Shot putter Sarah Mitton sees gains in mental game, weight room during pandemic

·6 min read
After setting a personal-best throw of 18.84 in February 2020, Canada’s Sarah Mitton believed working on her mental performance was the next step to achieving greater results.
After setting a personal-best throw of 18.84 in February 2020, Canada’s Sarah Mitton believed working on her mental performance was the next step to achieving greater results.

It had been nearly six months since Brittany Crew had watched Sarah Mitton compete. Last Saturday, the latter capped a sensational week, in and out of the shot put circle, with an indoor personal-best throw of 18.65 metres — third among Canadian women all-time — to defeat Crew at the Toronto Track and Field Centre.

On Sept. 27, they closed their mini season of local outdoor meets in nearby Brampton, Ont., where Mitton prevailed 18.63-18.62 over the national record holder, who had last throw at Terry Fox Stadium.

"The major change I saw [last Saturday] was her confidence level during the competition," Crew told CBC Sports of her good friend, teammate and training partner. "She had a plan going in and executed.

"I hate to admit it, but sometimes she scares me. I get to see her in practice on a regular basis and if she hits a throw just right in a competition, it is going to be huge."

Mitton's memorable week away from the circle included PBs in bench press, the clean and snatch, and in the snatch again on Monday when the five-foot-six, 190-pound athlete lifted 207 pounds. Mitton's weekly strength training averages have increased by four per cent from last year, according to coach Rich Parkinson, who added the 24-year-old has made about 1,500 throws since October over 70 sessions in the circle.

"My body language is a lot more confident and relaxed," said Mitton, who plans to pursue a master's degree in marine biology in the future. "Getting closer to high performance numbers in the weight room has been a confidence boost."

Remaining in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic has not only allowed the native of Brooklyn, N.S., to focus on building a base in the weight room but continue her work with Natascha Wesch, a mental performance consultant who also teaches at the University of Western Ontario in London.

"You train so hard that you don't want the mental [side] to hold you back," said Mitton, who joined Parkinson's Toronto-based group in 2017 and switched from the glide to rotational technique later that year. "I felt I always had a bit of competition anxiety. I wasn't nervous to compete but had a lot of nervous energy and it would translate in a negative way. I didn't use the energy properly."

She no longer beats herself up ... if she doesn't have a strong first throw. Her mental toughness during competition has improved 10-fold in the last two years. — Brittany Crew on shot put teammate Sarah Mitton

That was the case before the pandemic hit a year ago. Mitton, aiming for the 18.50 Tokyo Olympic standard at a Continental Tour event on Feb. 23, 2020 in Auckland, tried too hard and twice threw in the low to mid-17s. After clearing her head of numbers, Mitton let her body do the work and hit 18.84 on her final attempt on an "effortless" throw for an outdoor PB to beat New Zealand's Val Adams, the two-time Olympic gold medallist and four-time outdoor world champion.

"She no longer beats herself up if warmup doesn't go as planned or if she doesn't have a strong first throw," said Crew, noting an inconsistent Mitton would throw 16 to 18 metres in 2019. "Her mental toughness during competition has improved 10-fold in the last two years.

Visualization between training, throws

"I think the difference this year is Sarah will be more consistent over 18 metres. Ultimately, it comes down to gaining experience and being able to rely on past experiences in major competitions."

Nowadays, Mitton does a lot of visualization between training sessions or throws at a competition. With help from Wesche, Mitton has created a good technical basis of a throw and will close her eyes for 10-15 seconds to imagine the look and feel of her next throw.

"One [poor] throw doesn't mean it's a bad meet. Previously, Sarah would occasionally get down," Parkinson said. "Now, she'll go through the checklist of the one or two things she's working on and evaluate whether she executed what she planned in the circle.

"She's calmer, not dancing around wasting energy and focused on executing her pre-throw game plan versus the outcome. That's a much different Sarah [from 2019]."

Looking ahead to Tokyo this summer, Parkinson has had Mitton do mock qualifying rounds, giving her two official warmups and 15 minutes between her three throws at a Thursday session ahead of a Saturday mock final like last weekend.

"We know Olympic qualifying [in Tokyo] is July 31 at 7:25 p.m. [local time] and the final on Aug. 2 at 10:35 a.m.," he said. "We've worked on a plan for that week — which days we're throwing, how many, when [Mitton] will lift [weights], her sleeping and eating protocols. It's creating the ideal performance day in an attempt to duplicate having that effortless throw."

Parkinson wants Mitton to match her effort from the 2019 World University Games in Naples, Italy, where she threw the shot 18.31 with her body rather than forcing it by throwing with her arm to win the event. Mitton is hopeful of throwing 18.50 to qualify for the Olympic final in Tokyo.

'On the right pathway'

The average winning distance for women at worlds and the Olympics is 20.22 since 2013, according to Parkinson, followed by 19.89 for silver and 19.50 for bronze.

"If you [calculate] four per cent improvement on 18.84," he said of Mitton's PB, "that's 19.59. I wish it was that easy. There are also weather and human elements involved, but everything indicates Sarah is on the right pathway.

"Goal No. 1 is to get through qualifying. It's the hardest and most nerve-wracking part. Once you're in the mix of the top 12, anything can happen."

No Canadian woman has ever advanced to an Olympic final in shot put, let alone in their Summer Games debut, but Crew said Mitton — ranked 19th in the world — must be in the conversation of athletes to watch.

"She has always been a determined and focused individual," Crew said, "but I think she is starting to believe she can't be counted out at world-class meets."

Earlier this week, Parkinson was in talks with officials of the Drake Relays and is hoping to have Mitton compete at the April 21-24 meet in Des Moines, Iowa. He is also eyeing the Tucson Elite Classic in Arizona, tentatively scheduled for May 20 and 22.

"I need [Mitton and Crew] to be competitive-ready so we're not seeing 19-metre throws for the first time when we get to Tokyo," Parkinson said. "I don't want to go to Europe, but Brittany will probably do a Diamond League in Rabat [Morocco on May 23]. Hopefully Sarah can [also] get in. She's kind of on the bubble since only eight or nine are [invited] depending on the meet director's discretion."