BTU #257 - Air Force Veteran to NBA Trainer, Nike Innovation, & Public Speaker (Kevin Carroll)

They approached me afterward and said they wanted to represent me. They told me that they were from the Speakers Bureau and were interested in booking me for a future event.
— Kevin Carroll

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Why Listen:
I think you are really going to enjoy Kevin and his perspective, because his is a story of not just pivots, but MAJOR career pivots. This started while he was in the Air Force, where serendipity and tenacity got him into physical training. His career since then has included being an athletic trainer in the NBA, an innovation director at Nike, and now the owner of his own company, where he is a speaker, coach and more. His is a story of being told “no, you can’t do that” and then paving his own way and proving that advice wrong. He is also a published author of multiple books, including one where ESPN has purchased the rights to his material! There is something for everyone in this interview, and I’m confident you will walk away from it inspired to pursue your own career path with renewed energy. 

About Kevin:
Kevin Carroll is the Owner of Kevin Carroll Katalyst, where is a author, speaker, high performance coach and inspiration impresario. He has worked as an athletic trainer for 5 years (high school, college, NBA), as well as 7 years with Nike as a category innovation director, director of internal communications, and member special projects. He is the author of three books, most notably, Rules of the Red Rubber Ball: Find and Sustain Your Life's Work. He has given TedX talks in both Vancouver and Harlem. He served in the Air Force for 10 years as a Cryptologic Linguist.

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Transcript & Time Stamps:


Joining me today from Portland, OR is Kevin Carroll. Kevin Carroll is the Owner of Kevin Carroll Katalyst, where is a author, speaker, high performance coach and inspiration impresario. He has worked as an athletic trainer for 5 years (high school, college, NBA), as well as 7 years with Nike as a category innovation director, director of internal communications, and member special projects. He is the author of three books, most notably, Rules of the Red Rubber Ball: Find and Sustain Your Life's Work. He has given TedX talks in both Vancouver and Harlem. He served in the Air Force for 10 years as a Cryptologic Linguist.


How would you describe what you do for a living?

I would say that I’m an instigator of inspiration. I’ve had an opportunity to be a part of teams and organizations on many different levels. I’ve gotten to spark and inspire to people turn ideas into reality.


Can you tell us about the work you do as a speaker?

I take pride in the fact that it’s many different topics that I can speak to. I customize these speeches to each audience. I left Nike in 2004 so this is my 15th year as an entrepreneur.

I fell a little bit backwards into this. When I was at Nike, I was very happy with my role there. I was doing my first speech on behalf of Nike at a design conference in Orlando. There was someone from the Speaker's Bureau there in the audience. He approached me afterwards and told me that they wanted to book me for an upcoming design conference. So that’s what got me going on this path. A little while later I sat down with my supervisor at Nike to tell him that I thought it was time that I focus on this full-time.

So it really came together from serendipity and at this point I’ve spoken in many regions of the globe. I really believe that my Air Force background helped in this process. I always mention my time in the military in all of my presentations because it really was very formative for me.


How did you find your way to Nike?

I don’t know how many listeners have read The Alchemist but it’s really an amazing book. I spent a week with him at his home in Paris interviewing him for one of my books. The Alchemist talks about reading signs and symbols in your life.

I found my way to Nike by chance. There wasn’t a job title or function, they just saw that I had a talent in connecting people and building relationships. So we built the job description together once I was there. I served as an internal consultant. I worked in product design or special projects. I helped the designers be more aware about how their product could solve problems athletes were having. With my background in athletic training, I was able to coach them on how to ask athletes questions that would provide information they needed to design a superior product.


What was your work as an athletic trainer like?

I was stationed over in Germany and I was using an extended learning program out of the University of Maryland. I was playing soccer for a team on base and I got injured. I was at the base hospital and the physical therapist game in and gave me what I thought were completely incorrect exercises. They basically threw a book at me and told me to do my rehab myself. I was mesmerized by that book.

That set me on the journey to becoming an athletic trainer. I ended up getting stationed in Texas and enrolled in a university there. It happened to be the location where the Houston Oilers did their training. I was able to get involved with them and that gave me the connections I needed in order to go into athletic training after I left the military.


Was it difficult to go from athletic training to a position at Nike?

