Self-Compassion in Sport 101January 11, 2021
If you have been involved in the coaching or administrative side of competitive sport, chances are you have seen athletes experience emotionally difficult setbacks. These setbacks can range from devastating performance failures (e.g., “choking” during an important competition), to facing harsh, negative evaluations by others (e.g., spectators, teammates, competitors, parents) and/or themselves (the self-critic is often very cruel). For some athletes, these types of setbacks can offer an opportunity for personal growth. For others, without sufficient coping resources, setbacks can negatively impact athletes’ wellbeing and/or sour their overall sport experience, putting them at risk of dropping out from sport altogether. Fortunately, self-compassion is steadily gaining traction as a personal resource that athletes can use to help navigate setbacks experienced in sport in a healthy and positive way (e.g., Mosewich et al., 2011; Reis et al., 2015; Wilson et al., 2019).
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion requires an awareness of personal suffering and a desire to help oneself through an emotionally difficult time. Dr. Kristin Neff (2003) describes self-compassion as having three components:
- Self-kindness – treating oneself with warmth and understanding in the face of failure or difficult experiences;
- Common humanity – understanding that we are all part of the greater human condition and that everyone goes through difficult times; and
- Mindfulness – includes moment-to-moment awareness, and taking a more objective, rational approach to negative situations rather than overidentifying with them too strongly or ignoring them.
Unlike self-esteem, which requires positive self-evaluation in reference to others in order to feel good about oneself, self-compassion features an acceptance of one’s own flaws and shortcomings, and thereby, as Neff proposed, emphasizes a positive, supportive self-attitude and approach to life. Notably, self-compassion is related to overall wellbeing and decreased negative emotions, such as shame, in a variety of populations (e.g., university students, older adults; Allen, Goldwasser, & Leary, 2012; Johnson & O’Brien, 2013; Leary et al., 2007), and there is growing evidence of its benefits for athletes.
The role of self-compassion in sport
Within the past decade, self-compassion has been studied in the context of sport largely as a tool to help athletes cope or deal with the emotionally challenging setbacks or obstacles they encounter. Especially when outside support networks are limited or unavailable to athletes, self-compassion might be particularly useful to help athletes overcome a variety of setbacks in adaptive, healthy ways. For this article, we focus on links between self-compassion and two types of setbacks because of their relevance to practitioners who work with athletes: (a) injury and (b) negative evaluations and sport-based performance failures.
Experiencing injury is a significant setback faced by almost all athletes at some point in their careers. Sometimes sport injuries are minor, and athletes miss little to no time from training, practice, and competition. Other times, sport injuries are more severe, causing athletes to miss significant time in sport. In these cases, even when athletes do return to sport following injury, they may never (or significantly struggle to) return to the same level of performance. Still other times, sport injuries effectively end the sporting careers of athletes, which can be absolutely devastating and extremely difficult to experience. The key point is that injury can be an emotionally difficult setback for athletes.
The good news is that there is growing evidence that self-compassion can help athletes better manage the negative emotions they experience due to injury. By reducing athletes’ anxiety, worry, and avoidance coping strategies in response to injury, self-compassion can enable athletes to focus on healthier, more proactive ways of moving forward with recovery (e.g., adaptive coping, acceptance), particularly as an alternative to ruminating or dwelling on the injury (Huysmans & Clement, 2017). Self-compassion may even reduce injury occurrence by decreasing athletes’ physiological activation to stress and facilitating their ability to focus on relevant cues when on the field, court, or ice (Huysmans & Clement, 2017).
Although the benefits of self-compassion in the context of injury are not fully known, it seems to offer a way for athletes to reduce some of the negative emotions experienced due to sport injury (e.g., shame, humiliation), which might make them more driven to overcome and persevere through injury-based adversity (Wilson et al., 2019). To highlight this point, research coming out of our lab at the University of Saskatchewan, led by Karissa Johnson as part of her graduate thesis, has recently shown that self-compassionate athletes rehabilitating from injury tend to be more mentally tough, perceive having more coping resources, and experience less self-criticism. Importantly, Karissa’s research also shows that self-compassion might allow injured athletes access to a healthier version of mental toughness, characterized by acceptance and wise actions, as opposed to a mental toughness characterized by making poor decisions to push through injury in unhealthy ways.
