Origin Stories: China McCarney on Mental Health & Athlete Transitions

An Interview with Mikaela Brewer

The Huddle
Published in
23 min readApr 20, 2022


Image Description: Dark green background with light green words which read, “Origin Stories”

“And then I walked out with the most oxygen [I’ve ever had], with a breath of, “Oh my God. This weight is off of me, because I just told somebody everything I’ve been hiding.”

The athlete ecosystem is one of the most vibrant, inspiring, and soulful communities. It is also submerged in an expectation that these things can only be maintained by a standard of mental toughness that deeply embeds mental health stigma. At Timeout, we’re deconstructing this barrier by painting the full picture — bringing you the humans beneath athletes, coaches, care providers, and anyone else immersed in this world. We’re exploring mental health research in a fresh and approachable way — by welcoming our entire community into the conversation and asking questions that will prompt change. Let’s redefine mental toughness together.

In this interview series called “Origin Stories,” we are talking with individuals living in the athlete ecosystem about their journey as a human, and the mental health challenges that come with it.

This month, we had the pleasure of interviewing China McCarney, who started the foundation Athletes Against Anxiety and Depression because he deals with Anxiety on a daily basis and felt the need and desire to “Be The Change” instead of waiting for a change. China resisted and fought his anxiety disorder for 5 years before he finally decided to attack it head-on. He discovered that the second he embraced Anxiety as just being a part of who he was, just like all of his other attributes, it no longer had the severe crippling effect that it had in the past. As he began to study Anxiety and Depression he realized what a stigma the mental health issues had. That stigma is a huge part of the problem. People feel they have to be embarrassed because they are dealing with one or more of these issues and they hide and hold on to it as tightly as they possibly can.

Read more about China here, and explore a resource from AAAD here!

Share this interview on social media with the hashtag #Timeout4Transition

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

The Transition Story

MB: So tell me a bit about your transition story. And maybe your final year competing, and then what that evolved into in terms of creating AAADF and everything else that you’ve done and been through thus far.

CM: Yeah, I think the transition story for athletes is, you know, as interesting or as entertaining as the part everybody loves, which is the competing story. But I think when you compete at anything for a long period of time, that becomes your identity. You judge yourself based on statistics, success, wins, and losses, when it really has nothing to do with who you are as a human — as a person. And my transition story — the decision to retire — became easy because [during] my last professional season in 2012, I was in independent professional baseball with the juggernaut Washington Wild Things in a tiny little town in Pennsylvania, but my nerve in my right arm (I was a pitcher, and everybody knows about Tommy John with the ulnar ligament), my nerves shut down. So the right side of my hand stops working. So that was a very easy decision. I got surgery, and I still thought I was going to come back. But when I was doing rehab and everything, I just didn’t mentally have it to continue to compete. And so that’s my transition story — really, the reason I retired was because of an injury in 2012. And yeah, it wasn’t difficult early on, but it’s become more and more difficult if that makes sense. I’m 35 years old, that was 10 years ago. But there [are] still days, currently, where there’s an identity crisis with like, “Where can I find that adrenaline rush again, where I grabbed a little white ball and try to rip a guy’s head off?” you know, because no matter what the business negotiations are (I have two jobs, two careers. I have Jaeger Sports, and then Athletes Against Anxiety and Depression, and they’re incredible), they’re challenging, but not as challenging as bases loaded, two outs, and having to get a guy out. I think even to this day, 10 years later, there are days where the transition is still prevalent in my mind, where it’s something I still need to address, work on, and educate myself on so I can help others with that process as well.

MB: Yeah, for sure. Thank you for sharing. And I can imagine an injury or a career-ending injury just being very abrupt and tricky. Because it’s like there’s a firm ending versus “Okay, could I keep going?” So, yeah, thank you for sharing.

