Improving international-level chess players' performance with an acceptance-based protocol: preliminary findings.
Abstract: This study compared an individual, 4-hr intervention based on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) versus a no-contact control condition in improving the performance of international-level chess players. Five participants received the brief ACT protocol, with each matched to another chess player with similar characteristics in the control condition. Experimental participants showed significant reductions in the believability and interference of general, unpleasant private events during competitions as well as reductions in the frequency of the treated counterproductive reactions to private events (FCR). Also, as indicated by an objective chess performance measure (ELO performance), all participants in the experimental condition improved their performance during the 7 months after the ACT protocol in comparison to the 7 months prior; however, none of the control participants improved their chess performance. Pretreatment levels and initial changes in FCR and believability significantly predicted the effect sizes on chess performance in the experimental condition.

Key words: acceptance and commitment therapy, chess performance enhancement, experiential avoidance, cognitive fusion
Article Type: Report
Subject: Chess players (Physiological aspects)
Chess players (Psychological aspects)
Athletic ability (Psychological aspects)
Psychotherapy (Research)
Authors: Ruiz, Francisco J.
Luciano, Carmen
Pub Date: 06/22/2012
Publication: Name: The Psychological Record Publisher: The Psychological Record Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 The Psychological Record ISSN: 0033-2933
Issue: Date: Summer, 2012 Source Volume: 62 Source Issue: 3
Topic: Event Code: 310 Science & research
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 298058818
Full Text: Chess is widely considered to be the sport with the most intellectual content, with decision making being the main aspect of chess play. In addition, competitive chess is demanding, with standard tournaments consisting of 9 or 10 games with 4-to 6-hr playing sessions and often two sessions per day. Chess players have to make their moves within a limited time without the possibility of moving back. Because just one mistake can cause a quick defeat, chess is often considered to be mental boxing. Accordingly, it is not surprising that chess players' cardiovascular activity and other physiological indexes are similar to those indexes shown by people who practice sports involving more physical activity (e.g., Kriz, Yokel, & Krizova, 1990; Pfleger, Stocker, Pabst, & Haralambie, 1980).

Psychological skills training (PST), the mainstream approach in the field of sports performance enhancement, emphasizes that negative thoughts and emotions obstruct the person from achieving his or her optimal performance (e.g., Hardy, Jones, & Gould, 1996; Whelan, Mahoney, & Meyers, 1991). NT proposes that those thoughts and emotions must be reduced to perform optimally and promotes using control-based techniques (e.g., imagery, self-talk modification, arousal control). However, no evidence about the efficacy of these techniques for improving chess performance has been published, Moreover, the empirical status of PST techniques is unclear considering that none of them can be considered an empirically validated procedure to enhance sport performance (see Gardner, 2009; Gardner & Moore, 2006, 2007),

An alternative to PST has recently emerged from work conducted involving acceptance-based therapies. Specifically, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999) is a psychological intervention, based on a contextual approach to human language and cognition (Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001), that has been adapted for enhancing sports performance (see Gardner & Moore, 2007, for the description of a protocol largely based on the ACT model). ACT emphasizes the role of cognitive fusion and experiential avoidance in limiting people from living the life they want. Cognitive fusion refers to the tendency to act according to the content of private events, such as thoughts, memories, sensations, and the like. Cognitive fusion is relevant because it often leads to experiential avoidance when a person does not have the skills to distance him- or herself from the aversive/unwanted private events (Barnes-Holmes, Hayes, & Dymond, 2001; Luciano, Rodriguez, & Gutierrez, 2004). Experiential avoidance refers to following a rule to avoid and/or escape aversive private events, like unwanted thoughts, memories, sensations, and so forth. Experiential avoidance has been largely suggested as a core strategy in most psychological disorders and has led to an increase in health problems (Hayes, Luoma, Bond, Masuda, & Lillis, 2006; Hayes, Wilson, Gifford, Follette, & Strosahl, 1996; Luciano & Hayes, 2001; Ruiz, 2010).

In the held of sports and intellectual performance, experiential avoidance can become problematic because the feared private events are typically extended in the long term, and most important, the performer may attempt to escape from them instead of doing what the actual situation requires. Recent research supports this idea. Bond and Flaxman (2006) found that participants' levels of experiential avoidance predicted their performances in learning a new software program, as well as their general mental health and work performance. Zettle, Petersen, Hocker, and Provines (2007) showed that participants with high levels of experiential avoidance evaluated the induced sensations of a task that simulated the effects of alcohol intoxication as more uncomfortable and performed worse on a challenging perceptual--motor task. Gooding and Gardner (2009) found that level of mindfulness, which in some ways can be seen as the opposite of experiential avoidance, significantly predicted game free-throw percentage in basketball players. Finally, Lopez et al. (2010) have shown that participants with high and low levels of experiential avoidance had a similar performance on a high cognitive demand task after viewing a neutral film; however, participants with high avoidance performed significantly worse after viewing a discomforting film. The mediation analysis conducted by Lopez et al. revealed that experiential avoidance had an impact on the performance by decreasing participants' reported concentration on the task.

