The uncertainty associated with the lockdown has resulted in many athletes expressing feelings of confusion, helplessness, uneasiness, etc. Whilst these feelings and doubts are likely to appear at such trying times, it is also important to realise that this is a temporary situation. Yet, this situation creates implications for athletes’ overall health. At a point where many athletes have been expressing harshness towards the self, they can try to focus and tune the extent of their control, while still being self-compassionate and working on developing a repository of personal resources (physical, psychological and social).
What is self compassion?
Self-compassion is the ability of being kind and accepting towards oneself. This is usually practised during testing, demanding and painful instances. As a result, an individual tends to experience compassion for self as well as commitment and action towards alleviating the distress. Self-compassion includes three interacting components (Neff, 2003):
- Self-kindness – being kind towards oneself
- Common humanity – seeing one’s experience as a part of life, and likely to be experienced by others. The recent Nadal-Federer conversation can be cited as one of the best examples of common humanity. Two elite athletes and competitors who empathised, appreciated one another and had conversations like two humans shows that humanity is far superior to professional competition.
- Mindfulness – being in the present moment, where one can be aware and non-judgementally accept their feeling and thoughts, without over identifying with them.
Does self compassion result in complacency?
Self-compassion contradicts the concept of being overly self-critical – a trait many believe is needed for improvement. It is actually not associated with so-called unproductive characteristics (complacency, self-pity, etc).
In fact, self-compassionate individuals are likely to rely less on self-pity due to the adoption of common humanity, awareness and acceptance. As a result, one is likely to possess:
- greater personal identification (engaging in acts that gives one meaning)
- intrinsic motivation (motivated due to the enjoyment and feelings associated)
- enhanced self-esteem
Such a reflective approach enables athletes to realistically self-evaluate, focus on their personal values and beliefs, develop a clear picture of any situation they are in and to orient themselves.
Additionally, self compassion can also be used by athletes as a coping strategy to reduce anxiety during challenging or uncontrollable situations (during championships, injury rehabilitation, etc). This can also be explained by the above reasons, and/ or through:
- emotional regulation
- controlled tendency to overthink
- greater positive affect, which allows people to view situations broadly
Therefore, studies believe that self-compassion adopted to cope with athletic challenges enables the shift into a mentally tough mindset – persisting towards achievement and goal directed paths.
Finally, a recent study found a strong association between self-compassion and mental toughness (Wilson et al., 2019). Some athletes in the study agreed that self compassion was employed when they experienced adversity, learnt a new skill, or any situation that required “understanding, re-evaluating what happened and then accepting it, and moving on”. On the other hand, they stated that mental toughness was used during competitions or for “focus, readiness, confidence” (P 66). According to researchers, these two concepts are absolutely interrelated – and, an athlete must learn to maintain equilibrium by ‘zipping’ these two states for a growth mindset.
How can self compassion be inculcated?
Mindfulness – Mindfulness has been a trending practice that allows an individual to focus internally and in the present. Also, it is associated with several benefits along concentration, confidence, coping, and others. For example, Phil Jackson, who coached some basketball legends, encouraged the team use mindfulness techniques. He stated that this ‘vital’ skill, allowed players “to be able to divorce themselves from what just happened that’s inherent to them – a referee’s bad call… you’ve got to be able to come back and centre yourself again”. Mindfulness can be incorporated into one’s life through the myriad methods. For further details see the image below, or read our article on grounding technique).
Do things you enjoy doing – Taking out time for oneself has always been discussed. Be it working on a new or old hobby, or maybe just taking a little break, this quarantine period is the best time to indulge in such activities. Whilst this will bring freshness in these slow times, it will also help reduce stress and allow you to be kinder to yourself.
Let’s reshape the internal talk a little – While many doubts are natural at this point, it is important to address the negative thoughts and have positive thoughts. Once insight of thoughts has been achieved, one may:
- Counter negative thought logically questioning it (What makes me feel so? What evidence do I have for my belief?)
- Reframing the thoughts by using positive terms (I am yet to reach the target set, but I can if I try hard, and work along certain points)
- Affirming certain statements that are positive, in the present, and specific. With a wide variety of examples available, one can even write these statements and place them on a soft-board with cure/key word highlighted.
Build social network – With a lot of free time at hand, it is important to interact with family, friends and/or colleagues (teammates, coaches, opponents, etc.). This allows one to not only express feelings and get much-needed social support, but also to learn from experiences of others. Finally, if needed, seek professional help by contacting Mental Health Professionals, which can be done through various platforms.
Whilst these are just few strategies to introduce compassion towards oneself, one should remember to maintain the balance between the self-compassionate and mental-toughness state.
PS: Though this article is addressing self compassion from an athlete’s perspective, mindfulness can be applied in everyone’s life through similar strategies. So, if you want to know anything about mindfulness or simply share your experience, then please do leave us a comment.
I am a Kolkata-based Sport and Exercise Psychologist. I’m also a sport enthusiast – which encourages me to try new activities quite often – I believe that sport and physical activities play an essential role in one’s development.