273: Overcoming Mental Health Obstacles and Finding Peace

This week’s conversation is with Joanne McCallie, better known as “Coach P” – one of the most highly decorated female college basketball coaches in the country.

Over the last 28 years, Coach P has coached at Maine, Michigan State, and most recently Duke.

She’s the only Division I head coach to lead two different programs to 30-win seasons with three National Championship game appearances, and she won National Coach of the Year in 2005.

Coach P’s success on the court speaks for itself, but there was more that I wanted to explore with her.

She recently made her longtime battle with bipolar disorder public – something she didn’t feel comfortable revealing during her coaching career.

For those of you unfamiliar, bipolar disorder, or manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.

So in this conversation, we discuss Coach P’s experience battling this disorder while leading one of the premier program’s in the nation.

“I love coaching but I also feel like I could talk to anybody, a professional athlete, a high school student, anybody about mental health and try to allow them to seek acceptance and understand that things are going to be okay.”

In This Episode:

How does she think about her life?

One of passion and overcoming fear, and finding that space where you’re comfortable with yourself and not satisfied, not complacent, but satisfied with your peace of mind. Getting to that space.

What did her early years look like?

A youthful, athletic, excitable, young person trying to find their way in competitive athletics with the biggest dreams ever of being an Olympian or any dream that you can imagine, National Championship and performance in basketball.

How did her dad impact her coaching framework?

I am very calm under pressure, I learned how to be a time and score coach. I love the idea of that situation, the timeout, the play calling, the creativity it would take. And I think a lot of that came from having a calm space, breathing from the right space. I think my father truly exemplified that and always thought things were no big deal. When I asked him about flying (as a NAVY pilot), did he get nervous? Was he concerned? He had had some different issues on airplanes and  he would just say, “No, I just kind of enjoy it and do it.” So there was a peacefulness to his craft, and I think I absorbed some of that.

How has she changed as a coach over the years?

I was a head coach at 26 and I definitely was a driver. Very passionate, very demanding. Sometimes could obviously upset players with my challenge and future image that I saw in them. I didn’t articulate it as well certainly as a young coach. At that time, you’re trying to prove yourself and it does engender this idea that the players you’re coaching are sort of the means to getting there versus celebrating the efforts. My early teams, I was by far toughest on them. But what’s ironic is those are some of my closest relationships. Not just from time away, because they’re obviously older than my other former players, but you think back and you kind of cringe when you think about yourself as a young coach trying to prove yourself, and overstepping here and there. I mean, I definitely had players that would sing my praises and I have players that would not, and say that, “She pushed me too far.”

What would she say to her younger self?

Slow down. Rome wasn’t built in a day, don’t try to get it all at once. Watch your tone on occasion. You are British-Italian. I did swear in there, but never to a person, to the group, like at halftime, if we weren’t getting it done. Reflectively, I battled with that, the swearing thing. Part of it was actually natural. I guess I had heard some words around the household or somewhere, but then part of me never wanted to do it. All my career I kind of fluctuated with this authenticity that’s so critical. And then I had a player tell me once, “It works better if you swear sometimes. It gets our attention,” and I thought, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting.

What did she demand from her players?

Always effort, intensity, focus, demanding that they be present-minded. Whatever was happening off the court was something different. Demanding that they play off each other, respect each other, try to make each other better, get beyond individual play, understand the pass before the pass that made the great play. That was the good thing, that I was never really off base relative to what I was demanding. So if I crossed the line and tried to change the physiology, which is such a cool way of saying that relative to using profanity in some way, it was directed authentically and in the right space of what I was asking for, relative to the intangibles.

In demanding those values, what did she want her athletes to be in service of?

I think concentric circles building out. Service within relative to their own peace of mind and what they brought to themselves. So there had to be a piece or a balance amongst themselves, and then of course the next circle being the team and how they would fit and blend with the team dynamics. And what we do, we do to the team. One of my favorite quotes, “What we do, we do to the team.” And then of course, broader relative to the coaching staff and folding in mentorship. Mentorship matters, they’re important there. And then getting more broad is our place as female athletes of power, women of power. And you’re seeing that in this day and age right now, lots of power behind women and how they felt about as women competitors. And then of course, one larger circle is relative to, can we affect others through grassroots ability to raise money and awareness. So trying to take what we had, life experiences, sometimes trauma, and fold those into community support and awareness. So using sport as a metaphor, using sport to teach, but that’s like the broadest circle. It takes a while to get to that space.

