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How a sport psychologist uses mindfulness to prepare athletes to win Olympic gold

For athletes at the Olympic and Paralympic level, mental focus can be the difference between getting to the podium or not.
McKenzie Coan of the United States competes to win the gold medal in the women's 100-meter freestyle S7 swimming event at the Paralympic Games
A mindfulness practice can be effective for athletes looking to sharpen their mental focus.Buda Mendes / Getty Images

Before one early morning swim practice leading up to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games, sport psychologist Sara Mitchell coached several Paralympic athletes in a warm-up exercise. But it wasn’t the kind of exercise you might think.

“We'll start with breath awareness,” Mitchell said. “Noticing all the sensations of your breath, perhaps attending to the feel of the air moving in and out of your lungs … and when you feel the mind has settled in the body with the task at hand of simply observing the breath, I'd like to invite you to broaden the scope of your attention to include either a visual target or a sensation in the body that you expect to feel when you're swimming.”

The athletes were silent and still, intently focused on their breath.

“We were practicing honing the skill of shifting the locus of [their] attentional focus,” said Mitchell.

While that may sound complicated, they were practicing something that you’ve likely heard before — mindfulness.

“Mindfulness is kind of non-traditional approach, a newer approach to working with athletes,” Mitchell said.

As a sport psychologist with the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), working primarily with Paralympic athletes, Mitchell’s job is to help optimize their physical and mental health to improve athletic performance. Mitchell has seen firsthand just how effective a mindfulness practice can be for athletes looking to sharpen their mental focus.

Mindfulness practice can range from concentrating on breathing to observing sensations in one’s body. For Paralympic triathlete Haley Danz, mindfulness is just another way of preparing to perform in practice or a race, like strength training.

“It's really just preparing the mind … kind of getting it ready in the same way that I will do my band activation to activate my lats and let them know like, ‘All right, we're getting ready to work.’ It's kind of the same thing with the mind,” Danz said.

Mindfulness is a bit of a buzzword in modern culture, but not for Mitchell.

“Mindfulness impacts everything I do with an athlete,” Mitchell said. “It colors the lens through which I see myself, athletes and the systems they operate in.”

“Mindfulness for me involves just being very self-aware and non-judgmental,” Danz said. “So kind of just being able to be like, ‘Yeah, okay, I'm having this thought. I'm going let it go. And I'm going to bring myself back to what I can control right now.’”

Mitchell started working with Danz in 2015, ahead of the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where Danz won the Silver medal in Paralympic triathlon.

Sara Mitchell leads paralympic athletes in a mindfulness session before swim practice at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Training Center.NBC News Learn

“I realized that I was really, really good at training but not very good at racing. I could hit these numbers that were, like, super solid in training. But when race day came around, I just couldn’t reproduce it,” Danz said. “Obviously I have the physical ability to do it. There's just this disconnect when it comes to being in a high-pressure environment and being asked to perform."

That’s when she realized she could use some help focusing on the mental side, so “the physical preparation can meet the mental preparation.”

“Haley 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,” Mitchell said.

“One of the things [we worked together on] was just attentional focus and being able to really apply focus in the right areas when you're racing, and training for that matter,” Danz said. “In triathlon there's always so many factors involved. My race is about an hour and 15 to an hour and 20 minutes, so that's a long time to be out there trying to narrow your focus when there's so many things going on. Sara really helped me identify the areas where I needed to direct my focus for me to be my best.”

Research shows that mindfulness can have many positive impacts on one’s health and overall wellbeing. Other studies show that mindfulness or meditation can have a long-term impact on the brain and behavior, helping to regulate emotions and attentional focus. For athletes at the Olympic and Paralympic level, mental focus can be the difference between getting to the podium or not.

“At this level of sport, it's everything,” Mitchell said. “We know this through research and applied experience. [If you look at] two athletes of very similar skill sets, the one with the sharper mental focus and ability to really execute their mental training is the one that's going to win on any given day. At this level, it's about the mental game for sure.”

Through mindfulness, athletes train to be able to handle high-pressure situations or distressing emotions while competing.

“Often times the physical and the mental kind of coincide,” Danz said. “[When] you feel like you can't possibly go anymore, that's really when you do have to dial into the mental side and just kind of bring it anyway. I think sometimes the mental battle is even harder than the physical one.”

With Mitchell’s help, Danz has created a consistent mindfulness practice that she hopes will help her to win the Gold in Tokyo.

“Working with Sara Mitchell has really changed everything for me. Just looking at the athlete that I was when I started with her four years ago and who I am today — I've changed a lot in a really good way,” Danz said. “I think that the biggest thing is just the confidence that I've gained from our work together. And that's confidence both in athletic life, in my skills physically and mentally, but also who I am off the field of play.”

This story appears as part of “Changing the Games: Women in STEM at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics & Paralympics,” a 10—part video series produced by NBC News Learn and NBC Sports in collaboration with Lyda Hill Philanthropies. To view the series, go to nbcnewslearn.com/changingthegames.

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