Mother Like a Champion

What athletes can teach us about going the distance as parents.

Getting Into The Iron Mom Zone

What happens when you apply an athlete's mindset to motherhood?

A few weeks ago, I was nearly flattened by a case of strep throat. My whole body ached. My head felt like it was in a vice. It was not pretty. The kids knew Mommy was not right. And still, they cried for me to sing with them in the bathtub, read them bedtime stories in my usual dramatic fashion and act like my normal self.

This, I thought, is exactly how it feels to "hit the wall."

I knew from firsthand experience about the metaphorical wall because of the six marathons I've run over the years. It's that dreaded feeling that you just cannot take another step. That afternoon, I felt like I had hit mile 23. All I wanted to do was crawl into bed and wait it out until my husband got home.

But the clamoring for my attention did not subside and I couldn't bring myself to lock myself in my bedroom. After some deep breaths, I picked my head up off the dining room table and talked myself through it. I pictured what I would do as soon as my relief walked through the door and just pushed on, fever, chills and all.

I am not a great athlete. But I was raised by parents who thought playing sports was important. I grumbled about softball and swimming practice back then. And yet, nearly thirty years later, I constantly find myself putting the challenges I face as a mother into the context of athletics. The lessons I learned about follow-through, discipline, teamwork and determination all apply, especially when I'm feeling exhausted, defeated and frustrated. The mental techniques for goal setting, recovery and performance seem especially relevant, too.

Sports psychologists help athletes reach their potential by teaching them how to harness their mental grit. Top competitors follow a disciplined regimen to build strength and speed and rely on a team of coaches and nutritionists to keep them at their peak. Yet often in motherhood, we assume our responsibilities come with constant self-sacrifice. We go it alone, don't ask for help and put our needs aside. Instead of elevating the physical, mental and emotional demands of our care giving duties, we are dismissive about what it takes to get the job done. We slog through, promising ourselves that tomorrow we'll get more sleep, take time to meditate or stretch, or pack ourselves energy boosting snacks (while we're making lunch for everyone else).

Former professional triathlete Susanne Achtenhagen knows this conflict well.

"I laugh at people who oooooh and aaaaah over Ironman or adventure races or anything I have done physically because parenting is the hardest of them all," says the Boulder based mother of two.

"With Ironman there is a finish line. There are people all along the course cheering for you, feeding you, giving you water. If it gets dark, they give you glow sticks and if it gets too late or you get too tired, they pick you up in a van.....not so much in parenting," she says.

Why does it have to be that way? What if mothers and caregivers in general, regarded their roles and responsibilities as an athletic endeavor - respecting the distance traveled in the course of the day in the same way an athlete honors the training and self-care that comes with successful performance?

In my Psychology Today blog, I will explore how tools from the world of competition can work for parents. I will share advice and tips from sports psychology researchers, elite athletes and their coaches to help keep you (and me) in top mental and physical shape, from visualization to breathing techniques to rest to nutrition.

Thanks to Title IX, which will mark its fortieth birthday in 2012, I'm one of a generation of women who played sports while growing up. We know what it's like to rely on a team, to taper down before for a swim meet, to carbo-load before a cross-country race. There are countless mom-athletes who are applying what they learned on the playing field during those formative years to how they approach parenting. And I will share their stories with you, too.  Moms like 33-year-old Lucienne Pappon, a competitive figure skater in her youth who went on to row for the Division 1 UNC-Chapel Hill crew team, says managing motherhood like an athlete is instinctive.

"For me, the athlete mentality just allows me to roll with the punches a bit more. Like in training, some days you have a bad day and some days you surprise even yourself. Truth is, you can't control everything, so the key is to just show up and do your best," says Pappon who is pregnant with her second child and has also played hockey for the Los Angeles Lady Kings.


Most days, doing your best is what being a mom is all about. It's a 24/7 commitment we keep up whether we're sleep deprived or sick, whether we're working late or stretched thin by everything else in our busy lives. Going the distance isn't easy. But for me, it's been the most gratifying journey I've ever experienced. I know I'll never be able to bike like Lance Armstrong, swim like Dara Torres or sprint like Usain Bolt. Yet, as a mother, I am running my own marathon each and every day and I'm looking to champions for some inspiration and winning tips to help keep my head in the game.

Heather Cabot is Yahoo's Web Life Editor and founder of The Well Mom website. She's a mother of twins and a former ABC News correspondent.

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