Growing up, I never thought of myself as a natural athlete, but my marathon-running mom and college football-player dad made sure I tried just about every sport. There are countless stories of my running the wrong way on the soccer field, plugging my ears on the swimming block because I was petrified of the starting gun's bang, and even sitting down in the outfield during a tied softball game coached by my father. However, my parents still hoped that all those late-afternoon swim practices and early-morning runs would teach me lifelong lessons about teamwork, discipline, tenacity, and follow-through. Fast-forward 30 years, and that's exactly what happened. The values and habits I developed as I struggled to master a flip turn or kick a goal are the very same ones I found myself leaning on to tackle the biggest challenge of my life: motherhood.
"Take away the medals and what's an athlete? Someone striving for a goal," says gold medalist Alexandra Powe Allred, a mom of three who raced on the U.S. Women's Bobsled Team from 1994 to 1998 and was named Athlete of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee when she was four months pregnant. Retired from competition, she counsels moms in her suburban Dallas personal-training business to channel their inner Olympian.
After all, what's more daunting than the sleep deprivation, lack of personal time, and chaos that come with the blessing of becoming a parent? As I emerged from the fog of the first year of my own twins' lives, I found myself relying on sports metaphors and mantras (No pain, no gain!) to help me get through the long days of diapers, laundry, and career transition. When you're watching the games this summer, consider these smart lessons from elite athletes about having a winning mommy mind-set.
Would you go out and run 26.2 miles on an empty stomach, dehydrated, and wearing flip-flops? Sounds nuts, right? Yet too often in the race to care for everyone else, many moms try to be marathoners without caring for their own basic needs. Athletes appreciate the importance of being healthy, well rested, and mentally ready to take on the challenges of parenting. "I always remember the safety demo on airplanes that says to put your own oxygen mask on first and then help your child," says Lucienne Papon, a mom of two young boys who played for the Los Angeles Lady Kings ice-hockey team. "If I forget to eat breakfast, then I'm more cranky with my sons, less patient, and less playful. If you don't take care of yourself and give yourself some downtime for a glass of wine, a weekend away, a date night with your husband, or an hour for a workout, then you won't be your best for your child."
To stay energized, Olympic gold-medalist skater and Dancing With the Stars champ Kristi Yamaguchi sips antioxidant-packed green tea when she's traveling or shuttling her two daughters to school and playdates. WNBA player Jia Perkins, a guard for the San Antonio Silver Stars, naps for 30 minutes to an hour on most days. She doesn't feel guilty because she knows her body needs the extra rest.
Athletes are always analyzing their performance without being too hard on themselves and making small modifications in their technique. Undefeated World Champion Boxer and Women's Sports Foundation president Laila Ali has learned to tweak her regimen and strategy each time she trains to face a new opponent. "I became a student of the game, and was constantly critiquing myself, videotaping myself, seeing what I could improve upon," she says. She uses a similar approach to adapt to her kids' ever-shifting schedules, stages, and moods. "When it comes to discipline, what works today may not work three months from now. I have to adapt my parenting skills because my children are constantly testing me as they get older and become more independent."
Moms can benefit from the same process of breaking down goals into small steps and reassessing as they go, says performance psychologist Kate Hays, Ph.D. If you focus on what she calls a global goal, such as "I want my family to eat better," it's easy to get overwhelmed and feel defeated when it doesn't happen quickly enough. Instead, try to identify small specific steps you can act on immediately. "To help your kids eat more vegetables, think about what you're going to buy at the grocery store this afternoon," says Dr. Hays. "Perhaps you'll realize that your daughter likes spinach, but you don't buy it very often. So your mini goal might be to remember to buy spinach and to serve it tonight."
Over time, each small victory will put you one step closer to the outcome you want and also give you confidence that you're making progress, adds family therapist Jenn Berman, Psy.D., a Parents advisor. She knows about the importance of setting goals firsthand: She's a mother of 5-year-old twin girls and a former member of the U.S. Rhythmic Gymnastics national team.
Although it's helpful to plan ahead, athletes also practice mindfulness -- tuning in to what's going on right now. They often talk about being in the zone or flow state that lets them perform at a peak level. One way to achieve this is to stop overthinking, says sports psychologist Gregg M. Steinberg, Ph.D., author of Full Throttle. Like the swimmer who concentrates on each stroke, when you quiet your mind you can respond to what's going on and really experience it. For busy moms, that means being fully engaged during those delicious, fleeting moments with your child -- playing catch, having a quiet chat, or snuggling in bed -- instead of worrying about the laundry piling up or e-mail you haven't returned.
Slalom racer Sarah Schleper relies on this strategy when she's on the slopes -- or at home with her 3-year-old. "For me, it's one day at a time, one minute at a time," explains the four-time Olympic champion. "Instead of thinking about the outcome, I focus on what I can do to perform." When her adrenaline is pumping at the top of the mountain, she sings "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" in her head. She also tells herself to "hit delete" any time she has a negative thought.
Professional athletes rely on a team of experts to push them, but at the end of the day, their motivation comes from their own ability to persevere. "Whenever anything gets hard, no matter what it is in life, I have this little voice in my head telling me to keep going; you can do it," says Ali, who recently relied on that same voice to get through sleepless nights of nursing her daughter, Sydney.
Professional softball player Jessica Mendoza, a two-time Olympic softball medalist and mom of a toddler, knows that even the best players get a hit about only 30 percent of the time. Still, strikeouts are frustrating, especially in front of a packed stadium. When that happens, she tells herself to take a long, deep breath, and then she counts in her head as she exhales. She tries to take an even deeper breath and count to a higher number each time. She does the same thing at home to steady herself when her son is crying and she can't figure out why. "I try to see how long I can let my breath out, and then I can feel my whole body relax," she says. "I think my son picks up on that."
It's been said that 90 percent of any sport is mental. No one's giving medals for motherhood, but I've learned that it takes a lot of stamina to get the job done the way I want it done. Thinking of myself as an athlete helps me remember that I'm striving to achieve a worthy goal every day: to grow into the best mom I can be.
Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Parents magazine.