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Being Your Own Best Teammate: How Self-Compassion Can Promote and Improve Body Image and Eating Concerns In Men


The pressure to achieve the "perfect" body is palpable, affecting individuals from all walks of life. While this issue often gets significant attention among women, it is essential to recognize that men also face body image challenges, especially in contexts where physical size, shape, and appearance play a crucial role, such as athletics. In this blog post, we will explore the key findings and implications of research, emphasizing how self-compassion is showing promise as an approach to promoting healthy body image and overall well-being.

Body Image and Disordered Eating in Male Athletes

Collegiate athletes, both male and female, often face unique challenges regarding their body image. These individuals engage in intense physical training, are under constant scrutiny from coaches, peers, and fans, and are frequently evaluated based on their athletic performance and appearance. Athlete-specific models of eating disorder development note the direct link between body satisfaction and disordered eating behaviors (e.g., de Bruin, 2017; Petrie & Greenleaf, 2012).

Rates of disordered eating have been found to be as high as 16% in collegiate male athletes (e.g., Chatterton & Petrie, 2013). The pressure to conform to masculine body ideals, such as increased muscle mass and low body fat, can lead to negative body image perceptions and even disordered eating behaviors among male collegiate athletes (e.g., Chatterton et al., 2017). In a recent study by Cusack et al. (2022), body satisfaction significantly predicted disordered eating symptoms in collegiate male athletes over a four-month timeframe.

The Role of Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is a psychological construct that involves treating oneself with the same kindness and understanding that one would offer to a friend during moments of struggle or failure. It encompasses three key elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness (Neff, 2003). In consideration of athletes, it has been associated with higher well-being (Zessin et al., 2015) and lower negative outcomes, such as anxiety, depressive symptoms, and stress (MacBeth & Gumley, 2012). Specific to disordered eating symptoms, self-compassion has found growing support as a possible protective factor and intervention for body image and disordered eating concerns. Higher self-compassion has been related to higher positive image and lower disordered eating concerns in athletes and non-athletes (e.g., Braun et al., 2016; Turk & Waller, 2020). Although the mechanisms in which self-compassion interact with body image and disordered eating are inconclusive (e.g., Braun et al., 2016; Cusack et al. 2022), research still promotes the benefits of fostering a compassionate attitude towards self and promoting a healthy body image in male athletes.


Research emphasizes the significance of fostering a compassionate attitude towards self and promoting a healthy body image in all athletes. By doing so, athletes can not only excel in their chosen sports but also lead healthier, happier lives. Together, we can create a more compassionate and inclusive athletic environment where athletes of all genders feel supported and empowered to be their best. As we move forward, it is crucial to take these findings to heart and prioritize the well-being and mental health of athletes. Below are some avenues in which coaches, parents, and sport organizations can support athlete well-being.

  1. Promoting Self-Compassion Within Athletics: Coaches and sports organizations can implement programs and interventions that foster self-compassion among their athletes. It is important to present self-compassion in a culturally competent fashion, as many athletes consider viewing themselves in a self-compassionate manner as “weak” or “soft” (Gilbert, 2011). Teaching athletes to be “their own best teammate” and adapting constructs of self-compassion can help them be more open to a kinder and more understanding stance toward themselves, especially in moments of struggle, which can contribute to better mental health and body satisfaction.
  2. Enhancing Body Satisfaction: Efforts to promote positive body image should also be a priority. Encouraging athletes to embrace diverse body types and focus on their performance, rather than just appearance, can help reduce the pressure to conform to unrealistic body ideals. When experiencing moments of dissatisfaction around their body image, athletes can express compassion and appreciation to their bodies, noting the important things it does for them. Individual interventions can include the use of “self-compassion breaks” (Neff, 2003) to build mindfulness and acceptance when noticing negative feelings about their bodies.
  3. Preventing Disordered Eating: Educating athletes and stakeholders (e.g., coaches, parents, sports medicine staff) about the risks and consequences of disordered eating behaviors is critical. Additionally, organizations need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of such behaviors and have access to resources for support and treatment. Given that nutrition is a key piece to peak performance, language from coaches and staff around nutrition can focus on nourishment and fueling as a way of caring for one’s body and supporting it through the rigors of training and performance.
  4. Mental Health Support: Coaches and sports organizations should recognize the importance of mental health support for their athletes. Providing access to counseling and mental health resources, particularly those with training and qualifications in eating disorder treatment, can be instrumental in addressing body image issues and disordered eating. Additionally, coaches and sports organizations can help normalize help-seeking and continue find ways to support athletes that may step back from participation when receiving treatment for eating disorders. 


  • Braun, T. D., Park, C. L., & Gorin, A. (2016). Self-compassion, body image, and disordered eating: A review of the literature. Body Image, 17, 117–131. 
  • Chatterton, J., Petrie, T. A., Schuler, K. L., & Ruggero, C. (2017). Bulimic symptomatology among male collegiate athletes: A test of an etiological model. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 39(5), 313–326.
  • Cusack, K. W., Petrie, T. A., & Moore, E. W. G. (2022). Self-compassion, body satisfaction, and disordered eating symptoms in male collegiate athletes: A longitudinal analysis. Body Image, 43, 134-142.
  • de Bruin, A. K. (2017). Athletes with eating disorder symptomatology, a specific population with specific needs. Current Opinion in Psychology, 16, 148–153. 
  • Gilbert, P. (2011). The compassionate mind. London: Constable.
  • MacBeth, A., & Gumley, A. (2012). Exploring compassion: A meta-analysis of the association between self-compassion and psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 32(6), 545–552.
  • Neff, K. (2003). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude toward Oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85-101.
  • Petrie, T. A., & Greenleaf, C. (2012). Eating disorders in sport. In S. M. Murphy (Ed.). The Oxford handbook of sport and performance psychology (pp. 635–659). Oxford University Press.
  • Turk, F., & Waller, G. (2020). Is self-compassion relevant to the pathology and treatment of eating and body image concerns? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 79(April), 101856.
  • Zessin, U., Dickhäuser, O., & Garbade, S. (2015). The Relationship Between Self-Compassion and Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 7(3), 340–364.
photo of Kaleb Cusack, PhD

By Kaleb Cusack, PhD
University of Nevada Athletics

Dr. Kaleb Cusack, or "Dr. K", completed his doctorate in Counseling Psychology with an emphasis in Sport Psychology from the University of North Texas. As a former Division I athlete, he is passionate about serving college student-athletes as they balance high performance and mental well-being. In his current role, Dr. K provides and implements all mental health and performance enhancement services to Nevada Athletics and can be reached at

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