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Mind Over Matter

How former professional baseball player, China McCarney, leveraged his own battle with anxiety to create a foundation that provides athletes with the resources they need to conquer mental health disorders.

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McCarney turned his struggle with balancing a mental health disorder and playing baseball into an initiative that is changing the lives of athletes across the country. (Photo via China McCarney)

The Olympics are over and although they didn’t perform as well as past years, Team USA still had some moments of glory. The United States had Red Gerard, Jamie Anderson, Chloe Kim, Shaun White, Mikaela Shiffrin, Kikkan Randall, Jessie Diggins, David Wise, and the Women’s Ice Hockey and Men’s Curling Team all take home gold medals.

By the time these athletes arrived in Pyeongchang, South Korea, their bodies were prepared for the physical rigor of the games due to the intense training and nutrition regime that they take part in during the four years leading up to the games. However, what people often don’t account for is the fact that by the time these athletes finally make it to the Olympics, it’s often not the physical ability that determines whether they make it to the podium or not, it’s how they handle the stresses and pressures associated with the games that makes all the difference.

“Scientists claim that as little as 10 percent of sports is physical, while the other 90 percent is mental.”

That means, in order to succeed at the highest level (i.e. the Olympics), athletes have to learn to master what goes on between their ears and they have to do it consistently, while the entire world is watching.

But what happens if you’re not only an Olympian, but you’re also a part of the one in five adults who suffer from a mental health disorder and the mastery of the mind is harder than normal? Or worse, what if you’re an athlete who suffers from a mental health disorder but are too ashamed or afraid to seek the proper help you need?

Unfortunately, those circumstances are all too common amongst athletes, whether they’re an Olympian or not. Luckily for the sports world, there’s someone who has made it his life’s mission to help diminish the stigma around mental health disorders, by building community and being unashamed to tell his own story.

That man is China McCarney, former professional baseball player, entrepreneur, writer (his new book, Tell Your Story was released on February 24th) and founder of Athletes Against Anxiety and Depression, a first of its kind, non-profit organization dedicated to providing athletes with the resources and community they need to overcome their battles with mental health disorders.

Athlete’s Against Anxiety and Depression: The first non-profit organization that is solely dedicated to helping athletes manage their mental health concerns. (Photo via China McCarney)

“I wanted to start Athletes Against Anxiety and Depression because of my own personal battle with panic attacks, anxiety, and depression. I hid it for so long because I didn’t want anyone to find out and I thought I’d be judged negatively because of the mental stigma associated with mental health disorders.”

In fact, McCarney attributes the start of the foundation to a panic attack that the had in 2015. McCarney had been struggling with anxiety for six to seven years at that time and eventually got fed up with not having an effective solution to his problem. As a result, he decided to look at his disorder through the lens of an identity he has always held, that of an athlete.

“Okay, how do I beat this? Instead of being negative about it, I wanted to turn this into a positive and make this a competition amongst myself. And I soon realized that the best way for me to beat it was to start talking about it. I began going to counseling and the biggest positive shift for me occurred once I started telling my story and once I realized how many people there are that are struggling, yet, keeping it silent.”

It was that drive that fueled McCarney’s creative spirit and his desire to create something that was non-existent up until this point: a place where athletes could go, obtain resources, build community and do so without judgment. McCarney didn’t even realize how many people he would touch with his story until he began sharing his own testimony over social media videos in November 2016.

“After I posted the first video, my phone started blowing up. People were shocked and it was very clear that I needed to do something more than a social media campaign, so I got my lawyers together and three months later, Athletes Against Anxiety and Depression was a fully functioning 501c(3).”

And the stigma McCarney references is one that is admittedly still prevalent in the sports world, but with initiatives like McCarney’s, is becoming less and less taboo. In fact, Gracie Gold, a figure-skating bronze medalist removed herself from competing in the winter games this year due to her bout with depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder. An admission that some would argue, wouldn’t have been provided even five years ago.

“Michael Phelps came out and said he didn’t know if he was going to make it through the games at one point and thought about committing suicide. Emma Stone and other celebrities have also come out and spoken about their journey. People ask me all the time about what can be done and the only answer I have is to have more people share their story. I think the more testimonies that people hear, especially stars, the more community that can be created. And when you create community, you bring people together instead of alienating people, which is the key to managing mental health effectively.”