In contrast to PST, the ACT model considers that it is the counterproductive reaction to private events during competitions, and not the unwanted private events by themselves, that causes a reduction in sports performance. Accordingly, ACT proposes changes in the functions of private events, rather than in their content, by accepting unwanted private events as they surface while the person is focusing on the relevant cues of the task. The evidence concerning the efficacy of acceptance-based strategies in enhancing sports performance is growing. To date, they have been effective in three small controlled studies involving canoeing (Fernandez, Secades, Terrados, Garcia, & Garcia, 2004), chess playing (Ruiz & Luciano, 2009), and golfing (Bernier, Thienot, Codron, & Fournier, 2009), and in case studies targeting swimming, weightlifting (Gardner & Moore, 2004), and springboard (Schwanhausser, 2009), as well as playing basketball (Gardner & Moore, 2007), lacrosse (Lutkenhouse, 2007), and chess (Ruiz, 2006).

In the context of chess performance, the aim of the ACT studies conducted to date was to improve performance by teaching players to be present with the thoughts and emotions that surfaced while playing and to choose to remain as value oriented as possible in every step of the game. Ruiz (2006) found that after the implementation of four ACT sessions with an international-level chess player, the reported interference and believability of unwanted private events in decision making was reduced, and the player noticeably improved his performance according to an objective chess performance measure (ELO points). Ruiz and Luciano (2009) compared the efficacy of a group ACT intervention, applied over 5 consecutive days, given to seven promising young chess players, versus a no-contact control condition. The ACT condition showed that there was a statistically significant improvement in results during the 9 months of follow-up, compared to the 9 previous months, with a significant improvement in chess performance in five out of seven chess players. Pretreatment levels of chess-related experiential avoidance predicted the effect of the intervention: The more avoidant participants were, the greater effect the intervention had.

Although a detailed explanation of the ACT intervention is out of the scope of the present work (see Hayes & Strosahl, 2004; Hayes et al., 1999; Wilson & Luciano, 2002), a very brief description of this approach in chess will be presented. For example, imagine that during a competition chess players think, "I am winning," or "This tournament will be great," when the actual chessboard position is favorable for them. Chess players will often fuse with these thoughts (i.e., take them literally), without acknowledging that they are only thoughts and not facts. Consequently, chess players may play in accordance with the thought, "I am winning," instead of paying attention to the game position. An ACT intervention would promote defusion by allowing chess players to differentiate between themselves and their thoughts and, thus, to bring themselves back to the actual task (i.e., to pay attention to the actual chessboard position).

Another example of the role of cognitive fusion and experiential avoidance in chess is wasting time because of indecision during competition. For instance, chess players may delay their next move because of uncertain thoughts about what will be the best move. Although spending more time to think seems logical, the problem is that this subtracts more time from their moves later in the game, which may prove to be more crucial. Consequently, when uncertainty shows up, thinking too much is paid off in the short term by avoiding the consequences of a particular choice. However, in the next phase of the game, the decrease in time increases the likelihood of mistakes. In other words, chess players are fused with the literal content of their uncertainties, and their actions are more directed toward short-term escape or avoidance of such thoughts rather than a strategic long-term focus on the game. An ACT intervention would promote participants' realization of both the short-and the long-term consequences of avoiding such uncertain thoughts and would promote defusing from them in order to allow chess players to make better choices in every moment of the game.

The current study advances over the previous chess study of Ruiz and Luciano (2009), which compared an acceptance intervention applied to promising young chess players in 6 hr, by evaluating the effect of a brief, intensive, individual ACT protocol applied in 4 hr (over 2-3 sessions) to adult, international-level chess players versus a no-contact control condition. Five participants in the experimental condition received the brief ACT protocol. Each participant was matched to a chess player with similar characteristics. These matched participants were only followed in their chess performance and constituted the no-contact control condition.



Ten international title chess players took part in this study. Possible volunteers to receive the experimental protocol were recruited through an e-mail that explained the research aims. Five chess players volunteered to receive the protocol and form part of the experimental condition. Inclusion criteria for participants in this condition were the following: (a) participants must have received the International Master or International Grand Master title; (b) participants must have failed to improve more than 40 ELO points during the last 2 years (ELO points are the measure used by the International Chess Federation, FIDE, to establish the international ranking, and they are calculated by applying mathematical formulas as indicated in the next section); and (c) participants must have been committed to training and competing in the upcoming year for the same amount of time as they had in previous years. Three participants were Latin Americans, and the remaining two were Spaniards; all of them were men who ranged from 23 to 50 years of age. All the participants were top-ranked players in their respective countries.

With the purpose of forming the control condition, five chess players who had characteristics similar to those shown by each of the participants in the experimental condition were selected from FIDE's database. The criteria that established the similarity between participants in both conditions were as follows: (a) same gender, (b) age difference of no more than 2 years, (c) same International Title, (d) difference in ELO punctuation of no more than 30 points (this ensured that both players were at roughly the same level; i.e., if both players play 100 games, the higher rated player should theoretically win no more than 55 games, with the lower rated player winning no fewer than the remaining 45 games), (e) equivalent frequency in playing competitions during the last 12 months, and (f) similar geographic zone (e.g., tournaments in the south of Spain). Only one chess player was matched to every experimental participant because the precise specifications of the criteria made it difficult to match all experimental participants to more than one person.


The ELO performance rating was used as an outcome measure. The ELO performance rating is a theoretical index (Elo, 1978) largely used by FIDE to establish chess skill level through consecutive games. Reliability and validity of this mathematical index noticeably increases as a function of increasing the number of games. The ELO performance rating was obtained for each participant by analyzing the data from competitions, provided by FIDE's database, in which participants played at least four games. An overall ELO performance rating was calculated for the 7 months before and after the intervention. The criterion for pre--post change was established to be a difference of more than 40 ELO performance points because such a difference would allow participants to obtain half a point more in standard nine-games tournaments, which usually raises them to significantly better classifications. Also, several chess players and qualified chess trainers agreed that achieving mastery ensures a significant increase in tournament positions (Ruiz & Luciano, 2009).

