WORST SETBACK EVER – Part III How I lost my skills, re-learned everything, and by a MIRACLE won 2 National Titles

RECAP PART II: Two angels entered my life: Lynn Rogers and Ken Ravizza, coach and sport psychologist at Cal-State Fullerton. They worked with me for 3 mos, I faced my fears, learned mental skills, slowly re-learned gymnastics skills. Almost all. But the fear lingered. Now, it was time to compete. (gasp!)

PART 3

ELITE QUALIFICATION? I got in ‘routine-shape,’ entered the meet in mid-January, hoping to qualify for Elite (my dream). Well, I tried, but I had to ‘water-down’ my routines – I was not really ready. Not confident. The success? I did not run away screaming. I made it through all four events and did not die. I was a gymnast, but I would repeat the Junior Olympic (J.O.) level for a third year. Baah. I felt very “junior.” But…I accepted it. Because that’s where I was at.

Message #4: Plant a seed and nurture it. Watch it grow, and you never know what will happen.  I was home, grabbing a snack in the kitchen. My mom, Lorie Mitzel, was in the kitchen, too. A natural You-can-do-anything person, my mom often encouraged me to reach for goals. She said: “Lisa, since you didn’t make Elite, what’s your goal this season for Junior Olympics?”  Hm, I hadn’t thought, so I joked: “Oh, I guess I’ll just win Nationals…” My mom raised an eyebrow, “Wow, wouldn’t that be something.” We were both surprised–it seemed like a huge dream–National Champion…huh.

Sophomore at Canyon H.S. Me...Mitzel.

Sophomore at Canyon H.S. Me…Mitzel, at 15.

PRACTICE MENTAL SKILLS, RELAX UNDER PRESSURE. Even though I wasn’t seeing Ken and Lynn any longer, I continued to practice all the mental tools. I stood in front of the equipment at the gym, took long deep breaths, talked to myself, “You can do this, Lisa, one move at a time.” I imagined each skill, visualized it, and what it felt like – a series of photos, still shots – because separately, each shot was a position I could “see” and “feel.”  My body moved from one to the next. Gradually, I got better and became more confident. Emotions–even–I didn’t judge good or bad, I was simply present in my mind & body. February and March, competition really improved, I was relaxing under pressure. Message #5: When in doubt, break it down. Break it down more. And keep your mind still and present, no judgment.

Mental Skills pyramid from Ohio Center of Sport Psychology

Mental Skills pyramid from Ohio Center for Sport Psychology. Great way to approach training & performing at your best!

ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING. For competition, I prepared in every way, then ‘let it go.’ I prayed with my mom and simply believed that something good would happen. We stayed positive. We sent Good Luck to everyone at the meets – opponents, judges, coaches. We said: “Let everyone be their best.” And though I still got nervous, I channeled that energy to perform. And with all of that good stuff goin’ on…I began to win. I exuded calm and joy while competing. I was scoring high and people noticed me. The fearful athlete was fading–a new performer was rising.

APPROACHING 1980 J.O. NATIONALS. At the State and Regional competitions, there was a lot of talent. Lots. But guess what, I ended up winning! Me! And at Sectionals (Western U.S. Championships), I placed second all-around! No kidding! Finally, in May, Nationals were in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Oral Roberts University. AT NATIONALS – there were crazy-talented gymnasts, like Mary Lou Retton (who in 1984 would come to win Olympic Gold at the Los Angeles Games). If I looked around, it was intimidating. So all I could do was focus on me: Breathe, concentrate, talk to myself. There were three days of competition – Compulsories (my strength), Optionals (not my strength), Individual Finals (Optionals). Day 1, I didn’t think about my competitors, I concentrated on being in my zone. I was strong in Compulsories, which I needed to be, and at the end of the day, get this, I was in first place! Again–me! It was nuts.

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From the Mitzel Files…in the middle of back roll to handstand. The photo caption says, “Mitzel uses her head to lead.” They didn’t have a clue how much I was really using it.

J.O. competition has age groups. Juniors - 14 and under. Seniors - 15 and up. I was 15, so in the Sr. age group.

J.O. competition has age groups: Juniors – 14 and under. Seniors – 15 and up. I was 15, so in the Sr. age group.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? On Optional day, I wasn’t thinking about results, that was out of my control. I could only control ME. So you know what I did – I went for it! Had fun! No fear! And every event was great! Vault, Bars, Beam, and Floor. I stayed focused and enjoyed the meet. I did my job on each routine. Other coaches patted me on the back, “Nice job, Lisa.” It felt good. Finally, the scores were totaled (Compulsories and Optionals). How did I do in the All-Around? Did I make Top 10? Maybe Top 6? Results were posted on a wall. I walked over, saw a white piece of paper with names and scores. I scanned the list and…there, right there, in the top #1 spot was “Lisa Mitzel.” OMG! OMG! I couldn’t believe it!  I was first? Me? I won? HA! I was a National Champion! My coach, Jim, laughed so hard. I was STUNNED.

