Performance Mindfulness

Sport Psychology draws from many models but recently Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) is gaining some serious momentum.

Performance Mindfulness is simply mindfulness techniques for performance enhancement purposes.

If you are not formally trained in psychology, you might not know this. Under the banner of “psychotherapy” there are hundreds of different approaches. Sometimes called models or philosophies some work together whilst others are literally opposites. For some mindfulness (or performance mindfulness) is everything, for others it’s nonexistent.

At Condor Performance, we are open to our psychologists using whichever therapeutic models they believe are best. One of our core values is ‘always do what’s in the best interest of the client’. This eliminates the need to force all of our performance and sport psychologists to use the same ‘tool kit’.


In my applied work with sporting clients I have tended to use two major models. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as well as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) have been my go-to philosophies since 2005.

I should mention that I am not that thrilled that both of them end in the word ‘therapy’. The word therapy, to most, suggests a night clinical or counselling framework. This is not exactly the best label when helping professional golfers with their pre shot routines (for example).

Like many psychology students from the 1990s I was exposed mostly to just CBT models during my undergraduate years. In fact, so dominant was CBT in the early part of my training that I assumes it was ‘the only way’ to help clients!

Despite this I was always uncomfortable about the idea of helping people to think too differently. Quite frankly it just felt too hard without any real benefit. There was something missing from CBT’s toolkit. Luckily due to psychologist’s CPD requirements I was constantly being exposed to new ideas.

Russ Harris in 2013

In 2013 I was supervising a young provisionally registered psychologist called Alice Williams (now fully registered). During supervision sessions Alice had a lot of questions about both mindfulness and performance mindfulness. I knew I didn’t know enough. So the two of us travelled to Canberra to take one of Russ Harris’ Intro courses into ACT.

The two-day event was a game changer as we say in sporting circles. It made me realise that the C from CBT needed to come with a warning.

Warning: Thoughts (cognitions) should not be tampered with unless in exceptional situations.

There was nothing wrong with the B from CBT at all. Behavioural therapy seemed to be highly effective and a “gold mine” for sport psychology purposes.

The Wild Beast Analogy

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy was first developed by Steven C. Hayes in the 1980s. His starting point was that the cognitions of human being are very much like wild animals. You can try and tame them but ultimately they’re going to do what they’re going to do.

So instead of trying to directly change our thoughts we are far better off accepting them most of the time.

This makes complete sense to me. Imagine trying to get a tennis player to always have the same thoughts before they serve. Or to always think positively. Now imagine that that tennis player is in a very difficult situation. Maybe she is slightly injured or maybe she’s double match point down. Now, not only is she in a bind but we’re expecting her to think a certain way too!

Take a look at this before and after 2013 expert from a couple of hypothetical sessions.

Before 2013 (Discovering ACT)

Sport Psychologist: What do you think before each serve?

Tennis Player: Not quite sure ..

Sport Psychologist: I want you to be sure …

After 2013 (Discovering ACT)

Sport Psychologist: What do you think before each serve?

Tennis Player: Not quite sure ..

Sport Psychologist: Great, it’s your actions that count. What do you do before each serve?

The Misuse of The Word Mindfulness

Mindfulness has and continues to be confused with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Mindfulness is an increased awareness of the present moment with decreased judgment. It’s just one part of ACT, a very important part but it’s not the entire model.

When I use ACT 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. 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”.

Mental Separation

All too often in the human experience thoughts, 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 – a key part of ACT.

So we have to get better at accepting our thoughts. You can try this alone to start with but it is very hard. Or you can use free or paid apps or audio guides. Recently we created this 16 mins free audio called Really Simple Mindfulness.

Really Simple Mindfulness

This brings us to the final part of ACT, the commitment part. By commitment, what we are really saying is committed actions. And this is my mindfulness and ACT are so useful for sport. More so than almost any other human endeavour sports are facts full of actions. There are a virtually unlimited number of tasks that can be actioned.

So performance mindfulness is really just normally mindfulness but in a performance settings. And it’s in these settings that fusing (getting caught up) with your thoughts can be so damaging.

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 get in touch via one of these methods:

Mindfulness for Sport; The Power of The Present Moment

Below is a 2016 article by David on the same subject matter.

Mindfulness for Sport is a key performance mental skill without which you might just be found wanting when the pressure is up.

In every sport and performance area, there are a significant number of variables and factors that ultimately affect performance and results. Obviously, one of our jobs at Condor Performance (Applied Sport and Performance Psychologists) is to make sure that our clients have direct access to the mental skills that are most likely to help with these variables. Mindfulness For Sport, or Really Simple Mindfulness, is one such skill.

One idea we encourage the athletes and coaches we work with to focus on during training and competition is the present moment. It is here where we have the best opportunity to stay grounded and focused.

What I tend to notice when discussing the present moment with people is that the old cliche of “one step/shot/swing/etc. at a time”. However, without any commitment to a change in behaviour this belief merely acts as a “bumper sticker” mental skill. How about strategies that actually help you remain in the ‘here and now’?

Before I go further, I want to acknowledge a view that I’ve heard that some of the more stop-start sports such as golf, tennis, cricket and volleyball, are better ‘organically’ for staying in the present. There is some logic to this as these sports are broken down into smaller ‘chunks’. For example, separate points of shots or holes. During the period between these events, athletes are able to apply strategies such as pre-performance routines to help stay in the ‘now. Mindfulness For Sport is really about using such routines to ensure this happens.

Even In Dynamic Team Sports

But Mindfulness For Sport can work for all sports, you just need some creativity. Being able to bring ourselves back to the present moment by finding opportunities to break the match/game/race down into smaller events is not limited to start-stop sports.

All sports have natural points of breaks, pauses and checkpoints. These ‘gaps’ lend themselves to being associated with breaking sport down and applying a mental skill at these times.

In basketball, this could be crossing half-court when possession changes. In football (soccer) maybe when there is a free kick or throw-in? For both rugby codes moments when possession changes hands and you are lining up offensively or defensively. Even in swimming how about when you push off the wall to start the next lap?

As you can see, these moments don’t have to be very long. This is because the skills we want to apply are designed to be simple and effective. We don’t want to issues by overthinking via the work through a checklist of items each time this occurs.

If you’d like to ‘dip your toes’ into some more Mindfulness for Sport related techniques for sport and performance then skip straight to the Emotions section of Metuf for Sports by clicking here.

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.