Acceptance and Action Questionnaire--II (AAQ--II). The AAQ--II (Bond et al., 2011) is a seven-item general measure of experiential avoidance and psychological inflexibility. An initial 10-item version of this questionnaire, which has psychometric properties that are very similar to those in the final version, was used in this study. Each item was rated on a 7-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (never true) to 7 (always true), with higher scores indicating greater levels of experiential avoidance. The Spanish translation of the AAQ--II has good internal consistency and a one-factor structure (Ruiz, Langer, Luciano, Cangas, & Beltran, 2011). The mean scores were 32.23 (SD = 9.85) for the nonclinical sample and 46.22 (SD = 12.21) for the clinical sample. Based on accumulated experience using this questionnaire, the within-subject criterion for pre--post change was set as a 15% reduction in AAQ--II scores.

Chess Counterproductive Reactions Questionnaire (CCRQ). This questionnaire was designed for this study to detect experiential avoidance in chess (Ruiz & Luciano, 2009). Fifteen items were created based on barriers detected during chess playing (e.g., Krogius, 1972; Nunn, 1998; Rowson, 2000). Items were either a sentence describing a psychological barrier (e.g., "I am too nervous for performing optimally in the most important games of the tournaments") or a sentence describing avoidance behaviors in the presence of such barriers (e.g., "I feel afraid and begin to play defensively or to offer a draw"). Each item was rated on a 9-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (never) to 9 (always). Higher scores indicate a higher frequency of counterproductive reactions during competition. CCRQ scores were used to select the five most frequent counterproductive reactions for each participant, and these were specifically addressed in the protocol implementation. The average frequency of the treated counterproductive reactions to problematic private events (FCR) was then used for process analysis. The validity of the CCRQ was explored with a preliminary sample of 18 high-level chess players. Despite the small size of the sample, results showed a strong positive correlation between the CCRQ and the AAQ-II (r = .614, p = .004, one-tailed) and a negative correlation between the CCRQ and ELO rating (r = -.443, p = .037, one-tailed). Based on accumulated experience using this questionnaire, the within-subject criterion for pre-post change was set as a 25% reduction in the FCR scores.

Private events' interference and believability. Participants rated the interference and believability of private events during normal and difficult moments of competitions on a 10-cm visual assessment scale with "not at all" and "completely" in the left and right extremes, respectively. Interference questions asked participants to rate the degree to which thoughts, feelings, memories, and so forth, impeded them from doing their best during the difficult and normal moments of competitions. Believability questions asked to what degree participants believed those thoughts, feeling, memories, and so forth, during both moments of competitions. The scores of the interference and believability questions were averaged for both normal and difficult moments. As with the FCR scores, the within-subject criterion for pre-post change was set as a 25% reduction in the average interference and believability scores.

Acceptance-Based Protocol

The experimental protocol was similar to the one used in Ruiz and Luciano (2009), which is also described in detail in Luciano, Valdivia-Salas, Gutierrez-Martinez, Ruiz, and Paez-Blarrina (2009), and was based on Hayes et al. (1999) and Wilson and Luciano (2002). It was designed to (a) promote the experience of creative hopelessness in the context of a valued trajectory and (b) practice acceptance in such a context by means of cognitive defusion. Both components were applied to each of the five most frequent counterproductive reactions, as assessed by the CCRQ for each participant. Creative hopelessness exercises involved several interactions in which the protocol looked for the participants to realize the consequences of their reactions to unwanted private events in both the short and the long term. Defusion exercises involved teaching participants to differentiate between the person who is having the unwanted private events and the very private events as they emerge. Defusion was promoted through multiple-exemplar training with multiple thoughts and sensations. The interactions involved in creative hopelessness and cognitive defusion components will be illustrated with the most frequent and counterproductive reaction found in this study: "spending too much time figuring out the best move because of uncertainty." This process was similarly repeated with the other remaining counterproductive reactions.

Functional analysis of the chess problems and creative hopelessness in the context of a valued trajectory. The psychologist asked several questions in order for participants to experience in that moment the consequences of the counterproductive reactions. A typical sequence of questions and answers follows: (a) What are the sensations or thoughts you do not like while playing in competitions? (The participant said, "Uncertain thoughts or having fear of making mistakes"); (b) What do you do when these thoughts show up? (The participant said, "Think too much and not move"); (c) What are the reasons for thinking too long? (The participants said, "To avoid mistakes"); (d) How do you feel when doing that? Do you have the feeling of reducing uncertainty? (The participant said, "Mostly in such a moment, but it comes back"); (e) Do you feel as if you are experiencing uncertainty more frequently while playing chess? (The participant said, "Yes, I am really worried about this"); and (1) You know what it is like to play well. Would you describe your playing in that way? (The participant said, "Not really. It could be much better"), All participants thought that what they were doing was the best strategy; however, they recognized that they played with acceptable quality during the first phases of the game but with poor quality in later ones.

Subsequently, the experimenter proceeded by introducing the "man in the hole" metaphor (Hayes et al., 1999; Wilson & Luciano, 2002) as an analogy for the paradoxical rules the participants were following when dealing with uncertain thoughts. The aim of this metaphor was to help the chess player realize the consequences of overanalyzing chess moves by establishing a physical relation between trying to dig himself out of a hole, making the hole deeper and putting himself even further away from getting out. The participants connected that with what they were doing (e.g., one of the participants put it this way: "Yes, although thinking too much is something I like because it makes me feel secure, and it seems like a good idea, the fact is that it makes my hole bigger. ...Yes, uncertain thoughts return many times during the game and I am wasting time. I am being rushed and playing poorly. ... What can I do?").

