Sports Psychology in Childbirth

By:  Stephanie Kuhn, MA, LPC

The palms of my hands are sweaty, so I continually wipe them on my leotard and the floor, hoping to dry them before my event begins. My heart is beating out of my chest like I am about to jump out of an airplane. I can feel the dryness in my mouth and throat get worse as my turn to perform gets closer; I feel like I’ve swallowed sand. My feet can’t stop moving and my mind is racing, replaying all my skills in my head until everything feels right.

For the six years that I competed in gymnastics, the hundreds of events and performances I did, these feelings were there every single time. Even now, into my adult years, these same emotions and physical symptoms creep up for presentations, interviews, public speaking, or any other performance-based task. These are feelings I can vividly bring to mind; I begin to feel them now just writing these sentences.

As I grow older and friends and family begin to have children, I often wonder what the birthing experience is like.  I fear that I will have all of the symptoms I just described. My worst fear is the pain. Even the thought of it is slightly frightening and the same fear-based emotions and physical symptoms return. I used to tell myself that if I ever chose to have a baby I would need to go through some type of pain management therapy to be able to handle this stressful—yet beautiful—experience.

Then I read a very interesting article in the New York Times by Serena Solomon, a lifelong athlete:  sport psychologists Jay-Lee Nair, Joan Steidinger, and Caroline Silby helped Ms. Solomon use sport psychology principles to thrive through the birthing process.

I found this eye-opening:  trained as a sport and health psychology consultant, I hadn’t thought of this particular cross-over. I already apply several of the skills and techniques I learned through graduate school and on-the-job training to everyday situations as well as the bigger events in my life.  I’ll use Cognitive Behavioral techniques like cognitive reframing (a way to change my thinking in the moment) while dealing with the frustrations of commuting, getting into difficult conversations with others, or performing in front of an audience. So why not use these practices to manage the emotions surrounding the birthing process?

The first thing that caught my eye describes the practice of reframing our minds. I use cognitive reframing in my life as well as in my practice. It works like this:  when we have negative automatic thoughts, it often makes us feel a negative emotion. Sometimes, as a result, we behave in a way that may not align with our goals. For example, when confronted with a performance-based task like giving a presentation in front of a large group of people, our initial automatic thoughts might be “Everyone will be able to tell that I am nervous.  They will think that I don’t know what I am talking about and they will not trust the information that I am giving them.” These thoughts exacerbate our already nervous mind and body. We will then feel more nervous and will fidget more, sweat more, and our heart rate will continue to rise. Our instinct is to run or avoid the situation. We may learn not to, if we know avoidance feeds fear and that running away from something we want to be good at will not improve our skills. Cognitive reframing gives us the opportunity to question the initial negative thought that comes up and change our reaction to it.  We act based on how we think and feel. So, in this example, instead of giving into the negative thoughts, we recognize that other people are not mind-readers. They can’t tell if we are nervous, they aren’t going to question our competence, and they want to hear what we have to say.

I also liked Dr. Silby’s recommendation to use physical cues to connect our mind and body.  Ms. Solomon found that clenching her fists and then opening her hands in surrender while inhaling and exhaling during the difficult moments of labor helped her reframe her mind.  One physical cue I like to use in stressful moments is diaphragmatic breathing to reduce my physical symptoms and focus on the task that needs to be completed. Diaphragmatic breathing uses the diaphragm to properly give the lungs the space they need to inflate fully; breathing too shallowly (usually just in the chest) causes an imbalance between the oxygen and carbon dioxide in our system.  This imbalance can make us feel dizzy or light-headed, cause tingling in our hands and feet, and increase our feelings of panic. Alternatively, I like using a symbol of calmness, like a small, smooth stone that fits in my pocket. The texture of it brings a sense of comfort in the moment and is a reminder that I will make it through this acute difficult situation.

There are many other practices mentioned in the article women can use from sports psychology to help them through the birthing process:  developing a mental performance routine or a mindfulness plan, visualization (“go to your happy place”), and meditation, just to name a few.  I am grateful to Ms. Solomon for writing so beautifully about her personal experience and bringing encouragement to future moms like me who anticipate childbirth with some (or a lot of!) fear. I now have a different perspective on this milestone event:  there is no right or wrong way to go through childbirth, and making the experience more enjoyable and less painful is an added bonus!

Read the full article:  Using Sport Psychology for Childbirth


This post is for educational purposes only and not intended to diagnose mental health issues or serve as a treatment plan.  It is for the general public and not directed at any one person.