The Psychology of 4th Place

“How much it must suck to come 4th at the Olympics!”… “All that hard work for nothing!”… “My heart aches for (insert athlete) getting 4th”… “It must be the worst feeling”… “Coming 4th is worse than dead last”. These are recent and common spectator comments you may have heard, thought yourself, and can read if you just take a scroll through a Twitter search for example.

On the other hand when an athlete seems overly upset or inconsolable over a 4th place finish in the media, one may feel like shouting back, “Why are you so upset?!! You just placed 4th (or even 5th, 6th etc.) AT THE OLYMPICS!!”

I remember watching one of my favourite Canadian athletes that I looked up to in my event at the time, the 1500m, run at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. It was Leah Pells and she finished 4th, half a second shy of a bronze medal. She ran an amazing race. She recently wrote a book on her life up to that moment, called “It’s not about the medal”. It is definitely worth the read to understand the full meaning of all her accomplishments on the track. The first chapter of the book starts with the following quote about that 1500m final race in Atlanta,

“I was thinking I could get 8th. Then, I thought I could get 7th, then 6th, 5th, 4th… and by the time I realized I could get 3rd it was too late. I had run out of track. Some people I’ve talked to have been saying, ‘You were so close to a medal. Too bad’. Those people don’t really know me. They don’t know where I’ve been or come from.” (Leah Pells, Tri City News, August 1996)

A recent CBC article came out titled, “Canadians felt heartbreak of Olympic ‘tin medal’ with the byline, “Fourth is probably the worst place”. One online comment in response to the article stated, “This story is only newsworthy if there is context added.” When it comes to understanding the context and subsequent psychology of “winning” fourth place or “losing” a medal I couldn’t agree more.

As Leah Pells stated regarding the 4th place sympathizers, “Those people don’t really know me.” If one is to judge an athlete or team’s 4th place performance as full of heartbreak or somewhere towards the other end of the emotional spectrum: complete joy and ecstasy, you must first understand it within the context of the entire season and years leading up to that point. Was the athlete a clear favourite or one of many contenders? In sports like swimming the field is so deep that being a fraction of a second off can be the difference between 1st and 8th. Perceived clear favourites  can miss the podium by having just a slightly off day. A season’s best or personal best at the Olympic Games is always something to celebrate but a “choke” can be unfairly assumed without knowing all those contextual factors; the health status, the athlete’s full story of the journey there or even accounting for many luck factors, which are a much bigger factor in some sports than others (think BMX) that go into performing on the day!

And in speaking of sports that involve some luck, our Canadian mountain biker, two time World Champion (2011 and 2015), Catharine Pendrel recently wrote a blog reflecting on her Olympic experience and her Bronze medal. You can read it here. Catharine writes about her personal growth as an athlete through Beijing and London. In Rio, she was caught up in a crash right off the start line, had her shifting stop working for part of the race, and crashed again in the final lap. Those are some of the luck aspects of mountain biking. On the other hand, she was ready to respond and fight back through all of them from everything she’d learned and experienced as an athlete at that point.

In summing up her Olympic race she writes, “I LOVE my Bronze. To me it is Gold. I got everything I wanted out of that performance. It was far from perfect, but it was magic. I rode the race of my life and got exactly out of my performance what I wanted most, a ride that I could be proud of.”

And perhaps that is what needs to be celebrated more often. Attention, media recognition and Olympian status certainly create a large perceived gap between the meaning of a Bronze and 4th place. When we finish on the flip side and feel like we’ve missed out on a dream result (and for some the financial payoffs) by so little, of course there will be mixed emotions, and when any competitive athletes tastes “victory” so close, they will always think about what could have been, continue to strive for more, and hopefully come back even more motivated. In that same mountain bike race, our other Canadian rider Emily Batty finished 4th, and 2 seconds behind Catharine. I hope she can now feel more pride than defeat, and celebrate her effort, race execution and say that was the best ride she could put out on the day. And when you can say that, there is no shame in coming 4th at the Olympics.

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Photo credit: Tyler Anderson

 

 

Re-discovering athlete-identity beyond the competitive stage

We all go through major transitions in life that can initially leave us with mixed emotions, high school and college graduations, leaving home for the first time, relationships and career changes, or starting a family to name a few. However, for athletes who retire from competitive sport, the struggle to adjust to “normal” life is very real and thankfully it is discussed more and more openly by athletes themselves. For example, Michael Phelps has talked publicly about his post-London Olympics struggles. After making a return to swimming for the Rio Olympics, he insists he will be retiring for good after ending his career the way he wanted to. And I’m sure after the mistakes he admittedly made in transitioning out of sport the first time, he’ll have a better plan and approach in the coming months and years this time around.

Of course, not all athletes can decide to retire on their own terms, especially with the ultimate high of Olympic Gold. Team deselection, injury, financial stress, and motivational burnout are all reasons athletes struggle with or ultimately walk away from a competitive driven life.

Perhaps shedding “athlete” as your primary identity is one of the most difficult because it is so all-consuming. You don’t have to be an Olympic or Professional athlete to experience the many, mostly positive, influences that purposeful and clear daily goals, and constantly pushing one’s physical capabilities can bring to one’s life. In the name of performance sleep and nutrition are prioritized and discipline is cultivated. The immediate gratification of accomplishing optimally challenging training sessions provide regular endorphin highs. Social ties can run deep as teammates and training partners forge strong social bonds through the highs and lows or training, traveling and competing together.

When all of the above is taken away by choice or involuntarily, after a win or a loss, a period of withdrawal and grieving is to be expected, and every athlete will experience the intensity of this process differently. It is important to have a plan, with non-sport goals to move forward, and the social support to do so.

As a result of a debrief report after the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Canada it was concluded that life-sport balance and post-sport career planning needed to be better addressed with athletes. Of course this has also been done in the name of optimizing performance prior to retirement as well. As a result Canadian athletes now have access to program called Game Plan which was founded to support athletes with their transitions throughout their sport and non-sport careers.

A Canadian paddler, and Olympic medalist, Thomas Hall, recently wrote in his blog titled,  When the Games are Over:

My “live your dream” speech to students has evolved. I tell them now that I have learned that though having a goal is important, having multiple things that excite you, multiple goals, is crucial for happiness. If I could, I’d offer the same advice to most athletes I know.

Multiple goals are certainly important. Over a year ago when I began the transition from life as professional athlete as part of the LUNA Pro team, travelling and racing Xterra triathlons for the most recent decade of my athlete life. Well before athlete retirement, I had a PhD, a husband and two kids, my ongoing part-time career as a mental performance consultant and college instructor, as well as continuing to work towards clinical counsellor certification. These were all things that I was sure would make the transition away from a jam-packed training and racing schedule, and a dwindling competitive fire, as seamless as possible.

As much as I was looking forward to the break from the structured athlete-life – working out as often or little as I wanted to, worrying less about what and when I ate, not fretting as much about lost sleep, having more time for work, social nights and drinks with friends, planning family vacations that didn’t revolve around races, as well as more time to just go with the flow of kids and family life – I was still surprised at how lost and listless I felt at times without purposeful training goals at the core of my daily schedule.

