Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999) is a form of behavior therapy that incorporates the concepts of mindfulness, acceptance of thoughts and emotions and values-driven behavior into traditional behavioral change principles. From an ACT perspective, psychological dysfunction is primarily the result of the tendency to misapply problem solving and language to “normal instances of psychological pain” (Hayes, Stroshal, & Wilson., 2012, p. 19). These tendencies lead to experiential avoidance, inflexible attentional processes and reduced attempts to pursue valued behaviors which, in turn, results in psychological inflexibility. Based on this idea, the primary focus of ACT is the promotion of psychological flexibility, or the ability to contact the present moment fully, and change or persist in behavior in the service of chosen values based on the situation.
The rationale behind ACT runs contrary to the traditional psychological skills training methods typically used by sport psychologists. Techniques such as arousal control, goal setting, mental rehearsal, self-talk and visualization have been used with the aim of developing the athlete’s ability to control internal processes (Whelen, Mahoney, & Meyers, 1991). These techniques, often referred to collectively as psychological skills training (PST), have been used to reduce anxiety and negative thoughts, increase self-confidence, and improve sport performance (Gould, Eklund, & Jackson, 1992).
However, a quickly evolving body of literature appears to suggest that attempts to control internal experiences can result in negative outcomes (Hayes, Follette, & Linehan, 2004). In fact, research suggests that efforts at self-regulation of thoughts can paradoxically lead to increases in negative experiences (Clark, Ball, & Pape, 1991). Presumably, this is due to excessive cognitive activity resulting from increased self-monitoring of negative thoughts. Increased attention toward one’s own negative thoughts may lead to excessive attention being placed on those experiences (Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000).
Performance research appears to document the potential negative impact of internally focused attention. This research indicates that optimal performance requires attention to external stimuli, often referred to as task-focused attention (Gardner & Moore, 2001). Processing Efficiency Theory, suggested by Eysenck and Calvo (1992), suggests that task-irrelevant attention may occur when anxiety is high and attention is drawn toward potential threat relevant cues, thereby leaving less cognitive energy for focusing on the task at hand. Based on this theory, elevated anxiety during an athletic performance task may cause an athlete to shift attention towards anxious cognitions and give less attention towards external stimuli, thereby resulting in suboptimal performance. Gould et al. (1992) found supporting evidence for this theory, with results indicating that task-irrelevant attention was related to poor athletic performance. Crocker, Alderman, and Smith (1988) created a performance enhancement intervention designed to enhance task-focused attention, with results indicating that elite volleyball players demonstrated significant performance improvements. These studies provide support for the idea of what an athlete pays attention to influences athletic performance.
As a primary goal of ACT is to increase psychological flexibility, researchers have hypothesized that ACT may help athletes switch their attention to the relevant athletic task versus internal states, such as anxiety or frustration. With this rationale, ACT interventions have recently been applied to athletes in various sports as a method of sport enhancement, with promising results. Garcia, Villa, Cepeda, Cueto, and Montes (2004) designed an ACT intervention for elite canoeists and compared the effectiveness of the program with a hypnosis intervention on a canoeing performance task. Results indicated that the ACT program led to higher levels of performance on the canoeing task than the hypnosis intervention. A similar study by Bernier, Thienot, Codron, and Fournier (2009) examined the effectiveness of a sport-adapted version of ACT for young, elite golfers. Their results indicated that after one year of competition, all seven golfers who underwent the ACT program improved their national ranking, whereas only two of the six golfers in the control condition increased their ranking.
Gardner and Moore (2001) developed the Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) approach to sport performance enhancement. The MAC approach is comprised of a combination of mindfulness exercises and ACT techniques, and designed to enhance sport performance and general psychological well-being. Wolanin (2005) randomly assigned 11 collegiate field hockey and volleyball players to complete either the MAC protocol or a control condition. Wolanin found that participants who had completed the MAC intervention demonstrated a significant increase in both self and coach ratings of athletic performance, task focused attention, and practice intensity compared to those who were in a no-intervention control group. Lutkenhouse, Gardner, & Moore (2007) recruited 118 collegiate athletes from the sports of soccer, field hockey, crew and wrestling and randomly assigned them to complete the MAC program or a traditional PST program. Results revealed that the MAC participants exhibited significantly greater increases in coach ratings of performance than the PST participants (Lutkenhouse et al., 2007).
The research behind the application of ACT in applied sport psychology is emerging, and mindfulness and acceptance-based techniques are becoming more and popular amongst athletes. Teams, coaches, and players interested in learning more about ACT should visit www.contextualscience.org/act for more information on ACT theory and exercises. My other articles on mindfulness, acceptance, and committed action may also be a helpful resource, as would Gardner and Moore’s (2007) manual on the MAC approach. ACT is at the forefront of an exciting new field of psychological training, and can provide athletes with the psychological edge they need in order to succeed.