For the practitioners...
Help change your client’s experience, or change their relationship with their experience?
Sport psychology has often been seen as a vehicle for providing athletes with ‘mental skills’, in order to enhance athletic performance. Principally, this has entailed Psychological Skills Training (or PST), wherein techniques such as imagery, positive self-talk, relaxation, arousal control processes and goal-setting have bolstered the toolkits of many performers across sports.
Theoretically, PST postulates that optimal performance occurs when sportsmen and women learn to control their internal experience (i.e. thoughts and emotions) in order to create an ideal performance state (Hardy, Jones, & Gould, 1996). The implication here is that “negative” thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations interrupt and inhibit optimal performance (Weinberg & Gould, 2015).
Despite this framework being widely adopted in the sport psychology community, studies have not been particularly forthcoming in demonstrating a strong relationship between the reduction of perceived “negative” thoughts and feelings, and increases in competitive performance (Birrer & Morgan, 2010; Gardner & Moore, 2006). Moreover, it tends to negate the potential reality for many athletes, which is that how we feel and how we’re thinking can at times be overwhelming. For some, the very idea of trying to control this is too much to even contemplate. Is there perhaps another way? Surely we'd ideally like an athlete to arrive at their performance venue and say, "I am feeling anxious and worried, and I am still going to perform well."
Within clinical psychology, Hayes, Strosahl and Wilson (1999) founded what have become known as the mindfulness- and acceptance-based approaches to behaviour change. Conversely to PST, this approach to performance enhancement expounds that playing at one’s best is not necessarily a result of reducing anxiety or getting rid of perceived unhelpful thoughts. Rather, performance outcomes are facilitated by an athlete’s capacity to remain non-judgmentally present, independent of how uncomfortable they may be with their thinking or feeling, while maintaining “in the moment” focus on the demands of the performance environment at-hand (Gross et al., 2018).
This fundamental difference in approach has underpinned what is known as the Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment protocol (MAC: Gardner & Moore, 2007). In direct contrast to the traditional control-based model, this intervention process requires (a) a nonjudging (i.e., not good, not bad, not right, not wrong) moment-to-moment awareness and acceptance of one’s internal state, whatever that may be; (b) an attentional focus on task-relevant external stimuli, instead of a focus on internal processes that includes judgment and direct efforts at control; and (c) a consistent and effortful personal values-driven commitment to behavioural actions and choices that support one’s athletic endeavour (Gardner & Moore, 2012). The particular techniques used include mindfulness training, cognitive defusion, promotion of experiential acceptance, and values clarification.
So, what does this all mean for us? Clearly it is vital to be congruent in our service delivery, and the mechanisms involved in these two different approaches must sit well with our own philosophical stances prior to engaging with an athlete. At the very least, it is certainly worth considering the ‘reality’ of the demands within professional sport, and whether we can (or even should) try to help players change what, and how, they think and feel. Which approach is up to the practitioner of course, but perhaps it is worth reflecting on our own relationships with our internal experiences and how we ourselves manage these, prior to looking to help an athlete with theirs.
Birrer, D., & Morgan, G. (2010). Psychological skills training as a way to enhance an athlete’s performance in high-intensity sports. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20, 78–87.
Gardner, F., & Moore, Z. (2006). Clinical sport psychology. Champagne, IL: Human Kinetics.
Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2007). The psychology of human performance: The mindfulness-acceptance-commitment approach. New York, NY: Springer Publishing.
Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2012). Mindfulness and acceptance models in sport psychology: A decade of basic and applied scientific advancements.Canadian Psychology, 53, 309–318.
Gross, M., Moore, Z. E., Gardner, F. L., Wolanin, A. T., Pess, R. A., & Marks, D. R. (2018). An empirical examination comparing the mindfulness-acceptance-commitment approach and psychological skills training for the mental health and sport performance of female student athletes. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 16, 431–451.
Hardy, L., Jones, G., & Gould, D. (1996). Understanding psychological preparation for sport: Theory and practice of elite performers. New York, NY: Wiley.
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York, NY: Guilford.
Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2015). Foundations of sport & exercise psychology (6th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.