Demystifying ACT: A Practical Guide for Therapists

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The Hockey Goalie: A Metaphor for Psychological Flexibility

By DJ Moran, PhD

This presentation is an excerpt from the online course “Demystifying ACT: A Practical Guide for Therapists“.


Acceptance and Commitment Therapy aims to increase psychological flexibility. And psychological flexibility is defined as the capacity to contact the present moment while also being aware of thoughts and emotions without trying to change those private experiences or be adversely controlled by them and depending upon the situation, persisting in behaviors or changing behaviors in the pursuit of chosen values.
Now, that last clause in the definition of psychological flexibility can be somewhat confusing. Psychological flexibility calls on people to sometimes persist and sometimes to change. Which is it? Well, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a very contextual approach. It all depends on the person’s values and on the situation.

Perhaps a simpler way to understand psychological flexibility is to invoke the metaphor of a hockey goalie. Now, I know hockey is not all that popular of a sport around the world. But hopefully, you know a little bit about ice hockey.

One of my favorite parts of the game is before it actually starts. All the players are getting ready, warmed up to play the game and all the players are out there skating around in circles taking shots on the open net. Why is the net open during warmups? Well, because the hockey goalie is still on the sidelines pulling on his bigger leg pads than everybody else wears. He’s got a bigger helmet and he’s got a bigger stick. So it takes him a little while to limber out there. But these big players usually about 200 pounds or more, over 6 feet tall, they’re getting limbered up for the game too.

These big players all of a sudden will just drop down into the splits. It’s pretty remarkable.
And then because they’re on ice skates, they’ll straighten themselves back up into a standing position and then maybe they’ll stretch out by kicking one leg out. They would get up again, kick the other leg out. And they show off just how flexible they are. Why? Because in the middle of the game if someone takes a shot on them, they might actually have to do the splits. And then the puck bounces off their leg pad and it’s still in play. So someone else takes another shot and the player has got to lift his stick up to their left-hand side of the goal and it deflects off the stick and it’s still in play. And then maybe another opponent takes a shot on them and they grab it with their mitt from the right side of the goal. The whistle blows. The play is over. But this hockey goalie is splayed out all over the ice. He’s stretched himself this way and that way showing off his flexibility.
And we might go up to that goalie and say, why do you change your behavior so readily? Why do you change your posture so much? And he might say, it’s in the service of my chosen values, eh? He’s trying to say that there are certain things that he cares about that makes him change his posture in such amazing ways. We might ask him, then what are your values? And he might say, sportsmanship, athleticism, the camaraderie with my teammates. As a professional athlete, I provide for my children and my spouse this way. Those are things that are meaningful to me and they motivate me to change my posture so much even when it’s difficult.

And other times, the puck is on the other side of the rink and the goalie is in front of his goal all by himself. But out of nowhere, there is a breakaway. All of a sudden, the other team starts skating towards him, passing the puck back and forth to each other. They’re moving really fast and they pass the halfway line. They keep passing the puck back and forth to each other, going past the defenders. And all of a sudden, it’s just the goalie and the other team. One of them goes ahead and takes that slapshot. And this puck is made of rubber but hard as a rock and sometimes gets clocked at moving 80 miles an hour. This missile is flying right at the goalie. The impending pain is coming. If we were in this goalie’s skates, we’d see that missile flying at us and we’d say, uh-uh, I’m out of here. And we’d jump out of the way because we don’t want to feel the pain.

But not this goalie, not this flexible goalie. He sees this flying missile coming right at him and he says, mm-mm, I’m not moving. I’m staying right here. I’m going to persist.
And then boom, right to the chest, the puck hits him. And he feels the pain. He stays where he is. He doesn’t get out of the way and has to feel pain because of it. And we might go up to the goalie at that point and say, why didn’t you get out of the way? You’re athletic enough to avoid this. And he might say, I persisted in the service of my chosen values. I care about sportsmanship. I care about athleticism. I care about the camaraderie with my teammates and providing for my family. Things that are important to me influence me to stick to it even if it’s difficult.

The hockey goalie metaphor gives us a solid understanding of what psychological flexibility is all aboot. Sometimes, you persist in your actions and sometimes you change your actions. It all depends on the context and your values.

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