Psychological Flexibility

You’ve heard of physical flexibility right? But what about Psychological flexibility? In this article two of our performance psychologists Lauren Bischoff and Gareth J. Mole take a closer look at this ‘game changing’ mental skill.

Psychological Flexibility plays a significant role in developing mental toughness …

What Is Psychological Flexibility?

Psychological flexibility – heard of it? Don’t worry if you haven’t. Many qualified psychologists would struggle if you asked them what psychological flexibility is. And maybe just as important, what it is not.

Let’s start by looking at the origins of the word flexible from which flexibility derives. The Online Etymology Dictionary Etymonline says:

Flexible (adjective):

early 15c., “capable of being bent; mentally or spiritually pliant,” from Old French flexible or directly from Latin flexibilis “that may be bent, pliant, flexible, yielding;” figuratively “tractable, inconstant,” from flex-, past participle stem of flectere “to bend,”

The two words that jump out from this are yielding and bend. We’ll come back to these.

Of course, the word flexibility is much more commonly associated with physical flexibility from a human point of view. So much so that if you booked in to see an exercise physiologist and asked him or her to help you design a program to boost flexibility, they’re unlikely to ask whether you mean mental or physical.

Flexibility in terms of the human body means that there is a far greater range of possible movements. This is, of course, most beneficial in an injury prevention scenario. Two similar athletes who endure the same brutal rugby league tackle are most likely impacted not by how strong they are but by how flexible they are.

It goes without saying that there are sports in which physical flexibility is arguably the number one priority. Gymnastics and many dancing pursuits emphasise the importance of suppleness. It is the same for psychological flexibility. It’s beneficial for all performance areas but absolutely critical for a few.

Outcomes vs Processes

It’s impossible to overemphasise the usefulness of separating processes from outcomes. Why? To realise how much more influence you have on processes.

So, what do physical and psychological flexibility have in common? Both types of flexibility are outcomes. They are the possible consequences of the things we do. If these processes are sound (sufficiently scientific), then the consequence may result in some improvement.

There is nothing wrong with aiming for outcomes as long as you know they are outcomes. They often make for an invaluable starting point. For example, it’s far more helpful to want to improve your physical flexibility than your overall physical health. In the same way, it is better to want to improve your psychological flexibility than your “mindset.”

Psychological Rigidity

Sometimes, when trying to understand a concept, it can be helpful to know the opposite. For example, when learning about good manners, it can be helpful to know what poor manners look like.

The opposite of psychological flexibility is psychological rigidity. It is interesting how obvious it is that physical rigidity is not desirable. But in some circles, psychological rigidity can be regarded as beneficial. For example, certain aspects of the military might believe this.

I am about a four on a scale of one to ten between rigidity and flexibility, where zero represents maximum rigidity. But I used to be a one, maybe even a zero. Certain traits of psychological rigidity are extreme rule-following and stubbornness. “It’s my way or the highway”. This is fine if you live by yourself on a desert island, but in the real world, it causes issues. Over time, I have moved from a one to a four through the core practices below. Thank you to my colleague Lauren Bischoff on the research put into the below, which she wrote.

1. Cognitive Defusion 

Have you ever been distracted by unhelpful thoughts while training or competing? It is more common than you’d imagine and can make focusing on your processes ten times harder. Thoughts such as “I’m not good enough” or “I am too anxious to perform at my best” tend to be automatic thoughts. The issue is we have very little influence on these thoughts.

The good news is that we can learn to make room or unhook from these thoughts with a bit of practice. This process frees up mental space to focus on what is essential: our actions. This concept of ‘making room’ is really important. Basically, the human mind only has the ability to deal with so much at any given time. This process leaves little room for anything else when we argue with our own thoughts. But when we accept and notice them, we can use the rest of the room to focus on skill execution. To get on with the job at hand, so to speak.

Although this might sound easy in theory, it takes practice. Let’s take a basketball player who is fixated on the consequences of missing the next shot. In this situation, they can get unstuck from these thoughts by acknowledging that “I’m having the thought that I might miss the next shot”. Did you notice any difference in the meaning between these two statements? The second thought allows us not to be as controlled by the thought of missing the shot. She makes the next attempt despite the thought.

Next time you get caught up in your thoughts, try noticing that your thoughts are just thoughts. 

2. Acceptance

Acceptance plays a big part in learning to open up to and learn from our experiences. This involves acknowledging our thoughts and emotions and letting go of what is getting in the way. We can acknowledge our thoughts and learn to accept them for what they are: just thoughts.

