The Olympic Games are always so inspiring for us. Watching the finest athletes in the world showcase what they’ve dedicated their lives to is sure to conjure up more than a few moments of chills. It also reminds us of how many parallels can be drawn from the successful techniques of athletes, to having success and happiness in our daily lives. This week’s interview is with someone who can speak to the meaning of both; being an athlete at the highest level, and helping people take similar approaches to achieving ultimate wellness in their daily lives.
Meet Traci Stanard, former International Elite Gymnast, Competitor at the 1992 Olympic Trials, and owner and founder of Aspire Performance. In this special Olympic edition interview, Traci explains important techniques that she uses to help athletes be the best that they can be, and how you can translate these same techniques to eating healthier, staying motivated, and achieving ultimate wellness. Plus, she dishes on her favorites for Olympic gymnastics gold, and what it’s like to eat like an elite gymnast.
Willow & Stephanie: We’ve all been there. You know that you WANT or need to do something to improve your life, whether it’s by making healthier food choices, being more proactive at work or getting yourself organized, but for some reason you just can’t muster up the motivation to make it happen. Any tips for people stuck in this type of rut?
Traci Stanard: People tend to reverse the concept of motivation, thinking they need motivation to get moving. I think it’s the opposite — you have to get moving to get motivated. When faced with a challenging task or the typical rut, doing something dynamic helps reverse our negative state of mind. Turn on music and dance, walk up stairs, take the dog out and breathe in air. The most brilliant way to get out of a funk is to take a walk with a friend. You get energy from people; so talking while you walk, using a friend as a sounding board, will raise healthy and necessary hormone levels.
The best time to sit down and make a prioritized list of things you want to accomplish is after moving for a bit. Seeing things written down is not only a brain release, but also has been proven to make people feel accountable, in turn increasing your chances of getting something done. Another motivating strategy is to create a mantra and share it for accountability – I love to use the example of Muhammad Ali. He let everyone know that he would “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” So, when he stepped into the ring he knew he was performing in front of people with high expectations – he created both internal and external motives for himself.
W&S: You’ve talked about visualization techniques on your blog before, both for athletes as well as anyone seeking to improve some aspect of life. What are some simple ways to practice visualization, and how does it help?
TS: Visualization is the key to achieving so much in life, but it has to be done at the right time and with the right mind-set. Just as a chef needs patient and precise hands to make a delicate soufflé, to reap the benefits of visualization you need to be patient and precise with your mental images. Therefore, you must visualize in a relaxed comfortable state; for most this is 5-10 minutes before falling asleep at night and 5-10 minutes before rising out of bed in the morning. Going through the simple visualization session on my blog is a great place to start. It has been found that simple visualization can stimulate neuro-muscular movement; so I tell my athletes it is like being at practice in your own bed! Even for parents, this is a great way to foresee the best way to react to things – mentally role playing conversations with your children before they take place increases the chances you will stay calmer when youngsters try and throw you for a loop.
W&S: Can visualization help you make better food choices, too?
TS: Absolutely. Visualization helps with reactions to a situation. For example, if your weakness is to snack out of habit, rather than hunger, or to nibble on ingredients while baking, it is a big help to visualize preparing the food without nibbling and then taking out a nutritious snack. This is what I call self-role playing. If you visualize a healthy decision, it prepares you to feel stronger and actually make that decision when the time comes. Additionally, it is helpful to visualize what you will look and/or feel like because of your healthy decisions.
W&S: You were in the 1992 Olympic Trials for gymnastics! Surely there were many challenges along the way, times that you wanted to give up, and days that you thought you’d be better off being a “regular” teenager. Given that we’re about to watch the next Fab Five dazzle us with their high flying athletic elegance, can you shed a little light on what it’s like to be at that level in the sport?
TS: The hours it took to reach an international level of gymnastics were sometimes exhausting, so I learned to take one day at a time. Even with the amount of time it took, it was one of the best experiences I have had in sport and life. As an elite athlete at the age of 16, my teenage years were the opposite of many my age — my mom was trying to balance my time by encouraging me to go out with my friends rather than come in on time. “Have a little fun!” she’d say.
I was very driven; sports were and still are my passion. Even in the height of training 35 hours a week, I still longed to take out my mountain bike, roller blade, or sneak in a run on a trail in the woods. I love to see the magic of winning and the perseverance of those trying to reach the top even after many failures. That is what I see life as being about, not just being good at something, but the continuous work it takes to be good.
W&S: What life lessons did you learn from being a high level athlete, and how did they carry over into your adult/family life?
TS: The major lesson I learned from sport — that I try to keep in my back pocket everyday — is that you can be rigid with your long term goals, but to reach those goals, you must be pliable on a daily basis and willing conquer what life throws in front of you.
W&S: We have to ask — do you have a favorite gymnast in the 2012 games?
TS: It would be easy to say Gabby Douglas for the way she makes gymnastics look effortless and Jordyn Wieber for the power and mental poise she has demonstrated in past competitions. But that would overlook the fact that the Olympics is a whole different ball game than any other competition these girls have experienced. I am partial to the “dark horse” that quietly trains to show her ability at the right time. With that said, I think my favorite is whomever is going to get out there and demonstrate mental toughness when it counts — up on the podium, the day of the team and individual competition. That will be the girl who is not only sincerely cheering on her teammates, but also becoming a fresh and sought after role model for aspiring athletes.
W&S: What’s it like to eat like a gymnast in training for the Olympic team?
TS: I think many gymnasts would agree that gymnastics is one of the trickiest sports to fuel for! First, I remember nerves playing a big role in food choices, especially when in season. Nerves can slow digestion, so I stuck with easy to digest fuel near competition time. I’d eat light carbohydrate-protein mixes like fruit and plain yogurt parfaits, scrambled eggs and a slice of whole wheat toast, or whole wheat bread with natural peanut butter and sprinkle of cinnamon. Stephanie and Willow, you have suggested similar great morning snacks for my youth athletes and families. I replenished with chicken, fish, turkey or legumes after workouts for muscle recovery. Veggies were a staple at both lunch and dinner, usually steamed or roasted to make them a little easier to digest. I packed food on trips, too. Before the competition, I’d eat conservatively, then I’d get adventurous with cultural foods as a treat for after the meet… like when we had frog legs in Korea!