Sunday, August 6, 2017

MAC Approach

MAC Approach (Mindfulness Acceptance Commitment Approach)

I personally used to have a very very difficult time performing in tournament to the point that I developed a strong dislike for singles and rarely if even entered anything but doubles. Soft recommended TMGoP to me and it helped my conceptualization significantly but I still had lingering issues. I decided to research more and eventually came across the MAC model. I read the book, took notes, and completed a course through http://mindgames.gg/. Since integrating the MAC Approach my mental-game is my strongest asset. I use the principles every day and haven’t found anything else that approaches its usefulness or efficacy. It is, to my knowledge, the superior mental tool.

Following, I will present a summary of MAC principles. It’s necessary to stress that knowing the principles is completely different from internalizing them, but reading and seeing just how cohesive the system was very exciting for me, so an illustration of the model is merited.

The Psychology Context

In sports psychology it is generally accepted that personal superior performances are a product of total concentration marked by a “peak” or “flow” state. For this reason, it has been more and more common for athletes to undergo psychological skills training designed specifically to best achieve a peak performance state. Traditional psychological skills training in sports uses methodology including goal setting, imagery, mental rehearsal, arousal control, self-talk, and pre-competitive routines to enhance performance by attempting to reign in peak states to a replicable routine as well as reduce anxiety and negativity, psychological roadblocks. However, these approaches carry subtexts implying a) that negative internal states must be controlled or reduced before a positive internal state can take their place and set the stage for flow and b) that flow is a fickle mistress impossible to achieve without perfect preconditions. Neither of these hold up to recent research and these traditional methods have been demonstrated to have no or even negative empirical support (i.e. they don’t actually work lmaooo).

The MAC Approach, a development of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for sports, is a program of psychological skills training designed to remove this subtext and teach relevant, empirically-supported skills. Rather than remove or control internal states, MAC aims to enable our control over focus and behavior despite internal states, that it is not the avoidance of negative states but the degree of experiential acceptance that enables peak performance states.

MAC has seen increasing use and study over the past decade, including in olympic athletes, tennis players, and professional basketball, volleyball, and even esports teams.


Mindfulness and Acceptance

It is tempting to identify our thoughts as our selves or our emotions as pervasive. But in reality, these are small events in a much broader landscape. Thoughts and emotions are just flashes of chemical/electrical activity not so different from other sensations such as sounds, touches, gravity, temperature, balance, vision, etc. All of these can be understood as Internal States. Internal States (including thoughts and emotions) are like water-bugs skirting over a much greater depth. They come and they go. They are inherently temporal.

Fixation on internal states can be disastrous for performance. Imagine that there’s a parade of internal states in front of you. If you fixate on one thought/emotion/etc even after it passes, you can’t respond to those that follow. You’ve created a mental traffic-jam between your focus and the new present. This is why it’s so easy to fall into a downward mental spiral.

If the goal for sports psychology is to maintain a high-focus present-moment/task orientation (i.e. peak/flowstate) then the foil is a self/future/past orientation. The emphasis of traditional sports psychology is to censor or to remove potentially harmful internal states so that they can’t interfere with your focus. But remember, the emphasis of MAC is to engender the skill of maintaining your focus despite internal states.

There is no reason to censor your feeling angry any more than there is reason to censor feeling cold or hearing someone talk. You’ve already experienced those things, they’re already there in your mind. This relates to my post on Tilting. It’s a bit ridiculous and small-minded to worry about censoring every little bump in the road. It's also mentally-taxing and actively turns our attention from the task to the self. If instead we see and accept temporal internal states for what they are then they have no power and there’s no need to censor them. This work is done primarily by dispelling cognitive fusion.


Cognitive Fusion

Cognitive fusion is the habitual act of treating thoughts as though they are what they say as opposed to treating them as the simple internal states that they are. Reacting to feelings as if reality is what you feel. Reacting to thoughts as if reality is what you think. When put this way it’s easy to recognize how inherently irrational cognitive fusion is. Thoughts aren’t reality, they’re just thoughts. Feelings aren’t reality, they’re just feelings. Now it’s just a matter of making it a habit to by way of mindfulness consistently recognize the onset of cognitive fusion and to instead perceive reality as it is. This is simply a less reactive and more accurate way to engage with the present-moment. Within MAC, you accept that emotions occur naturally and for the most part uncontrollably. Instead of wresting with your emotions in order to set the stage for your mental state in order to set the stage for correct behavior you simply commit to correct behavior.

