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Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Athletes

    Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Athletes

    In the world of sports, athletes face a myriad of challenges – from intense competition and performance pressure to injuries and setbacks. In the pursuit of excellence, the mental game is just as crucial as physical and technical prowess. This is where Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) comes into play. ACT offers a unique approach to enhancing athletic performance by cultivating psychological flexibility.

    This blog post will give an overview of ACT and explore how athletes can benefit from ACT principles and techniques to unlock their full potential on and off the field.

    Understanding Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

    Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a form of cognitive-behavioural therapy founded on the principles of mindfulness, acceptance, and values-based actions. Developed by Hayes and his colleagues (Hayes, et al., 1999), ACT aims to help individuals build psychological flexibility, that is, the ability to be present, open, and engaged in pursuing meaningful goals. There are three key target areas: Be Present, Open Up, and Do What Matters, that together form what is known as the Triflex (Harris, 2009).

    Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Athletes

    Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Athletes

    ACT has been successful in a number of situations, for example, pain management, stress, depression, and anxiety, and has more recently been applied to the elite sporting world. ACT in sport allows athletes to train their attention to focus on task relevant cues, allowing for an enhancement in performance as the athlete’s attention is not distracted by internal thoughts and emotions, such as anxiety or frustration.

    Athletes face a unique set of psychological challenges that can impact their performance and wellbeing. From performance anxiety and fear of failure to injury rehabilitation and burnout, the mental aspect of sports is often as demanding as the physical aspect. ACT provides athletes with valuable tools and strategies to navigate these challenges with resilience and grace.

    Key Principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Athletes

    Be Present

    The first key area of the Triflex model of psychological flexibility is Be Present. This area focuses on being in the present moment, being aware of the here and now, being aware of self, and not being distracted. If distracted, for example, about what happened during the last point, using ACT based techniques that cultivate being present allows attention to be re-focused.

    Training to be present involves mindful awareness and self-observation.

    Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present and engaged in the moment. For athletes, mindfulness can enhance focus, concentration, and performance by reducing distractions and increasing awareness of internal and external cues. For example, a tennis athlete can be aware of the weight of their racket, be aware of their breathing and heart rate, sound of the ball as it bounces off the court, and heat of the air on their skin. By focusing attention and embodying present moment awareness, athletes may be able to maintain concentration and deal with pressures.

    Self-As-Context. Another integral part of being present is self-as-context. Self-as-context or self-observation can help an athlete develop a deeper understanding of their identity, both on and off the court (or field, pool etc). This includes recognising that thoughts and emotions are temporary experiences; they are not defining aspects of the self.

    Open Up

    The second key area of psychological flexibility is Open Up. Open up focuses on our relationship with our thoughts and emotions. This involves acceptance of thoughts and emotions as well as separating or unhooking from them.

    Training to be open involves techniques that can support the athlete to defuse from their thoughts and view the world from a different perspective, as well as accept a range of experiences.  

    Cognitive Defusion. An athlete may have the thought “I cant do this” and view the world from that perspective. With ACT intervention, the athlete can learn to start unhooking or detaching from this belief to allow a different perspective. Unhooking from thoughts is an abstract concept, however with practice, the process can become more tangible and automatic.

    Acceptance. In ACT, acceptance involves acknowledging and embracing difficult thoughts, emotions, and sensations without trying to control or suppress them. Athletes can benefit from learning to accept the ups and downs of competition, injuries, and setbacks, allowing them to respond more effectively to adversity.

    Do What Matters

    The third area that comprises psychological flexibility is Do What Matters. This area focuses on having a set of values and taking committed actions that are congruent with these values. This is somewhat different to goal orientated action that many athletes are more familiar with. Values are something that are never achieved, unlike goals.

    Values Clarification. ACT intervention can help athletes clarify their core values. Values are the guiding principles and priorities that shape their actions and decisions. By aligning their goals and actions with their values, athletes can find greater meaning and fulfillment in their athletic pursuits, enhancing motivation and resilience.

    Commitment to Action. This refers to taking action aligned with one’s values, even in the presence of discomfort or fear. During therapy, athletes can learn to identify actionable steps towards their goals and commit to consistent effort and persistence, regardless of obstacles or setbacks.

    Benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Athletes

    Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Athletes
    • Improved focus and concentration during training and competition.
    • Enhanced resilience and ability to bounce back from setbacks.
    • Greater emotional regulation and stress management skills.
    • Increased motivation and commitment to long-term goals.
    • Enhanced overall well-being and quality of life on and off the field.

    Final Words

    Acceptance and Commitment Therapy offers valuable tools and techniques for athletes to enhance their mental resilience, focus, and overall performance. By embracing mindfulness, acceptance, and values-driven action, athletes can unlock their full potential and thrive in the competitive world of sports. Whether you are a professional athlete or a weekend warrior, integrating ACT principles into your training regimen can lead to greater success, fulfillment, and wellbeing both on and off the field. Keen? Then contact our psychologist to get started.

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