Negative evaluations and performance failures
It would be rare to work with an athlete who hasn’t felt they made a mistake or failed in sport at some point, and often in critical moments. Similar to injury, mistakes and failures are part of sport, and like injury, they can be an emotionally difficult setback for athletes. Whether it be feeling responsible for a loss due to a missed free throw in a high school basketball game or missing a soccer penalty kick at the World Cup, athletes are oftentimes harshly evaluated or judged by others and themselves. Sometimes it is teammates, competitors, coaches, and parents who are responsible for providing negative, sometimes debilitating feedback, to athletes. Other times, athletes are their own biggest critics, pointing the finger solely at themselves when things go wrong. In many cases, the negative evaluations come from multiple sources.
Regardless of the source(s) of negative evaluation, the level of competition, and magnitude of the mistake or failure, athletes are highly susceptible to emotional suffering that stems from harsh evaluations of their sport performance (Mosewich et al., 2011). Research has shown that athletes experience a variety of maladaptive emotions (e.g., shame, embarrassment, humiliation) and thoughts (e.g., “I am worthless”) when they make mistakes or fail (Reis et al., 2015), while also engaging in self-criticism and self-punishment (Ceccarelli et al., 2019). More generally, performance failures in sport can lead to decreased mental health, a diminished sense of self, and emotional distress (Ceccarelli et al., 2019; Mosewich, Crocker, & Kowalski, 2014).
Similar to its positive impact in helping athletes deal with injury, self-compassion seems to be an effective resource for athletes experiencing difficult emotions resulting from failure and evaluation. By enabling athletes to treat themselves less harshly and put sport failures or mistakes in perspective, self-compassion promotes adaptive coping and a healthier stress response, both psychologically (e.g., viewing current shortcomings as changeable and addressable) and physiologically (e.g., appropriate heart rate response to stress) (Ceccarelli et al., 2019). Put another way, self-compassion helps athletes get through difficult experiences in sport, such as injury and performance failures (and corresponding negative evaluations), in a way that doesn’t require dwelling on them or overidentifying with the setback, leading to a quicker recovery and a more positive overall sport experience.
Strategies to enhance self-compassion
One approach to increase self-compassion amongst athletes is through intervention. For example, Dr. Amber Mosewich and her colleagues developed a one-week sport self-compassion intervention, which effectively enhanced self-compassion levels in highly self-critical women athletes while also decreasing rumination and self-criticism (Mosewich et al., 2013). The intervention was comprised of an initial in-person educational component and a self-compassionate writing exercise, followed by a series of self-compassion writing modules that athletes completed online over the course of seven days. The in-person component of the intervention provided a brief explanation of self-compassion and discussion of relevant findings from self-compassion research (e.g., self-compassion does not promote complacency or passivity; rather, practicing self-compassion is an adaptive, healthy way to navigate challenges). After the 10-minute educational session, the athletes were asked to think about and write a description of a recalled negative event in sport that had happened to them within the past 10 days. They were then given prompts to write about how they could respond to that scenario, centered on the three core elements of self-compassion (i.e., self-kindness, common humanity, mindfulness). This writing exercise provided the athletes with an opportunity to practice self-compassionate writing in advance of the take-home component of the intervention, which featured five writing tasks/modules. As two examples of the writing exercises, they were asked to respond to their negative event in sport by (a) writing a paragraph “expressing understanding, kindness, and concern to yourself…as if you are communicating to a close friend in the same situation” (i.e., self-kindness) and (b) listing “ways in which other people experience similar events” (i.e., common humanity).
