Mindfulness and ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’ (ACT; Hayes, 2004) are rapidly gaining ground in almost every field of psychology: stress, depression, anxiety, psychosis, eating disorders, work performance, just to name a few (Baer, 2003; Birrer, Röthlin, & Morgan, 2012; Moore, 2009). Wouldn’t it be naive and narrow minded to stubbornly believe that these third-wave approaches hold absolutely zero relevance in our own beloved field, sport psychology? Aren’t the theoretical underpinnings and empirical evidence put forward by this new generation a little too sound and strong to ignore? The research base for mindfulness and ACT in sport psychology is young (a very first protocol, the ‘Mindfulness Acceptance and Commitment approach’ (MAC) was brought to the table in 2004, by Gardner and Moore) and still rather small. Nevertheless, the same exponential boom as we have seen (and are seeing) in general psychology, I believe, has also reached our own field. If you are interested in the theoretical fundaments of why I think mindfulness (and ACT) can amend our toolbox of traditional psychological skills training, I would recommend familiarizing yourself with the following building blocks: ‘Ironic Process Theory’ (Wegner, 1994); ‘Cognitive Defusion’ and ‘Experiental Avoidance’ (Hayes, 2004); Flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990); and Constrained Action Hypothesis (Wulf, McNevin, & Shea, 2001). If you feel a bite-sized chunk is more like your cup of tea, Birrer et al. (2012) provide a timely and clear overview of the current status of mindfulness in sport.
“Critical thinking requires independence and open skepticism. That is, being neither gullible nor cynical, neither looking for reasons to believe nor reasons to deny.” (Moore, 2007, p. 10)
For the sake of not turning this plea for mindfulness in sport into a book (but if you really crave one; Gardner & Moore, 2007), I shall (try) to cut to the chase and describe in a more tangible fashion how I feel mindfulness can help athletes in specific situations. Consider the following:
We all know how detrimental stress can be for our athletic performance. Actively trying to suppress, control, or change this annoying feeling/ thought will only make it come back stronger and more frequent. Try to imagine such a situation- a big game is coming up and a lot of pressure is put on your shoulders, and people are expecting you to perform! Don’t you think the resources you ‘waste’ on this stress, could be allocated far more efficiently? What about full concentration on the task at hand? If you can manage to convince yourself of giving acceptance a shot, soon you will see that these negative feelings and thoughts will smoothly disappear… just like any other thought. It is in our human nature to feel and think all kinds of things. Try this: take a moment and watch your mind from a meta-cognitive perspective- surely you will notice how childish it can really be. Constantly bombarding us with new thoughts and feelings. Just be, loose from past or future, into the moment, just here and now and everything around you. It seems so hard. Our mind is constantly crying for attention. Think of those Buddhist monks sitting on mountain tops trying to ‘clear their mind’, easy peasy or pretty tricky? Now here’s a funny thought; how do you think their concentration-capabilities are? Sure would be interesting to investigate, right?
We are prone to so many tendencies: rumination; jealousy; hedonic adaptation; future, past; peer-pressure; group conformity; stereotypes; the urge to judge everything, even our own thoughts; and so on. These reflexes aren’t always bad (moreover, sometimes we need them), and again, they are perfectly normal. This is part of being human. But please give thought to the possibility of merely watching, noticing them, from a distance. Merely being aware of this will take you a long way. While being aware of this toddler that is our mind, also realize how you don’t need to fight these naturally occurring thoughts and emotions, just let them be, peacefully, and they will ebb away.
Let’s go back to our pre-game situation. Your mind is worried. “Wow I feel quite stressed, but I shouldn’t! Stress will make me perform so much worse! I have to relax. I have to!” What do you think will really happen if you let yourself get caught up in this thought-cycle? Just observe these thoughts and emotions: they pop up, but you don’t have to do anything about them. Be aware of them and accept them. As leaves on a stream they will float by… Like tiny soldiers marching in front of your eyes holding signs saying “choking under pressure”, “fear”, “failure”, “what if what if”, “but but”. With the time gained not having to control, deal, struggle with these irrelevant thoughts, you can focus on the matters that will actually get you somewhere. Go out there and have fun, draw from the vast resources that are part of your automatic pilot, which has developed over so many years, doing the thing you do best, playing the sport you love dearly. Your concentration on the task at hand will be through the roof, you don’t have to worry about irrelevant, negative thoughts/ feelings, you know they will come, but you are damn sure of their leaving as well.
“I used to think my mind was my most important organ, until I noticed what was telling me that”
It’s not that our minds are infantile or inefficient, no, our mind is a beautiful thing and we can achieve so many great things with it- if we are aware of its vulnerabilities and pitfalls. Be kind to yourself, try to understand the fallacies and beauty of your own cognition better.
I hope I have succeeded in shedding some light on an alternative point of view. If you are not convinced by the ample empirical evidence and sound theoretical underpinnings (here we go again), please just give it a try for the sake of human curiosity (the toddler in your head wants it!). Maybe, just maybe, you will find some useful tools to add to your backpack of life. Although it has to be said, ACT and mindfulness obviously aren’t just tools as we know them (say goal-setting, self-talk, imagery, etc.). “It’s a being-state, rather than a doing-state”. If you find comfort, relevance, and benefit in all this, it can help you in so many areas of your life, not just sport. Everything is connected. Think of the following example: you’re going through a rough patch and happen to be faced with some setbacks in life, when you step onto that court to play the sport you love, these thoughts can ‘haunt’ you, they can prevent you from reaching your optimal performance. Here too, mindfulness can make things a lot easier for you. As you are trying to be a mindful person, you will already have accepted these worries and you no longer have to struggle with them in your head. Live in the moment!
Baer, R. A. (2003). Mindfulness training as clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 125–143.
Birrer, D., Röthlin, P., & Morgan, G. (2012). Mindfulness to enhance athletic performance: Theoretical considerations and possible impact mechanisms. Mindfulness. doi: 10.1007/s12671-012-0109-2
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2004). A Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) based approach to performance enhancement: Theoretical considerations. Behavior Therapy, 35, 707–723.
Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2007). The psychology of enhancing human performance: The Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) approach. New York: Springer.
Hayes, S. C.(2004). Acceptance and commitment therapy, relational frame theory, and the third wave of behaviour therapy. Behaviour Therapy, 35, 639–665.
Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101(1), 34–52.
Wulf. G.. McNevin, N, H,. & Shea. C, H, (2001). The automaticity of complex motor skill learning as a function of attentional focus. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 54, 1143–1154.
Joachim Bervoets currently is in his 2nd year of the European Master’s in Sport & Exercise Psychology, research topics of interest include mindfulness, flow, mental toughness, self-talk, goal-achievement theory, etc.. Background: BS Psychology and MS Health & Social Psychology at Maastricht University (NL). He plans on continuing his studies at the PhD level in North America or Australia.