When I was gearing up for the Olympics (pre-motherhood), it took over my whole life for many years. Aspiring to be a world-class runner, I tinkered nearly everything about my lifestyle in order to maximize my performance--nutrition, sleep, extra-curricular activity, socializing, training, reading materials, you name it. Being a pro athlete isn’t something you do from 9-5. It encompasses your entire life. (If you think I’m exaggerating, just ask my husband!)
When I found out I was expecting my first baby, I anticipated that my “normal” athlete-lifestyle would be turned upside down. I assumed that since I wouldn’t be training as hard, and I wouldn’t be racing, that I would loosen the reins and enjoy the luxuries--like lots of ice cream--and the more lax lifestyle of the non-pro-athlete population.
HOWEVER, I soon realized that my “new normal” was in some weird ways more of the same.
From the gate, I was advised to eat like an athlete--lots of iron, protein, greens etc. and to avoid ice-cream. They told me to get plenty of rest and catch naps if I could. And of course the whole experience was a big build up to the crowning event of the year (excuse the pun), instead of a major global championship, it was the birth. But that was just the beginning of the similarities I was to discover between my two life experiences.
What I have found is that the life of a pro-athlete is is uncannily similar to the life of a little babe. Athletes (As) and Babies (Bs) have a LOT in common.
To my surprise, I quickly learned that babies can be little gurus that we can all learn a thing or two from. I’ve been compiling the wisdom about goal setting, training and life that I learned from observing both my babies that are surprisingly applicable to all levels of aspiring athletes. Below are some of the most important things I learned from my baby about improving as an athlete. I hope that they’ll inspire you to improve too!
6. CONDITION like a baby
When my little one as much as sees her favorite blankets--the ones we’ve used to put her down since she was born--she starts yawning and I can see the sleep come over her body. The blanket acts as a visual cue that triggers her to relax. She can sleep anywhere once she has one of her blankets, and she goes down to sleep laughing at times. It’s amazing.
So what does this have to do with athletics? Athletes often struggle with pre-race anxiety. Becoming too excited or too nervous can negatively affect their performances. Relaxation techniques can help an athlete become completely relaxed at the uttering of a word. It doesn’t happen on the first attempt, but with practice it can be remarkably effective. (We wrote a blog about relaxation methods here). Being able to completely relax at will is key for anyone during stressful, nerve wracking experiences, or during travel or race days.
Journaling helps you to identify how you like to relax and unwind, and also who and what leaves you mad and bothered. Rituals around race time can really help you conserve and transmute that nervous energy for when you need it most--on the race course!
Takeaway: Create relaxation rituals for yourself so you can call on them at will.
7. CONNECT like a baby
Babies who are deprived of social interaction can have stunted emotional and physical development. They learn best by people talking to them, playing with them and teaching them.
Strong social networks are imperative for athletes too. The best athletes have core relationships that support their athletic aspirations—with their coach, family, teammates, physical therapist, doctor, etc. These people help an athlete improve her performance, technique and endurance.
Independence is overrated and isolation should be avoided. We are social beings and need a community learn from and give us a sense of well-being. And in case you haven’t been out with a baby in a while, they are the most social little things always giving and receiving greets from strangers for smiles and acknowledgments. Why do we have lose this innate friendliness? We don’t.
Takeaway: Teamwork makes the dream work.
8. BE HERE NOW like a baby
Watch a baby play with a toy. She focuses intently on the sights, the feel and the sounds (usually bang or drop) of things. She experiences that toy fully. She is also keenly aware of sounds and colors around them, noticing distant barking or passing trains.
Babies don’t think about tomorrow or yesterday or this morning or later. They focus on what is in front of them at that moment, just like the most enlightened guru monks whose spiritual practice is to be fully present in the here and now. To be fully absorbed in one task at a time is the most productive, experiential and calming way of being (and could be the key to happiness). Cultivating your attention and learning to wrestle with your monkey mind is a worthy endeavor and cannot be overrated in terms of being required to be successful at anything. High-achieving athletes need to have the ability to focus on their task at hand with undivided attention on the process, not the outcome.
Meditation is great for gaining awareness of how much our minds wander--back to past events, or ahead to future events. A great way to start building this focus is learning to recognize when you are not in the moment, which, ironically, brings you back to the present.
