As paratriathlete Hailey Danz prepares for the 2020 Paralympic Games, she incorporates mindfulness into her training. Mindfulness is the practice of concentrating on what’s happening in the moment of competition. She does this with the help of Dr. Sara Mitchell, a sports psychologist for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. “Changing the Games” is a 10-part video series produced in collaboration with Lyda Hill Philanthropies.
Changing the Games – Mind, Body & Grit
KATHRYN TAPPEN reporting:
It’s a race on water, on wheels, and on foot. It’s the paratriathlon, considered one of the toughest sports in the Paralympic Games, taking a tremendous amount of stamina and endurance to cross the finish line. And Hailey Danz has proven herself up to the challenge.
HAILEY DANZ (Paralympic Silver Medalist): I started doing triathlon in 2011, I was a sophomore in college, I had no background in swim, bike, or run.
TAPPEN: After losing her leg to cancer when she was 14, Danz looked for a way to feed her competitive spirit, and the paratriathlon was just the thing.
DANZ: I ended up being hooked after my very first race. I kind of spent the next couple years just continuing to race.
TAPPEN: In the debut of the paratriathlon as a Paralympic sport, Danz won a silver medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
ANNOUNCER: Give it up right now for Hailey Danisewicz from the USA, silver medal!
TAPPEN: This success inspired her to move to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado to train for the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. As Danz trained, she realized she wasn’t getting the results she wanted. Though her training numbers were solid, she couldn’t replicate her results during competition.
DANZ: So, then you're like, "Okay, obviously I have the physical ability to do it. There's just this disconnect when it comes to, you know, being in a high-pressure environment and being asked to perform." That's kind of when I realized like, "Okay, I could probably use some help-- focusing on the mental side so that the physical preparation can meet the mental preparation. And I can have the best performance possible."
Dr. SARA MITCHELL (U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee): Perhaps attending to the feel of the air moving in and out of your lungs…noticing the sound of the breath…
TAPPEN: Dr. Sara Mitchell is a sports psychologist for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. She is exclusively devoted to Paralympic athletes like Danz.
MITCHELL: Hailey is a very young athlete, that has achieved a lot of success early on in her career. Because of that, the pressure and the expectations were probably much higher than her actual experience had prepared her for.
TAPPEN: To help Danz prepare mentally for competition, Dr. Mitchell encourages her to practice mindfulness, or to concentrate on only what's happening in the moment.
MITCHELL: Mindfulness allows you to sort of sharpen the aim of your attention so that you can be really dialed in on exactly what you need to be dialed in on and execute those tasks. Being too focused on an outcome is not helpful, right. So, we really want to be focused on the task or process goal, what's right in front of you.
TAPPEN: How does mindfulness relate to an athlete’s activity? It starts with two distinct parts of the body’s involuntary nervous system-- the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is the branch that responds to stressful situations by elevating the body’s heart rate and alertness, while the parasympathetic nervous system calms the body down.
MITCHELL: We want to have balance, right. So sometimes we have to activate the parasympathetic so that our nervous system overall is in a place of balance or homeostasis.
TAPPEN: Dr. Mitchell leads athletes in mindfulness practices, like concentrating on breathing or observing sensations in their bodies to train them to deal with distressing emotions while competing.
MITCHELL: Noticing the sound of the breath…attending to all the qualities without judging or changing, just observing…
Often, they're like, "oh, we don't have to get rid of my anxiety?" No. You can be anxious and still show up and do your job. Because it no longer overpowers you or hijacks your brain, that emotion. It's just along for the ride. And it doesn't distract you. You're like, "oh, anxious. Now I can focus on what's right in front of me."
TAPPEN: With Dr. Mitchell's help, Danz has been able to see and value her mindfulness practice along with her physical training.
DANZ: Sara really kind of helped me develop or identify the areas where I needed to direct my focus for me to be my best. Kind of teach me how to, like, cancel certain things out and really just dial it in to where it matters so that I wouldn't get overwhelmed by all of the stimulation that's happening out on the race course.
MITCHELL: I just really love seeing athletes grow. And Hailey in particular is somebody that I’ve seen just blossom. Mindfulness in particular has been so key for her, I think.
TAPPEN: Thanks to STEM professionals like Dr. Mitchell, Danz can count on mindfulness to help her strive for Paralympic gold in 2020, and beyond.
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