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Posted 05/01/2022 in Category 1

Self-forgiveness and self-compassion in sport – where do they fit in?

Self-forgiveness and self-compassion in sport – where do they fit in?

When you witness a fight in a boxing ring, a ferocious challenge in a rugby tackle or a crushing blow during a hurling match, you might feel there’s no place for compassion and forgiveness in competitive sport. The sight of Anthony Joshua or Tyson Fury in boxing, Manu Tuilagi or Sunny Bill Williams in rugby, and Gearoid Hegarty or T J Reid in hurling tells quite a different story about self-compassion and self-forgiveness. But what we are discussing here is what happens inside the minds of these athletes. How they practise and train to be their best and keep moving forward despite the challenges and threats along the way? 

Two components that help us keep our minds in a healthy place in sport are self-compassion and self-forgiveness. Self-compassion is an adaptive self-attitude because we associate it with so many aspects of psychological well-being. Self-forgiveness promotes repentance and other prosocial behaviours (as long as self-forgivers assume responsibility for their actions and experience remorse). Taken together, there are enormous benefits to the athlete, but not everyone will intuitively see it this way. 

Some believe that self-compassion might hinder that drive for self-improvement that is so clearly associated with the best performers in any sport. They believe that it makes people lazy, and athletes will let themselves off the hook when they need to review and change what they do. But research suggests that people take more, not less, responsibility when they are compassionate about a negative event. 

Striving for perfection is a core of the excellence process in any sport but when does striving for perfect lead to diminished returns and run counter the efforts one invests in sport. Perfectionism is adaptive and maladaptive. The adaptive forms of perfectionsism are those that involve high personal standards but not self-criticism. This is a fine line to tread for any athlete, but one worth exploring consistently. When has my striving for perfection gone too far in the wrong direction? Through self-compassion and self-forgiveness, we can find a healthy way out.

The research tells us that self-compassion is associated with lower self-criticism. We can hold and pursue excellence and high personal standards with self-compassion. Self-compassion and self-forgiveness allow us to learn from our experiences, not hide and avoid them. When you hold yourself in compassion and forgiveness, you are not defensive about making mistakes and you are not fearful of learning from your mistakes. There is no need to blame others and avoid changing because we hold the keys to compassion and forgiveness ourselves. The best athletes are the best athletes through self-compassion and self-forgiveness.


Breines, C. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133–1143. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167212445599

Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-102.

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