By Laurence Halsted, former Olympic fencer, current Performance Director at Danish Fencing, and Co-Director of The True Athlete Project's Mentoring Program.
(Read Part 2 and Part 3 of Laurence's 3-Part Series)
Self-compassion training would help athletes focus better on their performance, gain a healthier relationship to their sport and improve their general well-being. If we trained all our athletes in self-compassion, we would have a generation of much more balanced and outwardly compassionate people who were motivated more for the love of self-improvement rather than fear of self-criticism.
If you work on the ground level with competitive athletes you will probably experience that one of the most common mental issues, from youth levels all the way up to senior elite, is the harmful effect of negative emotions that arise from mistakes, disappointments or frustration about performances.
Athletes all too commonly beat themselves up for making mistakes or disappointing results, and that in turn takes a psychological toll, potentially affecting following performances. They also tend to be their own worst critics, much harsher on themselves than they would be to a teammate in the same position. Athletes think that they need to feel this way, that their capacity to criticise themselves is an integral part of why they are successful at their sport. They rationalise that it forces them to work harder because they ‘hate losing so much’ and they can’t be satisfied with anything less than perfect. Underneath this rationalisation is the worry that if they didn’t feel awful after making mistakes or losing, that would mean they don’t care enough to perform well. I should know, having had that exact mindset for much of my sports career. I used to take losing deeply to heart. At the same time I almost welcomed the pain, because it showed how much I cared and how much I wanted to be better.
This mindset is often accepted and even appreciated in sport culture- the consummate professional athlete, always striving, never satisfied, unaccepting of anything less than perfect. But it is based on a fallacy, and one that is creating a huge amount of damage to individual athletes’ well-being and to their performances and on top of that is limiting sport from reaching its true potential in the world.
The power of those negative emotions can be motivating, but it is a motivation based on fear and a desire to avoid the inevitable backlash and self-judgement that comes from failure. It is far more often distracting from the process of performance than it is beneficial. If we truly want our athletes to be able to stay focused and calm under pressure then it doesn’t make sense that we allow them to continue to beat themselves up if things don’t go well.
Some athletes can train themselves to master that fear and go on to great things, but vastly more will quit or burnout early in their careers because the mental-emotional toll is just too great. The fact that those people do not want to put up with such consistent and negative self-judgement should not mean that they must leave competitive sport for good. Especially because there is a better path to follow, one that can make for a much healthier relationship between an athlete and their own performance and that can also lead to improve the performance itself. I am grateful to have been shown this alternate path whilst still in the throes of my own athletic career, and I can testify to the vast improvement that comes with it, both as an athlete and as a person.
The basis of this approach is in training self-compassion, to be used at moments of suffering such as there are many in competitive sport. At its heart, self-compassion is about treating yourself with the same kindness that you would a close friend, to be forgiving, understanding and sympathetic, and to recognise that inadequacy and making mistakes is part of the human condition. It would be like having an inner dialogue that resembles a combination of a kindly coach and your closest teammate. They would be endlessly encouraging and forgiving, because they want you to do your best but they don’t want you to suffer needlessly. Of course, you don’t deserve to suffer simply for missing a shot or losing a match. For many athletes it’s easy to play the forgiving teammate role, because deep down they know that’s how they will get the best from their teammate, but it becomes much harder to play that role for themselves. This holds true for much of the general population, especially in the west, where kindness to friends, family or neighbours is highly valued but kindness to oneself is perceived as selfish, narcissistic or too soft.
Self-Compassion as a trait has been shown to pay off dividends in terms of psychological well-being and it is ideally suited to creating a healthier sport culture whilst helping athletes perform better at the same time. Research into self-compassion gained momentum around 2004, with researchers describing it as being made up of three parts which combine to make for a more balanced, healthy approach to life’s struggles. These three parts are:
Self-kindness- Essentially treating yourself as you would a good friend. Instead of having a critical or disparaging inner dialogue, we offer ourselves warmth and acceptance.
Common Humanity- Recognising that mistakes and inadequacy are common to all human beings. We are all flawed in our own ways but often when considering our own shortcomings and struggles we tend to feel isolated whilst thinking that everyone else is doing just fine. It’s much more comforting, and logical to recognise 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- This is about being aware in the present moment, with balance and without judgement of what is happening in your mind. Mindfulness is essential to self-compassion because you must first become aware that you are suffering in order to help yourself. A key part of mindfulness is not to be swept away by your thoughts and emotions but to simply notice them. When you over-identify with a thought or emotion it goes without saying that you are not in a balanced place from which to consider how you want to react to it, you are not mindful but instead are caught up in your minds’ tumult.
Let’s consider these concepts and explore how they relate back to sport.
