Right out of the gate with Maine’s Black Bears, she became the school’s all-time winningest women’s basketball coach. Her record there includes six straight NCAA Tournament appearances out of eight seasons, and she was heralded as Conference Coach of the Year three times.
In seven years at Michigan State University, which is in the heavy-hitting Big Ten Conference, her Spartans played for the NCAA national title in 2005 and battled into the Sweet Sixteen round the following year. And during her tenure at Duke University, the Blue Devils’ overall record was 141 wins to 32 losses—with a 60–12 record in Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) games. She was named ACC Coach of the Year in 2010 and 2012.
McCallie stepped down as head coach at Duke in July 2020 after 13 seasons, though she’s quick to point out that she hasn’t retired. If the right offer comes along, she explains by phone from her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, “I would consider coaching.”
For the past year, however, she’s been focused on a long-term project involving a different kind of leadership.
McCallie, 55, was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder at age 30. Now she’s promoting mental wellness with the same zeal for service she channeled into upholding women’s athletics and advocating for “sun-safe” behavior after a frightening bout with skin cancer a few years ago.
“I’m moving to coaching brain health, changing who I’m coaching. And it’s not just bipolar—anyone related to a mental health impairment. It’s all the same umbrella to me,” she says. “Remember, I’ve been exposed to anxiety, bulimia, lots of mental health issues as a coach.”
She’s passionate about wanting to guide people—not just athletes or students—through their individual mental health challenges. However, that’s just one piece of her grand plan.
On a larger scale, she wants to flip the medical umbrella that “has mental health on the bottom” in terms of resources and respect. Compared to other specialists like surgeons, she says, “the psychiatrist is valued less, paid less. And the reality is they’re dealing with the brain and it’s basically chemical surgery.”
Long-term, she’s planning for a foundation that would provide material support to outreach efforts, education, research, “anything that can reach people more authentically.”
“I do have dreams with this. I would like to testify in Congress. There is no limit to what I’d like to do,” she admits.
The book combines reminiscences about her basketball career, details about her personal challenges, and explanations of what has helped her.
So, what does she have to tell us about becoming a wellness champion?
“Mentorship matters” is one of the hashtags McCallie created as part of her overall campaign to make life better for people with mental health issues. She learned the power of encouragement early on, as a 5’6”-tall sixth-grader playing on her first intramural basketball team.
“I had wonderful mentors who encouraged me to play,” she recalls. “I remember a coach saying to me, ‘You could be really good,’ and that statement was so inspiring.”
She’s had others she counts as guides and cheerleaders along the way. When she was a high school player being recruited by colleges, her mother pushed her to aim high and to pick a Big Ten school. She’s gotten career help from college athletic directors and older coaches, but also a sports psychologist at Michigan State who helped her grow both as a coach and a person.
When she embraced religion after a serious recurrence of her cancer, there were close friends and the team chaplain at Duke who had gently prepared the way.
When it comes to mental health, having trusted practitioners to turn to ranks high on McCallie’s list of what to do to stay well—“being able to contact your therapist if you’re not sleeping, being able to have support.”
After her own diagnosis in 1995, an overriding desire to maintain her privacy kept her away from peer support. She and those close to her worried about how her chance at future jobs would be affected if word got out about her bipolar. And in the competitive scrum of recruiting top players, her diagnosis could become a way to throw doubt on her program—“like, ‘That’s a ‘crazy’ coach over there,” she explains.
“You’re expected to be pretty perfect at my level,” she adds.
The upshot: “My only [mental wellness] mentors were my psychiatrist and my therapist. I didn’t know or deal with anybody else with bipolar,” she recalls.
McCallie wants to be that someone else. She envisions a podcast where individuals could call in anonymously for help—“direct verbal support, coaching support.” In fact, she created the hashtag #coachp4life in anticipation.
“My dream is to be able to use my coaching expertise,” she says. “There’s a craft of coaching that can have people take their meds. I’ve already had the experience of that. I’ve had people reach [out to] me … ‘I was diagnosed a year and a half ago, I’m a former athlete, can I talk to you about this?’
“I’m not a psychiatrist, I’m not a psychologist. But people listen to coaches,” she asserts from years of working with young women.
Choice Not Chance
When McCallie started at the University of Maine in 1992, she needed to develop a coaching philosophy that could guide and motivate her players. What she came up with was this: “Choice, not chance, determines destiny. Choose to become a champion in life.” Or for short, Choice Not Chance.
