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The Most Radical Mental Skill: Kindness Towards Yourself

I know, I know…many roll their eyes when they hear the word self-kindness or self-compassion in the context of sports. After all, when talking about sports we’re inundated with terms that conjure up feelings quite the opposite of kindness–we’re going to war, fighting a battle, we annihilate enemies. So where does kindness fit into all of this? Pretty simple: In an unforgiving environment such as tennis, you need to be the kindest and most compassionate person towards yourself because nobody else will.

Still don’t know what I’m talking about? Let me give you an example: “You (bleep) (bleep), how the (bleep) did you miss a (bleep) shot like that!?!?!”. This is a short excerpt of some of my self-talk when I competed. And whenever I bring up in mental skills session how abusive I was to myself people nod and say, “Me, too, it’s horrible”. I would have never dared to talk to anyone like that but somehow it seemed okay and “helpful” to put myself down that way. Unfortunately, nobody taught me a more productive mindset, and I struggled with being way too negative most of my career.

In Mental Skills coaching we use Perspective Change exercises to reframe negative self talk. Younger kids especially like the following technique: Think about the last time you said something really negative to yourself. Write it down. Imagine you’re coaching your best friend and (s)he makes the same negative statement about her or himself. How would you help her or him see the situation differently? Write it down.

You’d be amazed at how thoughtful and compassionate kids are when helping a friend. Obviously, this doesn’t work in a match situation if you never practice it or just do it once. The reframing has to become habitual, so you have to do it hundreds and hundreds of times, just like you would work on your groundstrokes, volleys, serves and other skills.

That’s why we use journaling A LOT in Mental Skills coaching. Keep a “Negative Thought” log and work through the thoughts in a kind and compassionate way as if you were helping your best friend. The thoughts don’t have to be restricted to sports. They can be about work, school, relationships or anything else.

Give it a try and note if you feel a difference when you repeat the kinder version of self-talk a few times instead of being mean to yourself!

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