CM: Yeah, yeah, I think like anybody’s end of their athletic story, I could have gone back and played. It would have taken, you know, a little bit of rehab and different things. But I guess the cool part about the ending to mine is I’ve never had a questionable thought about that. Like, “should I have gone back?” I had a pretty finite ending. Mentally that was the bummer for my story — I was mentally kind of over baseball, competing-wise. And then I got a call from a dear friend at the time, who was getting a coaching job, and [asked], “You want to give it one last run?” And I was like, “Yeah,” and then, of course, you know, I train. I was physically as ready as I’ve ever been for anything. And then my just nerve shuts down, which, depending on what you believe — spiritually, universe wise, whatever — I just took it as a sign [that it was] mentally time to go. I remember the trainer doing one test with my hands in the training room and telling me, “You’re done” and it was spring training — I hadn’t even competed in the game yet. And I just went and hid from the guys because, you know, we could talk about that with mental health as well — the fear of being judged. I went and hid behind the shed and just lost it. I cried and bawled my eyes out, because I think I knew at that point, “Oh, it’s over. My identity. Who am I without this sport? What am I going to do at 25 years old now?”

Making the Mindset Shift

MB: Yeah. How did you make that shift? Because it’s a different mindset going into a career path and building AAAD and all these other things. But you also bring a lot of those transferable skills, I think, as an athlete, too. So how did that kind of shift for you?

CM: Yeah, I think as athletes, we’re blessed [with having] to learn resilience. We have to learn how to make adjustments. And that’s why I just am such a firm believer in, you know, even if it’s a little league, I think everybody should be exposed to sports because you just learn how to work with people, you learn a lot about yourself and how you interact with others, and how you interact with yourself when adversity hits. And yeah, I haven’t thought a lot about right after that time, because I got the surgery with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians doctors, so it was away from home. I’m from SoCal. And my dad flew out after the surgery because I had my car there. We drove from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, so like a three-day road trip, which was actually a cool memory. And there was a lot of reflecting with my dad and I just talking about what’s next, driving 13 hours a day. And then the decision to retire was my own. At the time, let’s just say it wasn’t very well received by my support group. Because as much as I identified with baseball, and being a baseball player myself, that’s what everybody else viewed me as too. So when it was like, kind of out of nowhere, people expect me to rehab and come back.

I think I wrote a letter and just posted it on social media announcing it, you know, my own little Players Tribune back in the day before it existed. But yeah, I remember my pitching coach and my dad like, “What are you doing? You can’t walk away now you were so ready!” And so I think the process was owning the conviction I had in my stomach to make a decision I knew wasn’t going to make others happy but knowing [that], “You’ve got to do what’s best for yourself, and you can’t keep playing a game that you’re not loving every second of it, because to be the best at anything, there’s got to be some level of passion.” And I think it went from fear of judgment to the conviction in my gut [being] more than enough to handle whatever judgment was coming my way.

And then, I’ve always loved business. I’ve always loved Jaeger Sports, which is a company I’ve been with for 23 years now — I went to a camp when I was 12. And then, I’ve always loved helping people. And I didn’t know at that moment, that three years later, my mental health would get so bad that I would have to get help, [which] then kind of brought me into this position of, “I need to start something to help other athletes help other people” kind of deal. So I know these are long-winded answers, but it’s like processing it in the moment, 13 years later, and kind of looking at, “What was I thinking? What was I going through?” In this transition that we’re talking about from an athlete to, “Who the hell am I?” That’s kind of where my thought process went after 2012. And I mean, I’m a decade in and it’s still “Gotta get to work every day.”

MB: Yeah, gosh, it’s so interesting too, how your relationship with the sport changes. You don’t necessarily like love it any less, but your relationship definitely adjusts. And you think about it a different way. And it, you know, it carries through in different ways in your life, whether it’s part of what your job is or still something you do recreationally. And then that can make it tricky too for mental health — symptoms and struggles will show up at different times, not necessarily just when you retire.

CM: I think one of the hardest things to deal with as a human being is breaking up with someone, right? And the pain that that brings when you see something that reminds you of, you know, her or him or them. But that hurts when something reminds you of them. And when you identify and you have a relationship and you spend so much time with a sport, I think a lot of those same emotions come up. Like when you see somebody competing, and you’re like, “Damn,” almost like you’re seeing an ex on TV. And it’s right in your face: you used to have an intimate relationship with that sport and that situation. And so you deal with it, in one of the five stages of grief, probably. And I’m still kind of in the animosity stage where I don’t watch it as much. And I have zero desire to get out on a men’s league team or something like that. But yeah, it is interesting to go through those stages.

And I imagine it depends on how your career ends and different things. The man on the other side of this wall, the CEO of Jaeger Sports, made it to the big leagues. And there’s just a calmness about him, you know, because, when you accomplish everything you wanted to, you don’t have whatever that thing is in your stomach — that little twinge. But I think at the end of the day, what it comes down to — and what I try to teach athletes now — is you’ve got to define who you are, away from this sport, even while you’re playing. Because number one, it can give you tremendous perspective, when things don’t go well on the field or court — whatever it is — to realize it’s not the be-all-end-all.

When somebody’s telling you to do negative things on social media because you missed a shot or you gave up a home run or something, that’s irrelevant. That’s a result in an athletic game, and that doesn’t have anything to do with my morals and values of who I am as a person. And I did not have that at all. I wasn’t taught that. As a kid, sports were everything. And if I did well, I was relieved. And if I did bad, I was a worthless POS for the next seven days until I got another chance. And when you leave the game, your identity goes into a mode of confusion. And then, hopefully, as I said, athletes can compartmentalize and get to the next goal. And what my goal became was, “Alright, we need to define and figure out what’s going on inside with my heart, my brain, and who I want to be. And what do I want to do now in this next chapter?”

MB: Yeah, for sure. You’re a human who experiences — you experience it like grief, you’re right. And you’re a human who plays sports. You’re a human first, and I think that gets lost a lot. Because we so identify with our performance, how well we can perform, and how well we can give to the sport. We forget to give to ourselves sometimes.

The Best Part About Retirement

MB: So I want to shift a little bit, to some more specific questions that will hopefully really help our listeners. What was the best part about navigating retirement?

CM: I think the best part was, that I was forced, in my personal situation, to get to know myself. If I [was] only allowed to give one answer that would be it. I was put into a position where there was no safety net of baseball and there was no safety net of year-round structure (even when it’s the offseason, your days are full, you know exactly what your training is, you don’t have to design anything). So there was a lot more stillness and a lot more free time. And I got to hang out with myself and listen to what [was] going on in my brain. [I felt] “No, I don’t want to do this!” So yeah, I would say that would be the best thing, and honestly, one of the hardest things too.

And then I’ve always loved business so much — getting into the business world and figuring out how to be a different type of competitor, using the skills that I learned in sports, applying [them] to business, and really starting to get obsessed with that process. Just using tools that you’ve used with teammates or being in team settings in the business world (in the real world) was probably the best part. There’s a lot of stuff that worked on the baseball field or in the locker room that can work here as well in the business world. But I can’t throw a baseball at anybody’s back when they piss me off, you know, so that was one thing I had to adjust to, haha.

MB: Goodness. Yeah, that super-competitive [edge] — there are very few places to get that out. That’s tricky for sure. Going off of that, what was the most difficult part about the transition? And again, I want to highlight that the transition is ongoing. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be right when things stopped, but it could be now, five years ago, or [whenever].

The Hardest Part About Retirement

CM: I think initially, the hardest part was that in a way you lose your family. Because you can stay in touch with your teammates, but when it’s required every day to get in the locker room together to work out, you have 35 friends built-in. You may not get along with every single one of them, but they’re your brothers or your sisters — you’re fighting with them. So yeah, isolation was weird. And free time can be very positive if you’re disciplined, but at the same time, it’s like, well, “[How] do I have to take care of myself?” I would [also] say, purpose — [I questioned], “What’s my purpose now?” even though I was in business.

And then for me, because I had this mental health struggle that I was hiding from everybody, that was my biggest issue: baseball was an amazing distraction. Because I cannot think about my panic attacks, my depression, or my anxiety when I’m implementing a scouting report in a game, trying to strike people out, trying to win, standings, partying with your 35 people, self-medicating with alcohol or whatever it may be. So I think the truth comes at you when it’s over. Because your distractions are gone. That tight-knit support group is gone. And it’s really more on you to figure out what makes you tick. What are your real problems mentally? For me, where was all this coming from? I didn’t deal with [the fact that] my mom was in jail twice before I was 12. And I didn’t have attunement from the nature/nurture side from a female. So no emotions, which was good for sports — don’t show emotions — but in the real world, that’s not fun. No fulfillment, no sadness, no joy, no anger. The tough part would be the realness of life that was like, “Yeah, I’ve been waiting for you. Welcome. You know, you’ve been playing baseball until 25.” But real life hits everybody at a certain point.

That’s the lesson I would give to anybody reading or listening: the quicker you can get to work on yourself, the easier the transition will be. Or talk to people [who] have gone through the transition and [ask them] what the struggles were so you can be more prepared. Because I think as athletes, that’s all we want. We want information and education so that we can prepare to execute a certain task because that’s how we operate our whole lives. I wasn’t prepared. And I’d say, those first two years — 25 to 27 — I was rehabbing my arm, I was getting into the business world. So there was still a little bit of distraction. In 2015, I had a panic attack where I couldn’t get out of my car. That’s when I realized I needed real help, which gave birth to AAAD. But even now, at 35, the one thing that keeps coming up is that I’ve got a baseline of mental health — a baseline of, you know, all my needs met in terms of business — so where do I find that competition adrenaline that I lived for? And I don’t know the answer for anybody out there. I love golf and I’m starting a golf league next Thursday. But it’s like, my own mental blocks that get in the way with that are like, “This is a joke compared to the level of competition I’ve competed at before.” You know, it’s people on a Thursday night that just want something to do and I want to go out there and kill every single one of them and beat them by 100. So finding that that competitive void, maybe isn’t out there, I don’t know.

Seeking Help for the First Time

MB: Yeah. I mean, you covered it so well — you can’t find that outlet anywhere else. And then you judge yourself when you know you’re not working out three times a day. And it just feels weird. For sure, I can relate to that. And you touched on this a little bit — your own mental health journey and coming to that point where you realized you needed help. I’m curious how you got to that point where you were willing to do it because I think as an athlete, we’re taught, “Oh, no, that gets buried down and nobody sees it” and you just distract as much as you can. So how did you, I guess, not find other distractions to fill that spot, and come to a place where you were willing to seek help and work on yourself?

CM: Yeah. I pride myself on being pretty honest, on all this stuff. I don’t think you can help people unless you’re completely honest. But the way that this is articulating in my brain might be the most honest I’ve ever been.

I had my first panic attack in 2009, which was my junior year of college right before professional athletics started. I didn’t tell anybody, except for my dad. I hid it from everyone. And from the outside, people thought everything was going well. [It was] what you hear all the time — there’s this two-phase component of it.

In 2015 I had a panic attack that I couldn’t really get through. So that’s six years of struggling in silence, not telling anybody, just white-knuckling it. But the reason I got to a point where I had to get help (in plain layman’s terms and especially with everything that’s been going on lately) was that I was going to die. Straight up, if I wasn’t going to kill myself, I was going to die from alcohol abuse, because that was the only way I could turn my brain off during the worst of the panic attacks. When I had the panic attack, in 2015, I had ordered food on an app, and I couldn’t get out of my car to go get it. My panic was so intense, that I felt like I was gonna pass out, throw up, die, or have a heart attack. And I just broke down crying.

Because I had been open with him a little bit throughout the process [my dad] had sent me therapist’s numbers, and I was just too prideful — that athlete competitor, [thinking], “I don’t need help, I’m doing this alone.” But at that moment, I was so uncomfortable in my own skin that it was like, “What are your options here?” And I don’t think people share enough of what really goes on inside the head, because it’s embarrassing — it’s scary to admit, but [the voice] was like, “Kill yourself. Drink like crazy. Or get help and try to just see.” And for me, it was a very easy answer because [out of] these two, the first two end in destruction, and this one gives me a chance, right? And if you tell an athlete they’ve got a chance, let’s F-ing go, let’s get to work.

So I scheduled my first therapy appointment, and I had a panic attack going into the therapy. I was so nervous, [thinking,] “I don’t want to share. I don’t want to open up. Leave me alone.” And then I walked out with the most oxygen [I’ve ever had] with a breath of, “Oh my God. This weight is off of me, because I just told somebody everything I’ve been hiding.” It was like the best secret I’ve ever held.

