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How ACT Is Revolutionizing Sport Psychology

This new psychological framework is taking sport psychology by storm.

Key points

  • ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Training) is emerging as the theoretical approach of choice for sport psychology professionals.
  • Traditional sport psychology practice takes a toolbox approach that lacks theoretical and philosophical underpinning.
  • ACT and Contextual Behavioral Science (CBS) has a theoretical foundation for professionals and gives athletes clarity in mental skills training.
  • ACT trains "psychological flexibility," the ability to effectively relate to unwanted thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations.

Acceptance Commitment Training (ACT) is taking sport psychology by storm, quickly becoming the theoretical approach of choice for practitioners in their work with athletes and performers of all ages and skill levels.

ACT—pronounced “act,” not A.C.T.—is part of the broader discipline of Contextual Behavioral Science (CBS) which provides a researched-based, conceptual, and philosophical foundation for ACT. It’s that sound theoretical underpinning of ACT that is revolutionizing the field and differentiates it from other sport psychology approaches.

A Problem Triggering the ACT Surge

Prior to ACT and CBS, sport psychology was dominated by a toolbox approach. While the tools were individually useful, they were disconnected from a consistent, theoretical context. This resulted in athletes not completely grasping how it all fit together, and what the ultimate goal was.

“There are no principles or processes based on a theoretical standpoint for much of the technology (tools) that [sport psychology practitioners] are using,” explained sport psychology professional Emily Leeming, Ph.D., in an interview for this piece. “It’s very skill-for-skill based, tool-for-tool, with no complete understanding or context for why it’s being used.”

Mindfulness” is an example of a popular tool often used in a mindless way. It is a skill that's used by many sport psychology professionals in a way that fails to completely address the question, “What is mindfulness, and why are we using it?” Most practitioners use it to assist athletes to “get present,” but it is much more than that.

“Contextual Behavioral Science has principles, processes, theories, and a unified approach that can explain the function of behavior,” Leeming continued. “It gives us the best way to determine if what we’re doing works.”

The quest for those answers is one thing that draws many sport psychology professionals to an ACT/CBS approach. It is a discipline that seeks an improved understanding of workability via research and data-supported theory.

Acceptance and Commitment Training Explained

ACT trains athletes to relate to their distracting thoughts, emotions, and sensations more effectively. Performers learn to accept unwanted internal experiences instead of dwelling on them or trying to ignore or change them.

Athletes of all ages and ability levels experience unwanted mind chatter, emotions, as well as tiredness, soreness, etc. that can distract and interfere with optimal performance. Dwelling on those things or attempting to ignore or change them—a trap many athletes fall into— creates an internal struggle that intensifies those inside distractions.

ACT teaches that we do not control thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Trying to change uncontrollable things can intensify those unwanted internal experiences. Focusing on doing the actions and skills necessary for successful performance is far more effective than struggling with the inside stuff.

Photo compliments of Wikimedia Commons/All-Pro Reels
Future NFL Hall-of-Fame Quarterback Tom Brady.
Source: Photo compliments of Wikimedia Commons/All-Pro Reels

Consider Tom Brady.

The recently retired quarterback and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers trailed the Los Angeles Rams 27-3 late in the third quarter of a 2022 playoff game that would send the winner to the National Football Conference championship game.

Imagine the thoughts and emotions running through Brady at that moment. He probably knew of his impending retirement, though the rest of us did not. Was a hall-of-fame legacy going to end with an embarrassing loss?

How would other people handle such circumstances? Some would dwell on the seemingly insurmountable aspects of the situation, hanging their head and allowing emotion to overwhelm them. Others would engage in a fruitless struggle with unwanted thoughts and feelings.

Not Tom Brady. He knows that football is played on the field, not in your head, and chose to focus on the most important play of the season: the next one. He may have been alert to the mantra of his old coach, Bill Belichick: Do your job.

Exuding the cool, calm, and collected leadership that led his teams to seven Super Bowl victories, he piloted the Bucs back to tie the game, 27-27. Unfortunately for Brady, the Rams pulled out a 30-27 win on a field goal with four seconds left, advancing to the NFC championship game and an eventual Super Bowl victory.

Psychological Flexibility

Such mental toughness, as exhibited by Brady, is what ACT terms “psychological flexibility,” defined by Ramaci, Bellini, Presti, and Santisi (2019) as:

“Being in touch with the present moment, fully aware of emotions, sensations, and thoughts, welcoming them, including the undesired ones, and moving in a pattern of behavior in the service of chosen values.”

Psychological flexibility is the goal of ACT: training athletes and performers to be in the moment, fully present, and focused on the task at hand. Emotions, bodily sensations, and thoughts are there, but you let them be. You’re focused on successfully executing the next play.

Athletes are not always going to feel or think the way they want. Such distractions don’t mean they cannot perform effectively. By leaving the mind chatter, emotions, and body sensations alone, and focusing on doing the skills required for competition—what ACT calls “committed action”—they can successfully compete.

Mindfulness trains the “getting in the present moment” aspect of psychological flexibility but used alone doesn’t address accepting unwanted internal experiences and doing the actions necessary to compete. ACT training is about being present, allowing the unwanted thoughts, emotions, and body sensations without fighting them, and doing your job while all that internal stuff going on.

If it was just about mindfulness by itself, you might have watched Brady doing yoga exercises on the sidelines instead of being out on the field leading his team.

As Kelly Dekker, a Dutch sport and performance psychologist who works with a variety of athletes, including Olympians, described to me the essence of ACT and psychological flexibility:

“You don’t win medals by having great and confident thoughts (feelings and sensations). You win medals by doing the actions required in a competition. Confidence (and comfort) as a feeling doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, you must stick to the things you want to do, not on how you feel.”

Photo compliments of Wikimedia Commons/Jeffrey Beall
NFL punter in his days with the Denver Broncos.
Source: Photo compliments of Wikimedia Commons/Jeffrey Beall

Take it From a Pro

Professional athletes deal with the same internal stuff everyone else does. With the cultivation of psychological flexibility, youth athletes, Olympians, and pros can perform the actions required in competition, despite distracting thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations.

I don't know if veteran NFL punter Britton Colquitt has ever heard of ACT or psychological flexibility, but it appears he's mastered the skill.

“Do you know what it’s like playing in a Super Bowl?” Colquitt asked me during a 2019 interview. “You’re terrified,” he divulged. “It gets in your mind… 'if I screw this up, I could lose the Super Bowl.’”

That's from a guy with a 14-year NFL career and three Super Bowl appearances with the Denver Broncos.

“You’re almost, like, frozen before that snap comes,” Colquitt revealed. “I would be telling myself, ‘just catch the ball.’ Then my body and all the work I’ve done kicked in.” He focused on a simple, committed action—catch the ball.

Mind chatter and emotion don’t have to get in the way. If it can be done on an international stage like the Super Bowl, it can be done on the local youth hockey ice or pickleball court with the cultivation of psychological flexibility via ACT training.


Ramaci, T., Bellini, D., Presti, G., Santisi, G. (2019). Psychological Flexibility and Mindfulness as Predictors of Individual Outcomes in Hospital Health Workers. Frontiers in Psychology: Organizational Psychology..

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