Athletes scatter mistakes throughout sports practice and competition. Mistakes are an avenue for learning; however, how many mistakes does it take to quench an athlete’s motivation to improve and keep improving? When we think of sport and the coaches among others working with athletes and teams, we think about their words of support and encouragement, but also their anger and criticism over mistakes. Fellow team mates follow suit and criticise the player for a poor pass or the incorrect decision. But what if there was another way to allow athletes to reach their potential? To learn and develop and remain committed to self-improvement?
Self-compassion is an adaptive self-attitude because we associate it with so many aspects of psychological well-being. But researchers fear self-compassion might increase complacency and dismiss the motivation to correct mistakes. But what if self-compassion increases self-compassion and increases one’s motivation to improve? After all, self-compassion prompts people to examine their mistakes without deprecating or defending oneself.
Kirsten Neff defined self-compassion as a self-attitude, which means treating oneself with warmth and understanding in challenging times while recognising that making mistakes is wholly human. Higher levels of self-compassion mean greater optimism, happiness and positive feelings, with lower levels of worry and depression (Neff, 2003). Taken together, the benefits seem clear to those involved in any form of learning, especially athletes and coaches. Juliana Breines and Serena Chen from the University of California at Berkeley examined whether treating oneself with compassion after making a mistake can increase one’s motivation to self-improve. In several experiments, these researchers showed that participants in a self-compassion condition, showed greater motivation to recognise and change personal weaknesses, make amends, spent more time to working following an initial failure, preferred to compare with others healthily with a greater motivation to change the weakness. In short, accepting personal failure might be the best way for people to increase their motivation to improve themselves. Personal failure, for now, when dealt with compassionately, leads on to greater success. Although it might seem paradoxical, the time we need the greatest compassion is the time in which we fail; we do not need criticism, disapproval, and blame.
What does this research mean for athletes and coaches? It means that we need to be most compassionate towards ourselves at the time we compete even though it may seem least acceptable to the gazing public from the stands. It means that this compassion for ourselves will bring (1) reflection, (2) learning, and (3) a desire to work on ourselves. We are used to the criticism, fault-finding and lectures from others when we make mistakes, but the gathering evidence is clear: when we take care of ourselves at the moment of failure, we lead on to victory.
Perhaps the most uplifting point in this research is that we are in charge of ourselves and our self-compassion. When we are compassionate with ourselves, we are giving a gift that catalyses the changes we seek to improve in the future. The next time you make a mistake, pause for a moment, forgive yourself and give yourself a chance to learn for the future. Forgive yourself and take the lesson and motivation with you for the future.
Breines, C. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133–1143. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167212445599
Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualisation of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-102.
Tribble, C. (1996). Remember and forgive, Journal of Performance Education, (1), (See also Bull, Steve. The Game Plan: Your guide to mental toughness at work (p. 204). Wiley.
To err is human, to forgive divine. An Essay on Criticism (1711) Alexander Pope, English poet (1688–1744). Quote from Owen, J. (2018). Times books. The Times great quotations: Famous quotes to inform, motivate and inspire. HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
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