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Self-compassion can be a valuable internal resource for women athletes as they navigate the challenges of competitive sport. Self-compassion is related to greater goal progress and effective use of coping strategies, and it benefits the physiological response to stress (Ceccereli et coll., 2019; Johnson et coll., in press; Mosewich et coll., 2019; Röthlin et coll., 2021; Wilson et coll., 2019).

In this blog, we will provide an overview of the benefits of cultivating self-compassion for women athletes and how our research is building on past knowledge.

Self-Compassion Basics

Self-compassion is an adaptive way of relating to oneself that consists of three components:

Mindfulness

Taking a balanced perspective to challenges (rather than being hyper-focused on them or pretending they do not exist)

 

Self-kindness

Treating oneself the way you would treat a good friend when they are going through a hard time (rather than being harsh and judgmental)

Common humanity

Understanding that everyone faces adversity and it’s what all humans have in common (rather than feeling isolated during challenges)

Value of self-compassion for women athletes

Women athletes describe self-compassion as an internal force that keeps them “hungry” and helps them push themselves in their sport (Adam et coll., 2021). Self-compassion helps women athletes see challenges as something to overcome, rather than feel threatened and retreat (Adam et coll., 2021; Mosewich et coll., 2019). In particular, self-compassion buffers against self-criticism (Adam et coll., 2021; Mosewich et coll., 2013), which is a common reaction to challenges (Adam et coll., 2021). Buffering against self-criticism may explain why self-compassionate women athletes are effective at directing their attention at and staying engaged in their goals, despite unexpected challenges (Adam et coll., 2021; Sereda et coll., 2021).  

Self-compassion contributes to effective coping when its “tender” and “fierce” energies are balanced, based on what one needs (Neff, 2021). If an athlete suffers a loss at a high-stakes competition, tender self-compassion can offer validation with an athlete reminding themselves, “falling short of my goal is hard and it’s okay to feel frustrated right now.” Alternatively, an athlete may be experiencing a persistent injury and find comfort in reminding themselves, “being injured is challenging but my value goes beyond my performance.”

As a balance to the tender energy, the fierce energy of self-compassion motivates actions to protect and provide for oneself (Neff, 2021). After a loss, fierce self-compassion might motivate an athlete to take time to refine their technique or train more consistently. For an athlete experiencing a persistent injury, fierce self-compassion might mean providing themselves with more time to get warmed up, motivating oneself to ice after competing, or protecting their body by easing up on intense physical practice and engaging in imagery as an alternative.

Three ways to practice self-compassion

There are a variety of exercises and modalities that can be used to practice self-compassion (Neff & Germer, 2018). Writing is one way athletes can start practicing self-compassion:

  • What went well (Seligman, 2011)
    • After a training session, practice, or competition, athletes can take 5-minutes to write down 3-5 things that went well throughout that time, even if they did not achieve their desired outcome. Encourage them to highlight parts of the process that went well, such as staying focused, pushing themselves, or trusting their game plan.

Additional ways of practicing self-compassion are through self-talk or guided meditations.

  • Loving-kindness phrases 
    • Loving-kindness phrases are motivational self-talk (for example, “may I be proud”, “may I be confident”) athletes can use before or during sport participation to help them stay focused, grounded, and feeling good. Ideally, athletes repeat loving-kindness phrases 30 times a day.
  • Compassionate body scan 
    • Body scans are a tool athletes can use to become more connected to their bodies and help themselves relax. A compassionate body scan is designed to encourage the listener to extend appreciation to parts of their body that feel good and send love to parts of their body that are feeling uncomfortable. Bringing awareness and appreciation to one’s body is valuable for athletes, who are continually pushing their bodies limits.

The best recommendation for athletes to start practicing self-compassion is to find something that works for them and integrate practices in a simple and systematic way.

Future of self-compassion in women’s sport

Our current research is focused on developing an athlete-tailored self-compassion program to optimize women athletes’ wellbeing and sport performance. First, we are exploring how women athletes prefer to practice self-compassion and understanding how women athletes talk about self-compassion. Currently, some women athletes are apprehensive about engaging in self-compassion because the “tender” language used to describe it does not align with the traditionally intense culture that permeates competitive sport (Ferguson et coll., 2014, 2022; Röthlin et coll., 2019). Once practice and language preferences are determined, they will inform the creation of a self-compassion program for women athletes. Effectiveness of the program on promoting wellbeing and performance will be evaluated by having women athletes take part in it throughout their competitive season.

