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Self-Care for Athletes Who 'Beat Themselves Up'

You’re not the only athlete who’s hard on themselves. Harsh self-criticism and the difficult emotions that coattail it are pain points for more players than you can imagine. Being self-critical is often part of the drive to be better and the want for things like your skills or game play to be different. When that criticism gets too intense and persistent, you may begin to believe it and feel bad about yourself more often or easily. Knowing where your mind goes when things aren’t ‘just right’ and the skills to deal with those moments will benefit you throughout your athletic career.

Be aware of the situations - both in practice and inside of you - that trigger intense self-criticism. Notice any patterned thinking you fall into when a play doesn’t pan out the way you want. Did you hit a steep learning curve and consistently mess up a drill? Did your team fall behind and you were part of that play? Paying purposeful attention to the contents of your thoughts helps you recognize when you’re ‘hurting yourself’ needlessly. Being aware of your thoughts and when you’re creating a divide between the way you’re behaving and the way you’d prefer to be is important to the process of change - stopping self-inflicted suffering caused by self-judgement and choosing to do differently.

When you recognize you’re having self-deprecating thoughts, there’s no need to judge yourself for ‘thinking badly.’ It won’t make the events that just happened unfold any differently and it won’t bridge the gap between where you are now skillswise and where you’d prefer to be. The triggering event and those thoughts need to be accepted and left at that point in time. The moment was what it was, the thoughts were what they were, but you may choose a different, less painful and more personally pleasing trajectory through exercising your choice to adopt a new behavior or way of thinking. The open, accepting facet of a mindful perspective helps shift your thinking away from the compulsive or perceived need to beat yourself up over an error or goal against. This opens the door for potentially new or less frequently enacted behaviors and for kindness toward yourself.

You might call the intentional alleviation of personal suffering self-care, but it’s more significant than that. To recognize pain, feel moved to act, and try to alleviate that suffering is compassion by definition. The choice to act in alleviation of personal suffering is self-compassion (Stevens & Woodruff, 2018).

Take a moment to think about your thoughts post-practice:

  • Were you hard on yourself?

  • Why?

Then, take a moment to reflect on the ‘intangibles’ in your team play:

  • Were you kind to your teammates and celebrated their successes?

  • Were you kind to your teammates and reassured them after a ‘bad’ drill rep or play?

  • Why are they deserving of or need this?

If you reassured a teammate after a tough mistake, you recognized their suffering, felt compelled to do something about it, and then acted.

  • Did you do those same things for yourself?

  • Is there any objective reason you’re less deserving of praise, encouragement, or support following a difficult situation?

  • Do you see any reason or reasons you can’t or shouldn’t do those things for yourself?

You can grow as an athlete and save yourself some self-inflicted suffering by learning from your mistakes with an objective non-judgemental view. Or, you can have the same outcome, judge yourself harshly, and feel generally bad about yourself as you grow. You get to choose which outcome is more pleasing.

If you’ve set a standard so high that you can’t reach it, regardless of how well you play, you may set yourself up for a season that’s emotionally harder than it needs to feel. Rather than beat yourself up for not achieving perfection, allow yourself the luxury of a practice just like the one you try to create for your teammates - one that has mistakes which are okay to make sometimes. Set standards for success more in line with your actual skills - or ability level in specific areas - so success and satisfaction are actually achievable.

Mindfully observe your thoughts when you’re hard on yourself. This helps you make in-the-moment choices to let yourself make mistakes, let yourself have a good practice. Be more empowered to leave the locker room with a more balanced perspective and accurate recall of your last practice or game. Live a season that feels different because of your choices. Check out the rest of the blog for mental game tips. Feel free to email me, too; I’m happy to work with you or just answer a quick question.


Germer, C.K., Siegel, R.D., & Fulton, P.R. (Ed.). (2016). Mindfulness and Psychotherapy (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press.

Stevens, L. & Woodruff, C.C. (2018). The Neuroscience of Empathy, Compassion, and Self-Compassion. Academic Press.


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