The swamp metaphor (Gutierrez, Luciano, Rodriguez, & Fink, 2004; Hayes et al., 1999) was then introduced to promote the acceptance of uncertainty within the context of trying to obtain an optimal performance. Participants were told that sometimes playing is like crossing a swamp in order to achieve what you value and that sometimes it is necessary to be willing to walk through a humid, dirty swamp full of insects, mud, and disgusting smells. In other words, pragmatic chess playing sometimes involves fully experiencing uncertain thoughts while moving within a prudent amount of time.

Participants were then told that according to what they were experiencing, the sensations of uncertainty would continue to appear whenever they chose to play chess. Consequently, two options would be available: (a) being willing to play while having doubts or (b) trying to control the doubts. Participants were asked what they wanted to choose. All participants chose the first option. The defusion component of the protocol was then implemented, to help participants move while having doubts.

Practicing defusion through multiple exercises. The aim of this practice was to promote the ability to experience the self as a context for all private events: to learn to differentiate between the person who is having the thought or sensation and the thought or sensation itself, and as these private events emerge, to learn to bring themselves back to the relevant actual task.

To undertake this goal, a physical metaphor and an experiential exercise were used. The physical metaphor was implemented as follows. The participant was told that making a good use of time is like choosing to walk a certain route, for example, moving toward the room exit. Then, when the participant began to walk, the psychologist stood in his way and said the thoughts that the chess player had typically derived during the games (e.g., "You have to figure out the best move, if not you are going to lose"). The participant then tried to dodge the psychologist, but the psychologist stood again in his way. The exercise finished when the participant took the psychologist's hand (as if it the psychologist would be his uncertainty, his fear of making a mistake or overthinking the play) and continued on his path as if he were making a move with his uncertain thoughts.

The "leaves on a stream" exercise was then introduced (Hayes et al., 1999) by inviting the participant to differentiate the thoughts from the person who was having them. Each participant was invited to recall particular moments in which he had experienced uncertainty, doubts, wasted time, and so forth. He was asked to fully concentrate on one of these thoughts; notice who was having the thought; and imagine that he put the thought on a leaf in a tree, that the weight of the thought caused the leaf to fall into the river, and that the river swept the leaf away with its current. Finally, the participant was asked to bring himself back to the actual task by noticing another thought.

The same exercise was repeated with at least five other problematic thoughts. At the end, the participant was asked to notice that he was more than his thoughts and that lie was in charge of responding to the game position and not to his thoughts. Finally, each participant was invited to practice noticing any thought that might show up and bringing himself back to the relevant task during future games and tournaments. The protocol was finished once creative hopelessness and defusion exercises were implemented with the five counterproductive reactions.


Figure 1 shows an overview of the procedure. A between-conditions design was used with five participants in each condition. First, five participants were recruited to participate in the experimental condition. Another five chess players were then selected for the no-contact control condition (see the Participants section for selection criteria). The ELO performances obtained from FIDE's database from the last 7 months were calculated. No interventions and no questionnaires were given to no-contact control participants, but their performance was assessed during the study.


The acceptance-based protocol was delivered by the first author. He is an experienced chess player and was previously trained and supervised in ACT by the second author. The protocol was implemented during a tournament in two to three sessions (one session per day), depending on the tournament's characteristics. If the player's tournament had two games per day, there were three sessions lasting around 75 min each, and if the player's tournament had one game per day, there were two 2-hr sessions. Although the number of sessions varied, all protocols lasted 4 hr in total.

The tournaments' organizers introduced the psychologist to each experimental participant when they arrived to their respective tournaments. The psychologist then explained that the aim of the intervention was to determine and help to resolve the problems that typically emerge during chess games. All experimental participants confirmed their participation in the study. They were then asked to complete the two questionnaires (first the AAQ--II and then the CCRQ) and the interference and believability questions with the purpose of selecting individual intervention targets. Finally, the psychologist and each participant set up an appointment for the first session in order to implement the protocol.

Each chess player and the therapist selected the five most frequent counterproductive reactions and the thoughts/sensations preceding these reactions using the participant's CCRQ results. These five reactions were the focus of the treatment. The most frequent counterproductive and common reactions across all participants were the following (from most to least frequent): (a) not moving because of doubts, (b) not being focused on the game because of negative thoughts (e.g., "This tournament will be a disaster"), (c) not concentrating and playing in an unfocused manner because of "feeling anxious" about a lack of time, (d) relaxing and not concentrating due to thinking that "the game is won," (e) losing concentration because of "being worried" about other non-chess problems, and (1) changing playing style to avoid "losing as in other games."

Upon finishing the protocol implementation, experimental participants were told that they would receive some questionnaires by electronic mail. The AAQ--II and CCRQ questionnaires, as well as the interference and believability questions, were sent at 1, 3, and 6 months after the last session. All participants returned the questionnaires. The chess results of the participants in both the experimental and the no-contact control condition were followed during the 7 months after the intervention.

Integrity of the Protocol Implementation

All intervention sessions were audio-recorded and rated by two trained raters for adherence to the treatment protocol, including the specific questions for the functional analysis and the number of counterproductive reactions and the exercises and metaphors for generating creative hopelessness and delusion. Raters were doctoral students with formal training in ACT. An interobserver agreement of 100% was obtained for all sessions with regard to the main characteristics of the protocol.


