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 1 and Part 3 of Laurence's 3-Part Series)
This article is the second in a three-part series about the role of self-compassion in sport. I would recommend that you start with the first article, Self-compassion for Athletes, which describes how self-compassion is a highly effective yet underused mental tool for athletes, to enhance both performance and general well-being.
This article will address the most common misconceptions about self-compassion, which may arise especially in the mind of an athlete or coach encountering the concept for the fist time. This debunking exercise is an important step which will pave the way to wider-spread adoption of self-compassion as an important trait for athletes to adopt.
Let’s start with a short definition of what self-compassion is.
Self-compassion is being open to and aware of one’s own suffering with a desire to alleviate that suffering through warmth, forgiveness and kindness. It involves a non-judgemental understanding of one’s own pain, mistakes and failures, and that sees these experiences from the perspective of being a normal part of the human experience. According to Kristin Neff (2009) high levels of self-compassion are linked with increased feelings of happiness, optimism, curiosity and connectedness as well as decreased anxiety, depression, rumination and fear of failure.
Having read the description above, you might already be forming your own opinion on the value that this kind of approach could have within sport performance and culture. If you haven’t explored the idea of self-compassion before it’s quite likely that one of the following misconceptions form part of your immediate position.
• Self-compassion is soft.
• Self-compassion undermines motivation to work hard and keep improving.
• Self-compassion is self-indulgent.
• Self-compassion is narcissistic or too self-centred.
• It is self-esteem our athletes need, not self-compassion.
Misconceiving self-compassion in this way is fully understandable because our culture of sport has long propagated a directly opposing attitude; that an athlete must suffer after mistakes or losses to show that they truly care, and that coaches must be severe and unforgiving in order to get results. Sport culture does not always openly encourage these perspectives, but it certainly has not done much, and definitely not enough, to disabuse people of them.
Do you recognise any of the following misconceptions?
Self-compassion is soft. It’s mainly for hippies, yoga instructors and Buddhists, not for people who are trying to make it in the tough, real world of sport.
In fact, researchers are finding out that self-compassion helps people to cope and be more resilient at emotionally difficult times. One study gave an indication that lower levels of self-compassion in war veterans were a better predictor of symptoms of PTSD than levels of combat exposure. Similarly, higher scores on the Self-Compassion scale have been associated with healthier physiological responses to stress.
It’s not hard to imagine the kind of inner strength that can come from embracing a solid foundation of acceptance and kindness combined with an understanding that to struggle and fail is an inherent part of the human condition.
It would undermine motivation to work hard and keep improving. If you are fully accepting of who you are now then you won’t be motivated to develop and change.
The weight of research has shown the exact opposite; that the motivation derived from a base of self-compassion is just as effective and indeed much healthier than a motivation based on self-criticism and dissatisfaction with the current state. As was pointed out in the previous article the self-critical approach to motivation derives its power from a desire to avoid the backlash that comes from failure, essentially from fear. Self-compassion takes away that fear and replaces it with a desire to drive toward self-improvement simply because we care about being the best version of ourselves. This is the classic Hollywood battle of Love vs Fear; both sides can muster great power but there is only one side you would ever want to be on, and for sure only one side we would ever want to lead our young athletes into.
Self-compassionate people have been shown to have less fear of failure and also when they do fail are more likely to try again. Since these people are more able to admit their own mistakes and inadequacies, they are better able to embrace accountability for their actions and own the responsibility for making the necessary changes. This is precisely the kind of mindset we want to instil in young athletes, so it’s about time we adopted a more enlightened approach to training them for this outcome.
As the final nail in this argument, Neff and her colleagues also found that self-compassion was positively associated with mastery focussed goals and negatively associated to result focussed goals. In sport we always highlight the importance of focus on the process, not the result. It is clear that self-compassion is highly aligned with, and supportive of that message.
Self-compassion is self-indulgent. An athlete who feels compassion for herself will be more likely to indulge in unhealthy behaviours and less likely to practice discipline.
This is a fundamental misunderstanding of terms.
