Female athletes are disciplined, determined, tough and competitive. They face challenges head-on, constantly adapt to greater workloads and monitor their gains and performances closely. They are in control. Until a challenge comes in the form of the joyous celebration of pregnancy. Their best traits are encroached upon by new fears, threats to identity, confidence, and difficulties with maintaining high training levels.
What is happening?
The athlete mom-to-be sometimes gets the feeling, and rightly so, that changes are happening in her body that are beyond her control. Nature is in charge of this phase of development, and this can be scary for someone who is used to being so highly in tune with her body, every movement or sensation.
Who Am I?
Ask an athlete who she is, and she will probably answer in terms of her sport. "I am a runner." "I am a soccer player." "I am a fitness professional." Her identity and her sport are one. Now she faces a crisis of sorts--"If I can't participate in my sport now while I'm pregnant, who am I?" Similar thoughts present when an athlete is injured and unable to work out with the team or at the level she is used to.
Will I Ever Play Again?
With all the changes her body is experiencing, and her need to slow down looming, the athlete inevitably starts to think, "Will I ever be able to compete at my highest level again?" For many, this 9-month period is the first time they have taken time off from heavy training in years, or ever! Having been taught that she must keep training, keep pushing in order to make gains in performance, the forced slow down can wreak havoc with confidence. The fear that every athlete who isn't pregnant will surpass her is a constant gnawing thought. She fears she will be left behind and never catch up.
Safety is absolutely paramount at this time for both athlete and baby. As per ACOG recommendations, exercise is important for optimum benefit. However, there are limitations to activity choices and intensity. The athlete mom-to-be can feel very limited in how she can train, and may think it is worthless to even try since the level is so low.
There is good news. The best, of course, is that at the end of this journey, this relative blip in time, a Mom is born! A whole new adventure awaits. The better news is, the athlete reemerges with renewed vigor and confidence, having faced the greatest physical challenge nature can provide her. The key to this result is preparation, planning and focus on the positive during the pregnancy.
Do Your Research
Find out what is happening as the baby develops and grows. Understand your limitations and why they exist. Find other athletes who have experienced pregnancy. Ask lots of questions. Read anecdotal evidence of mom athletes who have returned to play another day, seemingly having not missed a beat.
Have a Plan
There is no better way to maintain a level of control and confidence than to set goals. Set short-term goals for yourself in your training. Consider your limitations and plan accordingly. For example, a runner used to 50-mile weeks may set a more reasonable goal of fewer miles or slower speed. This time can also be a great opportunity for cross-training. The body responds enthusiastically to new challenges, and even at a low intensity, a new or different activity can be a big boost both physically and mentally. Thinking ahead, too, planning for how you can work out when baby is here, can reduce anxiety as well.
Remember Who You Are
This is important: You are more than your sport. consider other aspects of your life, your personality, your activities. It is not necessary to remove yourself from the sport you identify with; to the contrary, if it makes you feel better, stay involved in some way. If you are on a team, find another way to contribute. Continue to attend practices, albeit on the sidelines. Offer a new perspective now that you have one as a spectator. Staying involved can help you feel less like you are being left behind.
See What You Will Be
Throughout your pregnancy, maintain your focus on your long-term goals, be it a certain level of fitness, competition or successful performance. Use imagery and visualization to see yourself where you want to be. See yourself crossing the finish line, scoring the winning basket, on the medal stand with shiny gold hanging around your neck. See it, and you can achieve it.
The challenges for the female athlete during pregnancy are many, but are not insurmountable. Remember, you are tough, disciplined and in great condition. Your body is up to the challenge and so are you. The sacrifices you make are ones you will never regret.
It's not hard to get motivated and to "bring it" for a competition. The excitement, the anticipation, the spectators, the opportunities to shine, they're all there if you just show up.
But what level of excitement, focus or intensity do you bring to practices? Are you there to play or just going through the motions? Basketball great Shaquille O'Neal once said, "Excellence is not a singular act; it's a habit." How do you develop the habit of excellence? By repeatedly doing your best over and over. Practicing excellence. You can't practice excellence if you don't "bring it" to each and every practice. Without the fans, the excitement of competition, the game-time pressure, it sometimes feels like there is no reason to really push yourself, to bring all you've got. But if you practice consistently at lower levels of intensity, this will become your habit. It will be very difficult to "unlearn" this when game time comes. Consider, too, that in many sports there are a number of players vying for the top spots, starting positions. If you give it everything you've got in practice, your efforts will be noticed. If many players consider practices a no-pressure, more relaxed time to just go through the motions of skills and conditioning, those players who contribute more, exert greater effort and practice with more intensity will stand out. To be clear, intensity of effort does not just refer to physical effort, but commitment and focus as well.
So how do you know what level of intensity is best? Should you always be bouncing off the walls, all over the place? Relaxed but sharply focused? Somewhere in between? The simple answer is, it depends. On the particular demands of the sport, but more importantly, on you. The ideal level of intensity for your sport is the level at which you perform your best. It is when you can be focused, attentive, make appropriate decisions and act quickly and decisively. When your physical play is intense enough to perform skills at a high level, with control and without any unnecessary muscle tension. When your movements have purpose.
So what can you do to achieve and maintain this optimum level? First you need to find it for yourself. Consider a scale from 1-10, where 1 is very low intensity, little to no excitement or activity, less focus and attention, and 10 is ultra high intensity, high emotion, hyper-focused, very physical and driven. Think about the number at which your intensity brings your best performance. It is not always higher intensity that is better. Sometimes a 10 might involve so much emotion or physicality that some control and focus are lost. That being said, some individuals actually perform better at a 10. Some do better at very low intensity, because their sport may involve more thinking, less physicality or emotion. Perhaps lower levels enable them to focus better and make better decisions.
The best way to know what level works for you is trial and error. Keep a journal or log of your practices. Record the level you feel describes where you are at the beginning of practice. After practice, record any changes in level you may have experienced during practice. Note how well you played at each level, or if you noticed your playing suffered. Over the course of several practices you should start to see a pattern, a link between a level of intensity and your best performances in practice. You've found your number.
Now that you know your ideal number, the trick is to bring yourself to that level in every practice, and keep it there. This can be done in a variety of ways. Cue words, phrases, images or movements are all useful for bringing yourself to the desired level and maintaining that level. Washington Capitals hockey goalie Braden Holtby uses physical movement in the crease in his warmup and at some points during his performance to get in the right frame of mind, to attain his number. During the practice or game he regains focus as necessary by squirting some water from his water bottle into the air and focusing on each drop as it falls.
You can adopt similar tactics which, when practiced often, can instantly reframe your mind and bring your intensity to your desired level. Maybe you do some physical movement, high-stepping, swinging your arms briefly, squatting or quick feet. Maybe you bring to mind an image--you see yourself repeating a play you made previously that was appropriately intense and successful. You don't even have to imagine yourself. Say you want to bring explosive movement to your performance, for example. You can imagine a cheetah sprinting after its prey. A fighter jet screaming across the sky.
You can also come up with quick phrases that will bring your attention to the desired behavior. "Let's get intense!" "Go, go, go!" "Fast!" "See it!" The phrase is entirely your own, whatever motivates you to reach the level of intensity and performance you desire.
Seem like a lot of work for practices? Not really. With repeated use, these techniques will become second-nature. You will be able to bring consistent high-performance intensity to each and every practice. And what will happen? It will become habit. Remember, excellence is a habit. Inevitably what you bring to practice will be there in competition. You will be in control and you will experience success. Count on it.
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