We are all irrational. In situations that matter most to us, this irrationality rears its ugly head and we find ourselves rigidly demanding that we must get that promotion, absolutely have to pass that driving test, because failure would be terrible, awful, the end of the world! When in reality, we really want that promotion, would very much like to pass that driving test, because failure would be bad, inconvenient, but certainly not the end of the world! Of course succeeding is important for most people, and a tough interview, exam, or opponent will make that success difficult to achieve. But the addition of irrational beliefs such as rigid and inflexible demands can render people simply too anxious to fulfil their potential. The challenge for us as psychologists working in performance contexts such as sport and business is to help people to avoid adopting irrational, illogical, and unpragmatic beliefs, and promote rational, logical, and pragmatic alternatives, an endeavour that forms the fundamental goals of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (or REBT).

REBT was conceived by Albert Ellis in the 1950s. Ellis (1957) proposed that it is rarely the adversity (failure, rejection, and ill treatment) that causes dysfunctional emotions (e.g., unhealthy anger, anxiety, depression) and maladaptive behaviours (e.g., avoidance, violence, withdrawal) alone, rather it is the beliefs about adversity that cause these unhealthy responses. REBT aims to help individuals abandon their irrational beliefs in favour of rational beliefs. Thus helping individuals change their unhelpful emotional and behavioural reactions to adversity to helpful emotional and behavioural reactions. Irrational beliefs have consistently been associated with emotional dysfunction such as heightened anxiety, feelings of anger and shame, and psychopathological conditions including depression, anxiety (trait, social, speech, test, evaluation), and suicide thoughts. In addition irrational beliefs have been associated with maladaptive behaviours such as social avoidance, self-harming, procrastination, anger suppression, aggression, violence, and medication use.

In short, irrational beliefs lead to emotional and behavioural reactions that are dysfunctional, maladaptive, and therefore inhibit goal achievement. For example, in the face of pressured performance situations irrational beliefs may lead to an individual withdrawing mentally and physically. In most performance circumstances this is likely to inhibit peak performance. In contrast, rational beliefs may lead to the individual facing up to the situation and or taking constructive action to minimise danger, which is more likely to facilitate performance. Therefore, the reduction of irrational beliefs and the promotion of rational beliefs as advocated in REBT can be beneficial for the well-being and performance of professionals. 

Indeed, since 2009 I have been applying and testing REBT in all sorts of performance contexts. Simply and boldly put, REBT can offer huge potential gains to people across a range of performance settings by helping them to control their reactions to tough and often uncontrollable circumstances. 

This is an abridged version of the article: “Turner, M. J. (2014). Smarter thinking in sport. The Psychologist, 27, (8), 596-599.”