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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

Why Athlete Retirement Transitions Can Be So Devastating

Sports psychologist Scott Goldman discusses the struggles athletes can face in retirement from their professional and amateur careers.

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Ben Hartsock was thinking ahead to avoid difficulties following retirement.

Following a 10-year NFL career, the tight end jumped right into a career as an agent. For Hartsock, it was better than taking time to figure his life out after the structure and rigidity of an NFL career.

“There’s really two schools of thought, and there’s the school of thought you need something waiting when you’re done because idle time is the devil’s playground,” said Hartsock, who ended up realizing agent life wasn’t right after two years and is now pursuing broadcasting.

“Had I not jumped right into working, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. I could have downward spiraled.” 

Professional athletes, no matter the sport, leave a life of structure and must transition to a life of relative normalcy. More athletes today are thinking about it, but no matter how well-prepared the transition, it can still cause hiccups, Hartsock said. After 20 years of playing football, Hartsock said it’s almost like being institutionalized.

“I don’t know what other industry or business has a similar experience,” he said. “The shelf life of an athlete is limited in a way I can’t think any other profession is. Think about going to high school getting great marks, going to college and excelling, and after five or 10 years of being the best surgeon in the world, they take it away from you. That’s hard.”

READ MORE: As Retirement Nears, Yankees Star CC Sabathia Experiments With ESPN Deal

Athlete struggles following their athletic career’s end is not an easy topic to address, said Scott Goldman, the president-elect of the Association of Applied Sport Psychology. Goldman is a sports psychologist who’s worked for 20 years with collegiate and professional athletes.

Much of the conversation in post-career struggles revolve around professionals, but Goldman said it’s also a serious issue among collegiate athletes as well, as 90 percent don’t go professional. While many sports don’t have a clear path to the pros, Goldman said those that do — like basketball and football — can make inflate aspirations.

Goldman said he’s happy that leagues, like the NFL, are working intently to help create programs and guide players through their career and after to help ease the pain.

When Goldman works with an athlete struggling post-career, he said he likes to follow the Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief. Leaving an all-or-nothing career, like professional athletics, can leave athletes in a similar depression as losing a loved one.

“For some of them, it’s as much a shift in identity as dealing with a tragic loss,” Goldman said. “Most of these athletes get up at 6 a.m. and their day is largely accounted for and scheduled. It can be really intense when they leave.”

Goldman said he believes more potential employers are realizing that while athletes mostly don’t have lengthy business resumes, the commitment and dedication to their careers and being successful can often easily translate to the business world.

Often times, careers ended because of injuries are worse because they’re sudden. For careers like Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki, players get a goodbye tour and can ease into their retirement through a grief-like path.

Beyond the personal-identity struggle, Goldman said athletes also often struggle with their financials following retirement. The general public has a perception of multimillionaire contracts, and while some athletes are set for life, those contracts are in reality few and far between. More common are the sub-million dollar contracts with athletes averaging less than three years as a professional athlete. Add on trying to ensure that money and whatever post-retirement career the athlete ends up pursuing to obligations, and the stress can be high.

READ MORE: Missy Franklin Opens Up About Retirement and Life After Swimming

“It’s amazing the demand of the million dollar athlete,” Goldman said.

Former athletes balancing a dwindling bank account with their lack of direction can experience a perfect storm for emotional troubles. That’s where people like Goldman and companies like Priority Sports, Hartsock’s former agency, and its Preparing for Life After the NFL, or P.L.A.N., come in. 

Leaving a professional sports career often doesn’t have a ceremonial ending like other transitions in high school to college; college to the working world; or even a long TV series finale. Goldman said he doesn’t often like to use cliches, but can’t avoid one in this situation.

“It’s more of a transition than a severance,” Goldman said. “When you exit one room, you enter another space. Sometimes we focus on what we’re leaving and other times, it’s what we’re entering.

“It’s important to accept what we leave, and see what’s coming next and find meaning.”

