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When are you more successful: when you’re kind to yourself, or hard on yourself? (Part 2)

In my last blog post, I told how sports psychologist Philipp Röthlin introduced me to the concept of self-compassion, a concept from clinical psychology that says that it is good for mental health and well-being to be friendly and compassionate towards oneself.

As part of a major study, Philipp and his team are currently investigating whether this knowledge could also benefit sport. He believes that the goal should be not to link your self-esteem to performance. When you are compassionate towards yourself, when you accept yourself and can say: “I’m okay as I am, regardless of what I achieve,” then you create an inner environment that allows you to work on your weaknesses. And you don’t have to drag yourself down or shield yourself from criticism.

Now there is hardly any area of life where the bare result, the external value, is more important than in sport. All you are in sport depends on your performance. But the more Philipp told me about the concept of self-compassion, the more plausible it seemed to me that he might be right. I asked myself: would I perhaps have been more successful in my career as an artistic gymnast if I had been more careful with myself? Could I have avoided ending my career because of burnout, way too soon?

But I also asked myself: if Philipp and his colleagues actually come to the conclusion in their study that self-compassion is a concept that also works in sport, wouldn’t it take a veritable paradigm shift for the findings to really be put into practice? I think that it starts with the small things, with children’s training. All over the world, athletes are trained right from the start that only hard work and toughness can bring success. Sport means suffering and throwing up, that’s how it has been for decades, at least in typical athletic sports, in the Olympic disciplines with a long history.

Philipp said he saw it exactly that way. But he also wanted to make a difference: “I have no doubt that it takes hard work to achieve top performance. But does hard work also mean being hard on oneself? That’s less obvious to me. This leads to two questions that I would like to answer in our project. First of all: If we are hard on ourselves because we believe that this will lead us to success, then at what price does that happen? And secondly: Would it even be possible to improve performance if we approached sport differently?”

I can’t wait to see what Philipp and his team find out. Perhaps there really is another way to engage in top-class sport, one that treats athletes more respectfully. I think that would be nice.

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