In an applied study, Rodriguez and Ebbeck (2015) implemented self-compassion strategies with women gymnasts and their coaches. Through weekly or bi-weekly meetings amongst the gymnasts, coaches, and an external sport psychology consultant, gymnasts engaged in activities that were designed to enhance self-compassion. For example, the gymnasts were asked to write about how they would treat a teammate when the teammate felt really bad about herself and struggled during practice or competition. They also integrated self-compassion breaks into their training routines, which involved visualizing a stressful scenario in gymnastics before developing their own self-compassionate response cues rooted in self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. This was designed to help them develop their skills to manage future situations in healthier ways. A particularly unique component of the study involved the gymnasts selecting different coloured beads to indicate when they had demonstrated positive self-talk and affirmation compared to when they had demonstrated negative self-talk or self-criticism. The gymnasts were also encouraged to think of self-compassion as an approach to prevent “suffering,” which was likened to other unfavourable or adverse outcomes (e.g., becoming out of shape during the off-season could be prevented by “keeping up with off-season conditioning and maintaining healthy eating”). To counter the notion that self-compassion is “self-coddling,” a concern we discuss in more detail in the next section, the gymnasts were asked questions that helped put the use of self-compassion in a balanced perspective (e.g., “Would you withhold water from yourself during your 4-hour practice to be tough on yourself?”).
Barriers to self-compassion and potential solutions
Despite the potential of self-compassion as a resource to help athletes navigate setbacks and emotionally difficult experiences in sport, there are challenges to its widespread application. One barrier is a belief amongst some athletes that self-compassion might present a roadblock to achieving elite status (Sutherland et al., 2014). Specifically, some women athletes have explained that they felt it was necessary to be self-critical of their own poor performances in sport and their sport-based failures to learn from them and get better as athletes, and that self-compassion represented a mindset that encouraged them to let themselves off the hook too easily. Similarly, in a recent study with men athletes conducted by our research team, some of the men explained that when they heard the term “self-compassion” they immediately thought it was “soft” – a barrier to self-compassion in its own right – and that it would encourage them to be “too easy” on themselves. They also noted that viewing their poor performances and sport failures with a harsh, self-critical lens was an essential part of the process that would lead them to improved performances in the future. While such claims are largely unfounded – self-compassion has in fact been shown to be positively related to thriving in sport (Ferguson et al., 2014) and is counter to self-indulgence and deterred motivation (Gilbert et al., 2011) – they represent a challenge to the promotion and practice of self-compassion amongst athletes. Researchers are currently exploring alternative language surrounding “self-compassion” as a way to help remove the “soft” connotation that some people connect with the term. For example, Neff and Germer (2018) introduced the “yin” and “yang” of self-compassion, acknowledging the traditionally feminine “yin” side of self-compassion with the terms “comforting,” “soothing,” and “validating;” and the traditionally masculine “yang” side of self-compassion with the terms “protecting,” “providing,” and “motivating.”
Some athletes’ beliefs that self-compassion might lead to diminished performance expectations and results also sheds light on another potential barrier to the widespread impact of self-compassion in the sporting world – inadequate understanding of the construct. In our research with men athletes, despite them initially suggesting that self-compassion might lead to complacency, the men went on to explain that an initial lack of education about self-compassion led to their negative views. After learning about self-compassion, the men explained that their initial inclinations to reject self-compassion were rooted in a misconception of what it actually is. They emphasized that education and training is an essential component when promoting self-compassion to other athletes. The men elaborated that athletes need to not only become aware of self-compassion, they need to know that self-compassion can help them overcome adversity in sport, leading to improved performance by learning from mistakes and failures, rather than dwelling on them.
In addition to some athletes’ negative or tepid views towards self-compassion, potentially stemming from inadequate understanding, another current barrier to its widespread practice in the sporting world is likely COVID-19. Specifically, some in-person strategies previously used to increase self-compassion awareness and knowledge, and overall self-compassion levels amongst athletes, like introductory educational components (e.g., Mosewich et al., 2013) and group activities (e.g., Rodriguez & Ebbeck, 2015), are more challenging with COVID-19 restrictions. Accordingly, in the current sport landscape, online self-compassion tools, workshops, tutorials, and interventions are likely the only options available. Fortunately, the vast improvement of technology in recent years has made the online design and delivery of approaches to enhance self-compassion feasible and potentially as effective as in-person approaches. For instance, the education component of Mosewich et al.’s (2013) intervention could probably be delivered online fairly seamlessly, integrating with the main writing interventions that were already online. As well, group activities, including meetings between coaches, athletes, mental performance consultants, and sport psychologists, could occur through online video calls. Neff’s online self-compassion meditations and exercises (www.self-compassion.org) are readily available to anyone who visits her website, making it easy for coaches and sport administrators to point athletes in the right direction.
