Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Leslee A. Fisher

Committee Members

Craig A. Wrisberg, Diana Moyer, Ronald Taylor


Female athletes often feel compelled to make the difficult decision between being mother and pursuing a career as an elite athlete (Allred, 2001). The purpose of this study was to describe the experiences of elite female runners’ return to competition after pregnancy. A review of the current literature in sport and exercise psychology revealed very little information on this topic. The research that has been conducted, however, proposes that pregnancy and motherhood can both constrict and enhance performance in a number of ways. For example, Balague, Shaw, Vernacchia, & Yambor (1995) suggest that elite pregnant athletes may experience anxiety due to lower levels of training and body changes. Other research on the training patterns of non-elite mothering athletes conducted by Beilock, Feltz, and Pivarnik (2001) indicates that female athletes can drastically alter their training during pregnancy with no significant negative effects on post-partum performance. This research also indicates that women with strong efficacy ratings during pregnancy are more likely to regain high performance levels after pregnancy.

Eleven elite female distance runners who had returned to competition after pregnancy were interviewed for this study. Interviews followed a semi-structured guide (Patton, 1990) which explored issues related to identity, body image, and quality of life. Interviews were inductively analyzed and revealed the following four major themes: (a) athletic performance, (b) body, (c) self, and (d) social support. These themes describe a negotiation process that occurred for these athletes upon return to competition. This process entailed both resisting and reifying hegemonic notions of the “good” mother and the “good” athlete.

Implications from this research can potentially help coaches and sport psychology consultants working with female athletes who are either deciding to have children, who are currently pregnant, or who continue to compete while mothering. Recommendations for such groups are provided. It is also hoped that this research will help unravel some of the ambiguity that female athletes may encounter when choosing to become mothers while remaining high-level performers.

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