It is natural to want to fight our thoughts or feelings, but this makes us focus on them more. I use the purple elephant example when explaining acceptance.

The harder we try to stop having a thought, the more likely we will experience or focus on it. Therefore, let’s accept that we are having this thought in the first place without fighting it. 

Often, we focus on avoiding a feeling or experience that makes us uncomfortable, such as anxiety or pressure. However, you might be surprised that anxiety and pressure are a normal part of the human experience. And especially when those humans are trying to achieve something hard yet meaningful.

I will not detail the fight and flight response here, as other Mental Toughness Digest articles have covered this concept well.

When we accept our life experiences, we can learn from them and move to the decision-making part faster. If you got an opportunity to compete for your country at the Olympics (for example), and the experience came with lots of pressure, would you still want to go? I know that I would still want to take up that opportunity, but at the same time, I accept that pressure and anxiety will likely show up.

3. Committed Action 

Committed action involves taking responsibility for our actions and moving towards who we want to be and what we want to do. This is almost always challenging. Our uncomfortable thoughts and feelings often pull us away from what we truly want to achieve. 

Committed action refers to sticking to our processes, regardless of our thoughts or feelings. Remember that we have a lot of influence on our actions, much less on our thoughts and even less on our feelings.

Let’s take a gymnast by way of an example. Committed action on the beam would involve completing each skill despite fearing falling. Or a soccer goalkeeper during a penalty shootout. Usually, anyone would be nervous in that situation. However, it is more effective for the goalkeeper to go about their job rather than trying to calm themselves down.

A key aspect of committing to our actions is building competence in the actual skills before we start feeling confident. Imagine trying to build a new habit. It would be nice to see change overnight, but it takes practice. As we know, practice makes permanent. Competencies are well-rehearsed actions that can be relied upon. Confidence is a feeling and is inherently very unreliable.

4. Values 

Think about an athlete that you look up to. What values or qualities do you admire about that person? Maybe they are a good team player or have excellent body language under pressure.

As athletes start competing at a higher or more competitive level, they can forget about why they fell in love with the sport in the first place. I highly encourage you to reflect on why you play your sport. No, not just one now, but every month.

It’s important to highlight that our values and goals are different. Goals help us to stay on course with our values. For example, if our goal is to be the best hockey player, we might value stamina and being a good team player. This brilliant video below by Dr Russ Harris explains more on this:

5. Staying In The Moment 

It is natural to get distracted by the world around us, which pulls us away from what we are doing. Our mind is designed to keep us safe, and it does this, in part, by predicting the future. Millions of years ago, this was quite adaptive as there were many more sabertooth tigers around and fewer professional golf tournaments 😛!

The workaround is through regular mindfulness and paying attention to the present moment with less judgment. There are many ways to do this. One way is for you to try to notice internal and external stimuli. What can you hear right now if you pause and focus solely on the sounds around you?

If you need a helping hand, the below 12-minute Really Simple Mindfulness guide created by Condor Performance’s first-ever sport psychologist, Gareth J. Mole, is a great tool. Unlike the many guided meditation and mindfulness apps available, the below are free.

6. Self As Context 

Lastly, self as context allows us to observe our experiences without getting caught up in them as much. We often refer to this as our “observing self”, meaning we become better at seeing the world in a way that’s less about us.

Being human with higher cognitive abilities than most animals is a very unusual experience. We live on a planet with approximately eight billion people, but we are only aware of the thoughts and feelings of one of these people.

For this reason, it’s essential to see ourselves as separate from our thoughts or emotions and remember that we are not our thoughts. Another video by Dr Harris below uses ‘stageshows’ to explain this in more depth:

Conculsion

The term ‘psychological flexibility’ is used only slightly compared to terms such as mental toughness. However, psychological flexibility and the above six core practices are at the heart of improving mental toughness. It’s worth concluding that working on one of these in isolation from the others can be helpful; the actual “lift-off” occurs when all six practices are prioritised simultaneously. It works in a very similar way to physical flexibility. Stretching at home and regular yoga can be done in isolation, but I guess it’s better if you do both.

Quite understandably, many people would benefit from having a guide or a coach when trying to get started on the strategies covered in this article. If this is you, please don’t hesitate to contact us and ask about our one-on-one psychology services. We constantly endeavour to reply to all genuine enquiries within two or three working days.

Sport Psychology – A Brief History

Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the history of sport psychology and points out a few missed opportunities from the 100 year story so far.

Coleman Griffith

Coleman Griffith (right) put sport psychology on the map. His two classic publications in the 1920s are ‘must reads’ for anyone interested in History of Sport Psychology.

