Sport is full of challenges; pressure and evaluation, injuries, plateaus, sport-life balance conflicts and relationship issues, to name a few. Conventional wisdom holds that the difference between a successful and unsuccessful athlete is how they respond to these challenges. But what is the best way to respond to setbacks and adversity?
The most obvious is the “think positive” approach. Focusing on our positive qualities can breed confidence, and allow us to build on our strengths. Thinking about the “positives” may create optimism. But equally, athletes will want to consider their weaknesses and shortcomings, to see how they can be improved. If an athlete is to evaluate themselves realistically, they cannot purely focus on their strengths and positive qualities.
Handling the side of oneself that falls short of the “ideal” isn’t easy. Weaknesses and obstacles are seen as threats to future success, and sources of frustration. And unfortunately, in the dog-eat-dog environment of competitive sport, the emphasis tends to be on pushing hard and being “tough”. Athletes can easily become excessively critical of their weaknesses or how they handle obstacles. They may see self-criticism as a “must” for motivation and improvement. But are these actually the best approaches to use?
Researchers have actually found self-criticism to be negatively associated with motivation and progress towards goals (Powers et al., 2011). Some athletes even quit sport due to self-criticism (Ferguson et al., 2014). A more constructive way of responding to challenges and weaknesses is by taking a self-compassionate stance.
Self-compassion refers to the ability to recognise distress in oneself, with the commitment to alleviate it. According to Neff (2003), self-compassion includes three major components:
Self-compassion is related to fewer negative thoughts and feelings in response to sporting challenges (Reis et al., 2015). Self-compassion interventions have also succeeded in reducing self-criticism and negative thoughts following mistakes in athletes (Mosewich et al., 2013).
Ferguson and colleagues (2014) interviewed female athletes about how self-compassion could help in their own sporting lives. They identified various potential targets for self-compassion:
However, athletes are often naturally wary of the idea of self-compassion. Self-criticism is seen as necessary for caring about improving and avoiding complacency (Ferguson et al., 2014). Self-compassion can be seen as self-indulgent or being “too nice”. However, research has found the opposite.
Self-compassion is negatively related to being passive, and positively related to taking responsibility (Ferguson et al., 2014). It means caring about one’s wellbeing and performance, and then encouraging oneself to take action to achieve their goals (Neff, 2003). Self-compassion provides an emotionally safe and non-judgmental context in which to consider one’s weaknesses and how to improve them. This affords more realistic self-evaluation (Breines & Chen, 2012). Without fear of self-condemnation, the athlete is freer to explore their weaknesses and gain greater awareness (Neff, 2003).
Breines and Chen (2012) found that individuals encouraged to be self-compassionate demonstrated better outcomes in various tasks over those encouraged to focus on their own positive qualities:
Self-compassion is neither a show of indulgence nor complacency, but one of courage. It requires an athlete to look at the reality of their situation, and decide how to move themselves forward. The take-home point is that harsh self-criticism is not necessary for improvement. Encouragement and realistic evaluation of one’s strengths and weaknesses is more productive.
So what does self-compassion look like in practice? Firstly, it involves noticing and engaging with whatever the difficulty may be; a mistake, setback, or the realisation of a weakness. It means recognising that the experience is tough, and allowing the natural uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that come up without judging them. This enables realistic self-appraisal.
Upon recognising this difficulty, self-compassion involves engaging with oneself in a way that helps, not hinders progress. This means speaking kindly to and encouraging oneself, like one would a friend. Providing this reassurance and honesty reduces the tendency to self-criticise, and offers the security to solve the problem.
Finally, self-compassion requires tapping into one’s motivation and committing to solving the problem. It means asking oneself: “what do I need to do to move closer to where I want to be?” A self-compassionate approach may provide the athlete with the resilience they need to face and overcome adversity.