“Don’t worry, it’ll be okay.” “Don’t feel bad about it.” “Stop thinking that!” How often do we find ourselves making these comments to ourselves or others? In today’s world, we have defined being happy as “feeling good.” We strive to do everything in our power to maintain an optimal level of happiness by attempting to eliminate or reduce negative feelings or thoughts. Undesirable thoughts and feelings are viewed as “bad,” and we believe that we need to do everything in our power to make them disappear. However, I invite you to think about this question: how well does this strategy work for you? How successful are you at stopping negative thoughts and controlling your emotions?
If you are like most people, hearing the statements above (“don’t worry,” “don’t feel bad,” “stop thinking that”) are not particularly helpful. When we are told not to worry about something, this often puts the subject of our worry on the center stage of our mind as we are actually focusing our attention on it by putting forth effort to “stop” it. Attempting to “quit” thinking about something often has the opposite effect of making us think more. For instance, imagine that you’ll be happy as long as you don’t think about blue bananas. What happened?
When we try to directly change how we feel, we typically engage in activities to distract ourselves from our emotions and avoid our feelings. These activities make perfect sense when we are trying to avoid physical pain by removing ourselves from painful situations, so naturally we think to do the same for emotional pain. This may work short-term, but once you discontinue the task you are doing to avoid your fear or anger, these emotions often resurface. In fact, research suggests that efforts toward self-regulating one’s thoughts can actually lead to an increase in negative experiences (Clark, Ball, & Pape, 1991). This may be caused by excessive thinking, which results in an increased awareness of negative thoughts. (Clark, Ball, & Pape 1991; Purdon, 1999; Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000).
Traditionally, “control-based” techniques such as arousal control, goal setting, mental rehearsal, self-talk and visualization have been applied in sport psychology. The goal is to develop the athlete’s ability to control internal processes (Whelen, Mahoney, & Meyers, 1991). These techniques have been used in an attempt to reduce anxiety and negative thoughts, increase self-confidence, and improve sport performance (Gould, Eklund, & Jackson, 1992; Gould, Weiss, & Weinburg 1981; Orlick & Parington, 1988). Due to the widespread use of these procedures in the field of sport psychology, Moore (2003) reviewed studies examining the efficacy of these strategies on competitive athletic performance. Moore found that although these techniques are often used by sport psychologists, empirical support for their use in sport performance enhancement is lacking.
As a result of the lack of research showing that control-based techniques are effective, there has been a recent trend toward the utilization of acceptance-based interventions in applied psychology. Acceptance involves adapting a willing mindset to experience any emotion or thought that may arise in the context of a particular situation, without having to judge these experiences as positive or negative and without letting these experiences guide behavior. The idea of acceptance is based on the fact that we will experience negative thoughts and emotions as part of normal human life, so instead of trying to fight these experiences, we should view them as natural events in our lives.
Researchers have recently begun to apply acceptance-based interventions to athletes in various sports as a method of sport enhancement, with promising results. Garcia, Villa, Cepeda, Cueto, and Montes (2004) designed an acceptance intervention for elite canoeists and found that the acceptance program led to higher levels of performance on the canoeing task compared to a hypnosis intervention (Garcia et al., 2004). A similar study by Bernier, Thienot, Codron, and Fournier (2009) examined the effectiveness of a sport-adapted version of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999) for young, elite golfers. Their results indicated that after one year of competition, all seven golfers who underwent the acceptance program improved their national ranking, whereas only two of the six golfers in the control condition increased their ranking.
The idea of nonjudgmental acceptance of thoughts and emotions is becoming increasingly popular in both clinical and applied sport psychology. Practicing acceptance is difficult to grasp because it is so contrary to our traditional routine of trying to control thoughts and feelings. However, acceptance can be an empowering tool for athletes who want to perform without being distracted by their internal experiences. By learning to accept these experiences as normal, routine parts of their lives, athletes can direct their focus and attention to what matters most in the present moment: their sport.
A variety of tools and techniques can be found to help athletes practice acceptance. A number of exercises can be found online simply by searching “acceptance exercises.” Other, more detailed resources include: