The alternative – learning to be present and accepting thoughts – allows us to see negative experiences as normal, whilst being able to refocus our attention on our chosen behaviour.
However, there are certain psychological states that underpin high performance irrespective of the task involved. These include:
- Task focus. High performance nearly always rests on the ability to focus on the task, often for long periods and not to be distracted by internal or external factors.
- Goal clarity. Understanding the outcome is critical because it gives meaning to one’s moment-to-moment experience. Without it, we tend to go through the motions.
- Intrinsic motivation. Understanding not just what the goal is but why it matters is critical. Research has indicated that extrinsic rewards alone can lead to a subsequent reduction in intrinsic motivation.
- Behavioural flexibility. If you want the same results, then keep doing what you are doing. A major barrier to improving performance is rigid thinking or habitual responses formed from previous experience. We need to recognise when to persist and when to adopt a different approach.
- Minimising experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance occurs when someone tries to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings by avoiding the behaviours that give rise to them. A large body of research shows that higher experiential avoidance is associated with lower wellbeing, work performance and quality of life.
To build psychological flexibility, there are three skills which are trained:
- Increase awareness of the present moment – by increasing one’s sensitivity to what is happening in the present moment we can discriminate between what we observe with our 5 senses and what our sometimes unreliable (or autopilot) minds tell us is happening.
- Defusion – this means developing the ability to watch thoughts come and go, and then choosing which thoughts to act on, rather than getting ‘hooked’ by difficult or disruptive thoughts. It is not about changing thoughts, but changing one’s relationship to them.
- Taking values-based action – psychological flexibility is ultimately about focusing attention on what it is we really want from life. Increasing awareness of an individual’s values helps build motivation and enables people to take positive and sustained action, even when doing so is challenging.
An Example of Psychological Flexibility in Action
Sports psychologists emphasise the role of the ‘right mindset’ to athletes, telling them to clear their mind, be calm and confident, and to remember their successes. But the reality is that performers are just as filled with doubt, worry and negativity, as the rest of us, even at the elite level. Focusing on getting rid of those thoughts can:
- Be counterproductive – if the athlete tries to get rid of negative thoughts, research shows that thoughts can become more influential, not less, leading to even greater entanglement .
- Detract focus from the present moment –if the athlete starts saying ‘It’s OK, I’m a good kicker, take a deep breath, relax’, then they are not actually focusing on the kick, but on their thoughts.
Over time, if negative thoughts become evaluated as ‘bad’ (i.e. synonymous with ‘lack of confidence’), or the ‘wrong mindset’, then we come to fear our own natural response to new experiences. This increases our tendency towards experiential avoidance
Take the test I devised to find out how psychologically flexible you are: Psychological Flexibility Test
- Bond, Flaxman, van Veldhoven & Biron (2010). The impact of psychological flexibility and ACT on health and productivity at work. In Houdmon & Leka (Eds).
- Flaxman & Bond (2010). Acceptance and Commitment Training: Promoting Psychological Flexibility Training in the workplace. Baer (ed).
- Wegner, D. M. (1989). White bears and other unwanted thoughts: Suppression, obsession, and the psychology of mental control. New York: Viking/Penguin.
- Gardner & Moore (2007). The Psychology of Enhancing Human performance. Springer.