Gender and self-compassion in sport
The vast majority of self-compassion research with athletes to date has been with women athletes. However, our recent research has a growing focus on men athletes and suggests that self-compassion levels depend on athletes’ individual representation of masculinity (Reis et al., 2019). Specifically, men athletes who aligned with a more traditional version of masculinity (i.e., emphasis on traditional masculine norms like aggression, violence, and self-reliance; Parent & Moradi, 2009) had lower levels of self-compassion than men athletes who aligned with a more contemporary, accepting version of masculinity (i.e., inclusive masculinity, where men see all representations of masculinity on an equal plane; Anderson, 2005).
While women athletes face their own set of unique challenges in sport (e.g., a paradox between fulfilling societal expectations of appearance and expectations of performance), so too do men athletes (e.g., emasculation in the form of subordination and/or marginalization stemming from failure to meet performance-based expectations of men in sport, like [failure to] possess speed and strength; Anderson & McGuire, 2010). This matters in the context of self-compassion in sport for the following reasons: (a) it is difficult to know whether self-compassion can help men athletes manage and cope with their unique difficult experiences in sport, and (b) some men athletes might be particularly hesitant to accept/embrace/practice self-compassion, because of potential threats to their masculinity.
In our research with men athletes, they discussed how masculinity was the root cause of many of their recalled emotionally difficult experiences in sport. For example, they described societal pressures and expectations to always perform at high levels and to play through injury, with coaches yelling “man up” from the sidelines. Interestingly, some men explained that refusing to succumb to masculinity-rooted pressures that might cause them harm was itself a masculine quality, and that self-compassion represented masculinity by enabling them to demonstrate mental strength by taking care of themselves. While this line of thinking is encouraging for the implementation and practice of self-compassion amongst men athletes, it would be presumptive to believe that all or even most men athletes feel the same way. However, we are hopeful that the current and future generations of men athletes might gravitate more and more to what seems to be an inclusive representation of masculinity, and one that conceptually aligns with self-compassion.
Self-compassion research in sport has grown significantly over the past decade. More and more athletes are experiencing the benefits of self-compassion, particularly as a way to manage and overcome sport-specific setbacks. Though much of the self-compassion research to date focuses on women athletes or a combination of women athletes and men athletes, self-compassion research with a focus on men athletes is starting to surface in the literature, with encouraging results. The potential of self-compassion is fairly untapped, considering it is relatively new to sport-specific research; but with more education and the possibility of training athletes, coaches, and sport administrators through self-compassion workshops, tutorials, seminars, and interventions, there is much to be gained for athletes and those who support them. Additionally, given the current restrictions resulting from COVID-19 that limit in-person interactions, it might be helpful for self-compassion practitioners to emphasize the development and delivery of online approaches to enhance self-compassion in athletes.
5 strategies to promote self-compassion to athletes
- Explain to athletes that self-compassion has been linked to faster recovery from setbacks in sport, which can lead to improved performance.
- When you see an athlete facing a setback, encourage them to think about what they would say to a friend experiencing a similar situation.
- Have athletes tell you about other athletes who might have experienced similar events.
- For a period of 10 days, have your athletes keep track of “beads” electronically. When they engage in positive self-talk or affirmation, they add a green bead. When they engage in negative self-talk or self-criticism, they add a red bead.
- Have athletes try a guided self-compassion meditation, such as the Compassionate Body Scan, which is available for free on Kristin Neff’s website (www.self-compassion.org).
About the Author(s)
Mr. Nathan Reis is a PhD candidate in the College of Kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan. Nathan’s primary research interest is in the field of men athletes’ self-compassion, with a specific focus on the potential role of masculinity.
Dr. Kent Kowalski is a Professor in the College of Kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan. Kent’s primary research interest is to explore the role of self-compassion in the lives of athletes.
Dr. Amber Mosewich is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation at the University of Alberta. Amber’s research focuses on self-compassion, stress, coping, and emotion in sport.
Dr. Leah Ferguson is an Associate Professor in the College of Kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan. Leah’s research areas include self-compassion and Indigenous peoples’ wellness.
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