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WNBA Stars Speak on the Value of Self-Compassion

“The well-balanced woman is a very powerful woman.”

According to the World Health Organization, in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%. SI Swimsuit has partnered with Maybelline Brave Together as part of its Pay With Change initiative to help shine a light on the importance of mental health. WNBA players Sue Bird, Nneka Ogwumike and DiDi Richards came together to discuss their own mental health insights and shared these lessons learned..

Self-compassion is a practice that Bird has only recently adopted into her daily life. It’s a skill she admits doesn’t come easy to her but has helped her tremendously. “You really have to be kind to yourself. Like, you have to be nice,” says the Seattle Storm guard, who recently announced that she will be retiring at the end of this WNBA season after 19 years in the league. “You’re not always gonna be perfect. You’re not gonna get it right. Every time you’re gonna make mistakes and I think it’s when you beat yourself up in those moments that can cause a lot. So I have really gone out of my way, because it’s not my strong suit to just be nice to myself, show myself some grace, be kind, whatever you want to call it. And it’s really helped.”

This custom is also scientifically backed. Scientific data shows that self-criticism makes us weaker in the face of failure, more emotional, and less likely to assimilate lessons from our failures,” writes Dr. Emma Seppälä, science director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford and the author of The Happiness Track. “Studies are finding that there is a far better alternative to self-criticism: self-compassion.”

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The pandemic triggered a shift in Ogwumike’s approach to caring for her own mental health as well. “I realized that mental health was a part of the aspect of the muscles that I needed to train,” she says. But the WNBA Players Association president found that the process wasn’t as easy as lifting a dumbbell. “Obviously in the Black community, it’s such a faux pas. It's been such a faux pas for so long to talk about. I always try to alleviate any type of guilt that people feel for not considering it seriously,” says the Los Angeles Sparks forward. She traces the challenge to be kind to yourself back to the circumstances past generations have faced. “Mental health was not a priority because survival was a priority,” she explains. “But of course we’re all learning a lot better now. For me, what I realized was that feeling as though you’re carrying a lot is a very normal feeling. We’re all human. It happens. But fighting that feeling with You’re weak, you know, suck it up. That’s not it.”

After a collision at practice her senior year at Baylor, Richards found herself temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. The experience forced her to have to slow down and nurse herself back to health. While she says the way she did it wasn’t as self-compassionate as it could have been, she’s taken steps to manage her mental health now. “Whether that be going to therapy or just being able to talk about it, I want people to understand that it’s O.K. to sit there and reflect,” says the New York Liberty guard who had suffered spinal shock. “It’s O.K. to sit there and be unapologetically you while also taking care of yourself.”

We’re all taught from an early age to share and be kind to others, but we’re not as widely encouraged to be there for ourselves. “We’re never taught to be the main character of our own story,” says Ogwumike. “[But] the well-balanced woman is a very powerful woman.”