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Making Room for Self-Compassion in Sports

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This piece was originally published on the ZGiRLS website on March 26, 2015.

Imagine: You just watched your best friend miss the winning free-throw in her championship basketball game. As she slogs off the court, you immediately get in her face, and tell her,“Man, you SUCK! I can’t believe you just missed that, you’re so bad at shooting!”

Would you ever say that kind of thing to your best friend? Of course not. Not even close. In fact, the scenario is pretty preposterous. We are never that harsh to people we care about. But yet, we say that kind of thing to ourselves all of the time… What gives?

The fact of the matter is, we’re harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else. We are usually our own biggest critic. And for some of us, the internal dialogue is so self-critical, that if we turned that same language onto someone else (like above), then it sounds borderline abusive. But we get away with mentally abusing ourselves because, at the end of the day, no one can hear that it’s happening… but us.

I was recently was talking to a group of girls about self-compassion. When I had them imagine the scenario above, they laughed out loud. Speaking like that to a good friend sounded plain silly. But when I asked if they say harsh things like that to themselves, every single girl somberly nodded: YES.

As the discussion continued, one girl commented, “But I have to think those negative thoughts. Being hard on myself motivates me and helps me improve.” While I was empathetic to the girl (after all, I felt exactly the same way when I was her age), her comment highlighted a misconception widely believed in competitive arenas like sports: you have to be mean to yourself if you want to get better.

We all know that the sports world is one where fierce determination and toughness gets results, so that must suggest there’s no room for something soft like self-compassion, right? Wrong.

It is 100% possible to be tough, gritty, competitive, motivated, constantly improving, and even critical, but to do it in a KIND way. Self-compassion doesn’t mean “go easy on yourself.” It doesn’t mean “let mistakes go unimproved upon.” And it certainly doesn’t mean “ease off the gas pedal.” Self-compassion simply means: be kind to yourself through the process. Being “hard on yourself” as an athlete and competitor doesn’t have to mean being cruel to yourself as a human being.

If you experience mean or destructive thoughts (hint: we all do), and you’re wondering what on earth to do about it, here’s the takeaway: commit to cultivating self-compassion. It begins with closely observing the conversation that takes place in your head. Whenever you notice hurtful thoughts, things that you would not say to a good friend, then STOP. Take a deep breath. Be kind. What would you say to a friend in the same situation? Try that on.

If you’re not the queen-of-mean to others, why be it to yourself? Summon some forgiveness. Relinquish harsh judgment. Know that you can in fact push yourself like crazy, demand the highest of standards, squeeze every last drop of your potential… AND be kind to yourself along the way.