How long has she battled with bipolar disease?

I was diagnosed at 30 years old. bipolar 1, bipolar 2. And so I worked with it. I had my episodes, one manic, one depressive while coaching at the University of Maine. I struggled with taking medication and accepting my diagnosis very much so, very much so, and a lot of that is in the book. I want people to know that that’s normal, and that the fight or flight situation, where you kind of do both, you fight and then you try to get away from what people are saying is your truth.

aAt 39 week, we went to a final four, played for a national title at Michigan state. And I was thinking that, that public stage might be a great place to talk about it, especially since we’d had so much success, you’re feeling like people can’t really attack it because you sort of had success anyway. But I was counseled against that, and I think wisely, because my options would have been limited in terms of my professional growth. And then Duke recruited me, and I don’t think anyone would have recruited me if I had been open and come out about it.

Her next chapter

I love coaching but I also feel like I could talk to anybody, a professional athlete, a high school student, anybody about mental health and try to allow them to seek acceptance and understand that things are going to be okay. I’m a big believer in the process and not focusing on outcomes, not driven by the fan mentality, what other people think of you, but rather than how you feel and what your process is to growth. And at the same time, people really beat themselves up with this diagnosis, “Where did I get it? How did I get it? Is something wrong with me?” And so I’ve talked about be good to you. Be good to you in this process of understanding brain health.

Her process for improving one’s mental health

I call it the I test with a capital I. It’s intensity, immediacy and intelligence. If you can pass that I test in your daily life or in sport, that’s what betterment is all about and that’s what process is all about. And so even when I was coaching, win or lose, we kind of treated it the same to a degree, which was to find the process of betterment. And so we would rate ourselves on our immediacy as a team. The team could really kind of feel what that was, immediacy, how quick we were to react. Intensity, that’s kind of easier, how much ball pressure we apply or defense. And the intelligence component, turnovers. How do we take care of the ball? How do we pass to each other? Often failing the intelligence part more than the other two. So using the I test the way I see it is a way to move through the process. And I do believe that can be applied anywhere, not just in sport.

How does the “I” test translate to everyday life?

The intensity of your physical effort, the intensity of your mind focus. The intensity kind of spills out. And then IQ tests, I mean, the intelligence piece is, again, your decision-making and how thoughtful and how you respond to certain situations. And immediacy is let’s say bad things happen, how quickly … There was a fumble in football. Well, how immediate are you to switch over? Offense to defense, how immediate is your mind going to switch with that adversity?

How would she help someone improve their psychological agility?

I would first ask them to think about what they are most afraid of. What are they most afraid of? What really gets your anxiety? What really gets your breathing up to your heart space? The public speaking thing. What really gets you there? And I would ask them to think about it, maybe write it down, or if they were able to talk about it. I mean, some people like to talk about what they’re afraid of. But I think agility, it’s like a rubber band. You’ve got to be able to increase it and contract it. And you can’t expand it without expanding your mind and getting past your fears. And the fear factor is huge. And then you can contract it a little bit for some comfort, to get back to what’s more comfortable for you. But it’s that expansion in that poll that people don’t really want to do. And so I would ask them, like a rubber band, I would ask them to work on their agility by being able to pull apart what they’re afraid of.

What’s the difference between standards and demands?

You have standards relative to training, bench press push-ups, you have standards. Those are very easy for everyone to understand. The big standard is the future image of the individual, and that’s the standard that a coach often has over the individual in terms of what I see in the future for this person, that’s where the push and shove comes. Because somebody’s own vision of themselves is often quite a bit smaller than somebody else’s, particularly a coach’s vision. And so standards there and how you push those standards for that particular athlete is the trick. And it’s often getting over their own fears and their brain limit, what they limit themselves to thinking. So standards come, I think, in a variety of packages, and some are more easily accountable than others.

