On Becoming a Parkinson’s Olympian
Of 331 million Americans, a total of 600 Olympic athletes from the U.S. competed at the Tokyo Games this year. That makes an Olympian contender a rare breed with extraordinary talents, a special set of attributes, and a dedication to their skills.
Of those, a few will take home gold, silver, or bronze medals. These elite competitors are dedicated to their gift and have built the resilience needed to reach the awards podium.
The self-management of Parkinson’s disease (PD) is not an Olympic sport, but we could note a few lessons about success from our Olympic athletes.
Olympic success is attained after years of hard work. In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell says an average of 10,000 hours is needed to even approach expert levels of performance.
“It is not the brightest who succeed,” Gladwell writes. “Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”
That means showing up every day, 40 hours a week, for five years, just to attain those hours of dedication. That is true for any endeavor, mental or physical. Success at PD self-management requires the same amount of dedication.
Olympians know how to fail. It is just accepted as part of the process. Striving toward excellence with PD self-management is something I still fail at every day. I’ve been training for six years. But overall, I am succeeding more often than not.
Olympians find the best mindset to boost their performance. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, defines this as a “growth mindset.” As Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova explained, referring to Dweck’s research, this mindset “thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.”
In my new book “Possibilities with Parkinson’s: A Fresh Look,” I explore this mindset and discuss the process of shifting perspective while living with PD. I’m still learning about shifting perspective and maintaining a mindset conducive to slowing PD progression. It is crucial to developing advanced PD self-management skills.
This is no simple task. It requires full-time mindfulness practice as a way of life.
Mindfulness is more than the act of meditation. In meditation, I have found that I move into a place of calm quietness. The world around me, and in me, gravitates to a place where all else is excluded. My world contracts, and my mind transcends to a place in the universe where nothing else exists.
Mindfulness is also a mental state achieved by focusing on our actions and thoughts. It is awareness focused on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It is self-awareness that expands my efforts.
By using mindfulness in addition to meditation, I can focus on self-management of my PD condition. Pain and discomfort become coaches for my Olympic efforts to accept them as part of my PD. Mindfulness focuses my walking, as every foot placement is a conscious act. Reaching for a glass of water or removing a bottle cap becomes a dedicated moment unto itself. I can’t be swayed by distractions from anything else. Like a gymnast on the balance beam, I have a very small area in which I can maneuver and not fall off.
Mindfulness helps me to accept emotional experiences. Olympians cry at the podium when their national anthem plays. When they cry, it is not because of sadness, but rather intense emotions. I also cry because of intense emotions due to the disease. I feel the urge to cry several times a day, which I had been falsely interpreting as sadness.
Most of my life I’ve been the eternal optimist, as Mrs. Dr. C would note, and as such, allowing tears was only prescribed for sadness. Seeing Olympians in tears showed me that crying can be a spontaneous reaction to intense emotion. It does not have to be rooted in sadness, but rather it is a human emotional expression of the moment.
Changing how I look at the feeling of crying is a shift in perspective, a new mindset, and acceptance of that shift has improved my PD self-management skill set. Like the Olympian contender who falls during a routine, gets off to an awkward start on the track, or fails by a hundredth of a second while extending themselves on that final lap, I must do what the best of these athletes do. I must be that PD Olympian who strives for a personal best, accept my failings, and get up once again to challenge PD.
Note: Parkinson’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Parkinson’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Parkinson’s disease.