Outcome Measures

Table 1 shows that participants in both conditions did not differ in their average 7-month pretreatment ELO performances in tournaments (control and experimental means were, respectively, M = 2,461.6, SD = 67.79, and M = 2,431, SD = 48.6, with no significant differences according to the independent sample t test, p = .44). However, average 7-month follow-up ELO performances in tournaments were statistically different, favoring the experimental condition (p = .03; control: M = 2,451.4, SD = 73.91; experimental: M = 2,501.4, SD = 50.36). Regarding within-group comparisons, only the experimental condition showed statistically significant results between pretreatment and follow-up (p < .01). The effect sizes of the experimental condition were relevant for both within conditions (d = 1.42) and between conditions (d = .79).

Descriptive within-subject analysis indicated that all experimental participants improved their performance during the 7 months of follow-up with respect to the corresponding same number of games played during the 7 months before the intervention (number of games for P1 to P5, respectively: 47, 45, 79, 45, and 29; see Figure 2). The increased progress in ELO performance exceeded the criterion for pre-post change (i.e., an increase greater than 40 ELO performance points) in all the participants, with a range of individual effect sizes from d = .5 to d = 1.24 (see Table 1). There were no relevant improvements in the average ELO performance in the no-contact condition (number of games for P1 to P5, respectively: 47, 36, 37, 43, and 54). Moreover, one of the participants (P10) showed a significant decline in his performance. No statistically significant differences were found in the number of games played during the 7-month follow-up (experimental condition: M = 49, SD = 18.28; control condition: M = 43.4, SD = 7.44; U = 10.5, p = .33, one-tailed).


Process Measures

Pretreatment AAQ-II scores for all participants except one were low (for P1, P2, P3, P4, and PS, respectively, 26, 23, 19, 22, and 48). Table 2 shows that only the participant with a high score at pretreatment (PS) exceeded the criterion for pre-post change at the 6-month follow-up (i.e., at least a 15% reduction; participant decreased from 48 to 24), whereas P4 showed an increase of more than 15%. All experimental participants progressively met the FCR criterion for pre-post change (see Table 2). For P1 to P5, the pretreatment to 6-month follow-up FCR changes were, respectively, from 7 to 3.8, from 6.6 to 4, from 4.8 to 2, from 4.8 to 3.6, and from 7.4 to 5.2. Differences between pretreatment and the 6-month follow-up were statistically significant (z = -2.02, p = .02, one-tailed), and the effect size was very large (d = 2.02).

Table 2 also shows that three of the five participants reached the criterion for pre-post change in interference of private events during competitions at the 6-month follow-up (P1: from 69 to 38; P2: from 48 to 17; P3: from 47 to 27). P5 showed a decrease from 57 to 45 points and P4 an increase from 14 to 26. Differences between pretreatment and 6-month follow-up were significant (pretreatment: M = 41.8, SD = 23.39; 6-month follow-up: M = 26.1, SD = 15.62; z = -1.76, p = .04, one-tailed). Four of the five participants showed the criterion for pre-post change in believability of private events at the 6-month follow-up (P1: from 75 to 19; P2: from 44 to 11; P3: from 45 to 19; P5: from 66 to 33; see Table 2). P4 showed an increase from 12 to 27 points. Differences were also statistically significant from pretreatment to the 6-month follow-up (pretreatment: M= 43.3, SD = 27.52; 6-month follow-up: M = 18.8, SD = 11.47; z = -1.75, p = .04, one-tailed). The effect sizes were large in both interference (d = .79) and believability (d = 1.16).

Exploratory Process Analyses

According to the characteristics of the current study (e.g., small sample, no-contact control condition), only simple linear regression analyses with one independent variable were conducted to explore possible processes of change. We analyzed whether both pretreatment measures and early changes at the 3-month follow-up predicted the effect sizes of the intervention. Changes at the 1-month follow-up were not taken into account because some chess players (P1, P2, and P5) did not play any new tournaments during that period (about 80% of games were played between the third and seventh months); therefore, these participants' scores in chess-related measures were not expected to significantly change. According to a previous study (Ruiz & Luciano, 2009), it was expected that the intervention would show higher effects in participants with high scores in FCR, believability, and interference of private events. Likewise, early decreases in those measures were expected to predict the individual effect sizes of the intervention.

Pretreatment scores in FCR, interference, and believability of private events significantly predicted the individual effect sizes of the intervention (FCR: [beta] = .96, p = .005, one-tailed; interference: [beta] = .97, p = .003, one-tailed; believability: [beta] = .96, p = .005, one-tailed); however, A AQ-II scores did not ([beta] = .54, p = .18, one-tailed). Both FCR and believability decreases at the 3-month follow-up significantly predicted the individual effects of the intervention (FCR: [beta] = .91, p = .016, one-tailed; believability: [beta] = .81, p = .048, one-tailed). Interference and AAQ-II decreases did not reach statistically significant levels of prediction (interference: [beta] = .78, p = .061, one-tailed; AAQ--II: [beta] = .56, p = .16, one-tailed).


