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NASCAR Star Jeff Gordon’s Healthy Life on and off the Track

What drives this champion to win on the racetrack, as a husband and a dad, and in his quest to help kids with life-threatening conditions?

Jeff Gordon Balances Racing and Fatherhood continued...

“You think you are busy until you have a child,” Gordon says. “It turns out that my life was not busy until Ella came along.”

He’s not complaining. Quite the contrary. Gordon has embraced fatherhood and feels blessed by it. “I love being with Ella,” he says. When asked what, if any, changes his daughter’s birth has forced on his career, he jokes, “Traveling is much different” for him and his wife of almost two years, Ingrid Vandebosch. “We have to carry a lot more baggage.”

Then he turns serious.

“To me, the two are separate. When I’m at work, my mind is focused on my job, on driving. If you have a great weekend, you’re on a high. When it’s a bad day, you just want to get away from the track. But no matter how good or bad my day was, coming home, it’s all put aside. You don’t have a choice. I’m a realist. It’s tough. So is racing.”

Learning to balance one’s personal and professional life can be a great challenge, especially for people like Gordon, used to succeeding in everything they do, says Jerry May, PhD, a specialist in sports psychology and professor emeritus at the University of Nevada, Reno. May has spent the past 30 years working with elite athletes -- primarily U.S. Olympic athletes, who, like Gordon, are at the very pinnacle of their game. He has also worked with leaders in many other professions, from doctors to judges to CEOs.

Jeff Gordon’s Sports Psychology

May stresses the importance of living in the present moment. In Gordon’s case, that means always keeping his eyes and mind on his car, on the road, and on the racers around him rather than worrying about winning.

Worry can clutter your mind and slow you down, says May, who often advises athletes to use what he calls the “stop-think technique” to eliminate unwanted thoughts. It’s quite simple. Whenever a negative or distracting thought enters your mind, say “Stop.” Then picture something positive and peaceful, such as a beautiful beach. “It’s a conditioning technique,” says May. “With practice, the image becomes a reward for stopping negative thoughts.”

For Gordon, being ready to compete means being relaxed.

“I’ve been racing since I was 5 years old, and I think it’s all about being relaxed in your environment, being comfortable in the race car, and having been involved in nearly every possible scenario in the race car over the course of 30 years. I try to block out any distractions that could mentally affect me before a race. It’s a routine I’ve had in place for many years.”

May also says most athletes overtrain, believing the more they practice, the better they will perform. That, says May, is a myth. An athlete’s goal should be to find his or her own optimal training level and stick with it. “People need to figure out that sometimes less is best,” says May, who urges the athletes he works with to take regular breaks from their training to remain fresh.

“Performance will drop without diversity,” he warns.

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