“Everything kept coming back to choices, because that gives you power,” she recalls thinking. “I wanted young women to understand they were a product of their little choices—not just big decisions, but the little choices they made every day.”
For example, “You can’t stay up until four in the morning and expect to play well the next day.”
“Choice not chance” also articulates the exact foundation needed to approach living with a chronic illness: Small decisions, day after day, to put wellness first. In theory, McCallie should have had a leg up when it came to taking charge of her own bipolar. Like many others, however, she wasn’t prepared to accept her diagnosis at first.
Some background: Then-single Joanne Palombo was working as an assistant coach for the University of Auburn women’s basketball team—hence the moniker “Coach P.”—while getting her MBA. That’s where she met her future husband, John D. McCallie, who was studying for his PhD in economics on his way to becoming a college professor.
The couple married in 1991 and moved to Bangor for her coaching job. They welcomed their first child, a daughter, in 1994. (Their son followed in 2002.)
With a newborn at home, McCallie now faced a struggle to balance the unpredictable demands and disrupted sleep of new motherhood with her drive to maintain her team’s success. The following year, she had her first manic episode and landed in the hospital.
In the early days of her elevated mood, McCallie indignantly dismissed the concerns of those closest to her who could see she was acting out of character. She simply reveled in how productive and happy she was feeling, how much she could get done while sleeping just a few hours a night. As the episode worsened, she failed to recognize her simmering anxiety and delusional thinking.
As she explained to Robin Roberts on Good Morning America, “Mostly it was the people around me that knew something was not right. I was in denial. I felt great.… Quite frankly, I thought I could do no wrong.”
Get Back to Basics
McCallie’s husband was the major mover in getting her help. She says he’s been “a very, very strong partner” both in supporting her coaching career and coping with her bipolar. As she tells it, he applied academic rigor to this new development in their married life.
“He brought a very scientific approach to [neurological] chemicals and the brain.… He was always kind of like, ‘We have to watch this and solve this together,’” she says.
McCallie fully committed to managing her brain health only after a bipolar depression that started in February 1998 with anxiety and negative thoughts. The scariest depressive symptom she faced, however, was the immobilization that made it hard to get out of bed or even read the newspaper.
Looking back, she links the mood shift to going off the meds she’d been prescribed after her hospitalization. With her mind running fine and her team doing well, “I did what many people do,” admits McCallie. “I thought I was all better.… I felt, ‘I don’t need these meds anymore, I’m good.’”
McCallie hadn’t been comfortable with the idea that her athlete’s body had betrayed her, that she needed to depend on medication to be OK. After that unsettling wake-up call, she solidified her meds regimen and strengthened her self-care routines. An avid golfer and tennis player, she schedules some form of exercise into almost every day.
She names “being cognizant of your sleep” as another critical element in maintaining wellness. For her, that meant going to bed at 9:30 p.m. and getting up at 5 a.m. It meant doubling down on sleep hygiene if she’d had a bad night.
“I made choices,” she explains. “I didn’t go out with friends. I didn’t socialize like others. I didn’t self-medicate through alcohol.… I got myself ready to care for my family and to coach, every day.”
She says her ability to compartmentalize—to focus on the thing in front of her and set other concerns aside until later—contributed hugely to her ability to juggle her coaching schedule, traveling with the team, family time, and all the aspects of her self-care.
“I became very balanced. In that balance, I was able to move from responsibility to responsibility,” she says.
As much as coaching demanded from McCallie, she also calls the job “a two-way energy street,” giving her back everything she expended and more. Working with her players also gave her an all-important dose of human connection.
“Being alone is not the answer in any way,” she adds. “So often we self-isolate and that’s never good.”
Faith Over Fear
“Faith over fear” became a personal mantra for McCallie when she had to confront her mortality in 2016. She’d had a malignant melanoma removed in 2007, and nearly a decade later she braved numerous surgeries when the cancer returned.
With several years in remission behind her, she calls herself “very fortunate. I am, to date, an early-detection success story. My primary malignancy was found and I was able to get the proper care.”
Back in the midst of uncertainty, however, her situation moved McCallie to embrace Christianity. Although she was raised Catholic, relying on belief in God and the Bible as a source of strength was “foreign to me as I grew up,” she reflects. “I began to see the value of studying and seeking a higher power because life is humbling and very bad things happen.”