Although most athlete retirement advice is centered around pursuing other goals, and thinking and planning for what’s next, I personally believe it is also important to stay connected to your athlete-self in important ways that will help manage the transition away from competition. Here’s my bit of advice from personal and vicarious experience:

Keep moving. Yes, it is important to give yourself a few days or weeks to be lazy after a hard season of training and competing to recharge the mind and body. However, don’t be surprised when you start feeling grumpy and irritable within days. Since your body has been accustomed to working out every day, it is important to avoid the bodily withdrawal and ensuing potential downward mental/emotional spiral from stopping cold turkey for too long. Be sure to prioritize the time to still do something active, whether it is your sport or something completely different. Staying active and committing to a minimum level of exercise will give you the energy and clarity to find your new path as you start to focus more on your non-sport goals. While you don’t need to train at the level you once did, all the discipline and positive habits you’ve cultivated so well over time don’t need to go out the window either. If you need reasons and motivation to keep moving without a competitive focus you’ll certainly find them in the book:  Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain.

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Find your happy place when it comes to exercise. As competitive athletes the bar of expectations are set high when it comes to working out. If you’ve been used to training hours per day, getting out for 30 minutes can feel almost pointless and like a fail. Start somewhere. Everything counts. Experiment with how much and what type of exercise is enough to burn off stress yet leave you feeling rejuvenated; enjoy the change from previous training that may have left you feeling more often grouchy and tired than re-energized. Some athletes retire and never want to do their sport again, and choose alternative active pursuits. Others realize how much they truly love and enjoy their sport and continue to participate in it, even if at a much lower key level. Is exercising socially or solo, indoors or out-of-doors in nature most important to you? If you miss pushing the pace, go hard once in a while but don’t bother comparing with your old self or previous times and benchmarks, just enjoy the endorphins of a hard push now and then. Most importantly give yourself time to find out what brings out the best version of you when it comes to a new relationship with exercise, and maybe even competition, if you’re so inclined at any point down the road.

Let go of your old athlete self and be where you’re at today. I often hear athletes say, I wouldn’t do a race/event (insert previous sport) because then everyone would expect me to do well and I’d be disappointed. Let go of your old self, and your previous glory days, as they don’t define you today. Be where you’re at, train or participate at the level that is ideal for you now. This is one of the joys of non-structured athlete life. For example, these days, I sometimes miss swims with my master’s group for several weeks but I always go back because I truly enjoy swimming and I like the social aspect of the group. Each time I miss a significant chunk of time in the pool, the transition back is tough as I feel clumsy and out of shape for a week or two, but it always comes back and the feelings are worth it! I know I still enjoy running and love mountain biking, but if I don’t get to do one of them for periods of time I’ve learned not to sweat it. Psychologically, so much of an athlete’s identity and self-esteem can come from completing training consistently and successfully. In post-athlete retirement one of the biggest challenges is learning to let go of rigid all-or-nothing training goals, to be okay with doing less to feel good, to find new meanings and (social) connections, and truly enjoy what our bodies are still capable of doing, partly in thanks to the years of hard work put in!

 

Why Get Organized for Optimal Performance?

“Camping is so much work! All we’re doing is organizing, cleaning up and putting stuff away” was a recent observation of my husband’s. My family and I spent the B.C. long weekend camping. While it was lots of fun, deciding what to pack, and how to set up camp was also a challenge in order to develop a system to keep things organized and not lose stuff. Of course, not being expert campers like many of our campsite neighbors, we forgot plenty of things like a rope to hang our wet towels between trees, and noted what we should bring, and leave behind next time. With more practice, the potential countless decisions around something like a weekend of camping get easier and more efficient. What are the top priorities and which things are less significant in the decision-making tree? Furthermore, the better we get at organizing anything in our lives, the less stress we’ll experience and the more mental capacity we have to focus on other things around us.

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As athletes, countless decisions go into pursuing potential, and optimizing performance.There are the more significant choices like what races to do or what coach to work with down to smaller decisions around the daily details around training, nutrition, and recovery.  While constantly juggling the work-life-sport balancing act, ranking the importance of each decision can be easier for some than others. Either way, when we waste too much time on trivial decisions or on decisions that don’t really matter (e.g. should I wear my smurf or my superhero underwear today?) then the result can be neural fatigue, depleting our energy and leaving less energy for the more important decisions and for what really matters to us in terms overall and daily priorities.

In this age of information overload, the processing of every decision we make such as what to pay attention to and what to ignore comes at a cost to our brain. Neurons are living cells so when they’ve been working hard we experience fatigue.

Attention is a limited resource. With brains that evolved to focus on one thing at a time we often have more things to keep track of than our brains were designed to handle. This is also why optimal performance often happens in sport with an in the moment, simple focus, with a well-rehearsed and practiced mantras or cue words. These types of mental tools leave no room for analyzing the past or fretting about the future. Perhaps this is why many of us enjoy the pureness of the single-minded focus we experience while training, playing, and competing in sport. The rest of the time we are often in a multitasking state demanding our attentional system to focus on several things at once – we read email and talk on the phone, or watch TV while social networking or studying for an exam.

When our brains attention constantly flips from one thing to another, there is a neurobiological switching cost. For example, ever wonder why scrolling through your social media feeds can leave you feeling more fatigued than recharged afterwards? It can be a process of constantly deciding what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Since our attention is a limited-capacity resource, our brains function best when we start a task and stick to it. So how does all of this relate to performance? Here are a few points to consider as you organize your life around sport in the name of maximizing your brains attentional capacities, and optimizing your overall energy and performance.

  1. Organize your physical environment to take the burden off your brain. While we all have varying degrees of cleanliness, home organization and tolerance for messiness, it is hard to disagree with how frustrating it can be when we misplace our keys, wallet or goggles for swim training on the way out the door in a hurry. And of course, we often misplace things, even if we have a regular keeping place for them, when our attention has been distracted elsewhere. While this may be a work in progress for most of us, the more we can organize, keep our belongings together in functional categories and have a regular place for them in our physical environment (e.g. camping gear, workout gear, keys, glasses, phone or even files on a computer), the less energy we’ll waste looking for things. This also applies to being on the road for athletes. As someone who has traveled to many races with a bike on planes, it is essential to develop an organization system for finding things, packing, and not losing things while away. Good organization of time and things reduces anxiety and stress, and allows more time to focus on performance and what matters most!

 

  1. Clear your mind by writing things down as often as needed. As I wrote about in a recent post, writing things down can be an excellent way to process ideas, plans, and reflections and literally take the mental load off your brain. For example when I progressed from a runner to a mountain biker to an Xterra triathlete, the list of gear and equipment to maintain went up substantially for each sport. Making of list of what not to forget or what routine to follow on race day was and still can be a simple example of getting it off your mind so you can relax, sleep well and know you won’t forget anything as long as you go over the checklist again on the way out the door. The same goes for organizing your race plan into manageable mental chunks and focus segments. The less conscious decision-making you need to do during a competition, the more your brain can focus on auto-pilot and more energy can be put into performing. Keep in mind this is a practiced and continually refined process with time, patience and experience.

 

  1. Focus or daydream while minimizing multitasking. As already mentioned, it takes more energy to shift your attention from task to task than it does to focus. If you’re able to organize your time in a way allows you to focus for extended chunks of time, you’ll not only get more done, but you’ll be less tired and less neurochemically depleted afterwards. The challenge is that our brain’s attention is easily distracted by something new called the “novelty bias”. Multitasking is like an addiction loop as our brain becomes rewarded with dopamine bursts for processing new stimuli that grab our attention; think of constantly attending to notifications on your smartphone. I also remember the short period of time when I decided to work on my French comprehension by listening to the radio while riding my bike on an indoor trainer. An already boring task coupled with a challenging cognitive task did not work out well for my ability to stay focused on what I was hearing, my motivation to keep pedaling or my overall energy management! Neither, in my opinion, does reading or checking your phone while working out at the gym. This also relates to the fact that daydreaming also takes less energy than multitasking. I often enjoy the time I have to daydream while out on an easy bike ride or run without the constant interruptions that are hard to avoid at home or work. It is a great time to be creative, make new connections and naturally problem solve things that have been on our minds. Focusing and daydreaming both help to recalibrate and restore our brains while multitasking does not. Staying organized in order to focus on one thing at a time while ignoring all the potential distractions certainly takes awareness and discipline, but it will pay off in terms of brain power potential and ability to focus in your sport as well! I know I’m still working on it!

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Earn your Confidence

In my work as a mental performance consultant with athletes, struggles with confidence is one of the issues that comes up most frequently. Think of the most confident people or athletes you know. Were they born confident or did they develop the confidence you see in them over time? Nature versus nurture debates aside, when it comes to sports I think most of us have observed or experienced personally how fleeting confidence can be. One moment you’re feeling on top of the world, ready to take on anything and anyone, and the next moment you may be going through an existential crisis questioning what in the world you are doing on the competitive stage in the first place? Passing thoughts like ‘why am I doing this?’ certainly don’t contribute enhancing your sport confidence.

So where does confidence come from and how do we nurture it and build it over time?

Like physical training, confidence builds in increments. Rock solid confidence doesn’t come over night and like any other aspects of an athletes training, it will have setbacks and temporary slumps. How we work through setbacks and what we look to for sources of confidence can make a big difference in building and keeping confidence more consistent over time.

Look beyond competitive results. Don’t buy into the common misconception or cliché that “you are only as good as your last result.” We can’t deny that a great or peak competitive performance certainly adds momentum to confidence. But we also can’t let one disappointing day override the confidence earned to that point from months or years of practice and competitive experience. If you let your last competition, race, workout, or training session determine your daily confidence you’ll be in for a real roller coaster ride emotionally; not a good way to balance your emotional energy or perform optimally over time! Furthermore looking beyond results also helps you to focus on the bigger picture perspective of all the reasons why you enjoy pursuing your sport in the first place.

Create a confidence plan. Sometimes when the normal waves of pre-competition nerves and anxiety hit in the weeks and days before an event, our brain says hey this a threat and we need to prepare for it. That is when negative thoughts and doubts creep in and it becomes easy to question our preparedness and readiness to compete. Many athletes I’ve worked with have found it helpful to write down all the things that have contributed to their confidence over time – things they’ve accomplished, overcome, positive feedback and encouragement they’ve received: all and any reasons they have to be and remain confident. Reading over this list when pre-competition nerves strike can be a calming and centering routine which also helps to shift the focus back to an eager and excited pre-competition state.

Focus on your own plan. If there is one thing that undermines confidence more than anything else it is constant comparison with others and rigid expectations with those comparisons (e.g. I should be ahead of him/her). While competitive rivalries are there to optimally challenge us and bring out our competitive best, if you’re focused on others or constantly comparing yourself against others in training or in racing, it will only erode your own confidence over time since what others are doing (or what you think they are doing) is out of your control. Put your focus and energy into your plan, what works for you and what you need to focus on pre-, during and post-competition to do your best. For example, the late Al Oerter, an American athlete, was incredibly a four-time Olympic Champion in the discus throw. In an interview he said one of the secrets of his success was practicing in absolutely every kind of weather condition, an example of focusing on your own plan and preparation for anything!

To grow confidence it needs to be challenged. Like the title of this blog, confidence needs to be earned. If confidence was something that was given to us or that we could buy it wouldn’t mean much. Confidence grows from those moments of pushing through fears, anxieties, challenges, setbacks, workouts, races, competitions and coming out mentally and/or physically stronger from them on the other side. When we embrace training and competitive days as opportunities to push our current comfort zones when it comes to effort, focus, and overcoming adversities we can appreciate how they help to build confidence and belief over time. When viewed this way, successes and setbacks can both equally contribute to building consistent sport confidence.

 

Write it down in the name of mental performance

When I look through a diary I had started writing at 10 years old, it is a little amusing and terribly boring (insert YAWN). It is full of simple facts about what I had done each day and who I was with, but hey I was only ten then. That was my first lesson in what not to write when it comes to keeping a journal.

When it comes to keeping a training journal, these days we can track anything and everything we do; there are smartphone apps, software, training tools and all sorts of gadgets. When I started training for mountain biking at the turn of the century I used a heart rate monitor, a trainer that measured power in watts and a blood lactate monitor to track my changes in fitness over time. It was also satisfying to know my distance covered and cadence (pedal strokes per minute) maintained after rides on the road. But when it comes to my first sport, running, I had to laugh when I recently saw this cartoon as I have to confess I’m still stuck in 1994.

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Since I’ve worked as mental performance consultant, many if not all of the athletes and coaches use some sort of tools to track and record training data as well as to monitor recovery. Unfortunately though, many coaches struggle with motivating athletes to enter such data regularly or in a timely manner.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is the potential to become so consumed with data and numbers, that as athletes, it can become easy to feel like a workout doesn’t count if we don’t have some sort of numeric proof or even public record of it such as on Strava *ahem – you know who you are!

Finding the best way to track and monitor any data around your training and competitive performances is individual. It will likely take some experimentation to make it meaningful enough for you to find worthwhile. See what approach suits you best somewhere between recording zero information and becoming obsessed with writing every single detail down that relates to your life as an athlete.

To find the right balance consider the following positives for writing and recording things, particularly when it comes to mental performance and maintaining emotional consistency through the ups and downs of performances:

  1. Plan for automaticity. I remember reading a study as a graduate student about how the best students studied. They wrote things down over and over again until pages of learning could be condensed on a single flashcard. Planning mentally for performances is similar to studying for a test. The hard thinking and analyzing should be done ahead of time. Peak athletic performances happen when we don’t have to think about what we’re doing at a conscious level. Once the gun goes off, you can be ready to respond automatically with simple cues that trigger your best response to each segment of a race or to any circumstance (a.k.a. test question) that could be thrown your way! In my experience, athletes that have a solid pre-race routine and race plan written down often are able to stick to it well through distractions and physical discomfort.keep-calm-and-follow-the-race-plan.png
  2. Purposeful mental training. In my opinion anytime that you take time to plan, analyze, strategize or reflect on your training and competitive performances, you are engaging in purposeful mental training. Give yourself space to thoughtfully answer pre-performance questions like: “What do I need to focus on to get the most out of myself today?” and post-performance questions such as, “What went well today and why?” and “What did I learn and will improve upon next time?” If you write down your responses to such questions it will help you commit to do what you need to and to solidify what you’ve learned. In other words you’ll accelerate your athlete self-awareness. Taking time to plan and reflect can translate into more consistent performances as you pay close attention to what works for you in terms of your combined mental and physical approach. Writing things down can also be an effective way to deal with pre-race anxiety in a solution-focused way: write it down, put it aside, relax and come back to review the plan as needed.