I like my history; I always have. One of the most exciting modules I did during my psychology undergraduate degree at The University of Leeds in the late 90s was ‘The History of Psychotherapy’. From memory, this course didn’t look back at different types of psychology. Instead, it just covered general trends from the past. This led me to research the history of sport psychology as we know it today.

The Pioneers of Sport Psychology

The actual origins of sport psychology had little to do with traditional psychotherapy. In the early days, sport psychology was almost entirely about performance enhancement and building on existing strengths.

The actual start of sport psychology as a specialisation was over a hundred years ago. In 1921, baseballer Babe Ruth was tested at Columbia University to discover what made him so good. Many of the findings proved that his excellence boiled down to mental superiorities more than technical or physical ones. Sport psychology as a field, a specialty was born, when the below article was published.


A few years later, psychologist Walter Miles conducted several studies that focused on optimising American footballers’ performance during training.

The Psychology of Coaching

In 1928 the Psychology of Athletics was published and two years later Griffith wrote The Psychology of Coaching. For good reason he’s regarded as the father of modern sport psychology. I own a first-edition copy of the ‘Psychology of Coaching: a Study of Coaching Methods From the Point of Psychology’. I stumbled across a copy in an antique store about 25 years ago. This book is one of the reasons why I am so passionate about working one-on-one with sporting coaches.

There is still a lot of hesitation amongst sporting coaches about working directly with a psychologist. Yet those who ‘give it a crack’ tend to be richly rewarded. If you are a sporting coach, an excellent way to ‘dip your toes in the water’ is to complete our MTQ-C online.

‘Exercise’ Psychology Wants In

It should be noted that a close look at the History of Sport Psychology shows very little interest in exercise psychology.

Pioneers of sport psychology were mainly focused on performance. From their point of view, their population of interest was already very physically active. Any ‘advice’ about physical training should come from experts in exercise physiology and related fields.

All this changed between 1930 and 1960 when exercise and physical activity were formally added to the definition of sport psychology. Hence, the standard modern description of ‘sport and exercise psychology’.

With the benefit of hindsight, I believe this was the profession’s first collective error. I will explain by way of some examples.

Exercise psychology is essentially (should be) a branch of health psychology. It’s all about using psychological methods to increase physical activity. The typical client of an exercise psychologist might be a sedentary adult. Someone who has failed to become active after seeing an exercise physiologist.

Sport psychology has little to do with this kind of mental challenge. Our clients are already physical very active, they are anything but sedentary.

The Importance of The Right Labels

For a long time, I have argued that performance psychology is the ideal label for the profession. Sport psychology would then become a subdiscipline of performance psychology. Subcategories of sport psychology would then be Sport-Specific Sport Psychology (SSSP). Listen to my conversation with English sport psychologist Dan Abrahams on his Podcast The Sport Psych Show for a more extensive deep dive into this argument.

Remember that “performance” and “performing” semantically extend well beyond elite sport. Unsurprisingly, a healthy chunk of our clients are non sporting performers from sectors such as the performing art, medicine and the military.

Sport and performance psychology/psychologists are terms getting more use nowadays. But for me, this is just repeating. Sport is a type of performance, so the word performance alone should be enough.

One of the most awkward facts about the profession from a historical perspective is that we have never attempted to agree on the correct spelling of the first word. We are trying to do something about this via the below open poll. If you have yet to vote, please do so now.

Q1: What do YOU believe should be the correct spelling if we all had to agree on JUST one and then stick with that moving forward?
Q2: Which of the below best describes your role? I am a ...
237 votes

More Recent History

From 1970 to the early 2000s, the professional enjoyed increasing recognition and growth across most of the developed world. Australia saw an all-time high of four Master Programs in ‘Sport and Exercise Psychology’. Boosted by the Sydney Olympics 2000, Australia was an excellent place to study sport psychology 20 years ago.

The Decline

Nowadays there are only two Sport and Exercise Psychology masters program remaining in Australia. So it begs the question, what happened? More importantly, what can we learn from the decline?

One big ‘dropped ball’ was spreading ourselves too thinly to bring exercise and physical activity into the fold.

In 2006, Medicare introduced a two-tier system for psychologists. The policy implies that clinical psychologists were better a psychology work. The out-of-pocket costs to see a clinical psychologist became significantly less than all other psychologists.

This legislation resulted in an explosion of applicants for clinical psychology masters to the detriment of all the other programs. A shout-out to our colleagues at AAPI who are trying to fix this.

