Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) meets Sports Psychology

Sports Psychology draws from many models but recently Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) is gaining momentum as a key ingredient in ‘best practice’ Mental Toughness Training.

Thoughts can’t be controlled, at best they can be influenced. Like trying to tame a wild animal, you can try but it might still try and bit you.

For the many readers of the Mental Toughness Digest who are not formally trained in psychology, you may be surprised to learn that underneath the umbrella of therapeutic models lie literally hundreds of different types.

Some of these are new, some are much older. Some are better known whilst others not so much. Some have a lot more empirical evidence than others. But they all have one thing in common – the intention to help people improve, to get better, to advance in some way, shape or form.

At Condor Performance, we are very open to our psychologists using whichever therapeutic models they believe are going to be most effective at assisting our sport and performance clientele.

I myself have always relied very heavily on two major theories – in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as well as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (I should mention that I am not that thrilled with the fact that both of these end in the word ‘therapy’ and therefore suggest a much more clinical / counselling framework that I’d like – but more on that another time).

Like many psychology undergraduates, I was exposed mostly to just Cognitive Behavioural Therapy models during the early part of my journey to becoming a fully registered psychologist. In fact, so dominant was CBT in the early part of my training that I’m happy to admit I regarded it as being the only real model of truly effective psychological practice.

But even in those early days, I was somewhat concerned about the idea of helping people to think differently or, even more, helping them to not think at all. So, it should come as no surprise that when I first stumbled across Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (in 2013) that I felt, from a mental toughness training point of view, that I had found the missing piece of the puzzle.

I quickly worked out that CBT, from a sports psychology point of view, was much more about the B than the C. In other words, behavioural therapy seemed to be highly effective and a “gold mine” when it came to assisting athletes, coaches and non-sporting performers to improve areas such as confidence, motivation and focus.

But we still needed to know what we were going to do about the C part, the cognitions or thought processes of those that we were working with. 

At the very core of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy developed by Steven C. Hayes in the 1980s is the concept that, as a human being, your thoughts are very much like a wild animal. Despite potentially putting a huge amount of effort into trying to tame the beast, the fact remains is it ultimately going to do what it wants to do.

In other words, instead of trying to directly change the way that we think thoughts are far better off being accepted most of the time and not manipulated.

To put this directly into the context of sport, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is suggesting that instead of training your brain to think a certain way when you are serving – say – at triple match point down, that we are much better of training the mind to be comfortable with whatever thoughts happen to occur during that moment.

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I recently heard a couple of really interesting podcast interviews with Russ Harris – an Australian-based psychotherapist who, in many ways, has taken Stephen Hayes’ original ideas to the next level. He spoke passionately about the fact that he doesn’t really like the term mindfulness anymore.

Mindfulness has and continues to be confused with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Russ’s concern is that because of the recent explosion of mindfulness in popular culture that the core ingredients to successful use of the ACT model may be getting diluted down.

Although I tend to agree with Russ, I like the fact that trying to convince a 16-year-old rugby league player to incorporate some mindfulness into their weekly routine feels a hundred times easier in the year 2019 compared with 2009. When I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to inform the one-on-one mental training I do with my sporting and non-sporting clients, I do so in the following way.

First, I explain that uncomfortable thoughts and feelings are a part of the human existence irrespective of their mental health, their current success or their past experiences (the wild animal analogy can help here).

Next, I explain how thoughts are separate from actions. You can try this now. Start rubbing the top of your head whilst at the same time thinking how silly it is to rub one’s head. Even better say out loud “I will never be able to rub my head whilst talking”.

All too often in the human experience thoughts (along with feeling) and actions are regarded as inseparable. The favoured term in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is fused. Therefore the separation of thoughts from actions is logically called diffusion – one of the most important parts to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

After this, I recommend that in order to become more comfortable with the myriad of cognitions that can take place, that some time be put aside each week in order to really focus on the acceptance side of ACT.

In recent times, I’ve moved away from recommending guided meditation programs towards a much simpler framework, which I myself use on a daily basis.

Every morning after I wake up I have about 30 minutes to myself. Now, many of you reading this might be thinking “lucky for you mate” so it might require you to go to bed half an hour earlier to achieve this (assuming you don’t want to sleep for less time).

During the 30 minutes, I have two aims. To complete two activities and be as mindful (accepting of thoughts) as possible during them.

First up I do a fixed 15-minute gentle stretching routine. Because I’ve been doing these same stretches now for the better part of five years they are completely automatic, and therefore, it is quite easy for me to actually complete these actions without having to think about them. This makes the stretching highly fertile ground for me to go into cognitive autopilot (where you’re doing one thing but thinking about something different).

I really need to try hard not to go through the motions of stretching whilst thinking about a whole bunch of unrelated activities. The way I get around it is by simply watching a YouTube video whereby the stretches are done by another person, and I also listen to the audio through my Bluetooth headphones.

If I find I’m losing concentration on the instructions – which happens all the time – then I pause the video momentarily before taking a deep breath and pushing play again. I can literally count at the end of the activity how distracted I was by the number of times I had to pause and unpause the video. Despite having been doing this exercise for five years, I’m yet to complete the full 15-minute sequence without having to pause the video at least once, but it is my goal to do so in the coming months.

Shortly after I finish the 15-minute stretching exercise, I do a five-minute mindfulness activity, which, from my point of view, takes both the mindfulness and the acceptance side of ACT to its simplest format. I lie down on the ground with a small pillow behind my head and place a one-kilogram ankle weight on my stomach. The purpose of the weight is to allow me to lift and lower the weight with each breath, which I find to be a hundred times easier than focusing on the breath whilst sitting on a chair.

I, like many of my sporting clients, am a doer, so incorporating a tangible action into my morning mindfulness practice makes the process a lot more effective and a lot more motivating. What do I think about during the five minutes? I think about whatever I happen to be thinking about at that time. There are no intentions during the five minutes other than to be as still as possible, and for me to focus on lifting and lowering the ankle weight. The real point of doing this is to get me into the habit of accepting that, on the most part, I’m going to think what I’m going to think and that I shouldn’t concern myself too much about the quantity or the quality or the positivity of these thoughts, and focus much more on the action of breathing properly.

Which brings us to the final part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ~ the commitment part. By commitment, what we are really saying is committed actions. In fact, one suggested edit to the actual name of ACT may be Acceptance of Thoughts/Feelings and Commitment to Actions Therapy.

By spending just five minutes every day whereby my thoughts are allowed to do whatever they want to do, whilst at the same time performing some very simple yet consistent actions, enables me to go out into the world and really live like Steven Hayes and Russ Harris would like me to (I believe). That is as someone who really focuses on his actions and doesn’t get particularly caught up with the associated thoughts.

Although Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has been used across every single area of human existence, it really does feel like it lends itself particularly well to the chaotic world of elite sport and performance.

If you are curious about finding out more about the work we do at Condor Performance a great place to start is to listen to some of the recorded answers to the most frequent questions we get by clicking here. Or just emailed us at info@condorperformance.com.

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.

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