The Role of Self-Compassion in Cultivating Mental Toughness and Overcoming Setbacks
By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
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We’ve all experienced setbacks at some point in our lives.
Maybe it was a mortifying sequence of memory slips in a recital. Or failing to pass a jury. Or getting wait-listed, on your last year of eligibility, at the summer festival you’ve always dreamed of attending.
So when we begin to teach, and the young musicians who’ve entrusted us with their development experience setbacks of their own, most of us can totally empathize with the disappointment and frustration they must feel.
Therefore, it’s a rare teacher who would pull them aside as they walk off stage, get in their face, and proceed to yell at them, riffing on some combination of “what’s wrong with you?!” and “you’re such a @$#&-up!” and “you’ll never amount to anything!”.
Because we know that blaming and negativity at that moment is not going to motivate the student to bounce back, but probably just make them spiral even faster to the bad place. Magnifying all the unpleasant emotions that will make them want to zone out on the couch in their Snuggie , and dive into a family-size bag of Cheetos with episodes of House streaming in the background, instead of redoubling their efforts in the practice room.
Given that, why is it so difficult to be more compassionate towards ourselves when we experience a setback?
Though the phrase might make some cringe a bit, self-compassion is starting to get more research attention in sport psychology, because it seems to facilitate many of the qualities and characteristics that are also associated with greater resilience and mental toughness.
In that it’s not harsh, excessive self-criticism that leads to enhanced motivation and persistence, but self-compassion that facilitates these more adaptive responses to setbacks.
But how does one actually go from being self-critical to self-compassionate?
Like, on a practical nuts and bolts level, what are we supposed to do? Is it just waking up one day and deciding to change how we think? Or are there concrete things that can help facilitate a transition from one mindset to the other?
11 competitive athletes
A team of Canadian researchers (Frentz, McHugh, & Mosewich, 2019) conducted a qualitative interview-based exploration of how 11 competitive athletes (6 male, 5 female) who previously identified as being excessively self-critical, successfully adopted a more self-compassionate perspective.
They ranged in age from 19-35, and most competed at a national or international level, in football, field hockey, cross country, curling, wheelchair rugby, and brazilian jiu jitsu (for the men), and soccer, hockey, bobsleigh, swimming, and dance (for the women).
5 key themes
As the researchers reviewed and analyzed the interviews, five key themes emerged from overlap in the athletes’ responses.
So let’s take a closer look, and see what takeaways we might be able to glean from their experiences.
1. What you can do as a teacher
The first theme centered around coaching, as coaches’ behaviors either fostered self-compassion, or made it more difficult for athletes to be more self-compassionate.
For instance, some coaches created an environment that enabled athletes to try new things without fear of judgment if they were to fail.
Sarah expressed feeling a sense of calmness, comfortability, and freedom during practice stating, “I know it’s a safe environment to try new things.”
Meanwhile, other coaches were excessively negative and critical, which led athletes to internalize this kind of thinking and become more self-critical and prone to rumination:
…following a poor performance, Danielle described how her coach isolated her from the team, screamed at her, and called her names in the dressing room.“…it just made me realize how much all of his screaming [and] yelling made it that much harder on myself. I remember going back on the ice, I couldn’t even skate barely, I couldn’t catch a pass, I couldn’t shoot, I was useless out there.”
The researchers note that it’s important to keep in mind that being more self-compassionate and withholding judgment is not the same as lowering one’s performance expectations or standards:
Chris captured this idea when he stated, “the coaches there are still very critical, but they just help me with a little bit more support.”
If anything, it seemed that athletes appreciated relationships in which they could communicate effectively with their coach and receive open and honest feedback:
Danielle found it helpful when coaches used “that Oreo cookie thing, like they say good job on this, you didn’t do so well on this, but in order to improve, you need to do that.” As Danielle later put it, this feedback was helpful because “you know what the expectations are of your coach.” Without this clarification, Danielle said “I’ll just think the worst and I’ll just be critical without even knowing what they’re thinking.”
All in all, it sounds as if coaches’ behaviors end up serving as a model of how to coach yourself. Like, whether to take risks, or to be afraid of messing up in practice and in competition. Or how to treat yourself and talk to yourself after a subpar performance or practice.
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2. What you can do as a colleague
Teammates were another important influence in the process of becoming more self-compassionate.
For instance, athletes found it easier to accept their own struggles and imperfections when they saw that their teammates struggled with many of the same things:
Josh articulated this in reference to skill acquisition when he said, “it’s not as big of a deal if I don’t get it, because quite frankly everybody else is exploring too.”
That said, they acknowledged that there was still an element of competition between teammates at times, which could lead to a bit of “drama” and social comparisons, which was not so conducive to cultivating self-compassion:
Ellen…explained that in audition settings there was support “to a certain extent, but there’s also that mentality with everyone in there that you’re in there for yourself. And you’re in there to get a spot.”
Yet, receiving encouragement from teammates was still meaningful and helpful:
Danielle mentioned “it’s always nice when teammates recognize that you’re struggling and kinda just say ‘hey, great pass before’ or mention something else, something good that you did.”
