The Craft of Coaching Logo

How to Coach Mom-Athletes with Empathy and Understanding 

Being a mom and an athlete can require world-class juggling and coping skills. As a coach, how can you best support and empower these athletes? We find out from Coach Alison Freeman (who’s also a Mom-Athlete).

A woman exercising with battle ropes while her coach encourages her

Coaches know that training is just one of many things on the athlete’s plate. For juniors, age groupers, and even aspiring elites, training and racing serves as their hobby, and any number of commitments, including school, work, and relationships with family and friends, take up time and sometimes even take precedence over training. 

The “Mom-Athlete,” though, typically has a more complex and nuanced juggling act. Given the number of women in their 30s and 40s who participate in endurance sports, many of whom have children, it’s worth gaining a deeper understanding of what it takes for the Mom-Athlete to create space for endurance sports—and what she gains by doing so. 

Here is what I’ve learned from my experience coaching a number of Mom-Athletes. 

Juggling the demands of family, work, and home 

The Mom-Athlete wears a collection of hats for a variety of roles that can include her day job, parenting, her household, and possibly others, including volunteer roles. While this collection of hats may sound straightforward, the complexity is in the reality that the Mom-Athlete rarely wears only one hat at a time, and she is always wearing at least one hat. 

Whether the Mom-Athlete is employed outside the home, she’s constantly weaving other roles into her working hours. She might be running errands during her lunch hour or putting together an Instacart order while the kids are playing a game. She might also be volunteering at school during a break between meetings or knocking out a few hours of work while the kids nap. And speaking from experience, don’t mistake the stay-at-home mom role for a cushy job that affords time and flexibility; it’s as demanding as any paying job I’ve ever held. 

Outside of the typical workday, the Mom-Athlete likely serves as the primary provider for both child-rearing and household responsibilities. Yes, even in 2023, this remains true. This “second shift,” particularly for women with children aged 10 and younger, can encompass all the hours before work, all the hours after work, every day, all year long, including holidays and weekends. In the early years of motherhood, there is no such thing as free time. 

The best piece of parenting advice I ever received was to “put on your own oxygen mask first.” For the Mom-Athlete, training and racing often is their oxygen mask.

Beyond the practical trick of juggling commitments, the Mom-Athlete often performs a mental juggling act as well. She is not just doing all things, she’s often also performing the emotional labor of figuring out what needs to be done and how to do it—for all the members of her household. She might be weighing summer childcare options while driving to work or thinking through the details of a birthday party while cooking dinner or mentally compiling a packing list for the family’s upcoming trip while helping with homework. There is just as little mental free time as there is physical free time. 

Training provides headspace, structure, and milestones 

So why add yet another thing to a full or overflowing life? Speaking from my own experience, and knowing that this resonates with many of the women I’ve coached, training and racing may be the only thing on the Mom-Athlete’s plate that is for and about her and not anyone else. For that reason, it often serves as her sanctuary and treasured time off from all of her other responsibilities. 

The best piece of parenting advice I ever received was to “put on your own oxygen mask first.” For the Mom-Athlete, training and racing often is their oxygen mask. It provides the perfect escape from email, non-stop questions from kids, and lists of household tasks. It can provide some of the only quiet in their day. And it can remind women that they are a person in their own right, not just an employee or a parent. 

As a combination of self-employed small business owner and stay-at-home mom, training and racing provided structure for my life and milestones that were altogether mine. The daily training structured my days, the ebb and flow of building and recovering, peaking and racing structured my months, and the entire trajectory of the training and racing season structured my years. Plus, after years of watching my kids achieve milestone after milestone (They’re walking! They’re reading!) while so much of what I did (groceries, laundry, etc.) was doomed to be repeated within 24–72 hours, training and racing finally gave me milestones and achievements of my own. 

Four things a coach can do to empower Mom-Athletes 

If you understand both the challenges a Mom-Athlete will face in incorporating training and racing into her life and how she will benefit from doing so, both you and the athlete will be more successful. Here are four specific points that can support healthy conversations with the Mom-Athlete as she navigates her juggling act. 

1. Keep in mind that finding time to train is HARD 

When (more typically than if) the Mom-Athlete is struggling to get in all her training, remember that time to train is rarely readily available, it has to be carved out of an already full schedule. I often talk to my athletes about Meredith Atwood’s Sucky Rotation Schedule to both provide a framework for decision-making against the reality that “not everything is going to get done.” She will need to give herself some grace when the training—or something else—doesn’t make it above the “Suck Line.” 

2. Pay attention to HOW she is finding time to train 

I’ve seen Mom-Athletes knock out a three-hour trainer ride at 4 a.m. so they can go on a day trip with their family, or swim at 9 p.m. because that’s the only time they can get to the pool. While many athletes have to get creative with their training schedule, I see these less-than-ideal schedules more often with Mom-Athletes. It’s important both to be aware of their workout timing in terms of how it relates to workout performance and fueling and also to pay attention to when this strategy has negative impacts, particularly in terms of sleep. 

3. Help her see how being an athlete is a POSITIVE for her children 

It’s not uncommon for the Mom-Athlete to be shamed for taking time away from her children in order to train. However judgmental and unfair this is, it can feed into the Mom-Athlete’s insecurity and doubt. Reinforce the ways in which her training and racing model positive behavior and attributes for her children, such as hard work toward a goal, strength, dedication, and perseverance. Remind her that through pursuing a passion of her own, she is showing her children that she is a person, not just a parent. 

4. LISTEN and reflect back 

Finally, it’s important to be attentive to times when training and racing is in support of the Mom-Athlete’s overall mental well-being and times when it becomes an added source of stress. Most commonly, the physical impact of pregnancy and postpartum and the intensely demanding infant years are the most challenging for the Mom-Athlete. Remind her that there will be times when there is space for training and racing, and times when there is not. It will always be here for her when she’s ready to come back.