Self-indulgence is all about having what you want now regardless of the long-term consequences. Self-compassion is about alleviating suffering, not just in the short-term but ongoing. Well-being often requires foregoing pleasure in the present in order to benefit the future self, as in activities such as exercise and healthy eating. So a self-compassionate person would more likely avoid the indulgent behaviours in order to improve their overall, long-term well-being.
A compassionate coach would not allow their athletes to skip training and eat whatever they liked. A compassionate coach would encourage hard work and discipline since they will more likely lead to the players becoming better people and athletes.
It is therefore not strange that research shows that self-compassion is linked with healthier living, including quitting smoking and reduced alcohol intake. Women who exhibit self-compassion have been shown to be more intrinsically motivated to exercise, and that their motivation stems more from health than ego concerns.
Self-compassion is narcissistic or too self-centred. Self-compassion puts the self first, so the self-compassionate person will probably be a bad teammate.
On the contrary, self-compassion is not concerned with positive evaluations of one’s own abilities or qualities. It only comes into play at times of pain or suffering. In fact, the self-compassionate person is far more likely to recognise their similarity to all other members of the human species than they are to vainly highlight the ways they are different or better than others. If anything, this recognition of our common humanity naturally leads us to adopt a humbler attitude to life.
Furthermore, becoming more self-compassionate has the valuable effect of also making us more outwardly compassionate. Bringing a positive energy to our own inner world means less stress and anxiety and more energetic space, awareness and empathy for others who are suffering. Just as Gandhi said- “Be the change you want to see in the world”. If we want to bring more warmth and kindness to our interaction with the outer world, we must start by bringing it to the inner one first. This interplay of compassions has important and far reaching implications for our wider sport culture, which I will focus on in the next article, A more compassionate culture of sport.
It is self-esteem our athletes need, not self-compassion. People with good self-esteem are happier — they love their bodies and believe in themselves. Self-esteem is like self-compassion, but better.
It is relevant here to address the similarities and differences between self-compassion and self-esteem. Self-esteem has historically been synonymous with mental well-being, and in fact is associated with happiness and life satisfaction as well as less anxiety and depression, but the issues arise not so much with having self-esteem but in getting and maintaining it.
Overall self-esteem is often associated with qualities or results such as physical appearance, athletic or work performance or popularity. This type of self-esteem can be transient and unstable, only reflecting the latest success or failure, rather than being rooted in a deep sense of identity and self-worth.
Self-esteem has also been associated with the self enhancement bias, where people rate themselves to be better than others on scales such as physical appearance, intelligence or popularity, in order to feel good about themselves. This tendency to create self-worth by highlighting our superiority over others, often deludedly, creates a separation between us and leads to a lesser feeling of connectedness. It is no surprise then that self-esteem is strongly linked to narcissism. Narcissists have puffed-up, unrealistic image of themselves which gives them a feeling of entitlement and also makes them react badly when their egos are challenged. Narcissism is therefore clearly at odds with the kind of honest self-assessment that is required for athletic development.
It should be pointed out that it is possible to have self-esteem which is non-egoistic, non-narcissistic, stable and healthy but it is not yet clear what are the causes of this type of self-esteem vs the less healthy type.
Kristin Neff (2011) argues that self-compassion offers many of the same benefits as self-esteem but without any of the potential downsides.
Both offer a sense of self-worth, which is vital for thriving in life and in sporting endeavour, but self-compassion offers it from a place of acceptance and security whereas self-esteem harnesses feelings of superiority and achievement.
In the volatile and unpredictable world of competitive sport it would be highly beneficial to base one’s sense of self-worth on something more stable than performance comparisons with others and achievement. Self-compassion offers just that.
The Role of Self-Compassion in Development: a Healthier Way to Relate to Oneself, 2009, Kristin Neff
Self-Compassion, Self-Esteem and Well-Being, 2011, Kristin Neff
Self-Compassion Versus Global Self-Esteem: Two Different Ways of Relating to Oneself, 2009, Neff & Vonk.
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.
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