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  3. Let go and move on. I was surprised to learn that if you’re having trouble getting a song out of your head the best thing to do is listen to the song in its entirety. This is termed the Zeignarnik effect, referring to how when we ignore unfinished tasks, our unconscious mind will keep fretting about them. For athletes who race and compete often, writing down some reflections after each performance can be an effective way to debrief, reflect on the highest highs, lowest lows and everything in between. Getting things out in a conversation with a coach/trusted confidante, or down in writing can be an excellent way to offload thoughts and feelings in the name of emotional energy management, and move on to whatever is next.

Finally, at the end of a season, when your memories of specific training periods or competitions can seem like a blur, you will have a record of your reflections. Such notes can be useful to look back in order to help you and the team around you plan your next season. You may also see it as a personal souvenir of your athletic career one day.

Athlete-mom interview: Alison Archambault

Meet Alison Archambault, of beautiful Bragg Creek, Alberta. My good friend Richelle Love introduced me to her online. I will let Richelle’s words introduce this athlete-mom. I love Alison’s story, her approach, perspectives and her wise advice:

There is the most amazing athlete mom I know! Her name is Alison. She is a single mom who’s daughter does a tonne of extra curricular activities and she is always there with and for her daughter AND she works full time and then some, is a volunteer firefighter and she trains dogs to be companions for those with special needs! All with gratitude, a smile and an awesome sense of humour. I literally don’t know how she does it all. She is just amazing. I do know that she has fallen asleep on her trainer before….. You would love her D!

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What was your life like athletically (or otherwise) and how has it evolved since becoming a mother? 

I have always been active as a runner and a swimmer.  After my daughter was born (Mackaela, now 11), I suffered from postpartum and was really looking for something that was “mine” because the new titles I had like “Mom”, “working Mom” etc were heavy!  My daughter was almost a year old, the baby weight was still there and I was feeling the farthest thing from myself, when I heard an advertisement on the radio when driving to work one day for a women’s triathlon (Strathmore Women’s Triathlon).  I figured since I already ran and swam, how hard could it be to add in a little bike ride?  Famous last words!  The race didn’t come together at all well, but I was hooked!

My athletic life has ramped up considerably since Mackaela joined my family.

My long-time partner was a military veteran.  He was impacted by PTSD and mental wellness issues.  While we were still together, I knew it was important for me to have a stress release from the heavy, dark blanket of sadness that began increasing cover our home – triathlon training definitely did that.   As the stress and sadness at home increased, I trained more and more.  Training and doing triathlons helped me develop the mental strength and clarity to make important decisions about my daughter and my physical safety and emotional well-being.  It kept me grounded.  As a single parent, and especially as my daughter gets older and navigates our body-conscious world, physical wellness has become even more important to me as part of setting a healthy example for my daughter, as well as making sure I have time to myself to re-group before I have to go home to my beautiful pre-teen (and all the challenges and joys of that life stage!).

Did you train during pregnancy? If so please describe.

I continued to train for long distance running races and swimming races throughout my pregnancy until shortly before my daughter’s birth – I honestly think my body would have revolted if I stopped doing something it had been doing for 20 years!   I was fortunate that my OB was a long distance runner herself and a tremendous advocate for “keep doing it”.  Physical activity wasn’t always comfortable as my body changed, but it helped me feel as normal as possible during pregnancy.  I did the Kananaskis 100 mile relay 3 weeks before my daughter was born….I’m pretty sure that’s what helped her make the decision to enter the world a bit early!

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What motivated (or continues to inspires you) to get training and racing? How has your athletic life evolved or change throughout motherhood so far? 

My daughter and our active lifestyle inspire me to train, and keep training, because I want to be able to stay active and keeping up to my daughter for a long time to come.  We live in Bragg Creek and spend everyday hiking to the top of mountains and exploring.  I don’t have an atypical triathlete’s physique, but my athletic dreams and passions aren’t defined by that.   It’s important for me to set a good example for my daughter, her friends and other women about what is achievable when you set your mind to it.   My daughter comes to all my triathlons, and volunteers at countless events to support others achieving their goals and cheers her heart out.  I’m not sure I ever appreciated how much my commitment to physical fitness would create a space of empathy and encouragement in her to support others in their achievements.

My athletic life hasn’t changed much since my daughter arrived, what has changed is how I approach training and what I’m training for.  As her primary caregiver for most of my daughter’s life, like so many other athletic moms I’ve had to juggle training around family and work demands.  I have a high demand executive-level job, life on my acreage requires a lot of work and in my spare time, I’m a volunteer firefighter/medic and train service dogs.  I’ve got a lot on the go, and those passions take time away from training and family.  When my daughter was younger, I would run the highway and  driveway up to our acreage in 15 minute increments so I could check on her, or have her sit in a lawn chair and count my hill reps.  Sometimes I combine my run in the evenings on a mountain trail with her riding her bike and the dogs running alongside me.  She used to practice counting for math class by counting laps at the pool while I trained.  My coach also lets my daughter join into club training swim nights so I don’t have to make the choice between “Mom’ing” and training.  I always carry my cell phone with me to train, on days when she’s feeling a bit clingy, she calls me to chat.  Sometimes we chat for 20 minutes of an hour-long bike ride.

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Regardless of the size of my fitness goal, I’ve learned the importance of having a ‘community’ of like-minded people as part of my support network.   Rose and Richelle at Tri It Multisport were instrumental not only in outfitting me in pretty and functional gear to help me achieve my goals, they have also encouraged me endlessly and introduced me to the Triathlete Within Club to ensure I had people to train with safely in, and off, season – many of whom have become some of my closest friends.  The club has members from all walks of life and all fitness goals, but the coaches really unite everyone behind positive attitudes, safety, sportsmanship and the notion that there’s room for everyone’s goals and dreams always.   This year, I invested in a coaching relationship with Coach Chris Lough to help me achieve my wild-assed goals.  Words don’t describe the peace of mind and joy I feel from having him believe in me and my goal (on hard days I feel like he might be the only one of us that does!), but as importantly, hold me accountable to the training & commitment required to achieve my goals.

My daughter decided to do her first triathlon last summer.  I helped her train and prepare for her race and then took a front row seat on course cheering my face off.  She joined Kronos Triathlon Club this year and I’ve had the privilege of watching her continue to develop a positive relationship with her body, its strength and power through sport.  I’ve watched her question her abilities to achieve her dream and then overcome the anxiety to have a great race day.  I’ve seen her develop resilience when the race doesn’t go “as planned” and always show tremendous gratitude for volunteers who make dream days possible.  I’ve watch her learn to defend “why” being active is important to her to her peers.  This all may have happened with a sedentary Mom, but I don’t believe so.