Another way to do this is to feel the sensations in your body, and of course, exercising is great for this. It’s easier to be present when exercising because you are more in touch with your body, which is great for anchoring us in the present. Try to notice the sounds, the touch of things, the smells, the colors, and body sensations you’re experiencing, and you’ll find your stress melt away and happiness soar! Take this into your next race and it will help you "be in the moment" and perform optimally.
Takeaway: Vive el momento.
9. CELEBRATE like a baby
It’s not an ego thing to give yourself a pat on the back when you accomplish something that has challenged you. I observe my little one working on a puzzle and how she gives a little clap when she correctly puts a piece in the right spot; it makes me believe that it’s a healthy natural reaction. She only does it for something that was difficult for her--that sweet spot between too easy and too difficult. She did this before she learned to do it for attention and praise. When she accomplishes her goal it gives her great joy, and she expresses this.
I know some very high achieving athletes who’ve almost lost this instinct in their quest for excellence. They are so focused on improving and looking for tiny mistakes that they lose sight of their achievements and can’t fully enjoy their world-class accomplishments. So afraid of seeming “big headed” or being perceived as gloating, they almost shun their accomplishments.
But I think it’s important reward yourself with at least a little clap, or a sweet treat or a new pair of jeans--whatever excites you. Give yourself a bit of positive reinforcement when things go well; your psyche will like it, and will spur you to want it to happen again and again and again.
So go on, reward excellent behavior! For some reason we humans (especially us women) are more likely to dwell on the negative behavior and disappointments. This is fine as long as we learn from these situations, but positive psychology tells us to focus on what we do well and are doing right, and not always on what we do wrong. It is a subtle yet powerful difference. Next time you ace that 5k pr, or get that BQ, or finish your first race, celebrate it!
Takeaway: Clap your hands and say yeah!
10. ACCEPT like a baby
Whatever you do, please do NOT waste time wishing you had any body type other than the one you have. Love your precious, miraculous body. Get the most out of it. Don’t give up because you “don't have the ideal runner physique.”
Here’s a secret for you: The ideal doesn’t exist!
I spent too long uncomfortable in my own skin, not happy with my muscular legs. It really hit me how futile, wasteful, and damaging that negative self-talk was when I first saw my little baby girl, who has the same body proportions as I do. She looked so healthy and miraculous. I realized we are all perfect and beautiful in a deeper sense (for get mainstream medias definition).
I would die if my little lady ever looked in the mirror and felt bad about her body. She is so perfect just how she is.
When you realize you are enough and you are beautiful then you will be ready to take on the world. Free yourself from the self-loathing and allow yourself to soar!
(For more inspiration, please check out the lingerie company Dear Kate, with whom I collaborated to create sporty, leakproof underwear. They recently hit back at Victoria Secret's reckless "Perfect Body" campaign with their own version: #IamPerfect.)
Takeaway: You are perfectly imperfect, just like the rest of us :)
BONUS: Joy oh joy!
- The Joy of Learning. Babies are like sponges, soaking up new experiences daily. You can experience the joy of learning no matter how old you are--do a puzzle, learn something new, read a book, learn a language, find a new hobby. It can be challenging, but it will be so worth it to push yourself and do new things.
- The Joy of Play. Swing, jump, bounce a ball, swim, splash, climb, spin--go ahead, it’s fun! When was the last time you moved for fun? It’s easy to get consumed by mileage or calories or split times. Lighten up and enjoy moving your one and only body. Sport--no matter what level--is still supposed to be fun. Allow your playful movements to release any tension you body may be harboring, and not cause tension!
- The Joy of Dance and Song. No explanation necessary, but research now proves how singing and dancing ignites your neurochemistry and positively alters your mood.
- The Joy of Laughing. The average baby laughs around 300 times a day. The average adult, around 20 times a day. According to some studies, the onset of adulthood causes a gradual change characterized by increased seriousness and a diminished engagement in laughter. Let’s all lighten up!
It’s no wonder that more and more mother athletes are returning to competition after having kids and report feeling more balanced with a renewed sense of enjoyment for their sport, they have their teeny teammates to keep life (busy) fun!