It’s not “I feel/think __ SO I act.” It's “I feel/think __ AND I act.”

Ex: Thinking “I can’t work with this person” isn’t necessarily reflective of reality. Thinking instead “I am thinking that I can’t work with this person” is un-fused. It doesn’t buy in to habitual schema and instead allows you the opportunity to divorces your focus and behavior from mindless reactivity. The capacity to make mindful, reality/value-based choices rather than mindless ones is mental toughness or Poise.

“We define mental toughness as the ability to act in a purposeful manner, systematically and consistently, in the pursuit of the values that underlie performance activities, even (and especially) when faced with strong emotions that we as humans naturally want to control, eliminate, or reduce.”

Imagine yourself in a last stock last hit scenario. You feel psychological arousal, fear, excitement, anxiety. Now you’re going to make a choice between correct behavior (clutch) or letting your emotions dictate your focus and behavior (choke).


Commitment/Value Driven Behavior


If you aren’t basing behavior reactively on internal states or schema then what are you basing it on? In the MAC model, you base your behavior on a system of values. Values are distinct from goals as values are principles used to enhance experience and behavior whereas goals are end-points that direct experience and behavior in a direction but diminish the present-moment experience (This is basically a Destination vs Journey orientation).

In sports, the method is the body and the end. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.
Similarly, how you use your time or effort determines the value of that time spent. Consider:
1) What do you want to get out of this time-spent? Why? (Why?)
2) What would you want someone to say in your obituary if you died tonight?
3) How do you want your effort to be remembered?
4) What matters to you about your sport/occupation?

The answers to these questions identify our individual values (what the Inner Game of Tennis identifies as the Inner Game). Engagement with these values not only makes our time and effort spent more gratifying, but also provides direction for behavior independent from internal states (including motivation!). Success in the inner and outer game is a measure of our commitment to our performance values.


Avoidance

The alternative to Commitment is Avoidance. When the going gets tough or confusing, it’s natural for humans to avoid difficulty. It's an evolutionary necessity. Just like I avoided entering tournaments to avoid feeling disappointed in myself, it is extremely easy for us to shy away from trying or painful situations and we often engage in avoidance without even realizing it. Every time we do we are coloring if not determining our behavior with avoidance.

But it is important to recognize that the cost of avoidance is growth.

It’s impossible for humans to learn without stretching their limits. We have to brush up against what we can’t do and extend into the impossible in order to grow. The mentally-tough athlete leans in to difficulty and embraces it— accepts it— not as problematic but as an opportunity. That’s exciting! It’s best conceptualized as akin to weight-lifting. The value of lifting weights isn’t in having hoisted something heavy, it’s in overcoming the difficulty in order to grow. By recalling our values, persevering through pain and difficulty and managing to do something at the edge of our capability our muscles get stronger. That’s the worth.

In MAC, difficulty takes an identical role. The bulk of MAC-training is done through open monitoring meditation. In this meditation you develop awareness and practice your capacity to direct your focus despite internal states without succumbing to the temptation to avoid them AND to recover that focus readily and with forgiveness when it wanders. You accept the states as they come and go and commit to the attention-training. Every time we overcome a bad mental habit, every time we redirect our focus and behavior from reactive to valued, it’s a rep and we get stronger.


Conclusion

By rooting itself in open monitoring meditation, the MAC Approach develops a lasting and pervasive utility not only for sports but also for life-goals and day-to-day experience. It takes and instructs the perspective that success is not a matter of what you are, rather, that what you are is a reflection of how you do, as informed and motivated (i.e. cultivated) by your commitment to value-driven behavior. This kind of approach is both liberating and empowering. It provides tools to make meaningful progress in the pursuit of excellence as well as fulfillment and does so with a model that is elegant, comprehensive, cogent, and enjoys empirical support. I for one have a fuller competitive and otherwise life for it.



Sources:
As mentioned, initially I got The Psychology Of Enhancing Human Performance: The MAC Approach from the library. It has since been uploaded as a pdf here.
I started to do things by myself based on the material contained but eventually shelled out $25 for Weldon Green’s arrangement of the program at http://mindgames.gg/. It was well worth it.
Additionally, http://headspace.com/ is built from the same model. The first 10 sessions are free. Afterward content is $5 a month. I haven’t used more than the 10, personally, but there’s a lot of content there and apparently it covers a wide range of focuses and it’s all very high-quality and similarly well-grounded in research.