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Professional Development

Navigating Negotiation: 3 Tips to Effectively Handle Your Next Crucial Conversation

What’s the difference between those who succeed at negotiation and those who don’t? You might be surprised by the actual answers.

Jarrod Barnes

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Regardless of your role within sports business — whether it’s a raise, sponsorship activation, contract, or expanded opportunity — at least one aspect of negotiation is involved in our daily job descriptions.

According to a recent study, only 29 percent of job seekers negotiated their salary at their current or most recent job. All the while, according to the same report, 84 percent of those confident enough to ask for higher pay succeed in getting it.

What’s the difference between those who succeed at negotiation and those who don’t? Some sports business professionals offered their best tips to effectively handle your next crucial conversation.

Effective Preparation and Practice

“One thing that people tend to do when they get to those crucial conversations in life, no matter how good they are at what they do, they think they have it all in their head, and they wing it,” says sports agent, author and well-known negotiator Ron Shapiro.

READ MORE: Informational Interviews Can Be Crucial to Your Career Development

Negotiation begins with knowing your worth. Gathering the most relevant information to reinforce your position, whether it’s current salary ranges or market analysis, can lead to a more holistic perspective. While it may seem easy to think your position is correct (which it may be), the market doesn’t care much about what you think you’re worth; at the end of the day, hiring managers or customers are going to offer you what they think you’re worth.

Shapiro would go on to say, “a critical step in preparation is weighing alternatives. Alternatives make you less dependent on one option or customer and therefore create leverage, which is particularly useful when negotiating from a position of relative weakness.”

Embrace “No”

While fear of rejection is common when navigating a negotiation or crucial conversation, a strong reality is that negotiation doesn’t actually begin until someone says “no.”

“No” signals an opportunity to problem-solve the conflicting and overlapping interests both parties want to serve and figure out how both can get as much of their desired outcomes as possible. Our reluctance to negotiate past “no” may keep us from obtaining the “yes” we truly desire.

“Whoever you’re negotiating with is a person just like you. Don’t overthink it or assume it needs to be more than it is. Make sure to level the playing field and refuse to let your worth slide, especially your non-negotiables. Be overly clear,” says Connor Dietz, director of sales & strategy for Train Up First.

Listen and Respond

When preparing and practicing for a conversation, it can be easy to allow our emotions to overtake us if things don’t go according to plan. Yet, being “hijacked” by our emotions sabotages our ability to make good decisions or to react skillfully.

READ MORE: How to Master the First Month of a New Job in Sports Business

“It’s not only what you say; it’s how you say it. Because as a negotiator, you want the other side to feel your confidence,” claims Shapiro.

It’s easy to avoid difficult conversations, but the more conversation you have with those involved, the more natural it feels. Start small when the stakes are low, try negotiating with your colleagues, at a garage sale, or with family. There are countless opportunities to practice. Negotiation begins with knowing your worth and ends when you’re willing to walk away.

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Professional Development

Inside Julianne Viani’s Whirlwind of a Broadcasting Career

The broadcaster has made a name for herself, thanks to a tireless work ethic and covering everything from college basketball to the NBA and WNBA.

Bailey Knecht

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Julianne Viani might be the busiest analyst in sports.

The 33-year-old originally from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. is constantly on the go, working as an analyst for major networks like ESPN, CBS, NextVR, Big Ten Network and Pac-12 Network. Between games, travel and preparation, Viani has a full slate, bouncing from city to city for the majority of the year.

“Some people only cover men’s college basketball and only focus on that,” Viani said. “I cover everything, from men’s college basketball to women’s college basketball to the NBA and WNBA. I have to keep tabs on what’s going on, on all platforms. It’s a lot of work, and you don’t have to know everything there is to know, but you have to know enough about the big picture on every single platform.”

Even on her off-days, Viani spends her time studying teams and taking conference calls with coaches.

“People are too smart and can pick up whether you know the game,” she said. “You can tell when someone isn’t prepared, and my biggest thing is, I never want to not be prepared. You’re going to make mistakes. It’s going to happen, but the bottom line is I need to make sure I’ve studied up.”

