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Enhancing Psychological Skills with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in Sport

This article outlines the benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in the realm of sport and how it can contribute to the improvement of psychological skills. During competitions, athletes often encounter a range of thoughts, feelings, or sensations that may negatively impact their performance.


ACT focuses on guiding athletes to live by their core values and commit to behaviors that align with these values, all while acknowledging and accepting difficult thoughts, feelings, and sensations. By employing ACT, athletes can cultivate psychological flexibility, a key aspect of the therapy, through a framework known as the "hexaflex" consisting of six essential components.


The Six Key Components of ACT:

  1. Cognitive Defusion: This component encourages athletes to detach from their thoughts by utilizing metaphors or techniques that prevent them from getting entangled or fused with them. An example is viewing thoughts as passing clouds in the sky, allowing them to come and go without becoming attached. This approach is particularly useful when athletes find themselves fixating on negative thoughts after, for instance, a disputed line call in tennis. By defusing from these thoughts, athletes can regain focus and perform at a higher level for the remainder of the match.

  2. Acceptance: ACT emphasizes accepting one's inner experiences, including painful thoughts, emotions, and sensations, instead of trying to eliminate or suppress them. Attempting to "get rid" of these experiences often leads to behaviors that ultimately move athletes away from their core values in the long run. By accepting these internal experiences as a natural part of life, athletes can make room for them while still pursuing their values.

  3. Contact with the Present Moment: Being fully present and engaged in the current moment is crucial in ACT. This component encourages athletes to develop mindfulness skills, enabling them to focus on the task at hand and avoid being caught up in past regrets or future anxieties.

  4. The Observing Self: ACT emphasizes the ability to observe and notice one's thoughts and emotions without becoming overly identified with them. By cultivating this observing self, athletes can create distance and objectivity, reducing the influence of negative thoughts or emotions on their performance.

  5. Values: ACT places great importance on clarifying and living according to one's core values. Athletes are encouraged to reflect on what truly matters to them and use those values as a guide for their actions and decisions.

  6. Committed Action: This component emphasizes taking purposeful action aligned with one's values, even in the face of difficult thoughts or emotions. It involves making a conscious choice to move toward meaningful goals and engage in behaviors that support those goals.

A simple equation to follow is: Present Moment Attention + Helpful Committed Action = Mental Toughness.


ACT Metaphors:


ACT utilizes metaphors as tools to facilitate understanding and create mental space, preventing athletes from becoming hooked on thoughts or fused with emotions. For instance, regarding thoughts as passing clouds helps athletes detach from negative thoughts and maintain focus on their performance.


Your Mind Is Not Your Friend Or Your Enemy:


ACT reminds athletes that the primary function of the brain is to ensure survival. Consequently, when athletes experience painful thoughts, emotions, or sensations, it is a natural instinct to try to eliminate them. However, attempting to "get rid" of or "block' these experiences through "fix it" behaviors can lead to a disconnection from core values in the long term. ACT encourages athletes to accept and be with these experiences rather than engaging in avoidance strategies.


Case Example:

Consider Luke, a passionate tennis player who grapples with anxiety and depression after a series of poor performances. Luke's typical approach involves avoidance behaviors, such as skipping competitions that trigger anxiety or avoiding training with skilled players to prevent exposing his perceived weaknesses. While these behaviors may temporarily alleviate his negative feelings, they ultimately steer Luke away from his core values, resulting in an unfulfilled life. By incorporating ACT, Luke can learn to "defuse" from his depression and anxiety, allowing these feelings to coexist while he pursues his values. By accepting that performance fluctuations are normal and by not engaging in a battle with painful thoughts and emotions, Luke can commit to playing tennis and other activities that align with his values, thereby enhancing his psychological flexibility.


The above example demonstrates how athletes often engage in "fix it" behaviors, which may seem like solutions to their problems but ultimately lead them away from what truly matters in their lives. ACT, with its focus on psychological flexibility, empowers athletes to free themselves from the grip of challenging thoughts and feelings, enabling them to live a life guided by their core values. ACT is a great facilitator ins changing in athlete's attitudes, which is the fundamental, and elite quality behaviour that all great athletes posses. ACT shifts thinking toward fixed mindset perspectives to growth mindset perspectives.


Just know that attention is key: Attention is one key to success on the court, Whether your serving, returning or engaging in intense, or long rallies, your ability to focus and direct your attention to the most relevant targets is critical for performance. Between points, knowing you to place attention on neutral targets such as breath to reset is crucial. Improving the quality of attention both on and off the court can significantly elevate your game, give you a competitive advantage and limit your waste of valuable energy.


The thing is underneath many of the competitive issues we face in sport - is the inability to tolerate difficult emotions. ACT in simple terms helps you to tolerate difficult emotions.


We know through brain research that physical pain and emotional pain are housed in the same brain area. This means when players evoke physical discomfort through physical training they are literally making their brain stronger in doing with physical pain. And because this part of the brain is also primarily responsible for coping with emotional pain, physical fitness makes players fitter at dealing with emotional discomforts at the same time.


Everybody has doubts, everybody has frustrations and everyone makes mistakes. The most important thing is how you react. Rafa Nadal



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