Self-Compassion In Competitive Sport

Self-compassion can be as simple as keeping a gratitude journal.

What Is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion is understanding our pain and demonstrating kindness and care towards ourselves. It involves accepting our flaws and shortcomings. Self-compassion in competitive sport is not the same as complacency. Athletes may worry that demonstrating self-kindness following a mistake may make them complacent or lazy. However, research has shown that self-compassion usually does the opposite. It makes us more honest with ourselves and more motivated to follow our goals. Self-compassion involves having an inner voice that resembles a blend of a kindly coach and your closest teammate. 

What is Self-Criticism?

Self-criticism involves an inner voice that evaluates and scrutinizes oneself harshly and punitively. A tendency toward self-criticism can result from strict parents, peer pressure at school, and demanding authoritative figures. Self-criticism can result in strained relationships, as people who are highly self-critical may withdraw from connections or constantly voice their inner harsh critiques, which can be taxing for the receiving person. Self-criticism can also distract individuals from progress and self-improvement. Research has demonstrated that self-criticism reduces athletes’ self-regulation, emotional recovery, stress management, and performance.

Is Self-Compassion In Competitive Sport Common?

Athletes frequently believe that self-criticism is required to prevent complacency. There is an expectation of toughness and a common belief that harsh criticism is vital to motivate improvement. Self-compassion is growing in momentum as an empirically based mental skill. Since 2004, growing research studies have demonstrated that self-compassion in sports leads to better outcomes and psychologically healthier athletes. 

Is Self-Compassion In Competitive Sport Beneficial?

Athletes constantly put themselves in physically and emotionally demanding situations. They regularly experience setbacks, whether it’s a missed goal in a penalty shootout or an extra second in a 200-meter sprint. If athletes treat themselves less punitively and put mistakes in perspective, they can experience adaptive coping and a healthier stress response. 

Research has demonstrated that individuals who are kinder to themselves have less fear of failure. When an error does occur, they are more likely to try again. Athletes who demonstrate self-compassion have more adaptive thoughts, emotions, and behavioural responses to stress. Self-compassion has also been found to increase athlete’s motivation to learn and grow.

What Does Self-Compassion Look Like?

Self-compassion involves three main facets:

  • Self-kindness,
  • Common humanity and
  • Mindfulness.

Self-kindness involves treating yourself as you would a good friend. Self-kindness encourages self-warmth and acceptance rather than a critical or disparaging inner dialogue.

Common humanity involves the recognition that mistakes are a common part of human life. This helps us acknowledge that everyone is in the same boat and that life’s challenges and personal failures are all part of what it means to be human.

Mindfulness is about being present in the moment and not letting our thoughts drift off to the future or the past. It involves a curious, nonjudgmental stance.

Techniques for Greater Self-Compassion

Several techniques can help athletes to develop their self-compassion. These include compassionate letter writing, compassionate imagery, self-compassionate thought records and encouraging self-compassionate behaviours. These practices involve expressing concern, non-judgement and genuine caring towards the self. It requires sensitivity to one’s pain and suffering. It includes sympathy for one’s struggle. Thought processes may shift from “I always make mistakes, I’m a terrible athlete” to “everyone makes mistakes, I work so hard, and my mistakes are an opportunity for me to learn”.

Acceptance Commitment Therapy techniques can also help people let go of self-criticism. Athletes who fuse with a harsh inner dialogue can be so focused on their thought patterns that they make even more mistakes. This often facilitates a nasty cycle of distraction and continued errors.

Defusion is a process that allows individuals to see thoughts for what they are, a string of words that we can choose to pay attention to or not. Thoughts do not have to be necessary or accurate, nor do they need to be threatening. They cannot boss us around, and they are not reality. When one recognizes this, one can get some distance from one’s thoughts and be present in the moment, which leads to improvement in one’s chosen sport.

Self-Compassion In Competitive Sport

Athletes can insert “I notice I’m having the thought that” in front of their self-critique. Or they can sing their self-critique to a catchy tune. They can imagine their harsh judgement being spoken by a funny cartoon character like Sponge Bob Square Pants!

How Can Coaches Help?

It should come as no surprise that sporting coaches are best placed to foster self-compassion in athletes or prevent it. And guess which coaches tend to be better at the former? Yes, those who practice S-C on themselves. If you are a sporting coach and want to learn how to do this, amongst other mental skills, fill in this quick 10-minute questionnaire. One of our team will be in touch with your results and basic details about how you can start working with one of our performance psychologists/sport psychologists.

Author: Charlotte Chalmers

Since completing her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, Charlotte Chalmers has worked in many mental skills areas. These include schools, hospitals, forensics, and community settings. With a deep passion for sport, Charlotte thrives on helping athletes and other performance-focused individuals. She truly advocates for the science of sport and performance psychology and uses the techniques daily to develop her mental toughness. In her early teens, Charlotte represented New Zealand in Water Polo for many years. This high-performance environment and her experiences as a coach helped build a solid awareness of the mental skills needed to perform at one’s best. She understands the rewards and challenges that unfold during an elite performer’s journey and aims to support individuals in developing their skills to enhance their thrills and mitigate their challenges. Dr Chalmers has the honour of being our first and only non-Australian-based psychologist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *