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UK Coaching Research Team
Rapport Building and Communicating

Self-compassion Strategies for Coaching

This research summary briefly examines the theory behind self-compassion before presenting practical strategies coaches, at any level and in any sport, can use to maximise an individuals potential

We generally accept that athletes can be ultra-critical of themselves in order to be the best that they can be. But what if we challenged that notion by encouraging them to be more compassionate towards themselves, and less obsessed with perfecting their craft? Would that help their improvement and their well-being?

A team of academics in America believe so, having developed a new programme for coaches based on self-compassion theory.

The Theory

The primary source of theory behind this research paper is Dr Kristin Neff, a leading self-compassion academic. Citing Neff, the authors explain the three key components of self-compassion:

  • Self-kindness – being understanding towards ourselves when we fail or feel inadequate, rather than resorting to constant self-criticism
  • Common humanity – accepting that suffering and feelings of inadequacy are not exclusive to us, everyone feels them at some point
  • Mindfulness – a balanced approach to thoughts and feelings, where negatives are not ignored or exaggerated but acknowledged and considered.

Neff argues that those who practise self-compassion exhibit higher levels of psychological health, less perfectionism and lower anxiety. It is these benefits that the lead author of the research, an
assistant gymnastics coach, recognised as being beneficial for her gymnastics team.

As a negative mental state is closely linked to a loss of focus, motivation and eventually performance level, the researchers designed a programme for coaches that encouraged the gymnasts to be more compassionate towards themselves.

The aim was for the gymnasts to move away from ingrained sporting ideologies such as ‘whatever it takes’ and ‘push through the pain barrier’ towards a more positive use of thoughts and feelings, exemplified by improved performances and psychological well-being.

Practical activities

Using Neff ’s strategies and strategies they developed themselves, the authors designed a gymnastics-specific programme based on the three key components of self-compassion. Some practical activities from the programme are summarised below.

Coaches found this first exercise extremely useful for winning over players who saw self-compassion as a form of self-indulgence.

It is based on the coach asking players challenging questions like:

  • Would you withhold water from yourself during training to be hard on yourself?
  •  Would you skip breakfast before training to be hard on yourself?
  • Would you not sleep the night before a match because you need to be hard on yourself?

Obviously, the answer is always no. Players accept that things like food, sleep and water are crucial to aid their performance. And they will agree that negative thoughts towards these things in the ways described above will only hinder their performance.

So why would they have negative thoughts towards themselves and be self-critical before a big game?

The idea is that this exercise will quickly introduce the benefits of self-compassion to players, particularly helping them understand that self-criticism can have a damaging impact on performance and is not necessary to improve.

A follow-on exercise may be the more positive self-evaluation strategy detailed in the next section.

This strategy, designed by Neff, is based on motivating yourself in a more compassionate way.

Ask your players to note down ways in which they use self-criticism as a motivator, for example, for a personal trait they have. Then ask them to note down a kinder way of motivating themselves to make the same change.

It might look something like this:

  • I’m too lazy to track back when we lose the ball.
  • If I get back into position more quickly, the team will be stronger defensively.

Through completing this activity, individuals will see a more positive way to achieve their goal as a direct result of being more compassionate towards themselves. They may also realise they are often overly harsh on themselves and can cause themselves pain through their own self-criticism.

This realisation is explored in more detail in the next strategy below.

To understand the impact of self-criticism and introduce self-kindness to your players, ask them to write down how they would treat a teammate who is going through a poor run of form. Then ask them to write down how they treated themselves when going through a similar situation.

Once they’ve completed the task, ask them to consider if the way they behaved differed in the two examples.

  • Did they write down different words and tone?  
  • How would things be different if they reacted to themselves in the same way that they reacted to their teammate?

Even if they cannot explain why they behaved the way they did, the idea with this strategy is that it gets players thinking about how they react to negative emotions.

If, as is likely, they demonstrated compassion towards their teammate but were harsh towards themselves, they may see that being more compassionate towards themselves can help with future setbacks.

This is another useful introductory exercise that will help your players understand mindfulness.

Ask them to collect some 1p and 2p coins and a container. Tell them that 1ps represent negative self-criticism and 2ps represent positivity towards themselves. The idea is that they take the coins with them throughout the day, and place a 1p in the container every time they are self-critical or negative towards themselves and a 2p each time they are positive.

Ask them to log their results to identify any personal trends. For example, are they most mindful at certain times of the day, and what kind of thoughts do they have during practice compared with the rest of the day? Are there more 1ps or 2ps in the container?

The idea of this activity is to help them understand how self-critical or positive towards themselves they are. They may even benefit from sharing the results with other players to see who has the most 1p or 2p thoughts and discussing what the impact of the activity has been.

Neff’s self-compassion break strategy involves taking a break from a difficult situation to reconsider the three components of self-compassion.

Ask your team to think of a situation that is difficult and causes them stress. Then ask them to design three self-talk cues linked to the three self-compassion components. For example, when encountering their difficult situation players may say to themselves:

I know this is going to cause me stress (mindfulness), that’s just a part of life (common humanity), I won’t let this affect my performance (self-kindness).

This strategy will help them maintain a relaxed frame of mind, rather than wasting energy worrying about the difficulties they encounter.

Learning from the research

In all probability, self-compassion is different to anything your players have tried before.

However, this study showed that the techniques presented helped coaches move their team closer to optimum performance, as well as improving the personal well-being of individuals on the team. It also helped individuals understand that constant self-criticism is not essential for improving sporting performance or achieving specific goals.

We encourage you to try these strategies with your players, perhaps starting with those interested in reflection and encouraging group discussions to share findings and experiences.

  • Did the techniques help individuals improve their performance?
  • Did they feel less stressed about playing?
  • Which strategies would they recommend for their teammates?

Related Content

  • Promoting Good Mental Health through Coaching

  • Emotional Intelligence: The Secret Coaching Ingredient

  • Promoting Good Mental Health Through Coaching (Part 1)


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UK Coaching Research Team