And furthermore, the community that McCarney helps create for athletes across the country is only one of the many benefits that his foundation offers.

“I am not a licensed medical professional by any stretch of the imagination, but I wanted to create a space so if an athlete contacted the foundation, we would have the resources they would need to be pointed in the right direction. We have formed very strong partnerships with organizations like the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and other entities who have thousands of licensed counselors, therapists, and psychologists trained to address the needs of athletes and others who are struggling with mental health issues in a timely and effective manner.”

Down the line, McCarney hopes to host a series of events in partnership with the Olympics, NCAA Tournament and the Super Bowl to bring mental health awareness to the forefront of the minds of the fans who view the events and the athletes who participate in them. Additionally, McCarney would like to help facilitate programs that focus on student-athlete wellness on campuses across the country. The programs will cover topics like meditation, mindfulness, and other techniques proven to decrease the effects of anxiety and depression in athletes.

And although McCarney has big dreams for the future, he’s making sure that he’s appreciative of all that the foundation has accomplished in such a short amount of time.

For McCarney, starting Athletes Against Anxiety and Depression was a way to give back to those who helped him throughout his own struggle with mental health. (Photo via China McCarney)

 

“Every time I get an email from someone that the work we do has impacted them in one way or another, it just keeps me going. It’s hard for me sometimes because you wonder if the work that you do matters and if it’s really making an impact. Then you get an e-mail or a phone call from someone who has loved our videos and has benefited from the resources we provide and it makes it all worth it.”

What also makes the work he does worth it, is that he knows the what he does every day is helping to diminish the misconceptions surrounding mental health that keep so many athletes from seeking help.

According to McCarney, the biggest misconception surrounding mental health is that it’s helpless.

 “People who suffer from mental health disorders often get so self-conscious that they feel that there’s no upside, no way that they can get better, and no help.”

However, McCarney also says that he works every day both in his own life and in the lives of others to remind people that:

Mental Health struggles and personal success can co-exist. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to succeed in your career, your relationship, and your social life while still physically struggling with your mental health disorder. Your diagnosis is just an obstacle, it’s not a cliff and it’s something that can be managed and dealt with effectively if you’re brave enough to seek the appropriate help.

To learn more about Athlete’s Against Anxiety and Depression and about how McCarney leverages his background as an athlete to overcome his own mental health obstacles, check out his new book, Tell Your Story! 

Chloe is a former DI Women's Basketball player turned entrepreneur, writer, advocate and Chicago Tribune Red Eye "Big Idea" Award Winner. She's also the Founder and CEO of Elle Grace Consulting, LLC, an athletics consulting firm that helps prepare ALL athletes for lives of thoughtful leadership and meaningful service beyond athletics. You can connect with Chloe at chloe@ellegraceconsulting.com.

Professional Development

Fuel Academy Propels Fans and Staff At Michigan International Speedway

In the past, MIS brought on seasonal staff to help its ticket sales and customer service efforts. However, this year it formalized that program and structured training, branding it Fuel Academy.

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MIS Fuel Academy
Photo Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Breaking into the sports industry can be a daunting career path, so Michigan International Speedway has launched a training program that not only helps young professionals, but aims to improve the track’s customer service as well.

In the past, MIS brought on seasonal staff to help its ticket sales and customer service efforts. However, this year it formalized that program and structured training, branding it Fuel Academy – an effort MIS President Rick Brenner says aims to help both the employee and the organization.

“For the past few years, we’ve worked to create and implement outbound sales to provide customers with better service, and allow folks to talk to people here at the track,” Brenner said. “Now, we want to frame it up, give it its own face and brand — the goal is to create an opportunity for young people to come in and grow and sell tickets.”

READ MORE: A Look at the New Foundation of Richmond Raceway’s Ticket Sales

Brenner said the development of the Fuel Academy was a group effort internally at MIS, especially spurred by the hiring of Ryan Shelton and Michael Neis. They helped put together a “guide book” for success and lead the Fuel Academy class through role-playing conversations and product knowledge before letting them loose in sales efforts.

Shelton, the vice president of business operations, joined MIS earlier this year following six years with the Salem Red Sox, including three seasons as the team’s president and general manager. Neis joined the team as director of ticket sales and service following six years with the Oakland Athletics, most recently as director of membership and premium services.

