Summer is winding down over here in the States. Temperatures are cooling down, and leaves will soon begin changing colors. Fall is approaching, which means one thing in the U.S.: football season is upon us.
Months of two-a-day practices in the summer heat and hours of meetings have prepared thousands of teams for the upcoming season. Historically, preparation has involved drills aimed at increasing physical strength, endurance, and agility, as well as positional meetings between players and coaches where strategy and set plays are carefully reviewed. However, as in many other sports, the emergence of sport and performance psychology has become an increasingly popular addition to the training regimen.
Commonly used techniques in sport performance psychology include goal-setting, positive self-talk, and visualization. However, the emergence of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999) in the realm of clinical psychology has spawned a novel application to sport psychology, as manifested by approaches such as the Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment-Approach (Gardner & Moore, 2007)
ACT is a form of behavior therapy that incorporates traditional behavioral techniques with the concepts of mindfulness, acceptance of thoughts and emotions, and values. The primary focus of ACT is the promotion of the ability to contact the present moment fully, and act in accordance with one’s chosen values based on the situation (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2012). Based on this focus, researchers have hypothesized that ACT may help athletes focus their attention on their actual performance in athletic situations, rather than being overly involved with worry, anxiety, frustration, or other thoughts and emotions that can interfere with an athlete’s ability. ACT attempts to enhance performance through six ideals: acceptance, cognitive defusion, making and maintaining contact with the present moment, self as context, recognition of values, and committed action towards value-driven behavior (Twohig, 2012).
Acceptance involves a mindset where one is willing to experience emotions or thoughts without having to label these experiences as positive or negative and without allowing them to influence behavior (Hayes et al., 1999). Acceptance may be practiced when facing a rival team in a road game, with the opposing crowd taunting one’s team and trying to upset the players. Learning to accept the noise from the opposing team as a natural part of the game without judging the sounds as distracting, demeaning, or frustrating would be an example of practicing acceptance. Rather than trying to drown out the noise, which most would argue is an impossible task, the goal is instead to make room for it; to acknowledge that the noise can exist with optimal performance.
Cognitive defusion is the process of viewing thoughts simply as automatic events unfolding in the mind that do not have to influence behavior (Hayes et al., 1999). Defusion may be particularly relevant for a quarterback reading the defense before executing a play. A linebacker may be slowly inching towards the line, preparing to blitz. The quarterback knows that the play call is for a quick slant, and he knows that with the timing of the play he will be able to complete the pass before the linebacker gets to him. However, the thought of the inevitable hit he will receive may cause the quarterback to make an errant throw. The quarterback would be practicing defusion by telling himself “I’m having the thought that I will get blitzed,” and rather than clinging to this thought so rigidly that he panics and makes a bad call, he envisions it as though the thought is physically standing on the sidelines while he continues with the play. The thought isn’t gone and the quarterback can still see it very clearly; however, it is not occupying the entirety of his mental vision.
Contact with the present moment refers to staying present with one’s current situation versus being overly focused on past or future events (Harris, 2009). Present-moment awareness can be thought of as focusing on the current play versus previous plays in the game that may have gone poorly or that a player may have made a critical mistake on. For example, a wide receiver who drops several catchable balls in the first half of the game may think of himself as having a case of the “drops,” and may worry about catching the football late in the fourth quarter because of his previous mistakes. By remaining focused on the present-moment instead of ruminating about past performance, the receiver can allow all of his attention to be used on catching that late, crucial pass instead of allowing his past performance to dictate his present performance.
The conceptualized self refers to self-evaluations that are formed through communication with other people and the world around us (Harris, 2009). In other words, the conceptualized self is who we view ourselves to be. In some cases, the conceptualized self can be helpful, such as a cornerback believing he can cover anyone and that he is a shutdown corner. However, the self can also be overly influenced by negative events. If the same cornerback gets badly beaten by a receiver numerous times because he became too sure of himself and thus underestimated the receiver, the corner may believe that he has lost his ability or that he isn’t able to cover this receiver. The self-story he had once relied on is now hurting him. It is important in this situation for the cornerback to realize that this circumstance is due to a variety of factors – the other player’s ability, the defensive and offensive schemes, and the position of other players on the field, to name a few – and that he has to rely on more than his own self-impressions to make important decisions.
Values-driven behavior is the ability to behave in a way that is congruent with one’s goals and values (Hayes et al., 1999). A linebacker who wants to be the head of the defense and the most feared player by the other team has to not only consciously accept and work towards this image, but most importantly acknowledge his love for the sport, the dedication to his team, and his desire to continually improve himself as a player and leader.
After recognition of values comes committed action to values, which involves engaging in productive behavior even in the face of undesirable thoughts, emotions, or events (Harris, 2009). This is of particular importance in football when the daily grind of practice, player meetings, and team meetings can be both physically and mentally exhausting even for the most experienced players. It is inevitable for a player to feel as if he cannot give 100 percent in a weight training session or give his full attention during film study. Reminding himself of the player he wants to become and realizing that, in order to become that player he needs to push through the fatigue, and then following through on this realization by consistently working hard, would be practicing committed action.
As the season unfolds, I will be posting additional articles concerning the application of ACT to the game of football, using specific examples to illustrate the six core concepts of ACT in greater detail. For additional information about ACT or MAC approach, refer to my previous articles, read the resources listed below in the references section, or contact me at email@example.com. Who’s ready for some football?