An ACT-guided analysis of elite athlete behavior.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D & Angela Cathey, M.A.

bSci21Media, LLC

Brett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA

Brett DiNovi & Associates

Over the last few decades Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), pronounced “ACT” as one word, has risen to the forefront of evidence-based treatments. ACT is a deeply behavior analytic treatment based, in-large-part, on a post-Skinnerian account of the functions of verbal behavior called Relational Frame Theory (RFT). Relational Frame Theory is simply an extension of operant and classical conditioning principles that relates the special properties of verbal behavior that drive many adaptive and maladaptive behaviors in adults.

While traditional operant and classical principles well account for how humans and animals respond to direct contingencies they struggle to account parsimoniously for more complex human behaviors such as persisting despite experiencing repeated punishing consequences or continuing to persist without experiencing reinforcement for one’s behavior. The ability to persist, or paradoxically to adaptively desist, in the face of direct contingencies that might lead us towards less adaptive long-term outcomes is referred to as “psychological flexibility.”

A recent video by Brett DiNovi & Associates, provided an analysis of of a champion UFC fighter Rose Namajunas behavior as well as the behavior of several fighting coaches. The video built off Rose’s post-fight description of how she was able to succeed as a champion fighter. Rose’s reporting of her own behavior provides great insight into which contingencies she is contacting more directly.

In Rose’s post-fight description, she relates that she attended to some direct contingencies more and others less during the fight. She stated that she attended less to fear, less to her opponent’s vocal behavior, and honed her attention via repetition of a mantra to herself. The beautifully refined fight behavior response set Rose reported is indeed highly ACT consistent. Rose described her use of the functions of verbal symbolic behavior to their best effect towards achieving her goals.

Rose’s description of her own behavior denoted an ability to adaptively track and tact the contingencies affecting her success. Her description indicated that she was tracking the direct contingencies that might impair her performance (e.g., the fight site’s forgetting to play her entrance music which clearly functions as a discriminative stimulus to activate her fight behaviors). She described her ability to notice this (i.e. indicating mindfulness) and to adjust her own verbal symbolic behavior to adaptively balance herself in spite of potential impairments.

She displayed an ability to tune her present moment behavior during the fight by using the functions of verbal behavior to adaptively ‘flex’ her attention towards and away from stimuli that might impair or facilitate her performance. Moreover, her post-fight description indicated that she saw her opponent’s words as simply “words”, which exemplified her ability to “defuse” or step back from believing her opponent’s threats as “true” such that she could focus on her own performance.

This video is an excellent example of how advanced ACT practitioners can gain insight into the functions that may be driving a speaker’s behavior, as Michelle Zube of Brett DiNovi & Associates goes beyond the tendency to fuse herself with the fighter’s vocal topography to understanding the functions of the fighter’s vocal behavior on the basis of the larger patterns of contingencies described by the fighter and the overall context. A less functionally oriented practitioner of ACT may have tracked only that the athlete described “control” of thoughts or that her repeating of a mantra could represent an attempt to avoid experience. Michelle’s account instead relates significant skill in identifying function of both verbal symbolic behavior and direct contingencies in relation to the fighter achieving better performance.

Be sure to check out the full video, and to subscribe to Brett DiNovi’s YouTube channel and let him know what you would like to see in future videos.  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

bSci21Media, LLC is a leading media outlet for behavior analysis that serves to disseminate the science to the world and support behavior analytic companies around the globe.  The company’s larger vision is B.F. Skinner’s vision of bringing a technology of behavior change to the world in order to address it’s biggest problems.

Brett DinoviBrett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA has the unique and distinguished experience of studying the principles of applied behavior analysis under the rigorous scrutiny of both Dr. Julie S. Vargas (formerly Skinner) and Dr. E.A. Vargas at West Virginia University’s internationally recognized program. For the past 26 years, Brett has used behavior analytic principles to create large scale change across school districts, Fortune 500 companies using principles of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), and across individual learners. Brett has been a OBM consultant in Morgantown WV, an instructor at West Virginia University, a guest lecturer at numerous universities, a speaker on multiple Comcast Newsmakers TV programs, an expert witness in due process hearings, has publications in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, and has been in in executive leadership positions across schools and residential programs nationwide. In addition to an award from South Jersey Biz Magazine for “Best Places to Work,” an award for “Best of Families” in Suburban Magazine, and the distinguished “Top Ranked U.S. Executives” award, Brett’s proudest accomplishment is being a role model and father for his daughter and two stepchildren (one of which has autism). Brett can be reached at [email protected]

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