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.
Great news! You don't have to be an Olympic contender to benefit from mental techniques. You don't even have to be in great shape. You just have to want to commit to achieving a personal best in your chosen activity.
Sit down and do an assessment. "Where am I now in terms of this activity, and where to I want to be?" When you have those two answers, you simply connect the dots. What lies along the line between them are your goals. The end point is your ultimate, long-term goal. The ones on the line are shorter-term goals. (See the article posted on Goal-Setting)
Now, to achieve each goal, decide what you need to do to get there. Here's where you can apply various mental techniques. A golfer experiencing the "yips," and wishing to eliminate them, can implement relaxation, ritual and visualization to assist in gaining focus and control. If you are new to a sport and learning skills, imagery can go a long way to helping your body lock in appropriate processes and movements. A runner attempting an increase in race mileage, a 10K or even a marathon, can benefit from self-talk during the race, or the use of associative or dissociative techniques to focus on how the body is feeling, or take your mind elsewhere to rhythmic patterns of counting or breathing or the like, respectively.
Great gains can be made, goals achieved, motivation maintained, and above all, fun had just by applying tools of sport psychology to your endeavors.
Articles for Athletes
Information to help you achieve your personal best performance!