Article: Mitzel Nearly Quit, and made a big comeback

Article: Mitzel Nearly Quit, and made a big comeback

FINALS: Next day, I competed in 3 events, Vault, Bars, and Beam. Vault, I placed 5th, Bars, I fell. That left Beam. That night, many girls fell off beam. The arena was packed and all eyes were on one person competing at a time. The pressure was thick. I mounted the beam, I was relaxed and IN my zone, I was hitting, double backhandspring, back tuck, turns, leaps, doing great! Then I realized, I didn’t want to risk my front flip – so I skipped it, dismounted, and nailed it! My coach said, “Uhh, I think you forgot something.” I smiled, because, I just hit my routine in Finals. But I was sure I’d get a deduction, not enough difficulty.  But…the score was good! A 9.6, and that won beam! I was the National Beam Champion, too! I was now a 2-Time National Champion!!!!  IMG_2817

It was a Miracle. I was rock bottom just months prior. I nearly quit. I still struggled inside (tumbling still scared me). But the mental skills and positive attitude conquered all. It was a miracle that I did it – won 2 National titles. And people who helped me: My coaches at Kips, especially Jim Fountaine, pushed me. Ken and Lynn, were so patient. My teammates, my parents – especially my mom – all were my entire life line and support.

I hope this story helps you realize  – You can conquer any obstacle. You can.

Message #6: REACH for a goal, SWEAT and work hard, and BELIEVE in yourself, and you CAN ACHIEVE.

Reach, sweat, and believe,

~mitz

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WORST SETBACK EVER – Part II How I lost my skills, re-learned everything, and by a MIRACLE won 2 National Titles

RECAP PART I: Six weeks of decline, tears, fear, and hell, there was no hope. I decided to quit. My mom introduced reality: If I quit, my life would change – I wouldn’t train, travel, or compete – I will be NORMAL like other HS kids. I became terrified: If I’m not a gymnast, Who am I?  …I love gymnastics. I am a gymnast. I cannot quit. I must try.

PART 2

I re-entered the gym. But I had NO strategy. None. I just did small stuff, drills, 20 split leaps, 20 handstands, simple moves. No flipping. The question loomed, “How will you get back to the gymnast you were?”

[Message #2 – Miracles happen when you are Hopeful.] That week, Angel #1 appeared in our gym: Lynn Rogers, Head Coach of Cal-State Fullerton Women’s Gymnastics Team. His team won the National Championships in college women’s gymnastics. Previously, Lynn had worked with my coach, Jim, and he’d heard that I was struggling. “What’s up with Lisa?” he asked. Jim explained. Lynn suggested a Sport Psychologist at Cal-State Fullerton – Ken Ravizza – enter, Angel #2. Ken had worked successfully with the CSUF women’s gymnastics and baseball teams. (Women’s gymnastics had won the national championships…!)

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Coach, Lynn Rogers, W Gym CSUF

SPORT PSYCHOLOGY? So we met. Ken and Lynn offered to work with me twice a week, 2 hours a day – teach me methods in sport psychology. It seemed strange to talk about fear, do breathing and meditation. But hey, nothing else worked. I was willing to try.

Ken_Ravizza

Ken Ravizza, Sport Psychologist

LEARN MENTAL SKILLS: The first hour was always in Ken’s office. We talked. He asked me questions, what I was thinking and feeling when I attempted my tricks in the gym. At what point do you start to feel afraid? Hm, this was not easy. I tried to imagine doing my skills, but often, I couldn’t or just got scared. So we started at the beginning, with very basic moves. I wrote and wrote in a journal. I captured details and emotions. He taught me Mental Tools: How to STOP, BREATHE, and USE A TRAFFIC SIGNAL as a model to manage my fear – green was go (no fear), yellow was pause (little fear), red was stop (peeing my pants from fear). I learned and practiced deep breathing, relaxation, clearing the mind, concentration, positive self-talk. Then I’d focus on one image or a word (that cued me). I visualized the simplest moves, then, harder moves (mental imagery). I did everything in my mind in slow motion, s-l-o-w–m-o-t-i-o-n. After a few weeks, I started to gain mental confidence. My fear temporarily disappeared at times, when things seemed easy and in control. But I was nervous. Ken put me AT EASE. His voice, gentle, his energy, very patient. I trusted him.

