In my last blog post I told you about my life with Mr. Tinker – the sometimes annoying, overreacting, chatterbox and often not so useful guy that I am living with. As you probably know already the story was not real, Mr. Tinker was a metaphor I used for describing my mind and its daily activity. The point I tried to make is that, as our mind is so active and quite engaging, we may find ourselves too caught up in it, and hence, live in a mindless way – missing out on the actual and present experiences of life. The alternative is mindfulness, which stands for being in the present moment, experiencing it fully, and being accepting and non-judgmental towards the experience.
Today, elaborating on the topic of mindfulness, I would like to introduce to you the ACT approach, which apart from being successfully used with the general population in psychological therapy, is also finding its way and building a very good reputation in the sport setting.
ACT stands for acceptance and commitment therapy, it is a mindfulness-based approach, and the aim of it is to learn how to be more fully aware and present in each moment of life. ACT assumes that negative, uneasy and uncomfortable thoughts and emotions are a normal part of the human mind. Therefore, we can change our perception of and relationship with them, become more open to facing them, and as a result live a more fulfilled life, even when it feels unpleasant and difficult. You can read more about ACT here, but let me shortly highlight the main points I see as particularly relevant for athletes, and especially competitive athletes.
ACT is about being present
First of all, the ACT approach suggests that in order to find satisfaction and fulfillment in whatever we are doing, it is essential to be present! You might say that whenever you play your sports you are always ‘present’, otherwise you couldn’t physically perform your tasks, right? Well, that is true in terms of physical presence. But ACT speaks about engagement in the present moment in terms of psychological presence. This means being fully aware of the moment, experiencing with all your senses the right-here-right-now moment, instead of being caught up in your thoughts. As a former competitive athlete myself, I believe the latter happens quite often: don’t we all dwell on the mistakes we made (past) and think about all the things that still can go wrong (future)? For another example, we can just go back to the recent infamous World Cup semifinal between Germany and Brazil. Allow me to speculate that after the second goal, the Brazilian team probably got lured into the thinking about how devastating-unexpected-unacceptable-tragic the score became and didn’t manage to get back into the present moment of the game anymore, letting in 5 consecutive goals from the German side. It is quite possible that the minds of the Brazilian players were so busy dwelling on the past that they lacked concentration and attention to play better in the present.
Therefore, the first point of ACT I would like to highlight here is: being in the present moment is the best thing that can help your performance and create satisfaction and fulfillment with what you do.
ACT is about being open
Naturally, being in and fully experiencing the present moment is not always fun – the present moment can suck at time, right? Here is where we get to the second important standpoint of ACT.
In contrast to more popular approaches to positive thinking, self-affirmations and challenging negative thoughts, which all imply that having negative thoughts and feelings is a ‘ bad’ thing and needs to be dealt with, ACT says that it is a normal activity of the mind and that we can be very successful in what we do even with their presence. In fact, ACT argues that the human mind is NOT naturally positive, and it actually has a tendency to find the negative and to judge, criticize, and predict the worst. Listen a bit to your mind and you will notice how true it is. Actually, I can argue that every single competitive athlete (and generally every person) knows what anxiety is and is familiar with self-doubts, lack of confidence, self-criticism, and frustration. I would also suggest that the majority would agree that trying to ignore or suppress these ‘bad’ thoughts and feelings (e.g. ‘it is ok, it is ok, I am not nervous’), or to convince yourself of the opposite (e.g. ‘I am confident! I will not miss the shot!) – is very unlikely to be helpful when you are about to compete and the anxiety inevitably kicks in. Moreover, isn’t it natural to be anxious and doubt your winning/scoring/succeeding chances in competition? I mean, that is why it is a competition after all, because no one is guaranteed anything and everyone faces the risk of failure in some way. Plus, in competition you are judged, and usually you have only one chance to show your best (it is perform your best now-or you lose in the situation). As such, competition is a stressful situation, so why view the natural stress reactions as unwelcome guests rather than as an expected part of the competitive experience?
So, here is the second point of ACT: negative thoughts and emotions are a natural part and activity of our mind, so the main aim is not getting rid of them (as this is almost impossible), but rather about changing your relationship with them. ACT suggests that being willingly open, accepting and non-judgmental of all the experiences you have is the way to go.
ACT is about taking committed action
Finally, as the ACT acronym implies, it is all about the action! Specifically, it says that irrespective of the turbulent activity in our mind, which is constantly producing all the different thoughts and feelings, we are able to act in the right way – according to our core values. In other words, we do not have to be driven by our instant thoughts and feelings. For example, taking on new challenges, even though being anxious about them could be an action committed to the value of personal development. The same goes for an athlete, who might be lacking confidence and fear failure, yet following the value of continuous development, instead of the feelings of doubt, anxiety and discomfort, chooses to participate in a challenging competition (as opposed to withdrawing from it).
So, the third point of ACT: no matter what you think or how you feel you can choose to act according to your values.
Naturally explaining ACT in around 1000 words is quite an impossible endeavor, which is why my aim was to give you just a taste of it. If I have managed to capture your interest and you want to know more, I warmly recommend you look up Russ Harris publications, which are easy and interesting to read.