Helping someone see what’s possible

What we do as coaches- you show what you want people to be. It’s not a highlight reel, you show people the action, you show them in the space that they really didn’t recognize. We’ve all talked about the positive, negative, positive approach, that sandwich approach.Show a positive, show a little bit of a negative, bring it back to where you want them to be. There’s a lot of that going on obviously in film reviews and things of that nature. But I think talking with athletes one-on-one, they want to be reminded and see visually what they’re capable of.  And once you share that experience in the same space, then there’s no denying it. And the only thing I feel that gets in the way is some blockage that often refers back to trauma or something in their lives, and this is where the psychologist, this is where you come in, this is where I wish I was, had more background in this. Because once you remove the blockage, the freedom is overwhelming.

Who is the woman she’s becoming

My truest, authentic, freer self. I mean, the freedom I feel, it’s interesting to be me. I think this is the calling. I’m not going to say higher calling, because I don’t think there’s any higher calling than coaching. The craft of coaching and psychology and brain health, I think I’m just entering into a new part of this coaching. And more people, more complicated, because not just all athletes.

How has she gotten to a sense of freedom?

I think coming to the true self takes time. It takes experience and it takes dealing with your greatest fears. And it was sort of forced onto me. I was in a mental hospital trying to fight my way out. It was out of a movie and it was surreal. And we all have our stories, and they are not the same, but the elements coming from them often are. And everyone seems to understand fear. Everyone’s got an idea, that anxiety, that bubbling up inside of you. And I think that once you get to a space of truly addressing it … I think I’ve lived in fear a long time in my life. Fear of people finding out, fear of not being able to work, fear of losing a job, fear of being discriminated against, fear of people not understanding me, all of that. It takes more than one. You’re not alone, you have to trust people. I eventually did, a therapist, a doctor. But then you have to do the things that are right for you, exercise. I don’t care if you’re an athlete or not, exercise, eat well, sleep, all the basics that we talk about. But I think that you have to, at some point, trust. And when you trust, it’s a small circle and you’ve got to be able to share who you are authentically, that’s going to save you until you can really get grounded. The human connection, as we all know, has been incredible, and it’s been lacking so much and there’s so much depression right now. Suicides are up. It’s a tough space that we’re in. When you’re fearful, you run from human connection because God forbid somebody could see inside of you and see that fear.

Her mantra “choice, not chance about” 

Choose to become a champion in life. It’s a mantra, it’s what I started with as a 26-year-old head coach. I believe that you are the product of your little choices. I believe that if you feel your life is the chance, then you feel that there’s no control. And if there’s no control, then you can’t better yourself and your situation may dictate exactly who you are. So regardless of where you come from, your background, your trauma, your history, your socioeconomic class, making choices matters. And I even talk about making the bed and kind of feed off of what it’s like when you make your bed one day and when you don’t make your bed, focusing all the way through to the critical choices, who you choose to be with, associate with, education that you pursue. I think choice is just a very powerful word. It brings a sense of enthusiasm to life that, “I can make choices and I can make a difference in my life.” And I just love teaching that to kids at summer camp or wherever, the youngest kid to the oldest.

What’s something she would change looking back?

I would compliment myself more. I would tell myself that, not in a braggadocios or cocky way, but that, “Joanne you’re pretty good. You’re doing well.” Giving yourself positive self-talk, that was never a part of my life. I was always, “What am I not doing? And yes, how can I be better?” but more from coming from a critical space. So I’d tell myself to slow down, enjoy the process. I wish I had more of an I test in my life. I was very outcome-driven and rejection was very difficult for me to handle. That would bring that anxiety within me, to be rejected, to not be selected for a USA team. Rather than understand the process of what that was sharing with me, I’d tell myself to enjoy the process more. And to pass my own I test that I developed much later in life.

Why do other people’s opinions matter so much?

I think we’re taught that way, and also that we just want to be accepted and we want to feel that what we do is valuable. And unfortunately, we’re kind of taught from the outside in, instead of from the inside out, so it’s hard to get that peaceful feeling of what you’re trying to accomplish. I think we’re caught up in what I might call beauty pageants, fan mentality. It’s what other people think of you. This whole thing on social media, what other people think of you and what you’re trying to present as what they should think of you instead of your authentic self. And I just think that’s, unfortunately, that’s maybe human nature a little bit too. We want to be connected, we want to be valued, and so we seek it. Many times to a point of hurting ourselves, hurting others and not being in a great space.

How does she think about mastery?

Following your passions with intensity, immediacy and intelligence, while taking applicable risks that allow for personal, professional, spiritual betterment, while thriving daily… that would be my masterpiece of mastery.

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