Athletes’ mental health directly informs performance and overall well-being. In addition to ensuring that athletes have optimal physical health, athletes must also focus on mental toughness and resilience to excel through the adversity (pun intended, keep reading) that they will surely face both on and off the court or field. Despite athletes often being illustrated in the media as invincible superheroes, we are only human; and we have our mental struggles, too. In fact, according to a study on athletic participation and wellness, approximately 10% to 15% of college athletes experience psychological issues that warrant professional counseling. To help provide some support related to this pain point and to work toward breaking down the stigma associated with mental health in athletics, we teamed up as brother and sister and started a digital platform, EXTA (Excelling Through Adversity). EXTA provides athletes with mental performance coaches who understand and can empathize with their challenges and hardships. This Trey Athletes Fireside Chat with Dan Cnossen was incredible and learning from him was game-changing for us as former athletes and evolving leaders in the mental health athletic space.
Dan Cnossen embodies a champion’s mindset, and his story sparked deep, visceral feelings of astonishment and gratitude. Dan, also warmly known by some as “Danger Dan” or “C-Nasty”, has earned numerous awards and medals, such as the Purple Heart (for context the Purple Heart is a United States military decoration awarded in the name of the President to those wounded or killed while serving, on or after April 5, 1917, with the U.S. military.) and Bronze Star with Valor for his exceptional accomplishments in the Navy, as well as multiple Olympic medals — including a gold — as a biathlete. Dan grew up in Topeka, Kansas, and after high school, he was accepted to the prestigious U.S. Naval Academy, where he completed his undergraduate degree as well as the rigorous but highly-revered Navy SEAL training. Shortly after graduation, Dan became a Naval officer and was deployed to Afghanistan during a time of heavy combat. On one night, during a mission in 2009 when Dan was serving as Platoon Commander, there was a sudden and unexpected blast where he lost both of his legs and shattered his pelvis. Despite this new reality, Dan remained resilient and spent two years in the hospital undergoing corrective surgeries and rehabilitative treatment. Toward the end of this process, he was approached by a biathlete recruiter. Never being one to back down from a challenge, Dan became intrigued by the opportunity train as a world-class cross country skier. He worked hard to learn and grow, eventually landing a position on the U.S. Paralympic Team. He also completed a Master of Public Administration and a Master’s of Theological Studies at Harvard University. Dan has truly shattered ceilings and defied the odds to accomplish excellence. During the conversation, he imparted a few lessons regarding mental well-being, toughness, and resilience that he’s learned during his journey, and we’ve captured them below:
- Focus on What’s Right in Front of You: Normally, as an athlete, we’re constantly thinking about the long-term goal — which is typically either a personal goal (e.g.. logging a certain scoring average throughout the season, or becoming a professional athlete) or possibly a team goal (e.g.. winning a state or national championship). These long-term goals should be kept in the back of our minds, and we should not lose sight of the overall vision. However, Dan’s talk helped us to think about being present in the “now.” Sometimes, you have to just get through the next five minutes, or work toward completing the docket for today. This is especially true when you may be suffering from mental health challenges. Having to battle through pain, stress, sleep deprivation, grief, etc. can make it extremely difficult to think about the long-term. So to help with this, Dan has implored us to stay focused on what is happening right now, in the moment, and to do our best to conquer that moment, regardless of what obstacle is immediately in front of us.
- The Power of Perspective: How we see the world and our place in it influences our attitude and well-being. If we navigate the world from a place of gratefulness, gratitude, and open exploration, then we will be happier and likely have a more positive outlook. This applies to us as athletes as well. If we’re down 10 points with two minutes left in the game, we can either use our perspective to see that scenario from a space of defeat and exhaustion, or we can see it as an opportunity to hustle, strategize, and work to win. When Dan was tragically injured as a Naval officer, he mentioned that rehab made him even more grateful; this is because he saw others who had lost even more than he had, as well as those who were struggling in ways that were much more severe. Dan’s perspective on his experience helped him to appreciate how grateful he was to still be alive with so much to give to the world. He focused not on what he lost, but instead, on what he had gained and what he could control; and that outlook helped him to excel through the adversity he faced.
- Give It All You Have: No matter what you’re going through, you should give it your all and grit through the turmoil. Dan mentioned “you’re only out when you say you’re out,” and that struck a chord with us. You’re always in it, and you always have a chance, unless you decide to take yourself out of the game. This is a testament to Dan’s entire life. Dan could have quit during the grueling SEAL training when they were not allowed to sleep for days during “Hell Week.” He could have given up after the blast, when his world was changed forever; and he could have thrown in the towel in the Paralympic biathlon when he had 7 seconds to the finish line… but he never took himself out of the battle. Dan persisted, despite the odds, and that’s what we should all apply to our lives as athletes.
As the founders of EXTA, we truly and deeply understand how important it is to have mental toughness and resilience as an athlete, and in our day-to-day lives. Dan’s lessons of focusing on the now, the power of perspective, and giving it all you have deeply resonated with us; and we believe that all athletes can adopt these principles to strengthen their mental well-being. We’re launching EXTA in the Fall of 2021, so if you’re interested in learning more, please subscribe to our newsletter for updates!
Camille McGirt is a former collegiate women’s basketball player and current MBA student at Harvard Business School. Camille holds sports close to her heart and loves the fun, grit, and tenacity of competition. She has a social enterprise that she started in 2011 to enhance the health/wellness of black girls, Healthy Girls, Inc. Additionally, she recently launched EXTA, a mobile technology that allows athletes to get personalized mental sports performance support. During those times when Camille isn’t working, she’s likely hanging out with family/friends, traveling, working out, or trying out new delicious food!
Emanuel McGirt played football at NC State as an offensive tackle from 2015-2020. He is now working as a Project Coordinator for the NC Department of Administration and is also the co-founder of EXTA, a mobile technology that allows athletes to get personalized mental sports performance support. Emanuel experienced two injuries while playing college sports and feels very passionate about ensuring that all athletes have the tools they need to get their physical body and mental psyche in shape — always ready to play! In his free time, he enjoys freelance writing, working out, and playing Call of Duty!