Practical Significance of the Results

The main and objective variable used to analyze the impact of the experimental protocol is ELO performance. Accordingly, the data obtained during the 7 months before the intervention showed that participants in both conditions performed at roughly the same level. However, all experimental chess players improved their performance up to 40 ELO performance points (the criterion for pre-post change) during the 7 months after the implementation of the acceptance-based protocol. Consequently, all of these participants obtained better classifications in tournaments during follow-up. On the contrary, this effect did not occur in any of the no-contact matched participants, who only showed the typical small fluctuations in ELO performance that are the norm in chess players' careers after they reach a certain level of play (Elo, 1978; Rowson, 2000). Based on this finding, we can assume that the change achieved in the experimental participants might be evaluated as relevant in the chess context.

However, it might be argued that the change in the experimental participants' ELO performance was the result of an experimental artifact instead of the protocol. This might be due to the fact that the no-contact participants did not have any interaction with the experimenter and did not respond to the questionnaires that the experimental participants were given. Additionally, there might be motivational differences between participants in both conditions because of the different means of recruitment. Although this is a clear limitation of this study, given the literature about enhancement of sports performance, we do not believe that the unusual and relevant change in ELO performance would have occurred simply because these participants responded to the questionnaires or interacted with the experimenter. In spite of this, further research with better control conditions is needed to isolate the effects of the acceptance-based protocol.

Process Analysis

The general experiential avoidance scores, as measured by the AAQ-II, remained relatively the same after the intervention. Two interrelated reasons might be relevant here. One is that the AAQ-II is a general questionnaire that has proved its utility in measuring processes of change in the clinical arena (see Hayes et al., 2006; Ruiz, 2010). However, the AAQ-II might not be sufficiently sensitive when experiential avoidance is not a generalized strategy but is instead centered on specific areas of one's life, as is the case for most chess players. A second reason is that the participants' AAQ-II scores in this study were low at preintervention. In support to this last possibility, it is worth noting that only the participant who had a high AAQ-H score at pretreatment (P5) showed a significant reduction in this score. Because the other four participants showed low AAQ-II scores at pretreatment, a floor effect could explain why their scores remained at roughly the same level. Accordingly, it seems that future research should incorporate an adaptation of the AAQ that is more sensitive to specific private barriers such as the ones analyzed in this study, instead of a general questionnaire such as the AAQ-II. This strategy has been followed in other areas where versions of the AAQ that have been adapted to address specific problems have been used (e.g., in tobacco addiction [Gifford et al., 2004], diabetes [Gregg, Callaghan, Hayes, & Glenn-Lawson, 2007], and pain [McCracken, Vowles, & Eccleston, 2004]).

When looking to chess-related measures, we found significant reductions in the FCR, interference, and believability scores. We also found that higher pretreatment scores for all of these measures significantly predicted the individual effect sizes of the experimental condition. This might suggest that previous levels of chess-related experiential avoidance and cognitive fusion could be moderators in the ACT intervention. In addition, initial changes in FCR and believability scores also predicted the effect sizes of the experimental condition. This suggests that reductions in FCR and believability scores could be the process of change involved in the ACT condition. However, although both suggestions are consistent with the ACT model, they should be considered as preliminary and somewhat speculative because formal mediation and moderator analyses cannot be carried out with the design used in this study.

With respect to the individual results, all participants except P4 showed consistent changes in the process measures with the ACT model. Although P4 showed an improvement in chess performance and a reduction in FCR scores, he also increased his interference, believability, and AAQ-II scores. This might be related to the fact that his scores in these measures were very low at pretreatment.

Strengths and Limitations

The main limitations of the current study are that the number of participants was small and that the participants were not randomly assigned into the two conditions. In addition, the condition used to contrast the effect of the acceptance-based protocol was a no-contact condition. These limitations might be relevant to the study for a number of reasons. First, positive expectations and higher motivation by subjects in the ACT condition, if present, could have led some subjects in that condition to improve performance for reasons beyond their exposure to ACT. Second, we did not know what effect the presence of the psychologist acting as experimenter or the administration of the questionnaires had on the participants' performances. Finally, some of the measures (CCRQ and the interference and believability questions) have no established validity and reliability, and thus observed changes on these measures could occur for reasons other than the ACT intervention.

To balance these limitations, this study was conducted considering most of the relevant features recommended in sport psychology research (e.g., Martin, Vause, & Schwarzman, 2005). For example, participants competed on a regular and organized basis, performance was measured directly with a reliable and valid chess performance measure, participants were international-level chess players, and the follow-up was relatively long.


In spite of the aforementioned limitations, the current study extends and advances the results obtained by Ruiz and Luciano (2009) with promising young chess players. The present results show that a brief 4-hr ACT intervention can be sufficient for reducing counterproductive reactions during chess competitions and for improving international-level chess players' performance. Considering the results of this study and other recent ones in sports performance enhancement (e.g., Bernier et al., 2009; Fernandez et al., 2004; Gardner & Moore, 2004, 2007; Lutkenhouse, 2007; Schwanhausser, 2009), we can suggest that brief acceptance-based interventions could be useful for improving human performance when experiential avoidance, in a context of cognitive fusion, is present during performance. Therefore, ACT emerges as a potential alternative to PST interventions. Contrary to PST, ACT adopts a functional-analytical approach to cognition. Accordingly, ACT does not look for changes in the content of private events but in the discriminative functions of thoughts and sensations in a way that allows the participants to respond more effectively to task demands. Future studies are recommended to compare the differential efficacy of ACT versus PST interventions in sport psychology.

This research was partially supported with 1+D+i funds from Ministerio de Educacion y Ciencia, Spain (SEJ05845), and Junta de Andalucia, Spain (Research Group HUM-1093).

