I have always used my mindset as a way to cultivate resilience. I believe that to get through tough situations you have to stay positive and have the flexibility to see things in a brighter light. Growing up I found that the easiest and fastest way to start this process was to simply smile or laugh. When I made a mistake it felt better to laugh at myself instead of being embarrassed and then to try again. When I was playing youth sports and my team was losing, it was more effective to smile at my teammates and use positive language than to sulk in defeat. Smiles are contagious and faking it till you make it is real.

Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Deja McClendon.

Deja McClendon graduated from Penn State University with a degree in Broadcast Journalism and Communications. There she was a 4x All-American volleyball player, 2x National Champion and AVCA National Freshman of the Year. She went on to play professionally for six seasons abroad in Brazil, Italy, Poland, Azerbaijan and now in Dallas, Texas with Athletes Unlimited. Today she is the Head of Player Engagement for Timeout Software Inc. where she is using technology to help reshape the culture of mental health in sports. She currently lives in Gdansk, Poland with her husband Niko.

Thank you so much for joining us, Deja! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?

Hi, yes, thank you so much for having me. I’m originally from Louisville, Ky. I went to Penn State University on a volleyball scholarship to study broadcast journalism and communications. I helped my team earn 2 National Championships, was AVCA National Freshman of the year, NCAA Championship MVP in 2010 and a 4x All American. I graduated in Dec of 2013 and instead of becoming a sportscaster as planned I started my professional volleyball career. I played for 6 seasons abroad in Brazil, Poland, Italy and Azerbaijan. After my last season was cut short and COvid shut down all sports, I transitioned into the role of Head of Player Engagement for Timeout. As life began reopening in Feb 2021, I signed my next volleyball contract to help launch Athletes Unlimited, the only professional volleyball league in the US. I will return to Dallas, Texas for a second season in March 2022. When I’m not playing volleyball I live in Gdansk, Poland with my husband, Niko.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from both your volleyball career into your career at Timeout? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I have autoimmune disease, alopecia areata, and have lived with it since I was 12 years old. My disease causes me to lose quarter-sized spots of hair due to high levels of stress. The dermatologist helped me treat the hair loss with lots of painful injections of a steroid based medicine in my scalp which would allow my hair to grow back normally. In the meantime I used my mass amount of long curly hair to hide my bald-spots and hid the shameful fact that I was a woman losing my hair. The stigma around female hair loss is tremendous and very taboo to talk about. I only ever shared the fact with my close family and best friend. I managed this throughout my entire highschool, university and professional career until 2018.

I was playing in Italy and had a normal quarter-sized flare up. I went to get it treated but because of the steroid used in the medicine the federation took 5 months to approve my treatment. It took even longer to get a doctors visit and treatment because of the language barrier and our competition schedule. My quarter-sized bald spot eventually covered the entire back of my lower scalp. This caused me to struggle with my confidence, my femininity, how I was being perceived by fans and by my teammates. The constant worry and stress led me into a depression and took a toll on all of my relationships and overall mental health. By New Years Eve I hit rock bottom and came to a realization. If all of my stress and worry was coming from my perception of what everyone else thinks about me, not from my actual physical health or worth then something was wrong. Something as insignificant as hair should not determine my femininity, my beauty or how I value myself. So I shaved it all off that summer and have not looked back since. Some people hate it, some people love it and I don’t care either way. I feel more like myself than ever. Moral of the story: Do not give others the power to define your own value.

One of my favorite stories is how I was first introduced to Timeout. Maya McClendon, the Founder and CEO of Timeout is better known to me as my sister and when she told me about her idea it was inconceivable to me so she said she would show me. In 2020, Maya walked me into her room and it was covered (ceiling to floor) in post-it notes, stacks of psych textbooks and papers. My jaw dropped. Ironically I was seriously close to asking her if she needed mental help.

The concept of athlete mental health was so untalked about and taboo in our world that I had spent most of my career ignoring my own mental health challenges. I was one of the several people to tell Maya she was “crazy”, that this topic was too difficult to tackle and that athletes would never talk openly about mental health. She didn’t let that stop her. Instead she did more research. As she began pinpointing sports specific factors that lead to mental health issues I began to see just how massive this problem was and continues to be. Not only had Maya lost a former teammate and close friend to suicide, she has own battles with mental health and during this time she even helped me resurface from a bout of depression and identity loss.

Timeout came to life for me and it became evident that this issue affects every athlete in some way. Maya took Timeout from post-it notes on a wall to a full-scale platform run by an international team that I’m proud to be a part of today. My takeaway is if your cause is worthy and you are resilient, it will grow.

What do you think makes the Timeout company stand out? Can you share a story?

There are a million and one meditation/telehealth apps on the market. And as athletes we are obsessed with performance but spend so little time on our mental game comparatively. So there is really nothing else out there that focuses on improving mental health and centers the athlete. In a world where we don’t trust our information with even those closest to us, especially about our mental health, privacy is a huge concern that Timeout has addressed by giving total control to the athlete. With both an athlete and provider platform, Timeout is also focused on rebuilding the trust between athletes and their coaches/ administration.

