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Learning from sport burnout and overtraining
Learning from sport burnout and overtraining

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2 Managing setbacks: the self-compassion strategy

Thinking back to Session 2, you explored fifteen burnout factors summarised in a colour coded figure. The ‘Individual characteristics’ category (yellow) that identified which attributes and resources can influence whether a person experiences burnout included the following factors:

  1. tendency for anxiety
  2. unidimensional athletic identity
  3. high levels of self-criticism (e.g. perfectionism), and
  4. limited coping skills or resources (e.g. appropriate goal setting, relaxation).

Self-compassion has been recognised for about two decades as a strategy which helps to counter anxiety (factor 1), self-criticism (factor 3) and limited coping skills (factor 4). It deals with setbacks by helping athletes treat themselves kindly rather than being harsh and self-critical; it helps balance their thoughts and emotions and lets them appreciate that other athletes experience similar hardships. It may be particularly useful for people with high perfectionism (Mosewich et al., 2013).

Activity 2 Swimmer Kally Fayhee describes her approach to self-compassion

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Watch this video in which Kally Fayhee (who you met earlier in Session 7) describes her approach as an athlete who used self-compassion in difficult times. Answer these two questions:

  1. What does Fayhee reveal about the result of identifying her negative thoughts and feelings?
  2. What was a helpful self-compassion mindset in managing these thoughts?
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  1. She describes initially feeling odd paying attention to the thoughts racing through her mind. Gradually she realised these negative thoughts had a pattern; they were not based on fact and they occurred at distinct times in her training and competition schedule. This made managing them more achievable. In effect, she enhanced her self-awareness by paying attention to what she was thinking.

  2. She put herself in a friend’s shoes – as self-compassion advises (e.g. Neff, 2019) – to consider what she would say to them in similar situations. With this approach she reflected how she would view the friend and questioned if she would apply the same harsh self-criticism to them as she applied to herself.

    For Fayhee, self-compassion helped her to reframe her thoughts to be more encouraging to herself.

Thinking and writing exercises have been developed to encourage self-compassion. Many of these practices teach people to increase self-awareness and change their inner dialogues by reframing a self-critical voice in a way that is more positive.

But what does the research evidence identify as self-compassion’s particular strength?