Accept and Commit: What I Learned from Sports Psychology

Recently, I caught up with Dr. Justin Anderson, a well-regarded leader in sports psychology, about my performance anxiety. Anderson coaches “acceptance and commitment,” and to illustrate, he has his clients picture their minds like a segment of a river.


In this river, red leaves and green leaves will float by. Red leaves represent thoughts that drain us of energy, while green leaves are those that fill us with energy.

According to Anderson, top performers pay attention to the leaves, accepting the red ones as part of being human, and committing to the green ones. He prefers the word “commitment” to “focus,” he says, because the idea is to focus on both kinds of leaves but to pursue only the green ones.

For me, the red leaves are thoughts like:

  • What do they think about me?
  • You shouldn’t have said that.
  • What if something bad happens?

The green leaves appear in reflections such as:

  • Care for others.
  • Breathe and rest.
  • I am loved.

During our conversation, Anderson shared a story with me about fellow Minnesotan T.J. Oshie. After his game-winning shootout goals against Russia in the 2014 Winter Olympics, Oshie said he’d been so nervous that his legs had been shaking. But he stayed committed to the green leaves, to putting the puck in the net.

My own shootout happened days later. A potential new client showed up at one of my speaking engagements to observe me and determine whether or not the company would hire me for a very large project, one that I was eager to do.

As I spoke, my performance anxiety kicked in: nervous energy, cloudy thoughts, over-explaining ideas. Then, as I continued to present to the room, I scanned the river. There they were. The red and green leaves.

Accept the red ones. They are part of who you are.

Commit to the green ones. They bring you joy.

The red leaves were fewer, and the green leaves began filling the river. Progressively, I became more authentic, confident and effective.

Top performers accept their energy-draining thoughts and commit to their energy-filling thoughts.

How are you doing with acceptance and commitment?

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