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Get To Know U.S. Paralympics Sport Psychologist Sara Mitchell During Mental Health Awareness Month

By Melissa Zhang | May 09, 2019, 11:47 a.m. (ET)

Danelle Umstead and her guide Rob Umstead compete in the Women's Visually Impaired Slalom at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 18, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea. 


For the past three-and-a-half years, sport psychologist Sara Mitchell, Ph.D., has been pivotal in supporting Team USA’s Paralympians.

Dr. Mitchell began working for the U.S. Olympic Committee in the fall of 2015, right before the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, and is the first and only USOC sport psychologist exclusively dedicated to the Paralympic division.

“I think one of the really interesting aspects that attracted me to this role is the complexity of some of the work I get to do,” Dr. Mitchell said, who travels domestically and internationally with national governing bodies and various teams to key events. “I am very fortunate in that I get to do what I love.I am often humbled by the resilience and strength of our athletes. I have the sense that the athletes aren’t the only ones changed by this work – we too, as providers, are impacted by the athletes.”

She recently traveled overseas with the Para alpine skiing team as they competed at world championship events in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia and Sella Nevea, Italy, scheduling Skype sessions with athletes back in the United States during her little pockets of downtime.

Although Olympic and Paralympic athletes share similar challenges, including performance anxiety, adjustment issues and interpersonal stress, Dr. Mitchell strives to understand the idiosyncratic and individualized needs of Paralympic athletes.

For instance, visualization is a common technique in sports psychology that cannot be used traditionally with visually impaired athletes. Dr. Mitchell instead focuses on different senses, like hearing, touch, balance and acceleration, temperature, and proprioception.

“Rather than focusing on sight, I focus on body sensations – what I refer to as the feel of their race,” Dr. Mitchell said. “It's just adapting these traditional interventions to meet the needs of the person sitting in front of me. I love the challenges that come with building a conceptualization for every individual I sit down with.”

In order to best help Paralympic athletes in their sport and in life, Dr. Mitchell said her experiences in medical settings and in teams has taught her the value of multidisciplinary, client-centered approaches. As a result, she brings that value into her work regularly.

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“At the end of the day, athletes are the best experts in themselves,” Dr. Mitchell said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for that knowledge base and I need them to be my collaborator in building a conceptualization of the work that lies ahead.” 

In October of 2017, Dr. Mitchell faced a challenge that helped her form an even stronger bond with her athletes: being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Leading up to the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Dr. Mitchell chose to keep her diagnosis and treatment private, even as she was losing her hair – she didn’t want to worry or distract them.

“I think there's been a deeper bond and appreciation from my athletes for my approach and the interventions that I do with them,” Dr. Mitchell said, who opened up to her athletes after the Games had concluded.

“Through my own treatment, I found how dehumanizing providers can make you feel when they talk at you, as opposed to working with you. I think I have a higher sensitivity for that now.”

With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, Dr. Mitchell said she encourages athletes of any sport or background to check in with themselves.

“Self-care is important too. Regardless of how you choose to engage in self-care, knowing what you need – self–awareness – is key,” Dr. Mitchell said. “Mindfulness has many benefits. I often encourage athletes to develop a formal practice to increase their self–awareness and distress (pain) tolerance. In this space we often describe mindfulness as the deliberate act of attending to the present moment. Self-awareness allows you to respond purposefully; it puts you in the driver seat.  It’s good to be a bit introspective and check in with yourself.”

Along with the rest of the USOC sport psychology team she is working on developing more options for athletes and is currently expanding the scope of services provided to Paralympic athletes.

With her team’s support, Dr. Mitchell strives to help Paralympic athletes perform at their best as they prepare for upcoming competitions and Tokyo 2020.

“The team has really come together to embrace the challenges that have been put in front of us,” Dr. Mitchell said. “Pretty soon, we'll be rolling out opportunities in the psycho-physiology space for Paralympic athletes, which has been a long-time goal for me. I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done, and  I’m excited about what’s coming down the pipe – we’re in a very exciting time.”