Think of two athletes: one that you admired growing up, and one you despised. What was it about those people that led you to feel that way about them? 

Frequently, media likes to cover athletes’ statistics and form. However, what fans, coaches, and other competitors tend to remember are the specific behaviour-guiding attributes that truly elite athletes hold. 

Values are specific positions and attributes that people hold or consider important. They frequently guide our thoughts and behaviours, and can influence the way we interact with ourselves, others, and the world. Those who live closely to their values have been suggested to live more successful, fulfilling lives (Harris, 2019). Values also help us persist through challenging times, find solace and development from adversity, and guide us in challenging decision-making.

In sports we tend to become more focused on the outcomes of our actions—we focus more on wins, losses, and stats.  However, this frequently leads to an oversight of the process of achieving our goals and evaluating our journey. Frequently, the result is a product of process, and if we are always focused on outcomes, we lose sight of the values that frequently put us in the position to be successful.

Values represent an ongoing process. They are not something we can ever necessarily tick off or say “yup, done that”. Rather, values, and the pursuit of their development, frequently represent the most fulfilling parts of sports. Curiosity, Teamwork, Compassion, Hard work, Perseverance. Just some examples of common values held by successful athletes.

In a recent docuseries produced by ESPN, The Last Dance, audiences are presented an in-depth look at the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan’s journey toward their sixth NBA title. Throughout the series, Jordan’s career is examined and discussed in new ways. One key message throughout the docuseries became clear. Jordan would do whatever it took to move himself closer to winning. Whatever the situation, game, domain, Jordan was committed to excellence. Yes, his goal was focused on wins. However, Jordan frequently spoke about process elements that put him and his teammates in a position to win. Practice, physical training, skill development, studying film, mental preparation all were aspects of Jordan’s journey.

All day long, humans do things, whether that be preparing meals, cleaning the house, seeing family, going to work. We’re always doing something—even if it’s just sleeping in bed.

Now some things we do move us towards the life we want to live—acting effectively, behaving like the sort of person we want to be—and  we can say that such decisions and behaviours are called ‘towards moves’. Towards moves are things you want to start doing or do more of as they move us closer to our values. On the other hand, some things we do move us away from the life we want to live – acting ineffectively, behaving unlike the sort of person we want to be – and we can call these “away moves”. Away moves are things you want to stop doing or do less of, like skipping practice, eating unhelpfully, or avoiding stressful situations.

When things are going well for us, and life is relatively easy, we tend to be pretty good at making choices that move us toward where we want to be. We tend to find it easier to act effectively, treat others and ourselves the way we truly feel they should be, and are successful in doing things that make our lives better long-term, and do less of the things that make it more difficult.  Unfortunately, life is rarely this simple, and we don’t have things the way we want for very long. So as we go about our day, all sorts of challenging situations and difficult thoughts and feelings arise.

Unfortunately, getting ‘hooked’ by those difficult thoughts and feelings can become pretty common; they hook us, and they reel us in, and jerk us around, and they pull us off track –and once we’re hooked, we start doing all those ‘away moves’. Many psychological disorders, from stress and anxiety to depression and addiction, boil down to this basic process: we get hooked by difficult thoughts and feelings and we find ourselves making more away moves than toward moves.

One of the most common ways we get ‘hooked’ is by coming to accept the fallacy: “I must control or avoid/get rid of my unpleasant thoughts & feelings”. When hooked by this erroneous thought, also known as the emotional control agenda, our behaviour becomes focused on trying to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts & feelings.

However, there are times when most of us can unhook ourselves from those difficult thoughts and feelings and do ‘towards moves’ instead—doing  things move us towards the life we want to live—acting effectively, behaving like the sort of person we want to be.

And the better we get at doing this, the better life gets.

So when we’re in these challenging situations, experiencing difficult thoughts and feelings, there’s a choice for us to make: how are we going to respond?

Do we unhook and do towards moves?

Or do we get hooked and do away moves?


One key guiding factor in helping us get unhooked: Values & goals. Within those difficult or challenging situations, take a second and ask yourself some of these questions:  

What matters to you?

Who do you care about?

What sort of person do you want to be?

How do you want to treat yourself, others, the world around you?

What do you want to do more of, less of, or differently?

What do you want to stop or start doing?

Whilst seemingly simple, taking the time to stop ourselves from getting hooked and making decisions that move us toward things we consider important is within your control. Regardless of setting—within sports contexts or not—making consistent decisions that move us towards where we want to be is likely important to living happy, fulfilled, and successful lives.

Aramis Dennan

Clinical Psychologist


  • Harris, R. (2019). ACT made simple: An easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.


Dr Ian Lambie has been instrumental in moving a generation of Auckland and Auckland Aces players forward from a mental skills component over a 10 year plus period of time. Individually and as a collective group including out internationals.

A comment from Sir Richard Hadlee – “at this level it is 80% mental”