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

You want to Excel – then PRETEND

Sport is so darn mental, and competitive, you need magic tools in your brain pocket if you want to really excel. One tool I strongly recommend, and you make think I’m completely nuts, is a child-like approach – Pretend. Now, I’m totally serious. I am. Because when you pretend you’re Wonder Woman, or you impersonate an awesome athlete – like Gabby Douglas, Missy Franklin, or Hope Solo – you reach for the highest energy and skill level on the planet, and you get a boost, a rush, a flair! and you CAN ABSOLUTELY produce exceptional performances. You can. When I was 7, my sister, Sheila, and I pretended we were actresses and singers. We danced and sang in our living room as if we were in the movie, The Sound of Music. Sheila, two years older, got to be Maria. I was one of the children. But it didn’t matter who was who because we played the tape, sang and danced, and we were fully absorbed in that imaginary world: In Austria, singing “Do-a-deer” on the grassy hill, at the fountain, riding bikes. We were silly and loud. Confidence oozed from our beings. We were IT. And through our imagination, through PRETEND…we transformed into amazing performers.

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In gymnastics, that screwball balance beam requires much pretending. Otherwise, you’re screwed. I’d pretend my feet were massive, like Sasquatch, so there’s no way my foot could slip off. Or that my hips were cable-strapped to the beam, no way I’d lose my balance. This gave me confidence and it worked most of the time. Until age 12, I had to compete a side aerial (a no-handed cartwheel). This foolish trick, side-flipping through space to land on the beam, was thrilling, but also risky. It jerked my thoughts away from sureness. I kept concentrating, but I fell. A lot. What was wrong? I did many, many, MANY side aerials on the line on the carpet, 100, and on the low beam, another 100, and I stuck them. I was a machine. But on the high beam, especially in competition, with judges, parents, and competitors all around me – my focus and confidence blew away with the wind.

Enter, silly mother with good ideas. (And, this is silly.) It’s the day before a meet. I’m concerned about nailing the side aerial. My mom says: “Lisa, you won’t fall. You can’t fall. You see, God has you. He’s a puppeteer high above you, and you are the marionette. You are attached to his strings. He’s holding you up!” I sat there, “Huh?” trying to imagine me on the beam, with strings going up to heaven, and God controlling me, holding me up. My mom laughed and smiled, exuberantly. She acted convinced. Like it was true. She was PRETENDING. So…I tried. Old man in they sky, white hair, white beard, white robe, he’s a puppeteer, I’m the puppet. Got it. The next day, I competed. Nervous stomach arrived (always did). I went to beam and warmed up. The side aerial felt fine, but nerves lingered. I paused, recalled my mom’s voice, held onto that image of God and his puppet strings attached to me, all the while hearing, “You can’t fall–he’s holding you up!” I started to get into it, really pretend. I began to relax and feel the confidence – I couldn’t fall. It was impossible.

You may not believe it, I hardly did myself, but on the beam in front of judges and parents, I was in another reality – the PRETEND reality – and that Good Guy in the sky wanted me to stay on the beam. And I did! HA! Now it doesn’t have to be God, it can be Sponge Bob, the Easter Bunny, or someone you know and trust. But the truth is, and I’d lay my life down, PRETEND WORKS. Numerous times after that, I pretended / visualized images and won many competitions. It’s silly. But we do create magic in our minds. Just like children. It’s fantasy. But, you must try it 100%. Pretend. You can do it, and I bet you will not only improve–

YOU WILL EXCEL.

(from the Mitzel files…sophomore year at Utah)

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Side aerial – mid air – competing for NCAA National Champions, the University of Utah.

Reach, sweat, and believe,

~mitz

My TED Talk – Vulnerability, the power in sports

So I’m writing my TED talk. Well, it’s in my head. And it’s all because my friend, Julia Zanutta, told me that in addition to this blog, and writing a sports book, JULIA SAYS: “You’re going to get speaking engagements, you’ll need somewhere to provide booking information and links to Amazon for your book and a link to your TED talk.”

