Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or a gymaphobe, labor and delivery will probably be one of your greatest physical feats. While exercise during your pregnancy can keep you in fighting shape, you’ll need more than muscle when you’re weathering contractions at one minute apart. It’s time to learn what sports psychologists and world-class athletes know: To win the game, you need to train not just your body, but your brain too. “We don’t always think about the mental side of things, and the critical role that it plays,” says Joan Steidinger, PhD, a San Francisco-based sports psychologist who counsels athletes. “But taking the time to do so can help us achieve the outcome we want.” So wrap your brain around these tips and techniques and prepare to sail through labor from the first contraction to the final push. (Victory dance optional.)
Educate yourself on the labor process
An athlete’s confidence comes from knowing she’s taken the necessary steps to prepare for the competition ahead; being as prepped as possible for labor can help you too. Steidinger advises moms-to-be to get a sense of the process they’ll go through once they think they’re in labor. (Call the OB? Go directly to the birthing center?) Your doctor’s office should provide you with a handout or a verbal walk-through of what to expect. And talking to trusted friends who’ve been through delivery (both vaginal and Caesarean) can give you a sense of what you might experience.
Jennie Finch, an Olympic gold medal-winning softball pitcher for Team USA and mom of two, knows the value of being prepared. “For me to be confident on the field, I had to put in the work and do everything in my power to be at my best,” Finch says. When pregnant for the first time with son Ace, Finch tackled the experience in much the same way as she would a big game—only instead of studying tapes of past games, she watched countless episodes of TLC’s A Baby Story.
Use mental rehearsal and visualization
Athletes use mental rehearsal for what cannot be simulated easily in practice, like sinking a winning shot at the buzzer. (You may find you already have similar practices, such as making mental movies of upcoming life events.) Since labor can’t really be practiced, mental rehearsal is a perfect tool.In the weeks leading up to your due date, give yourself 15 minutes a day to call to mind an image of the birth-ing suite you visited on the hospital tour, and imagine yourself going through the labor experience there.
If mental rehearsal makes you anxious, Steidinger says to switch to another tactic: visualization. To begin, picture yourself in a soothing place—say, in a green field or on a beach. Relax your muscle groups one by one, starting with your head and going all the way down your body to your feet. Once you’ve gotten good at visualization, you can call on the tool when you’re in the middle of labor to help you focus and maintain perspective.
Develop a pregame plan
Athletes love rituals and plans before a game. For example, Finch always warmed up for 27 minutes before going out on the pitching mound. “A set procedure gets you ready for the task ahead. The routines athletes do calm them down,” explains Steidinger.
Relax yourself by packing your hospital bag well before you need it, mapping out your route to the hospital, and printing several copies of your birth plan. Make contingency plans in advance for older children and pets so you aren’t scrambling at the last minute. Also be sure your hospital bag has a few familiar items from home, including a comfy pillow, fluffy robe, or MP3 player filled with your favorite tunes.
Be ready for changes
Just as a basketball player doesn’t always sink the shot,delivery may not go entirely as planned or expected. The ability to stay flexible and roll with the punches will be key to having a positive birth experience.
“Some people feel so tied to their birth plans that if labor deviates from them, they feel like they failed,” says Melanie Schwartz, MD, an OB/GYN in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She advises pregnant women to walk through their birth plans ahead of time with their doctors, so they understand what might have to change based on the circumstances of labor, like failure to progress or an issue with the baby’s heart rate. “Goals are great, but keep in mind that labor is a minute-to-minute thing, and your fulfillment shouldn’t be tied to things going 100 percent according to what’s on paper,” says Schwartz.
If things don’t unfold the way you want them to, heed Finch’s advice, which helped the