READ MORE: Bartending, Country Music, and Kay Adams’ Relentless Path to Success

Viani is a basketball lifer, having played Division-I basketball on a Marist team that made multiple NCAA tournament runs and then played professionally overseas. When she returned to the U.S., she was presented with an opportunity to break into broadcasting, starting with high school games.

“When you produce long enough, you just know right away,” said Steven Fenig, ESPN remote producer and director who has known Viani since covering her as a player at Marist. “It’s weird, I mean, a lot of people that play the game and coach game know it inside and out, but not everybody that’s played is able to take what they know and communicate that to the average viewer and break it down easy for the viewer to understand. Right away with her, I saw that she was really talented.”

Viani worked her way up, and now, one of her main jobs is with the NextVR, where fans can experience NBA games in virtual reality. Her experience with NextVR puts her at the forefront of a branch of the sports industry that most analysts have yet to delve into.

“It’s a full-blown broadcast like regular TV, but it’s fusing technology with the sports industry and broadcast world,” she said. “It’s all about catering to the public, so they can turn their head to the left and right and experience the game. It’s different.”

Matt Drummond, coordinating producer at NextVR, explained why Viani has been so successful in her role there.

“I think it’s her diverse experience and relaxed nature, which are the two ingredients that we look for from everyone involved,” he said. “She’s willing to do whatever to get the job done, and she has the experience to draw from and work through it. We’re always problem-solving on the run because things rarely go to plan, so we need someone with a cool head and calm voice to work through it.”

When it comes to NBA games, it’s still relatively uncommon to see women in the broadcast booth, but NextVR has made it a point to hire diverse analysts.

“The chance to call a full slate of games as a color analyst as a female — it’s really rare,” Viani said. “NextVR has given me a lot of opportunities, and they’ve been good about having women and former players do this. It’s amazing to see the technology out there and be on the front lines and gain experience at the highest level.”

“It’s great having a female voice in our group, and that was something we were looking for,” added Drummond. “She’s brought everything we need to the table. Her work ethic is ridiculous. I don’t know how she puts in that much travel. Every day, she’s in a new city.”

Viani is transparent about the challenges of her job — she admits that the jam-packed schedule takes a toll on her.

“It’s hard,” she said. “During the year, I do get burnt out by the end of the year. By April, I’m really drained and ready for the beach and downtime. I need a whole month to recover. It goes from late October through April nonstop. December, January, February and March are bananas.”

Viani also acknowledged that the scheduling challenges stem from her involvement with a variety of networks, which makes for an inconsistent routine.

“For me, it’s hard to work for a lot of different networks,” she said. “Being an independent contractor is not easy. I get paid by the game, so you’ve got to hustle, and you can do well and make living if you’re getting opportunities, but not having the protection of being with one network is tough.”

Viani is able to keep her spirits high throughout the season, though, because she genuinely loves what she does.

“She just does a spectacular job — there’s always a smile on her face, she’s easy to work with, she’s got a great attitude, she gets along with everybody,” Fenig said. “She’s worked hard to improve her craft, and you can see that by watching her and listening to her.”

She also leans on her faith to get her through the grind of the basketball season.

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“My faith in God is the most important thing that drove me as a player and now in broadcasting,” she said. “I know every door has been opened because God has opened it, and I’ve walked through it and worked because He’s given me talent, so I want to give him glory.”

Although travel and working with multiple networks has become second nature to Viani, she has dreams of locking down a deal with one network and developing a steadier routine.

“I think my goal would be — I love doing a variety of things, but I’d love to be married to one network and focus my attention to just one, whether it’s ESPN or CBS or whatever,” she said.

And even though analyst jobs are in high demand, particularly at the top networks, those who have worked with Viani have faith that she has what it takes.

“For Julianne, the sky’s the limit for her, and as long as she’s willing to stay with it, she’ll get that opportunity as long as she’s persistent,” Fenig added. “Her work ethic and attitude is certainly there, and the talent is there. Hopefully she’ll get that opportunity, and if she does, she’ll nail it.”

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