ACT skills for peak performance – for our Paralympians, and my own!

By Tomas Tapper

Representing my country and being part of a world stage was always a dream of mine, so it was a huge accomplishment when I was selected to be the Performance Psychologist for the Australian Paralympic Swim Team competing in Rio, 2016. Usually when realise our dreams, there is much more to it than we had imagined. More generally with any great accomplishment, we can experience pride, happiness – and also a range of difficult emotional experiences.

Despite being in the mental health and performance field, surprisingly few of my friends or colleagues EVER asked me about MY personal wellbeing, or how I was coping. The most common questions I got after arriving home after the Rio Paralympic Games were ‘How was Rio?!’ and ‘What was it like?!’ with the anticipation of excited responses as vibrant as a Brazilian samba.

This adventure though, had required 31 consecutive days of work, generally 15 hours each day, with minimal breaks. I had to be there with my own performance at peak level in order to optimally support the management team, support staff, coaches, and of course, the athletes who were quite naturally under a lot of pressure. Along with being a unique and amazing work experience, it had also meant hardship – being away from my home and with minimal family contact, namely with my beloved wife and then 9 month-old son.

I am expert in training people in the modern and effective psychological flexibility skills. I coach the skills of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or Training, either way = ACT) to maximize positive team dynamics and individual performance goals in my professional work with sporting teams and individuals. At the same time I practice what I preach – using these very same ACT skills to optimally manage my own self-care. Being away in Rio on my exciting and psychologically demanding adventure sure gave me ample opportunity to step into the “ACT skills training shoes” of my individual and team clients!

As an ACT therapist and coach, I work collaboratively with clients (and while in Rio, even more than usually with myself) to improve the ability to pay attention in the moment, clarify and focus on what matters most, and use the most effective means in the process of reaching our goals, including:

  • Developing openness and acceptance to all experiences (positive and negative) with self-compassion – and self-compassion is a whole process in itself!
  • Being present and are in the moment more often,
  • Learning how to get ‘unstuck’ from ‘sticky’ thoughts and feelings that can hook us away from what we are trying to do,
  • Stepping back and noticing the bigger picture and how thoughts and behaviours can help or hurt us in achieving our goals,
  • Being aware of what matters most and how to live life guided by these personal values from moment to moment,
  • Managing the motivation to commit to taking action, again and again!

Of course, self-care, like professional experience, is forever a work in progress. When something works at one point, we raise the stakes, take on more, and so we need to work harder to achieve more. At the same time, self-care becomes more important to prevent burnout, to keep connected to the bigger picture of why we are doing this, and make space for the discomfort that comes with growth.

Personally, I noticed while in Rio that I would start to ‘beat myself up’ and telling myself I’m not good enough, not doing enough, etc., which could potentially really have an impact on my confidence and sense of self-worth. This was especially tough without having any real time to talk with those closest to me, or take space away from work. I am sure most, if not all of you, have experienced this struggle in your lives at some point personally and/or professionally.

Through my training and ongoing practice with ACT processes (as above), I was better able to notice these thoughts and respond to them gently and compassionately, remembering that I too am human, I make mistakes, and I can always improve.  This self-kindness in-turn energized me through my time in Rio to continue to develop personally and professionally, explore and discover what’s most important to me, as well as practice optimal self-care through both the challenging and fulfilling experiences during the Rio Paralympic Games.

The best part, it doesn’t stop there! Being active with ACT processes helped in Rio, and benefits me in daily life, at work, at home, and in dreaming big. I will certainly continue developing these skills as I look towards the next big event – the Para Swimming World Championships in Mexico 2017!

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