Getting to the top, and then staying there, takes more than hard work. My Focus, presented by Milk Life, tells the stories of one area that 24 athletes are honing in on in their quest to stand atop the podium at the next Olympic or Paralympic Games.
To be a top-level shooter, McKenna Dahl explained, it’s even more important to be strong mentally than it is to be technically proficient.
She would know.
In 2016, at just 20 years old, Dahl became the first U.S. woman to win a Paralympic Games medal in shooting when she won bronze in the R5 (mixed 10-meter air rifle prone SH2) event in Rio. Hers was also the first Paralympic shooting medal for the U.S. since Dan Jordan in 2004.
Now, Dahl is focused more than ever before on mindfulness as she works toward her goals, which include competing at the 2018 world championships and the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
“Mindfulness really just makes you focus on your breathing and how your body is feeling and teaches you to recognize outside distractions but not react to them as we normally would,” Dahl, 21, of Arlington, Washington, said. “Instead, you choose the response you have, because when emotions come into play that’s when things can get out of control or out of hand.”
What led to Dahl’s focus on mindfulness was an experience at a world cup event in Poland last April when her target malfunctioned during the 15 minutes shooters get for preparation and sighting time before the match begins. She had to scramble to switch her firing point, get set up, prepare and then shoot her 60 shots for the match, and the results were less than ideal.
“That match definitely didn’t go very well,” she said. “I had a bad reaction to that whole event, and it made me want to figure out a better way to handle outside factors that I can’t control.”
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Since then, Dahl has been working with the national team coaches and sports psychologists at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on ways to strengthen her mindfulness. Each day before she shoots, Dahl will take about 15 minutes to sit, focus on her breathing and notice what’s happening on the range around her without reacting to it. It’s training her mind to be aware of her environment without attaching any sort of emotion to what she sees, hears or experiences.
“Then when we’re shooting, we want to keep the shot process the same for every single shot we take,” she said. “I’ll go through the exact same steps in the exact same order every time and try to keep everything as close to the same as I possibly can. It comes down to even when I take a breath, if it’s a short breath or a deep breath, whatever it is, to do it the same down to minute details. And I’ve been using one of my first deep breaths as a mindfulness breath to pull my focus back in and start off the shot super-focused and paying attention to what I’m doing.”
Dahl believes it’s paying off, especially when shooting from a standing position where she’s less supported.
Dahl still has trouble putting into words what it felt like to have the bronze medal placed around her neck in Rio a little more than a year ago. Her second-favorite moment of her first trip to the Paralympics was getting off the bus and entering the athlete’s village for the first time.
“We’d been traveling a ridiculous amount of time and everyone was tired and ready to just lay in bed and fall asleep right away, but when we walked into the village and saw all the athletes walking around and all the resources that were available for us there, that was my big moment of, ‘Wow, you actually did this,’” she said. “I achieved what I wanted to do, which was represent the U.S. at the Games.”
She hopes to do the same in Tokyo in 2020, adding in a third event, the R9 (50-meter smallbore prone SH2), which was recently added to the Paralympic slate, to the two in which she competed in Rio. In addition to training, she’ll also begin studying for her master’s degree in January.
“Shooting has just opened so many doors for me as I’ve gone through the beginning of my life and really setting the stage for rest of it, I think,” Dahl said. “I just wouldn’t be where I am right now if I hadn’t found shooting and become so passionate about it.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.