I think I’m adept at pivoting as it relates to opportunity. I keep my mind open to things even when I’ve been content at different jobs or points in my life. When I was in the Air Force, I had a Bachelor’s degree in Athletic Training and would get sent to various places around the world to participate in different events. My plan was to get stationed at the Air Force Academy as an athletic trainer. I made a request to my Commander to get stationed at the Air Force Academy but it was rejected. I was a Cryptologic Linguist and that was a very in demand job. That became a pivot point for me because I really wanted to do athletic training.

I was a single dad to my two boys. I started making decisions that would allow me to best support and provide for my boys. I got a job as a trainer at a private high school that my son was also able to attend. That school was across the street from Saint Joseph’s University. I read in the paper that there was in an opening in the Athletic Department. I ended up as the Head Athletic Trainer. That happened to be where the Philadelphia 76ers practiced so I started helping them out in my spare time. Eventually I ended up as the Head Athletic Trainer there.

Once I started my job with the 76ers, I started to interact with a new group of people. A few Nike executives got to know me and the next thing you know, they sent a couple designers to me. I made the designers to everything our athletes do in order to understand more about what the athletes needed from their footwear.

Eventually I got approached to work at Nike. So that’s how I pivoted into my position with Nike. Throughout my career, there have been pivotal moments where I took advantage of an opportunity that came to me.


What I appreciate about your story is how you’ve been able to take advantage of change and uncertainty.

Yes, change can be very good for you. At different points in your life you have the choice of staying safe or stretching yourself.

For me, this all got started in Air Force basic training. I was the “house mouse” - basically the after hours administrator. I loved that job. I was very particular around how my locker and bed looked so that’s why I got that job. Some of the other guys got leadership roles. But they were not doing their job. Our Drill Instructors were getting frustrated that we weren’t showing up on time. He came to me and had me turn in my house mouse badge. He then came me the dorm chief badge. I told him, ‘I can’t do that because I’m too small.’ He told me, ‘That’s not how you lead. You lead by example’.

That was my first leadership opportunity. I thought my physical stature wasn’t enough but I was taught to lead by example. I learned a lot from that shift.


How did your first book Rules of the Red Rubber Ball come about?

I proposed the book to many different publishers and was rejected. So in that way, I had to pivot once again. I ended up self-publishing it and someone at ESPN got a copy of it. They said they wanted to buy the rights to the book.

If you want to publish a book, don’t go into it think about making money, think of it as wanting to share and tell a story.

Over 100,000 books are published each year. Most of those aren’t read by anyone beyond the author’s family and friends. A book is deemed successful if you sell more than 8,000. That’s difficult to do so you have to go into this process wanting to do more than just sell books - it has to be more about telling your story.

I ended up doing two more books as well - one with McGraw Hill and one with Disney.


How did you find what your higher purpose and higher calling was?

I struggled as a child because my parents were addicts and abandoned my siblings and me. We were left with our grandparents. We were basically raised by a community of people outside of Philadelphia. I realized that grit and resilience would serve me well. As I got older, the need for resilience came up over and over. I see resilience as a sustained determination to turn an idea into reality.

All the way back to my youth, people saw something in me and pushed me to keep getting better. There were these encouragers and angels who showed up in my life. They shoved me toward what I needed to be doing.

I recognized from an early age that I wanted to be a doer rather than a talker.


What advice do you have for people that are wanting to make a career change?

Think about what makes you excited to get out of bed. Look back to your youth. What sparked you? What intrigued you? Curiosity will serve you well as you start to reimagine the next chapter in your life.

During your time in the military and as you get out, there are free or low cost educational opportunities offered to you. Take advantage of this and try out different things that you think you’re interested in. You might discover something new or more nuanced once you start learning about subjects you’re interested in.

Three passions for me are sports, books, and betterment of myself and others. For yourself, you should think about what those passions are that drive you. Do your search for a job around those values.

My undergraduate degree cost me $100 through the military and my Master’s degree also cost $100 because I was working for Saint Joseph’s at that time and participated in their tuition reimbursement program.


How can people advocate for themselves effectively?

Think about going through the military promotion process. You have to see yourself in order to earn that promotion. Approach a civilian interview in the same way. You’re not bragging, you’re talking about things you’ve accomplished in a real way.

You’ve been tested in the military and you’ve succeeded. You can do that same thing in the interview process.

Have the confidence in yourself to know that you are good enough to succeed in that role.


Is there anything else you’d like to share with our listeners?

Chris Diaz and I met at the Human Performance Institute run by Johnson and Johnson. We connected through our stories. We belonged to a tribe as veterans. We are all part of that tribe. It’s not ‘me’ first - it’s ‘we’. We are all part of that community. You will always have a place where people understand you.