Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999) is a treatment approach that views experiential avoidance, inflexible attentional processes and reduced attempts to pursue valued behaviors as the sources of psychological dysfunction. These issues result in what is known as psychological inflexibility, or the inability to change one’s behavior or focus of attention in order to succeed in a given situation. The primary focus of ACT, then, is to promote the idea of psychological flexibility, or the abilities to contact the present moment fully, switch and focus attention, and behave in the service of one’s own values (Hayes, Stroshal, & Wilson., 2012).
Psychologists have recently begun applying the principles of ACT in a variety of sports, believing that if athletes can switch their attention to the relevant athletic task versus internal states such as anxiety or frustration, they will be able to perform more successfully. This may be especially true in situations of heightened stress or arousal, such as a penalty kick in football or a free throw in basketball.
ACT attempts to enhance psychological flexibility via six core processes of change: acceptance, cognitive defusion, contact with the present moment, self as context, value-driven behavior, and committed action towards value-driven behavior (Twohig, 2012). These six processes have been nicknamed the “ACT Hexaflex (Hayes et al., 2012).”
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. Cognitive defusion is the process of viewing thoughts simply as automatic events in the mind that do not necessarily influence behavior. Contact with the present moment refers to nonjudgmental contact with psychological and environmental events as they occur (Hayes et al., 1999). The conceptualized self refers to self-evaluations that are formed through interactions with the environment and with others. Although the conceptualized self may be helpful in guiding behavior, ACT teaches individuals to view the self as ever-changing and influenced by both internal and external events (Twohig, 2012). Values-driven behavior is the ability to act in accordance with one’s goals and values. Committed action to these values involves engaging in values-driven behavior even in the face of undesirable thoughts, emotions, or events.
The ACT Hexaflex can be readily applied to any sport. For instance, before a World Cup match, it would be expected that even the most gifted of players would experience anxiety about the upcoming game. Instead of attempting to control, reduce, eliminate, or block out thoughts of worry and feelings of tension, players practicing acceptance would instead observe these internal events as simple, normal reactions to the upcoming match, and may even develop a certain appreciation of these thoughts and emotions and embrace them as a result of his current situation. In the same idea, cognitive defusion may be used to change the player’s relationship with their thoughts and emotions. Instead of viewing these internal events as things that should influence how they prepare for the match or perform in the game, defusing from these thoughts and emotions would allow players to have space between what they are feeling inside and what is actually happening around them on the pitch.
Becoming more in touch with the present moment may enable a golfer to become more aware of environmental cues that may impact his shot. For instance, paying attention to the present moment may allow the player to notice the direction of the wind, the lie of the grass, the slope of the green, and other factors that are important to making a good shot. The opposite of being fully present may be a golfer becoming preoccupied with their last shot, the next hole, or things unrelated to golf, which may distract the golfer from giving his full attention to the shot at hand. Regarding the conceptualized self, an elite athlete may become “fused” to their identity as a world-class athlete, which could potentially be a source of guilt and frustration for them if they do not succeed every time they step on to the field or court. In contrast, by viewing oneself in the context of the event, the athlete may realize that environmental factors such as teammates, opponents, playing surface, and other variables may also impact their performance, not just their skill level and reputation.
Values-driven behavior may help an athlete who is struggling with motivation. Athletes should clarify what they want to get out of their athletic endeavor and performance, whether it be personal satisfaction, financial success, social status, or physical health. Values clarification may provide the athlete with the motivation needed to adhere to actions that align with their values. Similarly, committed action may be used to motivate the athlete who is struggling with fatigue or apathy on a particular training day. For instance, by reminding himself of his vision of becoming the champion of his weight class, a wrestler may realize that he needs to train that day despite his low motivation in order to put himself in a better position to beat his next opponent.
The ACT Hexaflex is a useful tool for sport psychologists, coaches, and athletes who believe in the power of psychological flexibility. Through committed and values-driven behavior, present-moment awareness, and acceptance of thoughts and emotions, athletes can enhance their ability to fully attend to their athletic situations. In turn, the athlete will perform in a more targeted, focused, and motivated manner, ultimately leading to athletic success.