She now finds comfort in prayer and in setting time aside each morning to write, reflect, and prepare for the day. That’s another wellness routine she highly recommends.
“It doesn’t have to be religious if somebody’s not religious, but being able to quiet your mind with reading and thinking … we all can make time for it.”
The concept of faith over fear needn’t have religious overtones, either: “It simply can be you’ve got to believe that there’s light after incredible darkness. You’ve got to believe you can get through.”
Stories Over Stigma
“Stories Over Stigma”—also a hashtag—encapsulates McCallie’s approach to social change. This shorthand plugs into the idea that putting real-life faces to psychiatric labels will clear away fears and misconceptions.
She sees signs of hope in how the pandemic has opened people’s eyes to the importance of brain health. As she told an interviewer on WRAL-TV, Raleigh’s NBC affiliate, “I think it’s an incredible time we’re living in right now, and it’s my hope that the stories can trump stigmas … attached to mental health.”
She’s been tempted over the years to come forward as a role model, someone who could inspire by example, but professional considerations always loomed up. The tipping point came when she attended the funeral for a longtime friend’s daughter who was receiving treatment for alcohol addiction, but not depression.
“I always thought I was going to tell my story, but sitting in that service I knew I could step away from coaching and write the story. It was too much to think that her life could have been saved with proper care.”
McCallie points to three main elements in her success story: the discipline and mindset she developed as an athlete, her “net of support,” and her good fortune to be a “lithium responder.” She is among about a third of people in treatment for bipolar for whom the go-to mood stabilizer largely subdues mood shifts and symptoms.
Like many other lithium responders, however, McCallie reached a point where she had to find a different solution for the sake of her kidneys. She took off a month during the 2018 summer hiatus to weather adjusting to her new meds cocktail.
“I did not have a manic or depressive episode, but it definitely was extremely difficult,” she says, explaining that her mood trended “more on the down side” until she came back into equilibrium.
Perhaps this is her bias showing, but McCallie also emphasizes the need to have a team in your corner. She notes that the title of her memoir is Secret Warrior, singular, “but you read the book, [you see] there are countless warriors that are part of my story and success and health.”
While recognizing that not everyone cares to, or is in a position to, disclose their diagnosis, she hopes her book will inspire imitation.
“The stories that we have, those of us that can share, are the driving force to acceptance,” she says with conviction, adding: “Yes there are risks … [but] your story can be a help too. We’re all a team in this.”
* * * * *
Performing on the “big stage” of women’s college basketball, with her every success and failure scrutinized by sports journalists and fans. Being present for her patient husband and two kids amid team practices and travel. Trying to stay balanced with bipolar.
How did Joanne P. McCallie handle the stress?
“A hot bath. And I mean religious, a hot bath every night. I had to sit there and relax and calm my brain.”
With scented bath beads adding to the soothing atmosphere, McCallie used that end-of-day interlude for “a complete let-go of whatever feelings I had.” At times, she admits, tears were involved.
“I don’t know if we cry more in our constant need to balance our brains,” she muses. For her, crying was a way to process “what I was dealing with—‘Wow, that was a tough and challenging day.’ Then you get your sleep and you get back up and you do it all over again.”
Soaking in the tub before bed also became a vital part of her sleep hygiene, she notes, referring to a consistent routine that trains the mind and body to prepare for rest.
“It’s very important for your brain to decompress. It sounds simple, but I’ve taken a hot bath almost every night since I’ve been diagnosed, so that’s 25 years of baths.”
An Athlete’s Insight
In a way, Joanne P. McCallie says, the ups and downs of competitive sports compare to the cycling of bipolar moods: “You win, it’s manic. Then you lose.”
She’s speaking not only as a longtime coach, but also as a member of high school and college teams. She was recruited to play ball for Northwestern University’s Wildcats, who belong to the Big Ten Conference. Having the chance to compete at that level fostered self-discipline, habits of self-care, and a come-back attitude in the face of failure, she says.
“Without question, being a student-athlete was a tremendous asset” in coping with bipolar, she says. “The characteristics of compartmentalization, care, discipline, physical training, led to better brain health, although I wasn’t as aware of that at the time.”
Becoming an elite athlete also requires “the character of dealing with adversity, the pure fighter mentality,” she adds. “But I also learned acceptance, just like I had to accept I wasn’t the best player in the Big Ten, the best player on my college team.”
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