What got me to reach out and got me to that point was rock bottom — fear of dying and fear of destruction. And then what came from that process of getting help was [not] wanting anybody to struggle in silence anymore. If somebody would have told me in 2009 what I learned in 2015 in therapy — just being honest and feeling that feeling — it would have saved me six years of turmoil, struggle, and a terrible time. My goal now is to give people that choice before it gets to rock bottom, and that very scary place.

Mental Health Hygiene

MB: Thank you, first and foremost, for sharing. I know that’s not easy to talk about. So thank you. And I just resonate with that so much. I think one of the most common misconceptions is that caring for mental health is reserved for moments of crisis. And that’s so not true. Somebody gave me a really good analogy — it’s like brushing your teeth. It’s a hygiene thing. And going to therapy is along those lines too.

CM: That just encapsulates the whole goal of this thing. I don’t want to share my story and I didn’t want to start a foundation per se. It just became this competition, like this responsibility as an athlete [to] change the narrative so that there isn’t this prolonged fear of sharing and not going through it.

One of the analogies I use as well is if you’re playing basketball, and you sprained your ankle, your coach is not going to judge you for spraining your ankle, they’re going to say, “Hey, we’ve got to get ice, elevation, it’s probably two weeks, and then we’re going to get you back exactly where you need to be to perform for the team and feel good about everything.” If I’m having anxiety, depression, or a panic attack, can we just look at that as a mental sprained ankle? Can we say, [Hey, China, you need therapy, you need this resource, two weeks, let’s communicate, and then you’re going to be back and preparing]? Then that fear and stigma hold so much less value. Because if you’re an athlete and you’ve had injuries, and somebody judged you for having a sprained ankle, imagine how hard that would be to hide. It would hurt every time you walked. And that’s mental health. If you’re dealing with an injury, and you’re hiding it, that is so hard because you’re holding who you truly are away from the world while living a certain way. There’s so much more energy you have to use to keep up that act. I loved what you said there — caring for mental health does not only have to be in times of crisis, it’s what you are doing on a daily basis. If we’re so obsessed as athletes with our routine and taking care of ourselves, adding 5–10 minutes per day of stillness, meditation, reflection, whatever it may be, can just go a long way and save a lot of lives.

MB: Absolutely, yeah. And I like something else you touched on too — carrying things around. And I mean, as athletes, we put our team on our back, we put everything on our back, and we carry so much. And when you realize that just as an injury isn’t necessarily your fault, and your mental health isn’t necessarily your fault [either], you realize that it’s okay for somebody else to carry that for a little bit, whether that’s a therapist or a friend or family member. It’s okay to give it to someone else to carry for a little bit. That’s the most relieving thing.

CM: Yeah, that would be the ideal culture to play in — it doesn’t necessarily have to be public, right? If your brothers and sisters to your right and left just know what you’re going through — that you’re fighting and that you’re trying — that’s the whole thing in sports. If you make a physical mistake, that’s okay. If you’re going through something mental health wise, but you’re trying to get better, there’s way more respect, and I feel like that would cultivate openness inside of [our] culture. Through the pandemic, starting [in the] middle of 2020, I’ve done a lot of Zoom speeches to teams, trying to help coaches create a culture of daily mental practice. And then my last thing — it’s always a three-step plan — which is to prioritize mental health, daily practice, and be a human being. Don’t forget to be a human being. Remember what you were like as a player. Mental cavities are way worse than teeth cavities.

Improving Transitions System-Wide

MB: Yes, they are! My very last question is, what would you like to see improved about various transition experiences that athletes go through, whether that’s going into college for the first time or retiring? Really touch on the system as a whole and how we treat transitions.

CM: Whew, that’s a good one. That’s a great question. The word that always comes to mind with anything on this subject is education, right? I think the unknown is always the most terrifying. And when you’re going from high school to college, [thinking about that] changed my physiology right now. Thinking about being a freshman and that judgment from the seniors and the hazing — part of it is absolutely ridiculous. But I think if there was more education early on — especially from players to players — and if we’re talking about a perfect system across the board, it’s sophomores, juniors, and seniors, sharing with freshmen: here are the challenges that I went through. Instead of this badge of honor that’s like, “Yeah, I went through that and now you have to suffer through it too.”