What are your current training/racing ambitions for 2016?

To date, I have competed in 6 half-iron distances and countless long distance running races. My wild-assed goal for 2016 is to complete Ironman Kentucky and I have a few lead up races like IM YYC, Blitz Duathlon and the Wildrose Triathlon to keep it real.

How do you balance family/work demands and interests etc with your athletic goals? 

I don’t buy into the concept of balance.  There’s only so many hours in the day and inevitably there’s some things that are going to get more or less of your attention at any given point in time because they need to.   You can constantly chide yourself for not being somewhere other than you are, but that doesn’t fix anything.

My daughter is the most important person in my world and she knows she’s  my #1 priority.  I am best able to be her parent and co-adventurer when I’m physically fit and emotionally healthy.  There are lots of things I’m passionate about in my life.  Creating a weekly schedule helps a lot to make sure everything/everyone gets what they need – mostly.  But, I won’t sugarcoat it…. there are times after a week full of work and supporting my princess’ life that I leave for a scheduled training run sobbing,  get in the pool with a knot in my stomach or hop on my bike after kid bedtime so late that its dark and a bit unsafe to be training so late, all the while questioning if I’m spending my time in the right places.  You just do the best you can each day and try harder tomorrow.

My coach works hard to plan training around family, work and personal commitments. My runs often take place at 4:30am and training rides often aren’t done until 9pm.  Life lesson…when the RCMP pull you over and offer to drive you & your bike home because its getting dark out – you left your ride too late after chores and homework!

Several of my Mom friends offer playdate on Big Training Days so I can get 6+ hours of training in an my daughter is still having fun.  My Triathlete Within pals and I frequently rearrange our schedules so we can train together and hold each other company – misery loves company.

Fortunately, my daughter is usually kinder to me than I am to myself, and that’s an important lesson to learn. I came in from an early morning run not too long ago, my daughter was awake watching TV before school and I apologized for not being there when she woke up.  Her reply back sticks with me:

“It’s okay, Mom.  You’ve got big dreams.  If strong girls don’t show me and my friends that we can do triathlons, how will we know how big we can dream?”

Being creative on how I get my training in helps and keeping things in perspective, is important.  A few weeks ago, I had a training ride scheduled on a Thursday evening and my daughter begged me to let her ride with me.  My inside voice was frustrated as I needed to get my ride in but Mom duties ALWAYS come first.  An hour later, after she braved her first highway ride, I reflected on how inspired I was by her and how joyful I was about the evening we had.  If I wasn’t physically active I wouldn’t have had that amazing experience. I hadn’t been flexible with the plan for the night, I would have missed out on making memories with my girl.  Finding my joy while training and racing is always a priority!

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Any tips or advice you would have for other moms with goals of getting back in shape and/or continuing to train/compete with children? 

Just start.

Be kind to yourself – you will always be harder on yourself than you family will.

Be brave – set big goals and don’t apologize for them.

Sign up for races in your desired sport – the energy is contagious and having community is awesome.

Bring your kids with you to races

Make sure your heart and head are where your feet are – get a good training run in, then go home and be a great Mom.

If you’re feeling super stressed about leaving your kids to go train, trust your instincts: grab a little one close and skip training for the day once in a while.

Be creative in how you train – include your kids when you can.

(Try to) Drop the Mommy guilt.

Offer an encouraging word when you see another woman out training.  A little ‘darn you look strong’, goes a long way to quelling someone else’s Mommy guilt and could in turn remind you, it’s ok to do it too!

Find your joy – do physical activities that make you happy.

Find a support network of pals to train with.

Offer to look after someone’s children so they can get away to train – it’s a priceless gift with amazing karma

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Meet Karen DeWolfe: Founder of Momthletes

Meet Karen DeWolfe, a mother of three of Corvallis, Oregon. I met Karen in my Canada Cup mountain bike racing days and I still remember how fast she could fly down the hills. I wanted her fearless speed! More recently I have admired from afar how she has started a momthletes group to get moms together to exercise, get fit, connect and have fun! Since I’ve been wanted to learn more about what she does I asked her for an interview to tell us more. Read on for more on the story of momletes, Karen’s vision, goals, and how she and other moms work together to overcome the challenges of getting out for exercise. A great read full of so many tips and great resources!!

(Note: these great photos are courtesy of www.becerraphotography.com and to learn more about momthletes visit: www.momthletes.com)

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  1. Tell me more about your athletic background and how has it evolved since starting a family?

I grew up in Nova Scotia (eastern Canada) and my Grandfather, my father and uncles were always getting us to do fun little challenges, like diving off cliffs, playground obstacle courses, and all sorts of fun adventures. They really taught me a tremendous amount about overcoming fears and most importantly they knew how to make exercise really fun. My family enjoyed the outdoors together, camping, canoeing and hiking. We all loved riding bikes. We rode everywhere – the candy store, swimming holes, friend’s houses and to town. Being able to ride bikes was freedom. I also ran cross country, did gymnastics, and downhill skied.

In middle school I discovered mountain biking and I loved it. I did my first bike race when I was 16 thanks to a wonderful mentor who taught me and hundreds of people in Nova Scotia how to ride bikes over the years. Then I found another amazing bike community while studying Forestry at the University of New Brunswick. This lead me to my now husband, Matt Betts who helped me take racing to a whole new level. Within two years of meeting him, I was racing Canadian Nationals. The Fredericton bike community included a number of amazing mountain bikers including Peter Wedge, Anna Healy, Eric Goss, Matt Hadley, Geoff and Catherine Pendrel. The Radical Edge bike shop had a huge part in bringing us all together.

I raced mountain bikes at the elite level for much of my twenties.  When I was 26 I had my first baby. I did my first local race 5 weeks after my daughter was born and was racing world cups within 9 months. I also started racing Xterra and was loving that too. Then my daughter suddenly became ill and required hospitalization, blood transfusions and tests. She got better but it took 2 months for her to fully recover. That ended my first season of racing as a mother. My son also had a scary start to life, not breathing for the first 5 minutes of his life. It was unclear if he was going to survive, and if he did survive if he would have brain damage. He made a full recovery.  These two early experiences helped me decide to focus my time primarily on my children.

The first few years with children were hard for me as I had to let a lot of things change. There were days when I felt like I was failing as an athlete and a mother and days when I felt I was doing great. I ran more and biked less. I played with my kids a lot and taught them how to ride everywhere – to the library, preschool, to the candy store.  I still did some mountain bike racing locally and had fun trying some new challenges; 50 – 100 mile mountain bike races, some Xterra events, and my first longer running races, 15-50km distances.

As a family we went hiking and backpacking all over Oregon and travelled to Costa Rica to learn about their father’s amazing world of forest ecology, hummingbirds and flowers. It has been a great life but allowing the athlete in me to change was very difficult.

