This story is part of the Top of the Game series, where CNBC Make It explores the habits, routines, and mindsets that are used by top athletes to achieve excellence and success.
Unlike some rookie NBA players, former WNBA star Marissa Coleman didn’t break her rookie contract when she signed the 2009 Washington Mystics as No. 2 on the draft pick.
That’s because she made around $ 60,000 a year. “We don’t do the hundreds of millions like our male colleagues,” Coleman, 34, told CNBC Make It.
Instead, Coleman, who won a national college championship at the University of Maryland in 2006 and retired from the WNBA in 2018, says she learned early on to be financially savvy. That meant finding additional sources of income – which, like most WNBA players, consisted of going overseas during their off-season to make a lot of their money.
Coleman says most players can make six-figure amounts by playing in countries like Italy or Spain for around eight months each year. “Big names in our sport can go over there and make between $ 900,000 and $ 1.5 million,” she adds.
She also relied on unconventional investments. In 2016, for example, Coleman and his WNBA colleague Alana Beard invested in a mellow mushroom pizza franchise in Roanoke, Virginia. “I knew I wasn’t going to make $ 100 million, so I figured out ways to line up during the game,” says Coleman.
But the pressure of living a financially comfortable life as a WNBA player has been challenging. Coleman struggled abroad with loneliness for years. Her ingrained pre-game rituals threatened to derail her focus and competitive mentality.
Finally she found her balance. Now, she says, she’s helping other female athletes prepare for post-career success. In September, Coleman said she was getting into a sports betting company Gaming society – founded by Basketball Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett – as vice president of business development and directs the Bet on Women program.
Here Coleman talks about her lonely years playing overseas, her tireless work ethic, and how giving up the rituals eventually helped her cope with her competitive mentality.
When I was 11 years old, I wrote a letter to my father and put it on his pillow before going to school. In the letter I told him that I wanted to be the best basketball player in the world.
When I got home from school that day [my dad] had the letter on the counter. Pointing to it, he said, “Marissa, what does this mean? Do you know what sacrifices you have to make if you are to achieve these lofty goals?”
He said it involved a lot of sacrifice, hard work, sweat and tears. It was a crucial moment: It really put everything on the line for me and put things in perspective.
And I never looked back. From that day on, I was outside shooting in the back yard before and after school [baskets].
My early years were very tough because I am a couch potato. I like to be at home. I like being in my village.
[Playing overseas] was a big change because you are isolated. You go to these foreign countries and do not speak the language. You are alone. Maybe you don’t even have another American on your team. You are being thrown into this new world and you have to adapt and find out.
In the first few years I only did my job. I went to practice and came back home. I would Skype with my family and friends, then go to practice and do it all over again. I can be shy I am not very sociable. I think I’m an introverted extrovert, I don’t know.
As I got older, I understood the opportunity better. I started making friends on the team. As soon as I trust you and you are in my circle, I am a completely different person. I started stepping out of my comfort zone – talking to more people, immersing myself in the cultures, and learning as much as possible. It’s a skill and it’s a skill I’m still working on.
The experience abroad has changed for me. I’ve started to make the most of it.
I was really superstitious in high school and college.
I had to listen to the same songs in the same order before a game. I also put on my left shoe first and then my right shoe – I actually still do that today out of habit. I didn’t want anyone in my family to ever wear one of my shirts to the game because the one time that happened we lost a big game. So it was forbidden.
But when I got to the professional level, I realized that if I continued like this, it would be worse than anything. If one thing messes up this routine, it messes everything up.
On a professional level, it’s more mental than anything. Everyone is talented in the WNBA. What distinguishes the good from the great is [their] Mentality.
One of my best friends, [ex-WNBA player] Alana Beard got this advice from her college coach at Duke University: Sometimes you can want something so badly that you have it so tight that it ends up slipping through the cracks.
After she gave me this advice, it clicked. I stopped worrying about my pregame routine. I just got my damn nap, ate my pre-game meal, and went to the game. It helped me focus because I wasn’t putting all of that outside pressure on myself.
I was able to get into the game and trust my training – trust that I did the hard work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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