The Recent Wellbeing Movement

In recent years sport psychology has embraced the importance of mental health and wellbeing. I am glad about this, but we must be cautious.

The risk of the recent wellbeing movement is that sport psychology might lose its performance enhancement origins. These include mental skills training and coaching psychology.

In 50 years from now, what will the answers to these questions be? What do sport psychologists do? And what are sport psychologists best known for?

Will the answers be …

  • They help athletes with mental health and well-being challenges and the odd bit of mental skills training, or will it be
  • They mainly help sporting and non-sporting performers improve in their chosen sport or performance area and introduce mental health interventions for non-critical issues if required.

This particular sport psychologist hopes it’s the latter.

Is It Possible For Us To Bounce Back?

Will we learn from our mistakes and bounce back? Can we learn from the History of Sport Psychology to improve the future of the profession? I think we can, but only with some major structural changes.

Natural Talent … Or Is It?

Natural talent is a vastly overrated part of human excellence, as argued by sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole from Condor Performance.

What Exactly Is Natural Talent?

I recently wrote the below feature on the topic of Natural Talent, and when I went to add it to the website, I realised that I’d written an article on the same subject many years ago. So, instead of deleting the old one, I have added the new one above it. So, below, enjoy not one but two different essays on this fascinating concept of sports psychology.

What Exactly Is Natural Talent?

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in concepts related to natural talent. How significant is nature (genetics) regarding human excellence versus nurture (lived experience)? While researching this article, I thought I would try to see if there is an agreed definition of natural talent and what it’s not. Surprise, surprise, I could not find a standard clarification, but this was my favourite:

Full credit to Blue Print Tennis for this definition contained within this fascinating article on the same topic.

Natural Talent Vs. Natural Ability

It’s important to emphasise the context in which we tend to come across the concept of natural talent in our work here at Condor Performance. Virtually everybody that we work with has one thing in common. They want to get better at something … or a bunch of things.

Sometimes, this performance area is evident and tangible. They want to improve their golfing consistency because they won’t be able to secure their tour card for next year without it. A surgeon gets nervous before surgery and needs to improve her composure to be the best possible surgeon she can be.

Other times, this performance area is far less obvious but still a performance area. The athlete who wants to be a better husband struggles due to the sheer amount of time they spend training. A soldier desires to be a better father by not allowing traumatic and recurring memories of the battlefield to impact his time with his young children. 

Each of these examples, along with many others, has an element of talent or ability. The last example is probably the best to emphasise this. We know from the research that, for some reason, specific soldiers who return from the battlefield seem to cope very well with adapting to everyday life. On the other hand, some military personnel who experience precisely the same situations return home and have their functioning compromised by their experiences. What is going on here? 

Earned and Unearned Competence

Sometimes, I think it might be better to think of the Natural Talent debate in terms of earned and unearned competence at something. 

Earned competence is essentially the most common type of competence whereby you are good at something because you have spent a lot of time becoming good at it. However, not all competence is a direct result of hard work.

Unearned competence is when you are good at something without having spent hours and hours honing that skill. Why? How? We are not sure. Genetics undoubtedly plays a part. But maybe there are also many environmental factors that we are entirely unaware of. Perhaps the soil in the country in which you live is much richer in nutrients than in other countries. So without you having to do anything, the quality of the vegetables you’re putting into your body is slightly better. 

Undoubtedly, at the end of the day, how good you are is a combination of the two types of talent/ability/competency. It’s also worth pointing out that some performance areas are arguably more susceptible to one than the other. In other words, it’s incorrect to say that ability is 50% natural and 50% nurture. 

Let’s Look At A Few Examples 

First and foremost, the more complex and challenging the performance area, the less likely experts will be as such because of inherited advantages. Let’s look at a sport like the decathlon.

The vast amount of different motor skills, physical, psychological and technical requirements needed to be an excellent decathlete means that it would need to be more influenced by hard work and less by Mum and Dad’s genetic offerings.

Maybe the opposite example also comes from track and field. If we look at sprinting, it is easy to see that there appears to be a more significant genetic predisposition to running incredibly fast.

I am not taking anything away from the hard work of the world’s fastest men, women, boys and girls. But here is a fact: if you were born into a family of Caucasian shorties, good luck trying to win a 100m or 200 m Olympic medal.

Fortunately, due to advances in sports science, we don’t need to guess these things any more. There now appears to be universal agreement amongst the academic community that in the case of sprinting, fast-twitch fibres (which are entirely genetic and cannot be increased post-birth) play a significant role in how quick you will be. Of course, you still need to put in the training, BUT the training seems to pay much more dividends to those with more fast-twitch fibres. 

