Do you ever have that awful feeling in your gut after you mess up during an important competition? When training is really tough, do you ever say to yourself, “I am not good enough”? Do not worry, you are not alone in these tough times. All athletes—including us, the authors of this paper—have difficult sport experiences. Fortunately, there are skills we can learn to manage these difficult experiences! We can learn to recognize that sport is sometimes difficult and that all athletes mess up from time to time. We can also learn to be kind to, and supportive of, ourselves just like we would be to a close friend or teammate. Having self-compassion in sport can reduce the negative thoughts and feelings we might have about ourselves, and can decrease fears we might have about failing. Self-compassion can contribute to reaching our potential in sport; but how can we be self-compassionate?
Difficult Sport Experiences
Picture the following situation: you are an ice hockey player and have been in love with the sport for what seems like forever. Your mom put you in skates soon after you learned how to walk, and you have basically been playing hockey ever since. You are pretty good at it too. You catch on to new skills quickly, your coaches frequently ask you to demonstrate drills for your teammates, you often lead your team in points, and you know your teammates think of you as a leader. As the new season is about to begin, you are excited to hear who will be named team captain. You were an alternate captain on the team last year, and with last year’s captain moving up a division, you figure you are next in line to be team captain. Your coaches plan to announce the new captain after the pre-season tournament. Following the final game in the tournament, you are even more certain that you will be named captain. You played well in the tournament, got two goals and three assists, supported your teammates, and kept a positive attitude when the team was behind on the scoreboard. At the team meeting following the final game, your coaches announce that Jordyn, your teammate who has been playing hockey for only a few years, is the new captain.
If you were the athlete in the above scenario, how might you respond? How would you feel? What would you think or say to yourself? Difficult experiences are very common in sport. They can range from the little mistakes made during practice to bigger mistakes that can result in losing an important competition. Difficult experiences can also occur when learning new skills and techniques, when trying to manage nerves before a big competition, or when feeling frustrated after an official makes an unfair call. Unfortunately, injuries are common in sport and athletes must sometimes face the difficult challenge of being unable to train, practice, or compete. When these or other difficult situations occur, we might feel badly about ourselves, criticize ourselves, and even think or say things like, “I am not good enough.” Fortunately, we can use self-compassion to help with such difficult sport experiences.
Self-compassion might be a new term for some athletes. Sometimes it is easiest to understand self-compassion by thinking about what it is like to have compassion for someone else. Imagine that it was your good friend or close teammate who experienced not being named team captain. How might you respond? How would you feel? What might you to say? Chances are, you would have compassion for your friend, meaning you would recognize that your friend is going through a difficult time. You would most likely treat your friend with kindness, and try to make the person feel better. Compassion is a positive and energizing emotion. Out of compassion, you would likely listen if your friend wanted to talk. You might also say something comforting like, “I think you deserved to be captain, and I know you are going to be a great leader on the team anyway.” Extending compassion helps your friend feel safe and cared for. Self-compassion is very similar. The main difference is that, instead of offering compassion to someone else, we offer it to ourselves.
Self-compassion consists of three components: mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity (Figure 1) . Mindfulness involves recognizing that we are going through a difficult experience. It is not about exaggerating the situation or ignoring the situation, but simply acknowledging that it is happening. Self-kindness involves being kind and caring toward ourselves instead of being mean or self-critical. Common humanity involves recognizing that other athletes experience difficult situations too, and that we are not alone. Being self-compassionate means that we care about ourselves and want to support ourselves in managing difficult experiences. This often means taking action to make the difficult experience better. As such, self-compassion can be very motivating and help us meet our goals in sport.
Why Bother With Self-Compassion?
Researchers have been studying the benefits of self-compassion for almost 20 years. Self-compassionate young people are more likely to take positive risks, learn new skills, and embrace new situations . Being self-compassionate means that we are kinder to ourselves when we fail. So, even if we struggle or experience failure while trying something new (like new drills or techniques in sport), we will not get caught up in negative emotions and we will comfort ourselves rather than being overly self-critical. Young people who are more self-compassionate also have greater resilience , meaning they have an easier time “bouncing back” from setbacks. Basically, self-compassion provides young people with ways to cope with challenges as they explore and try new things.
Within sport, researchers have focused mainly on adult athletes (usually 18 years and older) and found that being self-compassionate is linked with more positive thinking, less negative emotions and more positive ones, and healthy coping habits . Some research with athletes between the ages of 14–17 years found that being compassionate toward one’s body in sport may help build confidence and encourage a focus on what the body can do . All these research findings suggest that developing self-compassion is worthwhile. Some of us might be more naturally self-compassionate than others; fortunately, there are activities we can do to develop our self-compassion skills.