Self-kindness has such powerful implications for athletes, but at the same time is almost an alien concept to many. I would even go as far as saying that self-kindness is one of the most under-rated mental tools available to athletes. Sport culture teaches all too often that it’s good to be hard on yourself, to be self-critical to the extreme until you have reached your goals. What follows from that logic is that self-kindness, forgiveness, acceptance will undermine your motivation to reach your goals. I will go into more detail about the myths and misunderstandings around self-compassion in the second article in this series, but for now I will point out the glaring reality that seems to be hidden from view to many.
When self-criticism does succeed to motivate, it is born from a desire to avoid the harsh self-judgement that follows an unsatisfactory performance. Essentially it is born from fear. But when we fear the consequences of failure we inhibit our ability to push our limits, take risks and even our willingness to try in the first place.
Using self-kindness to eliminate those fears, gives us motivation simply and powerfully, because we care. We want the best for ourselves, to be our best selves, and to do things that will make us happier, better people such as taking on challenges and learning new skills. This is motivation born from love.
Research has shown that people who are kinder to themselves have less fear of failure, and when they do fail are more likely to try again. This would make sense because self-compassion requires that we be aware of our weaknesses but without attaching judgement, which provides a solid, positive foundation to work to improve on them.
To conceptualise these two different approaches, you can call to mind two different coaches. One is ruthlessly critical when their athletes or team messes up, puts them down and constantly highlights their failings. The other is the compassionate coach, who reassures their players that it is human to make mistakes, keeps the focus on how they can improve on their weaknesses, and gives them the support to work on those goals without fear of reproach. Now think about which coach will most likely get the most out of their players and equally importantly which coach athletes would most want to work with.
It is the compassionate coach’s voice that we want to implant into the minds of our athletes, to give them a healthy and stable psychological foundation from which to build. This would also have significant knock-on effects for the culture of sport, stemming from the wisdom and generosity of compassion training, which I will arrive at in article three of the series.
Gaining a greater sense of common humanity brings with it a broader perspective which helps to put a sport performance in a more appropriate context. Athletes under pressure can get trapped in a mindset that feels like the whole world hangs in the balance: often described as catastrophic thinking. All sport is a game, and though there can be lots of money involved and it is a livelihood for many, it’s vitally important, for performance and general well-being to be able to keep things in a healthy perspective. The idea that ‘we are all in the same boat, battling the waves of human existence together’ is much more comforting and motivating than thinking we are each an island with our own, unique troubles.
Creating more awareness of our common experience can also help athletes develop respect for their teammates and competitors. Far preferable to the old adage of ‘us against them’ is the idea that we com-pete, i.e. strive together, and push each other to be the best we can be.
A great example of this type of approach is in the story of a Taekwondo coach I know, who, at the top of his game, lost a close fight to a rival in a world championships. In the embrace afterwards, his opponent told him ‘thank you for giving me this opportunity’. This fighter understood that to achieve his own potential he needed someone equally strong to push him to achieve it.
Mindfulness has been used by elite athletes for over 40 years to gain more control over their minds and therefore their reactions at emotionally charged moments. Mindfulness training is particularly effective for creating calmness in times of need and for detaching from the power of negative or distracting emotions. It is also increasingly being recognised for its connection to the experience of flow or being in the zone, as both require an all-encompassing present-focus. Thousands of years of experience has shown us very clearly that you can indeed train your brain to be more present and aware, and the implications of this for sport performance are enormous.
Considering the vital role of mindfulness in enhancing self-compassion on top of the benefits above, it is a wonder that it is not already a more established part of athlete development culture.
I am sure that many of you reading right now are of the opinion that this all sounds nice, but it’s missing the cutting edge that athletes need to succeed. Self-compassion is clearly a good thing to strive for, but its place is in Buddhist retreats rather than elite training camps.
These are among the most common misunderstandings surrounding self-compassion that I will address in the next article in this mini-series. In the west we are much more familiar with the importance of being kind to others than we are with being kind to ourselves. It’s important, then, to get to grips with what it means to be self-compassionate and especially to understand the basis of any misconceptions we may have.
If you want to know more about self-compassion and the research, a good starting place is Dr Kristin Neff’s website:
Or this excellent and thorough introductory article by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer:
Self-Compassion and Psychological Well-being
Get in Touch!
If you are an elite or former elite athlete and find resonance with this type of self-compassionate approach in your sporting experience, I would love to hear from you about your experience. Please contact me at:
Laurence Halsted is the co-director of The True Athlete Project's mentoring program. He was a foil fencer who won a silver medallist in the 2008 European Championships and represented Great Britain at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. He is the director of performance at Danish Fencing and has written for The Guardian and The Nation on athlete activism.
Read one of Laurence's latest articles here: