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An Acceptance Approach to Sport

Practical Strategies to Manage Thoughts, Emotions, and Behaviours in Performance

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) (Hayes, Strosahl & Wilson, 1999) is a behavioural therapy focused on increasing psychological flexibility to allow individuals to live a full and meaningful life. It does this through targeting these 3 key areas: Be present, Open Up, Do What Matters, known as the Triflex (Harris, 2009). This blog will give an overview of ACT and the Triflex, whilst providing practical strategies for implementing ACT techniques as a coach, parent, or athlete.

ACT has been successful in a number of situations, for example, pain management and anxiety (McCracken & Vowles, 2014; Wetherell et al., 2011), and has more recently been applied to the elite sporting world. ACT in sport allows athletes to train their attention to focus on task relevant cues, allowing for an enhancement in performance as the athlete’s attention is not distracted by internal thoughts and emotions, such as anxiety or frustration.

The first key area is ‘Be Present, focuses on being in the present moment and not being distracted by what has happened in the past (this could be the last point, game or match for a tennis player) or what might happen in the future. Training to ‘Be present’ is possible by increasing awareness of thoughts and emotions by tapping into physical sensations. For example, tennis players should feel the racket in the hand, the feet as they contact the ground, the sound of breathing during play or the sound of the ball as it hits the racket. To focus attention on such physical sensations helps to maintain attention and to stay cool under pressure.

Another integral part to ‘being present’ is acceptance of the thoughts and emotions experienced and the ability to view them non-judgementally, without labelling them as either “positive” or “negative”. The aim is not to dispose of the thoughts, but to accept their presence. A great phrase to remember is, “what we resist persists!”

The second key area, ‘Open Up’, focuses on the separation or “unhooking” of thoughts. When “hooked” the belief is that the thought is true and that the world is viewed from that thought, for example, “I can’t do this”, or “This is too hard”. When “unhooked” from a thought, a different perspective is possible. When outside of the thought, notice is given to it, but it is recognised that this thought is not reality. For example, “I’m having the thought that I can’t do this” or “I’m having the thought that this is too hard for me”. By putting “I’m having the thought that”….. in front of thoughts the individual can start to “unhook” themselves. This can be quite an abstract concept to grasp but it is something that, with practice can be trained to become more automatic.

Another technique is asking the question “What is my mind saying to me ..?” This can be far more effective than asking “What am I thinking?’. By separating the person and the mind it is possible to begin to “unhook” from the thought.

Do What Matters” is the third key area, which focuses on connecting with a person’s values and taking committed actions that are congruent with these values. Particular importance here is the commitment to personal values even when difficult thoughts and emotions arise (Harris, 2009). It is also really important in this phase to make the distinction between a value and a goal.

A value is something that is never truly achieved, but a direction to move forwards in. Imagine a person has a compass and is travelling east, he / she moves in this direction but never truly arrives East. East is not a destination; it’s a direction that someone moves in. This is the same for a value. Let’s take kindness as an example. Someone can’t be kind one day and then done, value achieved! It’s something that must be worked on every day.

A practical way that you as an individual can train this is through a ‘values exercise’.

Question what your values are,….as an athlete, a parent, or a coach. What really matters to you? What is important? What do you value? To help this process you could think about your principles; What guides you? Think about how your friends would describe you. What values would they associate with you? Following this, try to make a list of three or four values; write them down so that you can refer to them easily. Remind yourself of these values before, during, and after competition, whether you are the athlete competing, or the parent / coach of the athlete.

An important part of the reflection and evaluation process is to refer back to your stated values; this will help to critique the performance. Athletes can gain a lot from this exercise, particularly if they can give due consideration to the commitment that they have given to their values when they have suffered defeat or encountered a difficult situation.

To explore your ‘committed action’ in more detail it is possible to engage in a process similar to goal setting. ‘Committed action’ looks specifically at the behaviours which embody your value. Once behaviour changes, thoughts will follow. For example, a tennis player may say, “I will make that shot when I feel a bit more confident” but that is likely to take a long time! An alternative question to pose could be, “What would courage look like on the court? What sort of behaviours would we see?” This could be followed up with “Can you think how you can show courageous behaviours on the court next time you compete?”

It is also valuable to explore ‘peak performances’ and uncover what athletes (and coaches) deem to be a 10/10 performance. Ask the athlete, “What would a 10/10 performance look like for you personally?” “Be clear on the types of behaviours we would see.” To have an understanding of ‘our best’ in relation to ‘our current’ performance can help to identify areas for improvement. Again having a behavioural focus to this and rating how well these behaviours show in training and /or competition can be a useful starting point to create change. If any negative thoughts arise during this process, the cycle should start again with the athlete ‘being present’opening up’ and ‘accepting’ the thoughts.

With practice this 3-step Triflex cycle can really change the way thoughts, emotions and behaviours are managed. This can have a positive impact on athletic performance and / or help to fulfil role(s) more effectively.

*Note: whilst this article refers generally to tennis the Triflex cycle can be applied successfully to all other sports.

Laura Swettenham (MSc, MBPsS)


Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: Understanding and treating human suffering. New York: Guilford.

Harris, R. (2009). ACT Made Simple: An Easy‐to‐Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland: Raincoast Books.

McCracken, L. M., & Vowles, K. E. (2014). Acceptance and commitment therapy and mindfulness for chronic pain: Model, process, and progress. American Psychologist, 69(2), 178.

Wetherell, J. L., Liu, L., Patterson, T. L., Afari, N., Ayers, C. R., Thorp, S. R., ... & Petkus, A. J. (2011). Acceptance and commitment therapy for generalized anxiety disorder in older adults: A preliminary report. Behavior therapy, 42(1), 127-134.


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