How Much Influence?

As is often the case, it can be beneficial to consider how much influence we have on all of this. For virtually every performance area, a certain percentage of how good you can get will result from inherited elements. A better question should be, “How much influence do we have on our natural abilities or lack thereof?”.

The answer is simple. None, nada, zilch!

So because we have no influence on these, I suggest you accept and ignore them equally. Instead, focus on aspects of improving that you have the most influence over.

What’s that? I hear you shouting.

The answer is simple. The quality and quantity of improvement endeavours. This might be called training, practice, preparation, or something else depending on your performance area.

A Personal Example

I have two children. One finds most sports far more straightforward than the other. During Covid, when they were homeschooled, we spent a lot of time just working on basic physical literacy. Throwing, catching and kicking basics. One of our favourite activities was throwing tennis balls between one another and trying to catch them with a baseball glove.

Because of natural gifts, one of my children spent no extra time trying to learn how to catch the ball better. The time the three of us spent outside was all the practice they got.

But my other child, who, for some reason, even though they have the same mother and father, found catching a much trickier proposition. So this child, without being prompted, spent far longer in the backyard trying to improve by themselves. What was the result? Two children who are exceptionally good at catching a baseball.

But What If …

I sometimes ponder how good the first child would be if they had/have the same work ethic as the second child. In most cases, this never happens. The natural talents work less because they can get away with it. The less naturally gifted try harder because they have to.

And every once in a blue moon, you get someone who combines extraordinary natural liabilities with exceptional quality and quantity of practice. These rare individuals are already mentally very healthy yet go out of their way to further improve the mental aspects of what they do. They choose to work with sports psychologists (like the ones at Condor Performance) not for a couple of months but for a couple of decades in the knowledge that there is never an end to improving.

We have names for these unique creatures. They are the top 0.1%. Some are called GOATS. They are the Hall of Famers, world champions.

Suppose you are following the logic of this theory. In that case, you might realise that, unfortunately, for some people, their genetics will mean they will not be able to reach the summit, irrespective of the quality and quantity of practice. Maybe you are one of these people. If you are, then I would suggest this mindset. Let’s see how far we can get without the biological head start.

If you need a hand, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Natural Talent – Previous Article

Words or combinations of words, primarily when spoken, are powerful and need to be treated delicately. As a general rule, I try hard not to dislike certain words. Instead, I choose not to use specific combinations myself. For example, the word control is used prolifically in performance psychology circles. As my colleagues and clients know, I prefer to use the word influence. In my opinion, it’s just a much better word for exerting an impact on something.

As a sport psychologist who doesn’t use direct cognitive therapy techniques, I try not to correct my sporting clients when they use the word control. Instead, I just choose not to use it myself. I refer to our varying degrees of influence on different aspects of our life and performance.

Two Words Not One: Natural + Talent

But I am particularly offended by one pair of words: natural talent. Before pulling it apart and explaining why I feel these words should be banned, let’s look at each word by itself.

The ‘natural’ part refers to genetics, what we’re born with, and our DNA. In other words, it is the former in the Nature Versus Nurture concept/debate. Like most scientists, I believe most of our abilities are made up of a combination of nature and nurture.

Most experts now believe it’s a fairly even contest between genetics and environment. And this may well be the case in many areas I know little about. However, in sports, I firmly believe that genetics is vastly overplayed as a determinant of success. Let me be 100% clear here. I am not dismissing the role of genetics. I am simply saying that factors such as height and hand size play a much smaller part than many people believe they do.

Not All Performance Areas Are The Same

As performance psychologists, we work right across a multitude of performance domains. Some of the most exciting work I have done is with male and female professional models. By models, I’m referring to men, women, boys, and girls who make a living by doing catwalks and photoshoots. Imagining a performance domain with a more significant genetic component to professional modelling is hard. After all, height is considered critical for most adult models.

And the last time I checked, it didn’t matter how hard you tried, but you couldn’t make yourself taller. Yet even in this cutthroat industry, I still assert that success is more than 50% about non-genetic factors. Chief amongst these uninherited factors is effort, or how you apply yourself. Suddenly, natural talent doesn’t feel that natural.

What About Sports?

Not too far behind professional modelling are sports that benefit from particular physical attributes. Height is useful for basketballers, netballers, and high jumpers.

But what about sports which are much less physical? Sports such as golf, lawn bowls and figure skating. Are there some genetically predetermined characteristics that allow some people to have an advantage in these psychologically brutal sports? Instead of sharing my views, I invite you to add your thoughts to the comments section below.