Vail Daily health feature: Sports psychology professor urges athletes to respect their limits
in the winter, you might find Drew Mikita on the hill at Dew Tour, rubbing the shoulders of a professional snowboarder and helping the athlete visualize success.
You could find Mikita in the spring explaining psychology to a group of Colorado Mountain College students. And in the summer, the Breckenridge resident is often on a trail with a client talking mental health.
Mikita, 33, has been practicing as a licensed professional counselor since he moved to Summit County in 2007, and not long after that he started teaching psychology courses at CMC.
The professor, counselor, athlete and husband of Vertical Runner Breckenridge owner Molly Mikita is about a year away from finishing his Ph.D. in sports psychology through the University of the Rockies.
In the mountains, in communities full of people who love sports and the outdoors, Mikita has observed how connected the county’s psyche is to the weather.
“If you go to the grocery store, and it hasn’t snowed for like 10 days, someone’s going to plow into you with a cart,” he said, laughing.
Mikita’s next insight is less obvious.
He has seen the scary consequences when his clients have walked, tip-toed and fallen off the line between healthy and unhealthy exercise.
“One of the big things I see up here is people thinking that they don’t have limits,” he said.
Stretching their bodies’ limits is what makes them great, but all human bodies have limits, he said. People must understand how and when to safely push themselves.
Athletes sometimes can continue training or competing through muscle cramps, he said, “but hallucinations when you’re exercising — that’s a big problem.”
FROM ULTIMATE TO SUMMIT
Mikita skis, runs and bikes to stay in shape for his true sport: ultimate Frisbee.
He led the men’s ultimate team as a psychology student at Ohio University, and when he graduated with three years left of eligibility, he stayed at the school and earned master’s degrees in clinical counseling and rehabilitative counseling.
After a few years away from intense competition, Mikita reached the age where he can compete at the masters level, and he plans to fly to Ohio this summer to play with old teammates in the USA Ultimate regionals tournament. Then he hopes to advance to nationals with his team, OhiOld, in Denver the weekend of July 24.
Mikita approaches other sports with less focus on winning and more on enjoying the activity and nature around him. He also views exercise as one of the best tools for managing his bipolar disorder.
His personal history with mental health led him toward psychology and professional counseling, he said, as did an ultimate coach who worked in the field.
Mikita has spent most of his counseling career working with adolescents. He specialized in substance abuse and mental health counseling, working with people with mood and anxiety disorders. He has also taught DUI classes and completed mental health evaluations for court records.
Now Mikita is shifting his focus to counseling athletes.
“It’s really fun,” he said. “Putting your skis on to go to a day at work with an elite-level athlete is really cool.”
Since Vertical Runner opened in 2013, Mikita has run his practice out of the back of the store, but he rarely sits down with clients in a typical office setting.
“In this county, you can’t really ask a person to sit down,” he said.
He meets his clients for walks and backcountry skiing trips, and when he does sit down with them, it might be in the more relaxed setting of a local coffee shop.
Mikita uses the same informal style in his college courses.
He had never taught a class before, but he called CMC when he moved to Summit and was told the college didn’t have any psychology openings.
Then in January 2008, he learned a professor left when the CMC person on the phone asked if he could start teaching class the next day.
Mikita now teaches four classes in the fall and spring, and two in the summer. He transitioned to teaching full time four years ago and in 2012 was named the college’s top full-time faculty of the year.
Mikita said he likes to teach his smaller classes outside, and he also serves as director of clubs and activities, organizing disc golf, skiing and running clubs and events for students.
“I’m way better in ski pants than I am in khakis,” he said.
TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING
Part of Mikita’s drive toward sports psychology and athletes comes from his own experience not respecting his body’s limits.
When he was injured playing for his university’s team, he refused to stay on the sidelines and misused medications to get back in the game.
“I’ve had substance abuse issues with painkillers directly relating to wanting to play,” he said.
He has been clean for the past 13 years, he said, but using painkillers to play through injuries caused him long-lasting issues. His shoulders will never be the same.
Most Summit folks can relate to the feeling of not wanting to rest.
“I think that our couches are less comfortable here in Summit County,” Mikita said. “Nobody likes to be on the couch.”
For someone who regularly exercises, a break can mean serious impacts on mental health, including depression, anxiety, withdrawals and even a lost sense of identity or purpose.
Withdrawal can manifest in physical and mental ways, and when it appears after someone stops their usual physical activity it is one of the warning signs of exercise addiction.
Symptoms of exercise addiction are nearly identical to those for addictions to substances like alcohol, cocaine or methamphetamine, Mikita said, which produce the same chemicals as intense physical activity in the brain.
Increased dopamine production, one of the lauded chemical benefits of exercise, can cause schizophrenia, infertility and weakened immune response in people who produce too much dopamine.
Exercise addiction is an underestimated problem, Mikita said.
He looks for multiple symptoms to make a diagnosis, and the most important sign is when the exercise is impacting someone’s life negatively in terms of their relationships, work or academics.
Another common sign is when people’s use of exercise puts them at risk of injury or death.
For example, Mikita said, a runner in the Leadville Trail 100 Run entered an aid station talking about leprechauns following her.
Pushing physical limits like that can cause serious brain injury, he said, which is a problem all too common in Summit with skiers and snowboarders who continue on the snow despite signs of head injuries.
He cautions that while exercise has numerous well-documented psychological benefits, people can develop harmful addictions to physical activity if they ignore their bodies and let their minds prioritize exercise above all else.
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