How do you speak to yourself in training or in your big event when you are having a hard time, making mistakes, not performing to your standards or expectations? 

Are you generally harsh in your attempt to motivate yourself to do better? Or generally compassionate with yourself? 

A harsh voice would say things that condemn yourself as a person (e.g. You are lazy!), or blanket the entire experience with a negative judgment (e.g. That was idiotic!). A harsh voice treats your body and person like a antagonist. 

A compassionate voice would say things to affirm you as a person (e.g. You are working so hard!), or identify just the piece that was having a problem (e.g. That was not the best move!). A compassionate voice treats your body and person like a caring friend. 

“With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.” – Kristin Neff on Self-Compassion.

Being compassionate does not mean ignoring or down-playing the mistake and its consequences. It means being realistic about both what problems have emerged while recognizing what remains good about the person and in their situation. It is a way to address what is wrong while protecting the essential belief in this person’s value and capability and strengthening the relationship.

Even though harshness is expedient and it can move someone to change something, there is a strong case in psychological science that compassion is a far more effective motivator of performance in the long-run, and much better for the relationship and health. 

“Integrating a self-compassionate approach when facing sport distress, athletes are more likely to regain poise in the face of adversity such that they can engage more adaptively.” (Baltzell, A., Röthlin, P., & Kenttä, G. (2019). Self-compassion in Sport for Courage and Performance. 10.4324/9780429435232-17.)

Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

It’s easier to see how being compassionate toward others is a good idea, especially for a parent, teacher, coach, or mentor helping a loved one go through a challenging situation and become a better person. But some people really struggle with giving kind support to themselves. Some people believe that if they were not so harsh with themselves they would not be able to perform as well as they do. 

Even if self-harshness seems to work for you, the question is, at what cost? 

I recently came across Peter Attia’s podcast moving interview with Kristin Neff PhD, the leading researcher on self-compassion and mindfulness. Kristin is surprisingly transparent about her own challenges and journey, discussing her own need for self-compassion. She describes how she came to study it and develop a very effective program to help people learn how to apply it. As the host and interviewer, super-driven medical doctor and athlete, Peter Attia is also quite transparent about his own struggle in work and athletics, and how important this inner work has been for himself. 

Mindfulness lays the foundation for self-compassion because one needs to notice the moments of harshness and its dynamics, then create space there in order to intervene. If we are training for our sport in a mindful way, then training our thinking and responses to feelings is already a part of what we do. Training the processes of the mind are as important and consequential to performance as training the movements, muscles and metabolism. 

According to Neff, self-compassion requires mindfulness, but she says the practice of meditation is not necessary for generating mindfulness. However, classic mediation techniques are arguably the most effective because they’ve been developed over millennia for this very purpose. I would make a case for doing meditation in some sort of social context because those who struggle with self-harshness may need some role models and guidance on how to do this at a deeper level. Yet, if classic meditation doesn’t fit so well in your context, perhaps your athletic practice could be modified to serve this need as well. It is my experience and my practice that athletic training can be a place where self-compassion can be developed when we treat it as a meditative practice, especially when we join with and learn from compassionate colleagues.  


View the whole series on the Attitudes of Mindfulness for Swimming:


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