from a young player to an established international?
Jordan: As a young player, you're just trying to make a good impression on the team, on the manager, and trying to improve on every aspect of your game. But as time goes on, your role changes. When I first took over as Liverpool captain, I found the role difficult. I put a lot on my shoulders. I lost a little bit of myself, what I wanted to be working on as a player myself. I was too worried about everybody else. I was the captain and I thought I had this responsibility to do everything for everyone all the time. It was something I really had to work on with the manager, finding balance between me as a captain and me as an individual.
Fran: Well, when I was 16, I went straight into the Reading first team set-up. It was quite a jump. [A year later, Fran quit football due to the death of her mother and depression.] I went from playing with 16-year-olds to playing with 26-, 27-, 28-year-olds. Now I'm one of the leaders at Chelsea, but when I first moved into that role, I felt I lost a little bit of myself too. You think, How can I help this person? How can I help that person? Your priorities change. But after a few years, I realised that I was just draining myself of energy, constantly worrying about people. It doesn't allow you to give 100 percent of yourself as a player. So I changed my mindset. Yes, of course, I will be a leader, I will do what I need to do for any individual on my team—that's how I've always been. But I also know that I need to look after myself as well.
You have been such advocates for mental health awareness, and this summer has really shown the importance of mental health's effect on world-class athletes. Do you think that's something you didn't realise was quite so important when you began your career?
Jordan: The mental side is a huge part of any sport. I try to help younger players as much as possible—make sure they don't get too worried about what people are saying on social media or in the press, things like that. That can have a huge impact on a player's performance. When I joined Liverpool at 20, there were points where I was in a bad place mentally. So having experienced that, if I can use my platform to raise awareness and help some people feel better, that's incredibly important to me. Now it's not really a question of "Should I say something or not?" I've been there myself, so I need to do that. I need to try and help people.
Fran: Me too. And there's been a real change in the stigma around mental health awareness, especially in football. There's a way to go, but there's been a positive shift. One thing that I've always said: Footballers aren't robots. We're not programmed to have one emotion every day. There are going to be ups and downs. We go through things in life that everyone else goes through. We lose people in our lives. We have anxiety about things that everyone else does.
"When I joined Liverpool at 20, there were points where I was in a bad place mentally … now it's not really a question of "Should I say something or not?" I've been there myself, so I need to do that. I need to try and help people".
Fran, you mentioned earlier about lessons, not losses. Just because a subject is difficult for people to talk about, or a painful experience to draw from, doesn't mean that it's not a teachable moment.
Fran: I believe so. We've learnt a lot over the last few years, and it's important to help people understand each other better. I've been an advocate for mental health awareness and LGBTQ+ rights, but I've also learnt so much about Black history in recent years. And a lot of this is something that so many don't get taught. Now we find amazing people speaking so powerfully, who are able to provide such a great depth of knowledge. We can learn from that and better appreciate what people have been going through, and why it's important to fight for these issues. Football can be a massive part of achieving something. We want to help those who want to know more about the world we live in, and how we can work together to create something better.
Jordan: I think the more athletes speak out, the more people are going to see those words. Not just in sport or in the UK, but across the world. When you're really passionate about something and you've experienced it yourself, when you've put the time in to learn and understand more about a subject's importance, that's when you can really affect things. That's when change can really happen.
Illustration: Leonardo Santamaria