APPLY MENTAL SKILLS IN THE GYM: The second hour I spent in the gym. Lynn was my spotter, Ken guided me, starting with most basic skills. Front roll. Back roll. Like a 2 yr-old. Lynn supported me with his hands on my neck and back for safety and comfort. I did everything in slow motion, staying present in each moment, like slicing the skill into fractions. A single somersault had 10 slices – I became aware of the position of my chin, my toes, my knees, in every slice. I was acutely aware of every body part in every moment. I gradually advanced to handstands, walkovers, and more. At times, I’d get scared, but Ken and Lynn were patient, encouraged me to apply the tools, breathe, relax, and stay present. They put me in a spotting belt attached to cables and pulleys. I was held safe, so I relaxed a little more. Gradually, my confidence grew. I moved to handsprings and single flips. Each week, more and more, I became a master in the art of self-awareness – to notice anxious thoughts, breathe, release them, be present, and re-assert myself. Allow the natural flow of movement to come. I had to TRUST it would come.

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Spotting belt

AFTER 3 MONTHS: I re-learned my skills, except the double back. I got in shape for competition, but I was not completely healed. Anxiety crept up on me, often. But now, it was January and time to compete. Would I be able to do my skills — under pressure? Could I qualify for Elite?

Kips A Team 1979_2

Kips A Team 1979 (L-R): Dena, Donna, Sharon, Karen, annnd me, during competition. I looked up to my teammates. They motivated me.

(Final, Part 3 coming next…it’s a miracle ending 🙂

Reach, sweat, and believe,

~mitz

WORST SETBACK EVER – Part 1 How I lost my skills, nearly quit, re-learned everything, and by a MIRACLE won 2 National Titles.

I placed 15th in the country at Junior Olympic Nationals (age 14). Then I began training for the next level, Elite, the Olympic level. I always dreamed of competing in the Olympics. I’m tall for a gymnast, but it didn’t matter. I thought I had a shot to make the U.S. National Team.  Maybe I could make Olympic Trials, then get a chance to make the 1980 Olympic Team! Six months of hard training, learning new tricks, I could qualify for Elite. Maybe it would happen.

A few months later, I was 15. It was August. I had a crash in the gym. BAD CRASH. A new tumbling pass across the floor, round-off-backhandspring-JUMP-UP for a double back (2 flips backwards). I was in the air, tuck position, flipping, but suddenly I got lost (Where am I? The first flip? The second flip?). So I opened up–too early. CRASH! I hit the ground, WHACK!!!!! my knee hit my forehead. But it was more like – CRASH! WHACK!!!!!                I was out.

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L: Me, flipping in the middle of a double-back, Coach Tom Masuda spotting.
R: Deep in thought. (both pics, age 15)

Minutes later, I woke up with a GARGANTUAN MELON on my forehead. Oh, the throbbing! They brought me ice, made sure my neck wasn’t broke… My coach, Jim Fountaine (a former football coach), said: “Mitzel, go home. Take 3 days off.”

This was unsettling. I never took three days off. THREE DAYS was F-O-R-E-V-E-R-R-R-R-R. 😦  I played and re-played, over and over, for three long days what happened. I jumped in the air, started to flip–? I tried to break it down, figure out where, what, how, but my mind was blank. I felt confused at why I didn’t complete the double back. There was no answer. I guess I jumped up, lost control, and got amnesia.

When I returned to the gym – nerves fluttered through my mind and body. I told myself: You’re fine. You’re fine. Just practice like always.

But I wasn’t fine. I wasn’t fine every day for the next six weeks. I was afraid of the double back. And I developed a fear for any type of backward movement, on every event. The fear became a contagious disease. I started to run, then stopped. My coach yelled. I tried again. I did a round-off, and freaked out.  I got super scared. I couldn’t remember how to do my tricks. I cried in the car and at home. I prayed, but nothing. For six weeks, I regressed and fell apart. I lost 70% of my skills. No one could help me. All I could do was dance and basic practice drills.

Finally, I was so far from the gymnast I’d been, I couldn’t take it anymore. I told my mom, “I’m going to quit.” It was hard to say it, but in the gym, I had nothing to look forward to. The coaches were extremely frustrated, I was depressed, and the struggle was just too much.

[Message #1 – Do NOT give up, Do NOT quit. Here’s why.] While my gymnastics career was dying, I had a horrifying realization that something else was much, MUCH worse. My mom came into my bedroom: Lisa, it is up to you to continue or not, but if you quit now, when you’re at your lowest, you will always wonder what would’ve happened if you stayed in it, fought harder. This didn’t help me much. I had fought my hardest. What more could I do? Then she added: If you quit, you will not get out of school early to go to practice, you will have to take P.E. class, you will not have nice leotards or team sweats, you won’t travel, you won’t compete. You will not be a gymnast or do those special things. You will be normal like all the other kids at school.

What? Normal? Like everyone else? This was ALARMING.

I went to bed, had terrible nightmares, and woke up. In the morning, I was terrified. If I was not a gymnast anymore…then who would I be? What would I do? Who would I be?

Well, I knew. I was a gymnast. I loved it and I could not quit.

[When you realize your greatest passion and your identity is being stripped from you, you understand that you must go through the struggle. Something good will come.]

(part 2 coming next…)

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I’m a California girl! Age 14 at the beach.

Reach, sweat, and believe,

~mitz