For more information on self-compassion and how it can be a resource for athletes during challenges, check out this SIRCuit article, “Self-Compassion in Sport 101” by Nathan Reis and colleagues. 


About the Author(s)

Karissa Johnson is a Ph. D. student in the College of Kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan. She is a Mental Performance Consultant with the Sport Medicine and Science Council of Saskatchewan. Karissa’s primary research interest is in applied sport psychology, with an emphasis on building resources for young women athletes.

Instagram: @karissalynn.coach

Leah Ferguson, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the College of Kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan. She is a Mental Performance Consultant with the Sport Medicine and Science Council of Saskatchewan and a professional member of the Canadian Sport Psychology Association. Through her research and applied work, Leah works with athletes, coaches, and teams to support thriving in sport.

Twitter: @LeahJFerguson

References

Adam, M. E. K., Eke. A. O., & Ferguson, L. J. (2021). “Know you’re not just settling”: Exploring women athletes’ self-compassion, sport performance perceptions, and well-being around important competitive events. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 43, 268-278. doi: 10.1123/jsep.2020-0196

Ceccarelli, L. A., Giuliano, R. J., Glazebrook, C. M., & Strachan, S. M. (2019). Self-compassion and psycho-physiological recovery from recalled sport failure. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1564. doi: 10.3389/fosyg.2019.01564

Ferguson, L. J., Kowalski, K. C., Mack, D. E., & Sabiston, C. M. (2014). Exploring self-compassion and eudiamonic wellbeing in young women athletes. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 36, 203-216. doi: 10.1123/jsep.2013-0096

Ferguson, L. J., Saini, S., & Adam, M. E. K. (2022). Safe space or high stakes environments: Comparing self-compassion in differing sport contexts in Canada. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 53, 1-24. DOI:10.7352/IJSP.2022.53.001

Johnson, K. L., Cormier, D. L., Kowalski, K. C., & Mosewich, A. D. (in press). Exploring the relationship between mental toughness and self-compassion in the context of sport injury. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation. doi: 10.1123/jsr.2022-0100

Mosewich, A. D, Crocker, P., Kowalski, K. C., & DeLongis, A. (2013). Applying self-compassion in sport: An intervention with women athletes. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 35, 514-524.

Mosewich, A. D., Sabiston, C. M., Kowalski, K. C., Gaudreau, P., & Crocker, P. R. E. (2019). Self-compassion in the stress process in women athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 33, 23-34. doi: 10.1123/tsp.2017-0094

Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-101. doi: 10.1080/15298860390129863

Neff, K. (2021). Fierce self-compassion: How women can harness kindness to speak up, claim their power, and thrive. Harper Collins, New York, NY.

Neff, K. & Germer, C. (2018). The mindful self-compassion workbook: A proven way to accept yourself, build inner strength, and thrive. The Guilford Press, New York, NY.

Röthlin, P., Horvath, S., & Birrer, D. (2019). Go soft or go home? A scoping review of empirical studies on the role of self-compassion in the competitive sport setting. Current Issues in Sport Science, 4. doi: 10.15203/CISS_2019.013

Röthlin, P. & Leiggner, R. (2021). Self-compassion to decrease performance anxiety in climbers: A randomized control trial. Current Issues in Sport Science (CISS), 6: 004. doi: 10.36950/2021ciss004.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. India: Free Press.

Sereda, B. J., Holt, N. L., & Mosewich, A. D. (2021). How women varsity athletes high in self-compassion experience unexpected stressors. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 34(6), 1149-1169. doi: 10.1080/104132000.2021.1897900

Wilson, D., Bennett, E., Mosewich, A., Faulkner, G., & Crocker, P. (2019). “The zipper effect”: Exploring the interrelationship of mental toughness and self-compassion among Canadian elite women athletes. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 40, 61-70. doi: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2018.09.006


The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.