Then, really, it’s education from leadership. I have a thing where leadership to me has the number one responsibility on this planet. And leadership can be in our own homes. Leadership can definitely be coaches, teachers, bosses, and presidents and if bad leadership occurs, then yeah, it’s detrimental on so many levels, but in terms of mental health, [it’s critical].

If I would have gone to my coach in college and said, “Coach, I’m having panic attacks,” his face would have turned red. He would have screamed at me, spit all over me and put his shoe so far up somewhere, it would have been terrible.

Education from the leadership on not just mental health, but the transition like, “Hey, freshmen, here’s how the schedule is going to be dictated, here are some challenges we’ve seen in the past with these other student-athletes, and here’s who you can go to for help.” Designate a couple of captains who actually have a heart and don’t want to judge the underclassmen.

And then transition from college to professional or professional to retirement — I think that is more of an emphasis during the athlete’s career on self-discovery and the human aspect. We have study halls, we have all this time allocated to practice hours, so can we take 10% or 15% and start to implement mental health education, self-discovery, health education, so that when a career is over, all of a sudden, we’re not like, “Well, who the hell am I and what just happened to this thing I identified with?” That’s what happened to me.

And when you add a mental health struggle on top of it with nowhere else to turn other than self-medication for a couple of years, it was just this isolating feeling of, “There’s no point anymore, there’s no purpose anymore, what am I doing?”

A lot of people stay around the game for that reason, right? You get out of playing and you’re like, “Well, I gotta coach because I gotta be in the locker room every day.” Whether it’s implemented by the program, or by outside services like Timeout or AAAD, [we have to] educate the athletes [so that they can] educate themselves on who they are, what drives them, morals, values, causes they want to be a part of when they lose their team that they compete with. Whether it’s religion or a social cause, the community is so important. And if you know what drives you and what you want to be around when your athletic playing career ends, you can latch onto that and have a strong foundation in yourself to know what you want [and how] to use that insane competitive energy that we have from athletics in the next portion of your life. And yeah, it’s like anything else — the more educated you are before that transition, the more equipped you’re going to be with the tools to give you the best opportunity for success.

My last piece of advice would be: I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’m 35 And that’s the whole point of this — give yourself some compassion, grace and forgiveness. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to have it figured out.

Overall mental health is like a recipe, right? And when you cook something for the first time, your recipe is not perfect, right? You’ve got to figure out which ingredients work for that recipe and the same for your mental health and for a fulfilled life. Try as many ingredients as possible. Keep the ones that work and let the ones out that don’t. Your recipe will get better and better every day. Forgive yourself if you make mistakes. I should listen to that myself. I should listen to that every day. Life’s not perfect. The transition won’t be perfect. And if you can embrace the journey and compete one day at a time that’ll give you the best position for success.

MB: Yeah, amazing. That recipe is a part of the foundation that you’re talking about, and it’s maybe even one of the most crucial pieces. Your sport isn’t, necessarily, which is so hard to wrap your head around. It’s something that happens because of your foundation. And that’s a really scary place to get to. I love everything you said and I agree completely.

CM: I wish I would have heard this 15 years ago, but you’ll be a better athlete the more you get to know yourself. Because if athletics is the be-all-end-all, and that’s all you care about, then you’re setting yourself up for the most pressure, adrenalin, and bodily tightness that you can have during competition. And with what we know about flow and optimal performance — it’s the opposite of that. It’s trusting all your preparation. So if you trust yourself as a person and you trust that the result does not make you a good, bad, or worthless, then you’re going to put yourself in a way better position to succeed at your sport because your physical talent and preparation will take over.

Coaches out there — the more your players know themselves and know what makes them tick, the better they’ll perform. And I know you want to win, so invest in their mental health and their relationship with themselves.

MB: Awesome. Well, this is amazing. And is going to help so many athletes, coaches, and parents too. I was thinking about parents while we were talking, you know, just trying to help their kids navigate this even when they don’t necessarily understand it and play sports themselves. Thank you so much for your story your insight and wisdom and everything else that you’re doing for mental health and for athletes. It is so appreciated.

CM: Well, thank you, because this is the post-competition competition — the mental health stuff. So I love talking about it, especially with former athletes who can kind of relate to what I’ve gone through, along similar paths.



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