I went one time to my sports psychologist my Freshman year in college and even took Sports Psych 101. But the feelings and talk around seeing the sports psychologist was always a little negative or condescending. I became nervous that because of the highly competitive nature of our team, if it became known I was seeing the sports psychologist then I wasn’t going to be perceived by my teammates as mentally tough enough to stay in the starting line up. That was the last time I went to his office even though he gave me tips that I still use today.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My parents! They have always pushed me towards my goals by setting such a great example of hard work and sacrifice themselves and providing me with every opportunity I could imagine. They instilled me with confidence and raised me with the idea that I can bounce back from anything because I am strong and I have them for support. They’ve also passed on their competitiveness and drive which has helped me stay resilient.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Resilience is the ability to carry on in the face of adversity or to return to the same level or shape after being challenged or pushed.

Many people think that resilience means returning to the same endeavor after a failure but I don’t think that necessarily has to be true. I think resilience has less to do with strength and more to do with flexibility. Resilient people adapt, learn from their mistakes, are disciplined, self-confident, and aren’t afraid to ask for help.

Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?

Courage and resilience are similar because they both require fearlessness. Courage is to overcome fear and to be resilient you cannot be afraid to acknowledge failure.

They are different because resilience requires consistent action on top of having courage. Many people are courageous enough to start a new endeavor but it requires resilience to fail over and over but continue to try again.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

I think of Serena Williams. The media dogged her and her sister when she was just a teenager when they talked about their appearance ( braids were unprofessional). People also over sexualized her and body shamed her (said her sports clothing was too revealing and that she was too muscular or manly). She has battled through countless injuries, tough losses, the deaths of her sister and father, unfair rulings, and a traumatic birth where she almost died. And yet this woman is still a legendary competitor who has left and returned to her craft countless times. She is the epitome of resilience.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

Most people told me that long distance relationships don’t work. People also told me that learning to speak Polish is too hard. I did both.

I met my now husband while I was playing my second professional season in Poland. He was working as a physical therapy intern for my team while getting his masters. We fell in love and over the course of 4 months my season came to an end and I flew home to the US. Everyone said that there was no way we would last. Over 8 years and living in 5 different countries later our long distance relationship has evolved into our marriage.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

One of the lowest points in my life hit me around the same time that many people hit rock bottom. Between April and June of 2020 when the pandemic was first settling in and the world was quarantining it felt like I was battling with something from every side of life. All sports were on hold so I had no idea if my volleyball career was over for good or not, I went from training every day twice a day to unmotivated sporadic home workouts. Racial injustices and violence against people who look like me was rampant and being shown on social media like it was normal. I was separated from my fiance by thousands of miles for 5 months, with several failed attempts to reconnect with no end in sight. I was back living in my parents house like I was a teenager.

Mentally I was not good, I was depressed and had lost my sense of self.

My support system saved me. My sister helped me understand who I am outside of volleyball and how to understand and take control of my own mental health. Over the next 6 months I was able to make a plan to reconnect with my fiance (at our elopement in Croatia), sign a new contract with Athletes Unlimited, our first professional volleyball league in America. Start a new career with purpose, to change the culture of mental health in sports and to bring mental health advocacy back to athletes.

How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

I have always used my mindset as a way to cultivate resilience. I believe that to get through tough situations you have to stay positive and have the flexibility to see things in a brighter light. Growing up I found that the easiest and fastest way to start this process was to simply smile or laugh. When I made a mistake it felt better to laugh at myself instead of being embarrassed and then to try again. When I was playing youth sports and my team was losing, it was more effective to smile at my teammates and use positive language than to sulk in defeat. Smiles are contagious and faking it till you make it is real.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

● Acknowledge failure and learn from it.

● Gather the courage to start again. (see covid story)

● Find your confidence. (see alopecia story)

● Ask for help, use your support system.

● Stay dedicated/ disciplined, never give up.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? If you are in the middle of creating that movement, what is it?

I want to help change the perception of mental health in sports (and the world) and to help redefine mental toughness. Both of which are a part of Timeout’s mission.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have lunch with Serena Williams, see above

How can our readers further follow your work online? What is in store for the Timeout App?

We are completing development and rolling into beta testing this month. Next up, we will start our first round of investment and VC funding opportunities.

Keep up with Timeout and our upcoming events at www.thetimeoutapp.com and join our newsletter.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


  • Savio P. Clemente

    TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor

    Savio P. Clemente, TEDx speaker and Stage 3 cancer survivor, infuses transformative insights into every article. His journey battling cancer fuels a mission to empower survivors and industry leaders towards living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle. As a Board-Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), Savio guides readers to embrace self-discovery and rewrite narratives by loving their inner stranger, as outlined in his acclaimed TEDx talk: "7 Minutes to Wellness: How to Love Your Inner Stranger." Through his best-selling book and impactful work as a media journalist — covering inspirational stories of resilience and exploring wellness trends — Savio has collaborated with notable celebrities and TV personalities, bringing his insights to diverse audiences and touching countless lives. His philosophy, "to know thyself is to heal thyself," resonates in every piece.