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Francisco J. Ruiz, Departamento de Personalidad, Evaluacion y Tratamiento Psicologico, 04120, Universidad de Almeria, Almeria, Spain. E-mail:


BARNES-HOLMES, D., HAYES, S. C., & DYMOND, S. (2001). Self and self-directed rules. In S. C. Hayes, D. Barnes-Holmes, & B. Roche (Eds.), Relational frame theory. A post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition (pp. 119-139). New York, NY: Plenum Press.

BERNIER, M., THIENOT, E., CODRON, R., & FOURNIER, J. F. (2009). Mindfulness and acceptance approaches in sport performance. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 4, 320-333.

BOND, F. W., & FLAXMAN, P. E. (2006). The ability of psychological flexibility and job control to predict learning, job performance, and mental health. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 26, 113-130. doi: 10.1300/J075v26n01_05

BOND, R W., HAYES, S. C., BAER, R. A., CARPENTER, K. M., GUENOLE, N., ORCUTT, H. K., ... ZETTLE, R. D. (2011). Preliminary psychometric properties of the Acceptance and Action Questionnaire--II: A revised measure of psychological inflexibility and experiential avoidance. Behavior Therapy, 42, 676-688. doi: 10.1016 /j.beth.2011.03.007

ELO, A. (1978). The rating of chess players, past and present. New York, NY: Arco.

FERNANDEZ, R., SECADES, R., TERRADOS, N., GARCiA, E., & GARCIA, J. M. (2004). Efecto de la hipnosis y de la terapia de aceptacion y compromiso (ACT) en la mejora de la fuerza fisica en piraguistas [Effect of hypnosis and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) in improving canoeists' physical strength]. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 4, 481-493.

GARDNER, F. L. (2009). Efficacy, mechanisms of change, and the scientific development of sport psychology. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 3, 139-155.

GARDNER, F. L., & MOORE, Z. E. (2004). A mindfulness-acceptance-commitment-based approach to athletic performance enhancement: Theoretical considerations. Behavior Therapy, 35, 707-723. doi: 10.1016/S0005-7894(04)80016-9

GARDNER, F. L., & MOORE, Z. E. (2006). Clinical sport psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

GARDNER, F. L., & MOORE, Z. E. (2007). The psychology of enhancing human performance. The mindfulness-acceptance-commitment (MAC) approach. New York, NY: Springer.

GIFFORD, E. V., KOHLENBERG, B. S., HAYES, S. C., ANTONUCCIO, D. 0., PIASECKI, M. M., RASMUSSEN-HALL, M. L., & PALM, K. M. (2004). Acceptance theory-based treatment for smoking cessation: An initial trial of acceptance and commitment therapy. Behavior Therapy, 35, 689-706. doi: 10.1016/S0005-7894(04)80015-7

GOODING, A., & GARDNER, F. L. (2009). An investigation of the relationship between mindfulness, preshot routine, and basketball free throw percentage. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 4, 303-319.

GREGG, J. A., CALLAGHAN, G. M., HAYES, S. C., & GLENN-LAWSON, J. L. (2007). Improving diabetes self-management through acceptance, mindfulness, and values: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 75, 336-343. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.75.2.336

GUTIERREZ, 0., LUCIANO, C., RODRIGUEZ, M., & FINK, B. (2004). Comparison between an acceptance-based and a cognitive-control-based protocol for coping with pain. Behavior Therapy, 35, 767-783. doi: 10.1016/S0005-7894(04)80019-4

HARDY, L., JONES, G., & GOULD, a (1996). Understanding psychological preparation for sport: Theory and practice of elite performers. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

HAYES, S. C., BARNES-HOLMES, D., & ROCHE, B. (EDS.). (2001). Relational frame theory. A post-skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York, NY: Kluwer Academic.

HAYES, S. C., LUOMA, J. B., BOND, F., MASUDA, A., & LILLIS, J. (2006). Acceptance and commitment therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behavior Research and Therapy, 44, 1-25. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2005.06.006

HAYES, S. C., & STROSAHL, K. D. (2004). A practical guide to acceptance and commitment therapy. New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

HAYES, S. C., STROSAHL, K. D., & WILSON, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy. An experiential approach to behavior change. New York, NY: Guilford.

HAYES, S. C., WILSON, K. G., GIFFORD, E. V., FOLLETTE, V. M., & STROSAHL, K. D. (1996). Experiential avoidance and behavioral disorders: A functional dimensional approach to diagnosis and treatment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 1152-1168. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.64.6.1152

KRIZ, M., VOKAL, E., & KRiZOVA, M. (1990). Odraz psychickeho zatazenia na niektore somaticke a biochemicke parametre u atypickeho sportoveho odvetvia [The impact of psychological stress on somatic and biochemical parameters in an atypical sports discipline]. Ceskoslovenske Zdravotnictvi, 11, 479-485.

KROGIUS, N. V. (1972). La psicologia en ajedrez [The psychology of chess]. Barcelona, Spain: Martinez Roca.

LOPEZ, J. C., RUIZ, F. J., FEDER, J., BARBERO-RUBIO, A., SUAREZ-AGUIRRE, J. J,, RODRIGUEZ, J. A., & LUCIANO, c. (2010). The role of experiential avoidance in the performance on a high cognitive demand task. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 10, 475-488.

LUCIANO, C., & HAYES, S. C. (2001). Trastorno de evitacion experiencial [Experiential avoidance disorder]. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 1, 109-157.

