Being psychologically flexible, the skill for uncertain times

 There may be no simple answers but Victor Frankl a psychiatrist and holocaust survivor taught us that between the stimulus and the response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Whenever I think about creating moments of space to respond when feeling under pressure, I think of sport. The greatest seem to be able to slow down time and gain perspective around setbacks to remain present in key moments.

However, in recent years it has also become clear that the sporting world, from national to international and amateur to professional level, has its own struggles and a journey towards greater mental wellbeing and healthier support systems may also be required. To master one’s sport, one also must master self, according to Michael Gervais coach of the Seahawks. The dilemma we face across society is how do we support or train the whole person to reach their potential and not just their physicality or technical abilities but their inner world, to be a guardian of their minds?

The forced pause.

I reached out to Gary Keegan High-performance consultant to explore his experience of lockdown and reflections from sport and what may help live with and navigate Covid.

We shared similar experiences of the fragility of our face-to-face working, which was put on hold almost overnight, initial struggles to find a structure and routine, yet wanting to take this moment as an opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities and be improved both personally and professionally coming out the other side.

Gary Keegan High-Performance Consultant

Gary shared some early realisations “I learned with some degree of disappointment that I was less present than I hoped I was, I’m good at serving others, I feel the responsibility, I love responsibility but I needed to stop taking responsibility for things I could not control”. “There was a need for a refresh button to be pressed, and I have used that”. The pause has created some space for positive changes, Gary adds “it allowed us the opportunity to look at what we were tolerating and allowed us to enhance our family and relationships. That was the biggest news story for me coming out of this, but you also need to protect that to sustain the gains”.

The research highlights those skills developed through Mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) based approaches greatly improve our ability to cope with uncertainty as they target the two psychological processes at the core of human suffering. The first is cognitive fusion e.g. getting caught up or entangled in our thoughts and the second is experiential avoidance, which is the ongoing struggle to avoid, suppress or get rid of unwanted thoughts, feelings, memories. If our default strategy is to avoid, control or suppress then Covid makes life even tougher at the moment.

Through practice, we learn to develop psychological flexibility, which means having awareness and acceptance of our inner experiences, whilst shifting our attention and actions towards what is important and within our control. This builds inner space and life skills off the pitch and enhances performance skills on it.

Sporting organisations such as the Seattle Seahawks, Chicago bulls and Southampton FC have embraced Mindfulness and Acceptance based approaches to cope better with the stress of high stakes and competitive world of sport. The mental aspect of being a sportsperson, high performer or coping well in uncertainty appears to share a lot of common ground.

Gary is very curious about the potential impact “Mindfulness or Meditation practice has a longer history than sport as we know it and the evidence to support its benefits is growing”. However similar to our personal lives or in the workplace, we can tick a box or go deeper and integrate into our lives “There are very few big game-changers that are going to appear on the scene, however, the capacity of the mind to develop and gain greater control over performance may be beyond measure”.


We have seen across the world that this is a time of leadership, and to lead into the unknown, we need to acknowledge our limits and vulnerability. This is an area Gary is deeply passionate about “I haven’t yet met a leader that hasn’t experienced vulnerability in their role, and yet many see it as a weakness and therefore ignore or hide it from their teams. The aspects and elements of vulnerability do not go away and there is a missed opportunity to learn”. We all have our Covid story to tell, which connects us through our shared humanity and vulnerability. By not sharing our lessons or struggles, Gary believes “we miss out and may become less than who we could be for not exploring it”. If a leader connects that we are all vulnerable, they can embrace it to promote change and growth within their teams. “Leaders open these doors or keep them closed”.

From pain to purpose.

What positive change can come from the sacrifice, struggle, and loss of the last months? To bring something we have learned, enjoyed, or noticed in our future. As we all know sustaining change is challenging, Gary advises “I heard it described recently that real change happens in three stages, first there is transformation”. However, people can make transformations and slip back to where they were” For me when I am emotionally connected to why I am pursuing the change often helps keep me on track. The next stage Gary explains is “transmutation, something is happening within our biology and our brain that is starving the old habits and starting to enrich and feed new habits” During this stage, I often notice a resistance between new and old habits and there can be some anxiety or discomfort, however, if we look around us, we see that transmutation happens in nature, ideas and people, something changes forms and grows. The last stage is transcendence, you have stuck at it, grown through the difficulty and become the change you sought in yourself.

I found it inspiring to consider this process of change on a micro and macro level, to hold on to hope that some longer-term positives for society will materialise. It will not be easy and plenty of challenging times still lie ahead. However, every day we can build our own inner space to focus on what we can control and choose actions that move us towards the future that we want to be part of, whatever stimulus we choose to respond to. Time never waits for us, COVID has created space, commit to it, use it to reflect upon what you value most and use this time to translate your learning into personal growth for yourself and your relationships.