A few years ago, a tweet from the Aspen Institute caught my eye.
The tweet was part of the “Don’t Retire, Kid” campaign that came out of Aspen Institute’s Project Play. The campaign’s goal was to raise awareness about the factors that contribute to children leaving sport early in their lives (usually by age 11).
In the advocacy materials put together for the campaign, it was revealed that 69% of girls do not play team sports on a regular basis.
The scariest part of that statistic is that it came from a pre-pandemic world.
Girls & Sport In A Post-Pandemic World
In July of 2021, Canadian Women & Sport published a report that looked into the impact that the pandemic has had on girls in sport.
Honestly, the findings were staggering.
In the report, it was revealed that 9 in 10 girls who participated in sports weekly are now playing less due to COVID. For girls aged 16 to 18 years old, 1 in 3 have dropped out completely (compared to 1 in 10 boys in the same age group). In fact, only 38% of girls in that age category even participate in sport (compared to 56% of boys).
This isn’t happening by accident: there are barriers getting in the way of girls finding joy through sport. These barriers will and have had a lasting impact: 82% of women aged 16-63 don’t participate in sport on a weekly basis.
Barriers To Sport: Body-Image Issues
One of the potential reasons for this may be related to body image: girls feel more pressure about their appearance, body shape, size, and weight.
This pressure is supported by sport environments that critique physique and promote sport-specific ideals. When we evaluate our bodies in a negative light, it stirs up negative, appearance-related self-conscious emotions such as guilt, shame, envy, and embarrassment.
When we evaluate our bodies in a negative light, it stirs up negative, appearance-related, self-conscious emotions such as guilt, shame, envy, and embarrassment. These types of negative body evaluations are linked to adolescent girls’ experiences in sport. So how can we help girls protect themselves from this?
Self-Compassion As A Protective Factor
A recent study explored how self-compassion may help girls avoid some of the body-image-related issues that seem to be preventing them from joyfully engaging in sport.
We practice self-compassion when we direct acceptance and kindness towards ourselves in moments of failure and/or suffering. Self-compassion can act as a protective factor against certain negative emotions that girls experience in sport: evidence suggests that self-compassion is inversely related to guilt, shame, and embarrassment. It achieves this in four key ways:
- It helps decrease outcomes that are linked to negative body image
- It can help prevent negative body image concerns in the first place
- It can cancel out some of the risk factors that cause adverse outcomes
- It disrupts the process of negative body image concerns leading to negative thoughts
However, here’s the problem: girls have a more challenging time practicing self-compassion than boys. Part of this may be caused by how girls develop their identity: it’s an emotional process that involves social comparison, self-awareness, and self-evaluation as girls ultimately seek out belonging, social connection, and acceptance.
Therefore, we need to recognize that self-compassion must be explicitly taught as a skill.
To do so, we must deepen our understanding of the components of self-compassion:
Self-kindness: showing empathy towards ourselves in challenging times.
Mindful awareness: looking at challenging situations objectively
Common humanity: recognizing that suffering is part of the human experience.
From this place of understanding and awareness, we can begin to introduce tools and frameworks that can help students learn how to apply self-compassion in moments of challenge.
Tools such as RAIN.
Fostering Self-Compassion With RAIN
RAIN is an acronym that stands for
Let’s take a look at each of these steps:
The first part of RAIN involves recognizing the emotions, thoughts, and/or beliefs that we are experiencing. To achieve this, we focus on attention – without judgment – on what is happening inside us.
The goal is to move from a place of trance (i.e. being lost in our thoughts and/or beliefs) to a place of presence (e.g. feeling wakeful, open, and/or loving).
One of the hardest parts of this step is acknowledging that some of those different thoughts are there. This is where a powerful quote from “Radical Compassion” can help: beliefs can be real without being true. In other words, our minds can come up with a whole variety of thoughts and beliefs that can feel extremely real, but that doesn’t mean that they are true. Knowing this can make it easier to pay attention to those things that we typically would try to avoid.
Now that we recognize what’s happening internally, it’s time to ask “can I sit with this?”
So much of the internal struggles that we deal with come from our desire to say “NO” to the things we don’t want to experience. Fighting these thoughts, beliefs, and fears back requires a huge amount of energy. It can be completely and utterly draining, which is why so many people give up and just accept their beliefs as truths (which – again – they are not).
Instead, the Allow step of RAIN invites us to accept that those beliefs are there. This does not mean that we accept them as truths: rather, we are open to the idea that emotions can be present without feeling the need to grapple with them.