“A lot of young professionals, college students, are looking for their first opportunities to get into the sports business,” Brenner said. “This is an opportunity for them to learn from some of the very best and development skill sets and provide them with a road map to top-notch service.”

Brenner said the goal for Fuel Academy is to prepare students to sell better during their time at MIS but also setting them up for greater success in their careers – even if that’s not with the organization.

From the outside Fuel Academy may look similar to any other inside sales program, Shelton said, but it is based on what he’s learned on throughout his career and adapted and evolved with the times. The first week is largely spent with leadership discussing the organization’s “why,” he said, and the new staff also spends the week going through role play situations and product knowledge so they’re fully comfortable by the time they jump on the phones.

Through the rest of the 24-week program, there are weekly individual meetings to look at their greatest victory and figure out if it’s repeatable and to set goals and to fix hitches throughout their sales process, whether the issue is getting appointments or closing sales.

“We don’t want to have them feeling lost or a manager feeling frustrating and bottling things up,” Shelton said. “A lot of it is helping them understand we control our destiny. We really want them to understand it controllable and developing relationships with clients and engaging them to lead them to return at a higher rate.”

Like MIS, more organizations are looking toward a more personalized approach to building young professionals’ careers, ranging from sales specific programs in colleges to sales leadership programs within pro sports organizations, like the Atlanta Hawks.

“Selfishly, we could probably hold on to them longer, but we don’t look at people as a number, we look at them as people and do whatever we can do to help them get to whatever they want to do at the next level,” Myers Dean, Hawks manager of new memberships said. “We don’t want to hold them back. Now we have so many, they call us when they need account executive, and most of the time we can send them a few right away.”

Shelton said through running programs similar to Fuel Academy throughout his career, he’s seen approximately 75% stay in the sports business, many advancing to leadership positions. He’s now the only remaining professional in sports from his 14-person inside sales class.

The past weekend was one of the biggest days of the year for MIS, with the FireKeepers Casino 400. Brenner said it was a crucial weekend to have these young professionals better prepared and on the ground telling the story of MIS’ fan-centric endeavors, as well as selling renewal plans for next year. Now they’ll prepare for the next major race in August.

Having more highly-trained salespeople will also be a boon for the track, which added several new fan-friendly initiatives this year such as an air-conditioned hospitality area and free pit passes for children under 12. Tickets are also now priced dynamically based on demand, Brenner said, to help make them more affordable. The 1,400-acre site also features free concerts and other entertainment options beyond just racing.

READ MORE: How NASCAR Stays Up to Speed in the Ever-Changing Digital Space

“We’ve added a slew of entertainment options and focused on our fan experience and want to show them we value their time with how we’re treating them,” Brenner said. “We’re really looking at the total experienced building out a package around the races.”

Brenner said he hopes the introduction of the more-structured Fuel Academy will not only help “fuel our crowd,” but also the young professional he hopes it attracts.

“Hopefully we look down the road 10 years and we’ve got a whole bunch of alumni that are either here or excelling and moving on to organizations across sports,” Brenner said. “We want to embrace the fact that folks are interested in sports and that it’s a great path to start a career and develop knowledge that will be useful in any sport or facility.”

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Professional Development

Inside The Huddle: Group Expectations with Michael Taylor

After ten years on the business side of pro basketball, Michael Taylor has learned how valuable persistence and personal branding are in ticket sales.

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In the buildup to Front Office Sports’ Ticketing Huddle at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on May 10, we’re introducing you to the huddle leaders who will be lending their expertise to the conversation.

Today, meet Michael Taylor: Director of Team Marketing & Business Operations at the National Basketball Association (NBA). Taylor will be one of the leaders of the huddle “Squad Goals: The Evolution of Group Expectations.”

Taylor played basketball at West Virginia State University, where he graduated in 2004 with a degree in business administration and management. After playing basketball in Europe for a few years, pursuing a career on the business side of basketball simply made sense. It’s also proved to be a natural fit. For example, during his time in Detroit with Palace Sports and Entertainment, the group sales department jumped from 29th in revenue leaguewide to fifth in just over three years.

READ MORE: Inside The Huddle: Premium Sales with Naimah German

Now, with over a decade in the NBA, Taylor takes great pride in the people he has been able to develop.

“I look at some of the people that I’ve been able to work with and have hired and are thriving in the industry and moving on to different leadership positions, and that is probably the thing I’m most proud of,” he says. “The people and the development pieces are where I like to focus my time.”