My oldest daughter is Ava Betts (11) – she hiked a 10,000 volcano with her friends for her 10th birthday last year.

My son is Miles Betts (8)– he is a limit pusher. He could ride his bike 6 miles when he was 3.5. He has a lot of energy.

My youngest is Anna Betts (5) – She is pure sweetness. She is kind and loving and rides her bike a mile to school and back everyday chatting happily most of the time.

2. You’ve started Momthletes, which is devoted to helping mothers fit exercise into their lives. How did the idea for Momthletes come about? 

I had a long standing Thursday Playgroup with a group of women I call my Pro Moms, because they are completely dedicated to their children. Playgroup was a place where our kids could all play together and us Moms could talk about anything we needed to.  When it was time to put my youngest in school, my Playgroup Moms asked me what I was going to do with my new found time. They suggested I help other mothers figure out how to stay fit. They had watched me fit exercise into my life in a “by any means necessary” way over 10 years – running to preschool, biking to playgroup, running to the grocery store, doing intervals with napping babies in the chariot. They suggested other people would want to learn about how I integrated my life as an athlete and a mother. And thus Momthletes was born.

I started with my Playgroup Moms, showing them my ball workout that I use almost exclusively for strength training, and I gave a few women workout programs. We also started the Momthletes Facebook page so we could share our victories and strategies with one another. Then I met another Mom friend out running one day. She told me she wished she could just go for long adventurous runs some day. I told her I was planning on starting a Momthletes class and she said she would be there and would tell others. That began the Momthletes Basic Workout which we are still doing today. We start with body strength exercises on the playground, then run or hike straight up an 800 foot hill and then sit in silence for 3-5 minutes at the top of the hill overlooking our city. We then walk back down and talk about whatever we need to. That wonderful Mother I met running that day can now run a half marathon at the drop of a hat, is raising three beautiful children and is completing her master degree in education.

Now I offer different programs – personal training, mountain bike lessons, and different running classes. I help women organize their homes to make more time and space for exercise, define their goals for exercise and life and create work out schedules that support those goals.  I help women pick out the appropriate equipment for the exercise they are interested.  I also direct them to physical therapist and message therapists if there are issues I think they need help with.  Momthletes Classes bring together a community of women who are dedicated to helping each other reach their goals in exercise and life.  There are a variety of prices and ways to get involved and I am still planning new programs to meet the many needs mothers have.

Momthletes13. What does a typical week of workouts with momthletes look like?

Summer Schedule example:

Monday 6am – Momthletes Basic Training Workout

Monday 9am – Run with Ease (how to make running easier)

Tuesday – Personal Sessions

Wednesday 6am – Trail Running Techniques (how to make hard terrain easier)

Wednesday 9am – Grampy John Family Adventure Day – bike/hike adventures with kids

Friday 6am – Trail Run – 5 miles at a talking pace.

The schedule changes depending on the season. All the workouts are outside. This winter we met every Monday and Friday at 6 am and trail ran in the dark with headlamps and often in the rain. It was not large group but the women who did it reported feeling less seasonal effects and left every workout feeling tough and happy and ready to take on anything, and they do!

momthletes24. In your experience what are the biggest challenges moms have for fitting exercise into their lives?

  1. Finding the Time – There are so many things mothers have to do. Career, housework, educating our children, volunteering, grocery shopping, making healthy meals – the list is endless. Taking time out of that endless list for exercise can seem impossible for moms and dads. But when we stop taking time to care for our bodies and ourselves, these other tasks start getting more and more difficult.
  1. Pain – A lot of women are in pain after they go through a pregnancy and give birth. Our core strength completely changes after pregnancy and this can change how our bodies feel. Then there are all the things we don’t like talking about but need to – tearing, bladder control, even sore breasts can make exercise painful. Figuring out ways of using exercise to make postpartum better and not worse is key to helping women get back on the path to exercise. Sometimes this means prioritizing physiotherapy or massage therapy to become relatively pain free before beginning exercise.
  1. Money – The gym membership, the fancy bike trailer, and other exercise equipment all costs money. There are also all the expenses of having a new baby. One part of Momthletes is trying to help women find inexpensive options for exercise while they are adjusting to all the costs of having children.
  1. Fear – There can be a lot of fear beginning an exercise program. Fear that it will be painful or too hard, that now is not a good time, or that the community will not be kind and accepting. Overcoming fear can really open up a lot of doors in life and fitness.
  1. Support – Sometimes women do not feel like they will have the support they need to begin exercising. Women need support to begin exercise, sometimes in the form of encouragement, the giving of time or financial support to take the steps to get fit. This support needs to come from our partners, community, families and/or friends.

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5. What are the biggest factors that help moms to be successful at exercising regularly?

A Strong Community: Having a community of people to exercise with who understand the challenges we face as mothers can really help women fit in exercise regularly. Having people to meet up with and share their knowledge about exercise with one another is invaluable.

Time Management: Mothers have to understand time management. There are so many things we have to do as mothers, it is key to know how our days work in order to fit exercise in. Having a workout plan ahead of time, that takes in consideration all the other roles and duties mothers have can dramatically increase our chances of exercising. I found Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  by Stephen Covey a very helpful resource to teach me how to schedule my time for all my different roles in life.

Household Organization: Having my home in a reasonable amount of order dramatically improves my ability to access my clothes, healthy food and my equipment quickly and easily. Quick transitions can only happen when our things are organized and ready to go. Learning how to have this piece in place was a game changer for me. But it can be difficult to learn how to fit new people into our homes and lives! The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo has added years on to my life.

Getting Help and Fixing Pain – Take care of your pain. Don’t just live with it. There are great physiotherapist and massage therapists. Find out from other athletes and mothers who they trust and get help if you are in pain. Pain is exhausting and can often be fixed with the right help. It can take time to heal but it is worth it.

Low Cost Exercise Options – I highly recommend the Chariot (Thule) or Burley trailers to people. It is a big initial investment but it is a solution to many problems. Bike Trailers and joggers allow mothers to exercise without a gym membership (thinking of it that way, it is paid off in less than one year). We used ours often as transportation. It has served as my family’s second car, saving us a huge amounts of money in gas, car payments, insurance, etc. Plus, it has allowed me to stay fit and teach my children how to stay fit.

The exercise ball is my most valuable piece of exercise equipment (okay, after my mountain bike). You can get a full body workout in your home for $12.

Running is also an inexpensive activity. The Cool Impossible by Eric Orton, has some really great information on running in a way that is easy on the body.

Overcome Fear – There is nothing as scary as having a baby and with that done, what is left to fear? Don’t let fear stop you from doing great things. Find a community of friends to help you see past those fears.  You will help them do the same.

Support – Moms sometimes have to ask for support from their families in order to fit exercise in. I find most families are excited to see their partners/mothers out exercising and it makes everyone in the family feel inspired. When we learn to take care of ourselves we can take care of everyone else much more effectively.

6. What are the biggest things you’ve learned since starting your group?

  1. That I will never stop learning.
  2. I can learn from everyone around me.
  3. I am constantly gaining a deeper understanding of how important exercise is.
  4. Every mother out there has an inner athlete that is amazing and unlimited.