LUCIANO, C., RODRIGUEZ, M., & GUTIERREZ, O. (2004). A proposal for synthesizing verbal context in experiential avoidance disorder and acceptance and commitment therapy. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 4,377-394.

LUCIANO, C., VALDIVIA-SALAS, S., GUTIERREZ-MARTINEZ, 0., RUIZ, F. J., & PAEZ-BLARRINA, M. (2009). Brief acceptance-based protocols applied to the work with adolescents. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 9,237-257.

LUTKENHOUSE, J. M. (2007). The case of Jenny: A freshman collegiate athlete experiencing performance dysfunction. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 1, 166-180.

MARTIN, G. L., VAUSE, T., & SCHWARZMAN, L. (2005). Experimental studies of psychological interventions with athletes in competitions. Why so few? Behavior Modification, 29, 616-641. doi: 10.1177/0145445503259394

MCCRACKEN, L. M., VOWLES, K. E., & ECCLESTON, C. (2004). Acceptance of chronic pain: Component anlaysis and revised assessment method. Pain, 107, 159-166. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2003.10.012

NUNN, J. (1998). Secrets of practical chess. London, England: Gambit.

PFLEGER, H., STOCKER, K., PABST, H., & HARALAMBIE, G. (1980). Sportmedizinische untersuchung an schachspierlern der spitzenklasse [Sports medical examination of top class chess players]. Munchener Medizinische Wochenschrift, 28, 1041-1044.

ROWSON, J. (2000). The seven deadly chess sins. London, England: Gambit.

RUIZ, F. J. (2006). Aplicacion de la terapia de aceptacion y compromiso (ACT) para el incremento del rendimiento ajedrecistico. Un estudio de caso [Application of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for improving chess performance. A case study]. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 6, 77-97.

RUIZ, F. J. (2010). A review of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) empirical evidence: Correlational, experimental psychopathology, component and outcome studies. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 10, 125-162.

RUIZ, F. J., LANGER, A. I., LUCIANO, C., CANGAS, A. J., & BELTRAN, I. (in press). Measuring experiential avoidance and psychological inflexibility: the Spanish translation of the Acceptance and Action Questionnaire--II. Psicothema.

RUIZ, F. J., & LUCIANO, c. (2009). Eficacia de la terapia de aceptacion y compromiso (ACT) en la mejora del rendimiento ajedrecistico de jovenes promesas [Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and improving chess performance in promising young chess players]. Psicothema, 21, 347-352.

SCHWANHAUSSER, L. (2009). Application of the mindfulness-acceptance-commitment (MAC) protocol with an adolescent springboard diver. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 4, 377-395.

WHELAN, J., MAHONEY, M., & MEYERS, A. (1991). Performance enhancement in sport: A cognitive-behavioral domain. Behavior Therapy, 22, 307-327. doi: 10.1016 /S0005-7894(05)80369-7

WILSON, K. G., & LUCIANO, M. c. (2002). Terapia de aceptacion y compromiso (ACT). Un tratamiento conductual orientado a los valores [Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). A behavioral treatment oriented to personal values]. Madrid, Spain: Piramide.

ZETTLE, R. D., PETERSEN, C. L., HOCKER, T. R., & PROVINES, J. L. (2007). Responding to a challenging perceptual-motor task as a function of level of experiential avoidance. The Psychological Record, 57, 49-62.

Francisco J. Ruiz and Carmen Luciano

Universidad de Almeria
Table 1
Chess Performance Evolution From Pretreatment to Follow-Up and
Individual Effect Sizes

             Experimental participants        Control participants

             7-Month ELO performance          7-Month ELO performance

Participant  Pretreatment  Follow-up  Effect  Participant  Pretreatment

P1                  2,480      2,547    1.28           P6         2,492
P2                  2,385      2,485    1.04           P7         2,439
P3                  2,393      2,448     .50           P8         2.380
P4                  2,493      2,560     .60           P9         2,560
P5                  2,412      2,465    1.13          P10         2,437
M                   2,431      2,501    1.42            M       2,461.6

Participant           Effect

P1             2,485    -.06
P2             2,440     .01
P3             2,375    -.06
P4             2,560     .00
P5             2,397    -.69
M            2,451.4    -.14

Table 2
AAQ-II Scores, Mean Frequency of Counterproductive Reactions to
Problematic Private Events, Interference, and Believability of
Private Events During Competitions

              General experiential   Frequency of        Interference
              avoidance (a)          counterproductive   of private
                                     reactions (b)       events

Participant  Pre   1     3     6     Pre  1    3    6    Pre  1   3   6
                   mo    mo    mo         mo   mo   mo        mo  mo  mo

PI           26    26    27    26    7.0  6.2  5.2  3.8  69   69  57  38
P2           23    23    22    23    6.6  6.6  4.6  4.0  48   48  22  17
P3           19    19    24    19    4.8  2.4  5.2  2.0  47   41  30  27
P4           22    22    23    34    4.8  4.4  4,4  3.6  14   11  28  26
P5           48    28    26    24    7.4  6.8  4.8  5.2  57   49  38  45

M            27.6  23.6  24.8  25.2  6.1  5.3  4.8  3.8  47   43  35  30

             Believability of
             private events
             competitions (c)

Participant  Pre  1   3   6
                  mo  mo  mo

PI           75   63  50  19
P2           44   32  23  11
P3           45   21  20  19
P4           12   19  28  27
P5           66   27  20  33
M            48   32  28  22

(a) Measured by AAQ-II score (10-70). (b) Measured on a scale
of 1 (never) to 9 (always). (c) 0-100.
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.