Side note: I used to struggle with this concept. As a self-diagnosed control freak, I found it hard to not try to fight what I was experiencing internally. In her previous book “Radical Acceptance”, Tara Brach shared a story about Buddha inviting Mara to tea. Here is an excerpt from Tara’s blog:
“The night before his enlightenment, the Buddha fought a great battle with the Demon God Mara, who attacked the then bodhisattva Siddhartha Guatama with everything he had: lust, greed, anger, doubt, etc. Having failed, Mara left in disarray on the morning of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
Yet, it seems Mara was only temporarily discouraged. Even after the Buddha had become deeply revered throughout India, Mara continued to make unexpected appearances. The Buddha’s loyal attendant, Ananda, always on the lookout for any harm that might come to his teacher, would report with dismay that the “Evil One” had again returned.
Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge his presence, saying, “I see you, Mara.”
He would then invite him for tea and serve him as an honoured guest. Offering Mara a cushion so that he could sit comfortably, the Buddha would fill two earthen cups with tea, place them on the low table between them, and only then take his own seat. Mara would stay for a while and then go, but throughout the Buddha remained free and undisturbed.”
The story has always stuck with me and made it easier for me to understand what it means to “allow” thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and fears to just be.
This step is all about bringing an interested and kind attention to our experience.
As we investigate, we try to see ourselves and our experiences with clear eyes.
Oftentimes, thoughts, beliefs, and fears have stewed in our minds and hearts for a long time before we decide to take action. Because of this, it can be easy for us to forget where what we are experiencing originated from. The point of the “Investigate” step is to try to get to the root of the thoughts or beliefs that we’ve recognized within ourselves.
Doing this kind of uncovering work can be freaking hard! To help, Tara put together this list of reflection questions in “Radical Compassion”:
The final step involves calling on our most wise and compassionate selves.
We all have an inner self that wants to care & love. We feel this self when we show compassion towards others. However, it is not unusual for people to forget how to direct this same wisdom, love, care, and compassion towards ourselves.
Making it a habit requires practice and one of the ways we can achieve this is by looking at that inner self as a separate person. This can help us distance ourselves from some of that judgment we can feel and start diving right into that compassion.
Teaching RAIN To Students
If self-compassion is a skill, then we can improve it by breaking it down, focusing on the individual parts, and putting in some reps.
To help you introduce RAIN to your students, I made this visual for you:
Here’s how I would approach teaching RAIN to my students:
Part One: Exploring Self-Compassion
- Start by introducing the idea of self-compassion and unpack it with your students. Ideally, you would work towards co-constructing a student-friendly definition of self-compassion. This will help your students wrap their heads around the concept.
- Host a class discussion in which you share an example of a time that you were caught up in negative thoughts and/or beliefs. Discuss how self-compassion could have helped you in that moment. See if any of your students are willing to share stories from their own lives.
- Help your students understand that self-compassion is a skill that can be strengthened through practice. Discuss how every moment in which we get stuck in negative thoughts/beliefs is an opportunity to perform a rep and make our self-compassion skills stronger.
Part Two: Unpacking RAIN
- Lead a discussion in which you invite your students to share examples of how they used self-compassion since your last class discussion on the topic. Try to get students to focus on how self-compassion helped wash away any unpleasant emotions they were experiencing and allowed students to get back to feeling like themselves. Talk about the challenge of remember to tap into self-compassion during those challenging moments.
- Introduce RAIN to your students and walk them through each of its four steps. Feel free to help them visualize the process by comparing it to a rainfall washing away mud that has covered a golden statue.
- Challenge your students to practice RAIN over the upcoming week. Let them know that they don’t need to wait to be stuck in that trance state before tapping into the reflection: RAIN can and should be used in both unpleasant and pleasant moments.
Part Three: Revisiting RAIN
- During your next lesson together, see if any students are willing to share how they used RAIN over the previous week. You can have them do this as a whole-group discussion or in smaller groups, depending on the dynamic of your class.
- Before launching into your lesson’s activities, invite students to complete a RAIN reflection. This will help front load the lesson with a self-compassionate lens and also remind them that this tool is now a part of their tool belt as they begin to explore the lesson’s activities.
Part Four: Sharing RAIN
- One final activity you could do with your students is to have them write a letter to a younger student in which they break RAIN down in their own terms.
- Doing so will further strengthen your students understanding and internalization of the reflection. Additionally, sharing their letters with younger students can help those younger kids understand that everyone experiences unpleasant thoughts and beliefs (even the older, cooler kids) and that self-compassion is a healthy way to approach those internal experiences.
There’s no doubt that every student can benefit from strengthening their capacity for self-compassion. Based on what we know about their experiences in sport both before and after the initial phases of the pandemic, girls obviously have a lot to gain from this kind of intentional approach.
If you’d like to learn more about how we can be supporting girls in sport, I’d invite you to check out Canadian Women & Sport’s full report. In it, the authors share a wealth of actionable steps parents, teachers, coaches, and community stakeholders can take to help reverse the devastating trends that are being observed.
If you enjoyed this blog post, feel free to share it with a colleague! You can also subscribe to my newsletter to make sure that you don’t miss out on any future posts that I share.
Thanks so much for reading and happy teaching!