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Become a Better Triathlete By Practicing Self-Compassion

Practicing self-compassion will help you get the most out of your athletic journey. Here's how to start.

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It’s not some hippy-dippy idea—or one confined to triathlon. Practicing self-compassion will help you get the most out of your athletic journey. Here’s how to start. 

Ashley Kuchar was on a basketball scholarship at Fort Lewis College in Colorado. She was successful, a natural leader. “It was easy for me to tell a teammate who’d made a mistake, ‘No big deal, keep shooting.’ But if I made a mistake, I was really self-critical. I’d focus on myself and how stupid I was for making the mistake. I didn’t treat myself in the same way I treated my friends and teammates,” says Kuchar, now a graduate student in educational psychology at the University of Texas-Austin.

It’s simple to see this happening in tri—berating oneself for missing an interval, a workout, or forgetting something for a race. “It’s easy to be compassionate toward a friend who has failed or is struggling, but most people lack self-compassion,” says associate professor at the University of Texas-Austin Kristin Neff. “Beating oneself up for failures makes things harder than they need to be.” Self-criticism is endemic in all areas of life, but sports—where success, or failure, is clearly quantified in minutes, miles, and points—is where self-criticism goes pro.

Self-compassion, the focus of Neff’s career, repackages the idea of being your own best friend by making it more than a concept, but rather a skill to be practiced and applied. According to Neff, the three pillars of self-compassion are: avoiding harsh judgment; accepting that failure is a universal condition, something that connects all people rather than something that has happened only to you; and recognizing the pain of failure without wallowing in it.

As a tool, self-compassion goes beyond mindfulness. “Mindfulness is being aware that falling short of your goals sucks, being aware of negative emotions. Self-compassion is more intentional, more actionable, like a friend saying, ‘What can I do to help?’” Neff says.

One of the keys to developing self-compassion, says Neff, is to be aware of self-critical tendencies and thoughts, and purposely choose a different mental pathway. It takes work.

At first, Kuchar sat down after a game or practice and wrote down events that triggered self-criticism, now she uses a more compassionate way of thinking about it, and self-talk to employ in the moment, like “Keep taking shots,” or “Work on defense.” (In tri parlance: “Just keep swimming,” or “Stay focused.”)

Eventually, she was able to apply more compassionate thoughts on the fly. She even uses the protocol before a game or practice, visualizing a mistake that might happen and a self-compassionate response.

Neff admits it can be hard to take a self-compassion break in the midst of competition, but redirecting thoughts, if practiced, can be done in a nano-second. You can even give yourself a hug. “Put your hands on your face or your heart or your belly. Touch is soothing, it’s an easy and quick way to feel cared for,” Neff says.

For an endurance sport with a huge mental component like triathlon, being self-compassionate is key. “I didn’t notice a super-drastic change in my performance, but small changes can mean a lot,” Kuchar says. “I definitely felt better. I was less afraid of failure and more equipped to handle mistakes, so I felt like a better athlete.”

Neff’s Drill

  • Review the three tenets of self-compassion often: Be kind to yourself, accept that everyone makes mistakes, be mindful of negative emotions without drowning in them.
  • Imagine how you would treat a friend who was struggling.
  • Keep a journal. Review events that elicited self-criticism, and write down a more compassionate response.
  • Practice affectionate breathing—allow the rhythm of your breath to comfort you.
  • Identify progress you’ve already made and ways you can further improve.

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