So, how can an athlete use self-compassion? Again, imagine yourself as the hockey player who was not selected as team captain. How might you be self-compassionate in this situation? Instead of exaggerating the situation (“This is the end of my hockey career!”), you might be mindful by recognizing that it is difficult, but certainly not the end of hockey for you. You might think to yourself, “This is really disappointing, and I am pretty upset right now, but it does not change who I am as an athlete.” Instead of being really critical of yourself (“I suck and I will never be good enough to be the captain!”), you could offer yourself kindness. Perhaps you give your hand a little squeeze of reassurance to let yourself know it is going to be okay. Instead of feeling alone (“I am the only athlete who has ever been this close to being captain and failed”), you could recognize your common humanity with other athletes. You might talk to one of your teammates, friends, or parents about similar experiences they have had. Which do you think is a more effective way to respond: getting down on yourself and spiraling into a cycle of negative self-criticism, or recognizing the difficult scenario and offering yourself the kindness and understanding needed to move forward?
It takes practice to extend compassion toward ourselves, especially if our typical response to failure or a setback includes exaggerating the situation, being self-critical, and feeling alone. Self-compassion may not be an easy or natural response for many of us. The good news is that there are activities we can do to develop self-compassion. As an example, we could ask ourselves how things might change if we responded to a difficult situation in the same way we typically respond to a close friend when they are going through a difficult time. Figure 2 includes the specific instructions for this activity. There are also self-compassion programs specifically for children and teens. One such program is called “Making Friends with Yourself” , and it includes several sessions that break down the components of self-compassion into workable activities. Table 1 briefly introduces some activities we can do to develop self-compassion.
Similar to how we learn new skills, techniques, and drills in sport, self-compassion is a skill that we can learn. Self-compassion can be applied in other settings beyond sport, such as in school and with family and friends. The important thing to remember is that it takes practice. Just like we eventually get better at each sport-specific skill we practice, eventually it will become easier to use self-compassion to manage difficult sport experiences.
Self-Compassion and Sport Psychology
As athletes, we might be familiar with several sport psychology techniques, or what are often called mental performance strategies, such as goal setting, visualization or imagery, and various relaxation exercises, like deep breathing. We like to think of these strategies as the various “tools” athletes can use to assist themselves in sport. Self-compassion is another skill or tool that can be added to the mental performance “toolbox.” There is growing interest in the use of self-compassion in sport, including its relevance for high-performance athletes and to support athletes’ mental health. While difficult situations are certain to happen in sport, self-compassion is a useful tool that might help during those times. Go ahead, give it a try!
Self-Compassion: ↑ A kind, connected, and balanced attitude we extend toward ourselves when experiencing a difficult situation, specifically involving mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity.
Mindfulness: ↑ Acknowledging that we are going through a difficult experience without exaggerating or ignoring the situation.
Self-Kindness: ↑ Being kind and caring toward ourselves instead of being mean or self-critical.
Common Humanity: ↑ Recognizing that other athletes experiences difficult situations too, and that we are not alone.
Resilience: ↑ The ability to recover from setbacks and difficulties.
Mental Performance Strategies: ↑ Techniques that can be used to support athletes’ wellness and performance, including goal setting, imagery, relaxation, and self-talk.
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
We would like to thank Maya McHugh for serving as a valuable critical friend at various times throughout the writing of this paper. We would also like to acknowledge Amelie, the Young Reviewer on this article, for offering feedback and asking questions about an earlier draft of this paper.
1. ↑Adapted from https://self-compassion.org/exercise-1-treat-friend/
2. ↑Some activities are available with full instructions and/or as guided audio meditations at https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#exercises
 ↑ Neff, K. D. 2003. Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self Identity. 2:85–102. doi: 10.1080/15298860309032
 ↑ Bluth, K., Mullarkey, M., and Lathren, C. 2018. Self-compassion: a potential path to adolescent resilience and positive exploration. J. Child Fam. Stud. 27:3037–47. doi: 10.1007/s10826-018-1125-1
 ↑ Mosewich, A. D. 2020. “Self-compassion in sport and exercise,” in Handbook of Sport Psychology, 4th edn, eds G. Tenenbaum, and R. C. Eklund (Wiley). p. 158–76. doi: 10.1002/9781119568124.ch8
 ↑ Eke, A., Adam, M., Kowalski, K., and Ferguson, L. 2020. Narratives of adolescent women athletes’ body self-compassion, performance and emotional well-being. Qual. Res. Sport Exerc. Health. 12:175–91. doi: 10.1080/2159676X.2019.1628805
 ↑ Bluth, K., Gaylord, S. A., Campo, R. A., Mullarkey, M. C., and Hobbs, L. 2016. Making friends with yourself: a mixed methods pilot study of a mindful self-compassion program for adolescents. Mindfulness. 7:479–92. doi: 10.1007/s12671-015-0476-6