The biggest mistake that Taylor sees young reps making in their early years is not having a short memory.

“In this business you have to be able to take the bad days…the days where you make a hundred calls and 50 people hang up on you and you leave 50 voicemails and no one returns,” he says. “You have to be able to maintain the same enthusiasm, the same confidence on that next call. And then, on the flip side, you have a day where maybe you made that big sale. Do you then slack off? Do you get complacent? Do you not focus on your fundamentals anymore because you’re starting to see some success? Don’t focus on what happened yesterday, whether it was good or bad, but approach each day as a chance to be great.”

READ MORE: Inside The Huddle: Group Expectations With Josh Feinberg

Taylor’s other piece of advice to young professionals just beginning their career in ticket sales is to constantly be maintaining their reputation online and in real life.

“It’s never too early to think of yourself as a brand,” he say. “The things that you do now, you’re building your reputation before you even realize it. The sports world is small. When you think about applying for internships or applying for jobs, your reputation is what speaks before you even get into the room. Everything that they do either adds to their brand, or it takes away from it.”

Meet Michael and hear more of his thoughts on the current ticketing space at the Front Office Sports Ticketing Huddle at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, CA on May 10. For tickets and additional info, click here.

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Professional Development

Inside The Huddle: Premium Sales with Naimah German

German will lend her expertise on premium sales at the Front Office Sports Ticketing Huddle at the Oakland Coliseum on May 10.

Front Office Sports

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In the buildup to Front Office Sports’ Ticketing Huddle at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on May 10, we’re introducing you to the huddle leaders who will be lending their expertise to the conversation.

Today, meet Naimah German: Premium Sales Consultant with Legends at the Las Vegas Stadium (the future home of the Raiders). German will be one of the leaders of the huddle “The Experience Economy: Navigating Shifting Premium Sales Demands.”

READ MORE: Inside The Huddle: Group Expectations With Josh Feinberg

German made the move to Nevada in January of 2018 ahead of the Raiders moving to and playing their first season in Las Vegas in 2020. In the months since, German and the rest of the organization have had their hands full in the best possible way.

“It has been a whirlwind to have that many people on the waitlist,” she says, “but we were all committed from the very beginning, and we are making adjustments as we go along. So it’s been a lot of learning as we go through that process of checks and balances and communicating with one another.”

Prior to arriving in Las Vegas, German graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2007 and worked in insurance and advertising sales for a number of years before completing her master’s degree through Northeastern University in 2014. German’s breakthrough, and what she describes as one of her proudest professional accomplishments, came in 2015 when she landed a Membership Development Associate role with the Miami Dolphins.

“That was the most rigorous process to get a job that I’ve ever been through,” German says, reflecting on the experience. “I did two separate phone interviews and then I had to fly myself out to Miami. But I knew that if I went down there, I was going to come back with the job. They had a hundred of us participate in a sales combine, and we competed for a job over the course of that whole weekend. They accepted nine people into that inside sales class and I was one of the nine.”

German then joined the Legends crew in 2016 as a Premium Sales Consultant with the Atlanta Falcons, where she stayed for about a year and a half before moving on to her current role in Las Vegas. With her experience on the premium side, German has learned that the ability to build strong relationships with clients go a long way.

“Ask questions and you will be able to build a relationship with someone and know why they want what they want,” she says. “Everyone wants the top-notch experience, so being able to identify potential problems early in the process is going to help alleviate any potential frustration.”

In her experience, German notices that many young sports professionals can define themselves by their work. While careers are important, she urges everyone to maintain a balance. 

READ MORE: Inside The Huddle: Selling A New Team With Ted Glick

“Don’t let the job take over your identity,” she says. “Sometimes people forget who they are with all their motivations and ambitions and what they want to do. Knowing you are more than what you do is a much healthier attitude to have in this business.”

Throughout her career, German has not lost sight of how sports can be a force for good. This is the primary reason she wanted to pursue a career in the industry, and why she continues down this path today.

“Sports is something that brings people together,” she says. “I always come back to that. When you’re at a game, we’re all one. We’re united.”

Meet Naimah and hear more of your thoughts on the current ticketing space at the Front Office Sports Ticketing Huddle at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, CA on May 10. For tickets and additional info, click here.

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