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7. How do you hope momthletes will continue to grow and evolve in the future?

Team Momthletes – I would like to see an official team of inspiring mothers of all abilities levels doing the adventures, and races they dream of. There is already a Facebook page for sharing ideas, races, stories and information. I would like to find sponsors and support mothers making their athletic dreams happen.

Momthletes Non-Profit – Fun activities for families will be used as fundraisers and the money raised goes to various organizations that are doing great work. This has begun this summer with Grampy John Days – adventures in memory of my grandfather, my first great coach. We bike around the city to fun locations (including the candy store).

Momthletes LLC – I would like to see Momthletes LLC continue to grow. I love working with my clients and watching what happens in my classes when women work together towards their goals. I also love seeing mothers reconnect with their bodies and discover their unlimited potential. I would like to begin thinking about working with clients online in the coming year.

Momthletes Retreats – The first retreat is taking place this summer. The retreat is based out of Oakridge, Oregon and we will be taking advantage of the town’s incredible mountain bike and trail running system, including a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail leading to the Diamond Peak volcano. My goal is to have more retreats (Costa Rica, Bend, OR) and bring amazing women together to travel to other inspiring places and share each others talents.

8. Anything else you would like to add (tips, insights etc)?

Exercise is more than exercise. There is no separation between body and mind. When our bodies get stronger, our minds get stronger. As our bodies learn endurance, we learn endurance in our lives. Being able to endure the hard parts of life means we are able to hold on and get back to better times. But mostly exercise is just a lot of fun. And it helps you look healthy and nice. And you meet great people.

When we take care of our bodies we can take care of all the other bodies in our lives.

Move with your children. Use exercise as transportation, save the gas, earn your calories, and teach your kids how to stay fit and healthy. In my town, it often doesn’t take much more time to move by bike or foot. Then once I get to a location – grocery store, library, playdate, I have my stroller there already. If babies are sleeping, they can just stay asleep while I get errands done. The chariot was the best investment I made as a parent.

Get outdoors – it is hard to be sad for a long time outdoors. Try it. The outdoors will absorb your hard feelings and return you to a better place.

Keep moving, keep exercising. Balance it with your love for your children. Sometimes it is okay to change, slow down, speed up, switch sports, join a band. You may find you are just rediscovering other parts of yourself that were there all along as well. Let yourself explore your life.

Someone told me this fact about butterflies. When caterpillars enter into chrysalis they completely dissolve, then reassemble the liquefied caterpillar molecules into the butterfly. I think this is what happens to us when we become mothers. We liquefy and change dramatically – but with the proper conditions and time we reassemble all our original parts and emerge as something even more beautiful.

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Psychological Dissection: Why can’t I race as well as I train?

This is a common conversation I have with athletes who might start by stating, “I’ve been training really well but I just can’t seem to make it come together in races?!”

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When working on this problem the first thing I like to note, is that it is not a bad problem to have for a few reasons: 1) You know you’re fit, 2) You likely not over training if you’re consistently completing your training successfully, and 3) Perhaps this means there are a few mental aspects and strategies that need to be tweaked or implemented to translate your training success into racing success.

So where to begin? First, if there is a disconnect between training and racing success, lets first define training success properly. Obviously this is easier in some sports that others. For example, swimming in the pool and running on the track are pretty straight forward. Once you’ve been training and racing long enough, you (and a good coach) will know with almost 100% certainty that when you’re hitting certain workout/interval times in training that you are capable of racing under a certain time – I know this was certainly true for me in my 1500 metre running days on the track. However, with other sports I know and work with such as cycling and rowing, hitting certain watts on the trainer or on the erg play a smaller part of the race/result prediction equation. On the other hand, when it comes to triathlon, particularly longer events like half and full Ironmans, training for them rarely, if ever requires any the full simulation of the effort over time required on race day – let alone the unknowns and fickleness of putting three sports together well on one day.

Either way, if you, your coach and perhaps other in your circle feel you are under performing in races in comparison to training, what could be some psychological factors? Here are a few psychological considerations to be aware of that can be strategically worked on:

  1. Results only focused. You’re focused so much on the result you’d like to achieve that you don’t take time to break down HOW you will do it. Training is a process and so is racing. Race result goals are motivating but to get the most out of yourself, think about and plan out how you’ll achieve it; things like a well-practiced pre-race routine and warm-up, where will be the key mental focus points of the race – for example the start line, various time or distance intervals, laps, physical landmarks etc. What are the most important cues for you to remember for each segment? Having a mental race plan also helps override the normal negative thoughts that come up when our brain is on high alert wondering why we are pushing our body so hard – thoughts like “Why am I doing this again?” and “This hurts!” – not performing enhancing thoughts if you get stuck on them for too long!
  2. Managing anxiety. When pre-race anxiety hits, you react with panic and let doubts overwhelm you. The first step is recognizing that pre-race jitters are normal. Second, is accepting your individual physical and mental signs of the jitters and not overreacting to them. Third is having a plan (as in point number one) that you can stick to more or less no matter what; a detailed plan that centers you and gives you a focus as the waves of butterflies naturally come and go as they please.
  3. Viewing racing as an ongoing developing skill. Perhaps you need to grow some patience with developing the skill of racing, a separate skill from training well. Most athletes spend approximately 90% of their sport life training and 10% of it racing. Depending on your sport, you may have more or less opportunities to learn from and fine tune you’re racing skills. If you’re an 800m runner you may be capable of racing many times in a season whereas if you do half or full-distance Ironman triathlons you may only have the chance to race only once or just a few times per season. Often “older” athletes still win races over younger, potentially fitter athletes, because they have so much experience with race strategy, particularly in high pressure situations. They know how to stay calm and carry on.
  4. Permission to Fail. Related to point number three is learning to be okay with “failing” in racing many times in order to succeed. As a Buddhist saying states, “The arrow that hits the bull’s-eye is the result of a hundred misses.” When you are disappointed and don’t get the result you wanted or expected, can you still recognize the parts that went well? And find motivation from the challenging learning moments that you will build on next time?
  5. Permission to Succeed. Belief and perceptions are powerful. Just as setting expectations too high or too rigidly can become a mental barrier, so can setting expectations too low. Sometimes the perceived stress of achieving their ultimate goal causes some athletes to subconsciously sabotage their own performance, and chances of succeeding. Ask yourself: Can I commit myself fully to the work it will take to be successful? Can you say, “Why not me? I’ve worked hard and deserve to succeed as much as anyone else” And on the flip side can you commit to accepting yourself regardless of whether you ever reach your dream goal(s)?
  6. Success is not Permanent.Sometimes after a breakthrough performance or achievement such as turning professional, making a team, or competing on the world stage, athletes or teams may have the illusion that they’ve somehow “arrived” – and in turn put undue stress on themselves of having to constantly defend their position at the top. Just as we shouldn’t dwell on the times the big “win” didn’t happen, we shouldn’t dwell on victories for too long either. If there’s any guarantee in the world of competitive sport it is that cycles of change are constant – performances are transient. Sometimes you’re on top, sometimes you’re not. Remember that everyone has successes AND setbacks at some time or other along the way. When success comes it doesn’t need to add more stress or stop the constant learning process.