Although what may have been even more helpful is when teammates noticed and remarked on the athlete’s shift in mindset, as the athletes weren’t always cognizant of these changes in themselves:
Sarah stated, “[t]he biggest thing I would say is that people started commenting on things”; people identified this change in her ability to respond to setbacks adaptively and with self-compassion.
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3. What you can do as a parent, friend, mentor
Parents were of course an important source of support for many athletes:
Danielle talked about how her mom reminded her of coping skills and said “she was just always texting me, telling me to practice, telling me to breathe.”
But friends and mentors who modeled self-compassion were also integral to the process of becoming more self-compassionate. Presumably, seeing someone we respect treat themselves with self-compassion might implicitly give us permission to do the same for ourselves:
Ellen mentioned “I look at how they dealt with challenges and successful times, and I want to adopt their qualities to myself.”
That said, sometimes athletes didn’t get the right kind of support from friends and family:
Danielle described the frustration that occurred when friends would “sugar-coat” situations and say “‘ohhh you had a great game, you did awesome’”, despite her knowing otherwise.
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4. What you can do for yourself: “Developing balanced self-awareness”
So far we’ve explored a few of the external factors that can help in cultivating greater self-compassion. But obviously, some of this has to come from within as well.
One factor was self-awareness. As in, recognizing when “pride,” “ego,” or perfectionism has led to an excessively self-critical mindset that is no longer productive.
Ellen stated “I just kept tearing myself down cause I wanted to be the best of the best!”
Victoria also shared about her struggle with giving herself “unhealthy ultimatums” and how she realized that she needed to make a change.
Another factor was emotion regulation, and learning how to avoid the temptation to ruminate on past mistakes or engage in self-pity:
Josh also noted, “You don’t get better by freaking out that you just lost. And it doesn’t influence anything in the future, if you don’t let it.”
After making a mistake in practice Danielle said: “I was disappointed and the coach saw, so I was a little upset about that. Then I just went right back in line, totally forgot about it, and then the next time I did it and it was fine.”
The authors note that it’s important to express one’s emotions and not just bottle them up inside. And that the key is figuring out how to channel and control these emotions more effectively.
And this is where psychological skills and strategies like deep breathing, meditation, and self-talk start to come into play.
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5. What you can do for yourself: “Maintaining an accepting mindset”
Along these lines, athletes also described a number of “frames of mind” that helped them adopt a more self-compassionate perspective. Such as being more focused on “controlling the controllables”:
Stephen…highlighted the idea of controlling the controllable aspects of performance and letting the rest go stating, “there were conditions in that race that were beyond my control. So, I didn’t let that get me down.”
Being relentlessly focused on growth and learning, rather than on winning and losing, was also an important mindset shift that enabled athletes to take something useful away from every situation, no matter the outcome:
During a significant setback, Sarah described her “acceptance of the situation and the pushing towards okay, what’s the solution?”
It also seemed to be important for athletes to be able to remind themselves that they were much more than just athletes:
Josh explained “one moment doesn’t define you…you’re not defined by who you are on the sport field.”
Victoria articulated this idea stating, “I think [the] key is in not mixing [performance] up with your value as a person.”
Stephen…said “I began to see myself as valuable beyond performance. Valuable beyond what I can actually do physically.”
Or as the lead author noted in a personal reflection on her own competitive sport and academic career:
“don’t define yourself by your successes, because pretty soon you’ll be defining yourself by your failures. Your value as a person is not found in what you do, but who you are.”
As far as specific strategies go, journaling seemed to be a particularly popular strategy that enabled athletes to move on after a tough practice or competition and avoid dwelling on the past:
Kylie mentioned that journaling was the most prominent strategy she used, stating “writing in a journal is the biggest! Writing in journal you know you say how practice goes, and then you critique it, but it’s out there so you don’t have to keep it in your head.”
Wait, is that it?
We have a natural tendency to look for silver bullets and quick fixes. And so there might be a little voice in your head saying something like, “Wait, is that it?”
I think the big challenge with self-compassion (aside from giving ourselves permission) is that it’s about cultivating lots of little tiny habits that individually don’t seem like a big deal, but altogether, over time can make a really meaningful difference not just in the level of playing that we eventually attain, but in our experience of practicing or performing all along the way.
So whether it’s journaling, giving yourself permission to take risks in a rehearsal, or moving on immediately when the risk doesn’t work out quite like you’d hoped, self-compassion is not about giving yourself a pass, but being more patient and understanding of yourself, so that, in the words of Winston Churchill (then again, on the internet nowadays, who really knows who said what), you can go “from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
I think fear of complacency is one of the barriers to becoming more self-compassionate. If that’s something that hits home with you, you might enjoy the following article that explains why self-compassion is not about giving ourselves a pass and pretending that our imperfections don’t exist, but more fully embracing ourselves, warts and all, so that we can work on the things that need some attention. (I like the part where it says that self-compassion isn’t about deceiving ourselves, and that the real self-deception is when we tell ourselves that if we just tried a little harder, we would achieve perfection.)
Frentz, D. M., McHugh, T.-L. F., & Mosewich, A. D. (2019). Athletes’ experiences of shifting from self-critical to self-compassionate approaches within high performance sport. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 1–40.
Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.
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