(Wha…? TED? lol…  Then, I stopped. Hmm, I thought, maybe…I guess it’s possible). “You have a point,” I said, “TED is in my future.” And I briefly rambled – Couldn’t I do all that booking and linking on my Blog site…?

Vulnerability. Julia also told me about incredible TED talks by researcher, Brene Brown. Vulnerability and Shame are amazing. And after watching Brene and hearing her message, it got me thinking how us athletes and coaches have such a hard heel dug into “don’t be vulnerable” and “never be weak,” because, hey, it’s sports and you have to be tough and tougher to fight hard and win, never be weak, never give up, just go, go, go. Got it?

But at times, athletes are vulnerable. Don’t fight it. That’s when you are most brave and connect with others. If you suppress emotion too much, you create obstacles and inner stress. It is suppression that stops us, keeps us disconnected, untrustworthy, and even powerless. In human nature, it’s our core desire to express – shout when you’re happy, cry when you’re sad. Right? So we need to connect. Through personal exposure and shared empathy, you can become a vessel of truth and power. If you struggle while avoiding vulnerability, you are only defeating yourself. You are not perfect. No one is. And it’s all a *big show* if you always fake it (faker faker). So think: You can’t know or learn about your teammates OR yourself if you keep faking, always hiding your pain. It’s not real. And the best athletes in the world, like Venus Williams, who are tough, face challenges, yet openly share vulnerabilities – THEY ARE REAL AND BRAVE – and that’s why we want to be like them.

So Talk. You don’t have to do a TED talk. Just talk to your mom, dad, sister, brother, friend. What are you feeling, thinking? Maybe, just maybe, your coach or teammates will understand. Maybe they will help you. Maybe, a teammate will say, “Yeah, me, too.” But I guarantee, you will feel brave to speak honestly and relieved to open up. And, you will find others who feel the same way. In becoming vulnerable with your teammates, you will automatically start to lean on one other, then support each other, and push each other to overcome the toughest moments. Through all of this you will become closer. Together you will feel powerful, and possibly, invincible, and when you do, you will rise and soar higher and higher, reaching the most amazing heights–together.

And that, my friend, is the power in sports.

Now, back to writing.  TED may be calling.

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Hannah, Annalisa, and my daughter, McKenna winning Regional Basketball Championship. The girls talked, became a close team, and went on to win the National title.

Reach, sweat, and believe.

~mitz

Plan your success – be the smart athlete

Aside

“Hello and Welcome!” This site is dedicated to you, every female athlete in every sport. And I’m going to give you my guts: straight-up advice, personal grief, snappy, funny stories, and invaluable insight from my experience [as an athlete and college coach], and wisdom from leaders in the sports world. Hope you like it!

First, Plan Your Success: When you’re reaching for the top, you can not give up easily. Look at Diana Nyad swimming to Cuba, or the USA Oracle team winning America’s Cup (down by 7 races and won the next 8 in a row). These athletes are smart, determined, and surround themselves with supportive people.

So engage your mind. Be the smart athlete. Surround yourself with great influences and positive people (a coach, parent, teacher, doctor, teammate, etc). People who keep you on track; awesome people who encourage and push you. Recruit your own ‘champions‘ as supporters and guides. And become a champion for yourself.

Sheila: My older sister, Sheila, is one of my champions. From the time we were small, she was fiercely determined. Such a role model for me (except when she wanted to play Barbies, blech). Last March, Sheila ran the L.A. marathon in 3:32 hrs, an 8 min-mile average! Wahoo! Now, she’s fighting back after a TBI. But she’s tough. If anyone can do it, she can. You always make me want to be better, Sheila. I love you!

LM sis Sheil

Sheila trying to be taller than me. haha

Sheila running FAST

S kicking major butt

Here is your Action Item #1:

Identify your best supporters – your ‘champions‘ – write down their names, great things they say, get pictures to enjoy, talk and listen to them regularly. Remember–Smart Athletes surround themselves with powerful and positive influences. You can do it!

Reach, sweat, and believe.

~mitz