Merging the athlete-motherhood identity

My story as the “athlete” began as the only 9 year old girl on a soccer team full of younger boys. There was also one boy on the team who was two years younger, my brother Geoff. With no girls soccer teams at that time growing up in a then small town: Courtenay, B.C. on Vancouver Island, the boy’s team was my only option. I guess it was also convenient for my parents that my brother was skilled enough to play up an age group and have us both on the same team. A little further up the island was a girl my age, Tricia, who was also playing on her younger brother’s team. I felt some solidarity with her at the time and we later became friends and school teammates in volleyball, basketball and track in junior and high school.

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My second year playing with the boys, second from left back row. My brother in centre of second row, and my bearded dad as one of the coaches

I don’t remember particularly loving soccer and I never played it to the level or passion of my friend Tricia, but I did it anyway, and had a few crushes on my teammates along the way🙂 . It also prepared me physically well for my first real sport love when I discovered running on the track by 6th grade.

Through positive role modeling and support from my family, teachers, and coaches growing up I adopted the belief that I could pursue sport as long as I wanted to. However, I knew education and having a family were also important to me. I still distinctly remember giving myself a competitive timeline as a young runner; I would plan to run track competitively until I was 30 years old, that was my cut off to discover any potential I had.

As time went, I only ran seriously on the track until the age of 23 before moving on to cross-country mountain bike racing and then (mainly off-road) triathlon before finally shedding the largely consuming identity of “competitive athlete” one decade and two children later than I had predicted. I believe I had the age of 30 as a stopping point in my head when I was young because I equated having children with the end of the athlete identity and the start of the motherhood identity.

Fortunately I had the epiphany that my athlete identity did not need to end when my motherhood identity began, and I am thankful for all the support I have received to be able to merge the two. Just as the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village beyond the nuclear family to support, encourage and give mothers the space and opportunity to keep exercising and competing if they so desire. And now I’m thrilled to see more and more women balancing motherhood/family /career and other obligations with physical activity and competitive athletic goals at any level from recreational to the elite/professional level.

I’m grateful that now in 2016 young all-girls soccer teams are thriving on northern Vancouver Island and elsewhere, and that females can do most any sport they’d like to at the same level as males. Thanks to the work over time of organizations like Team LUNA ChixWomen’s Sports Organization, Fast and Female, the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS),  and ZGiRLS to name a few, girls and women can find encouragement, support and community to pursue sport and continue to pursue athletic goals through education, careers, and motherhood.

I’m happy that my epiphany is now more and more commonplace 10 years later!

 

 

Athlete-mom interview: Kelli Montgomery

Meet Kelli Montgomery from Wallingford, Connecticut who I met thanks to off-road Xterra racing. She is tons of fun and I always loved hanging out with her when on the Xterra tour. Kelli has over 18 years of pro and age-group triathlon racing experience. She is a two-time Ironman Hawaii qualifier and finisher. She is also the 2014 Xterra World Champion (40-44 age group) and 2016 USAT off-road national champion (1st overall amateur and 1st in her age group). Kelli is a multisport coach and you can learn more about her qualifications and coaching services on her website: www.coachkelli.com
Kelli also works part time for the Wallingford Parks and Recreation as a Health and Fitness Supervisor (she organizes a kids triathlon, cross country running series, and fitness classes), along with helping coach the Nutmeg Youth Triathlon Team. Read on to learn how Kelli trains, competes and balances it all….
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1. What was you life as athletically (or otherwise) and how has it evolved before and between each of your children and and as they’ve grown?
I have 2 sons Benjamin Gyulay (11 years old) and Nolan Gyulay (8 years old) who are soon to be 12 and 9 in September!  When I had my first child I was taking a break from triathlon after racing elite and having some injuries and health issues. In between having my two sons I did race a little bit.  Then after both children where born as of September of 2007 it was slow build up to getting back to racing more consistently in 2010.  I would say the biggest change has been managing my time efficiently and staying organized. Before kids if I started a ride 15 minutes late it was no big deal; now I need make a soccer game so if I don’t start on time then my workout gets shortened. Certainly being more flexible now that I have children and not sweating the one workout missed here or there or if something doesn’t go quite right.  In the big picture realizing I’m pretty consistent and slight change doesn’t really make a difference.
2. Did you “train” during your pregnancies? How has your training/racing evolved/changed since becoming a mother?
I did do some training/exercise during both of my pregnancies. The first pregnancy I was really motivated to stay in shape and the second I did a lot less with having another child and another on the way.  With both I felt like I had lost some fitness and had some post pregnancy weight to lose. I’m more selective on what and how many races that I do knowing that its time away from the family.  I try to work in camping trips with the kids with local races so we can spend time together.
3. What motivated (or continues to inspires you) to get training and racing? And/or has this evolved through different stages with your kids ages?
I’ve enjoyed the challenge of taking up off-road triathlon and really learning how to ride a mountain bike in last 3+ years. Facing my fears of riding tough obstacles or scary descents gives me sense of accomplishment.  I keep seeing improvements in my riding and trail running so that is exciting and helps keep the motivation. I believe the biggest motivator for me is that I am having fun training and racing.  I’m working hard and being consistent in training but I make sure to keep it fun and not be too serious-be like a kid.  What has evolved since the kids is balancing my training and racing with their schedule. As their schedule changes with school, activities, etc I rework what days I do certain training on so it fits into the schedule. As they are getting older there are more sports activities, homework, and sleepovers to work around.  It just takes some planning and scheduling to make it all work for everyone.  I also have good support system with my husband and friends that helps tremendously.
kelli2
4. What are your current training/racing ambitions for 2016?
I’d like to continue to improve my skills as mountain biker-riding tougher obstacles and going faster!  I’m shooting for a win in 40-44 age-group at Xterra Worlds in Maui and top 3 amateur overall, but most of all improving over last years performance there and giving it 110% on race day!
5. How do you balance family/work demands and interests with your athletic goals? 
Keeping the balance is a constant process that keeps changing as my kids get older.  I take the time to think about how to achieve that and change things when I find the balance gets out of whack. Its certainly a challenge!
6. Any tips or advice you would have for other moms with goals of getting back in shape and/or continuing to train/compete with children?
Don’t rush and put pressure on yourself to get right back to training and racing after having children. For the first year after childbirth I didn’t put pressure on myself to get right back to training and racing. With both I didn’t take much time off from work so I was juggling being new mom and working and that was enough of challenge. I made an effort to get some type of exercise in each day but if it didn’t happen I didn’t beat myself up over it. Babies are so unpredictable that first year with their schedule so a lot time the intended plan got changed and staying flexible helped.
If you can find other moms to train with during or after pregnancy for support it really helps since they can relate to your experiences.  I was lucky my friend Sandie and I both had our kids within a month of each other each time. So we worked out together during our pregnancies and then provided each other motivation to train afterwards.  It was good training time to provide support to each other too.
8. Anything else you would like to add?
Make sure you keep it fun! Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and set big goals, you can make it happen!
Kelli1