(From the March/April 2015 edition of American Dancer Magazine.)
Years of physical training can prepare dancers for the athletic and technical demands of competition, but psychological training is equally important.
Many coaches recognize the importance of goal setting, concentration, and anxiety management, but suggestions like “be confident” or “relax” can cause dancers to become frustrated if they don’t understand how to achieve these mental states.
Instead of vague suggestions, dancers need practical strategies for optimizing mental toughness when they need it the most. In this article, I’ll share some mental skills training tips you can use to take your competitive performance to the next level.
Goal setting is an important element of athletic performance that many dancers overlook or don’t take seriously. Goal setting is important because it helps athletes create a mental model of success.
Stop reading for a moment and consider your competitive goals. If you thought “to practice more” or “to win” and then immediately looked back at the page, it’s time to revisit your goals.
There are three keys to effective goal setting. The first is to be specific about what you hope to accomplish. Discuss with your partner or coach what went well in your previous competition and then identify areas for improvement.
Suppose you believe your dancing needs to be more dynamic. Refine this idea until your goal is as specific as possible. Are there postural changes you need to make? Should you be more focused on creating compression through the standing leg? Does your right shoulder come forward? Ideally, the goals you select will be clearly defined and measurable, so that after each competition, you can quickly determine how well you were able to achieve them.
The second key is to set process goals rather than outcome goals. The problem with goals like “making finals” or “winning” is that you have little control over these outcomes. They are determined by judges. On the other hand, you do have control over how you dance–your posture, breathing, or foot placement, for example. Research consistently reveals that failure to achieve outcome goals results in frustration and anxiety, so your best strategy is to concentrate on behaviors you can truly control.
The third key to effective goal setting is record keeping. Goals should be recorded on your computer or a journal so you can revisit, evaluate, modify, and add to them for the future.
Once your goals have been clearly defined, and you’ve taken the appropriate steps to achieve them, it’s important to prepare yourself to be mentally focused during competition.
Maintaining concentration during competition can be extremely difficult. Some dancers are easily distracted by concerns about body mechanics, timing, performance quality, other dancers, floorcraft, the audience, judges, fatigue, past performance, or competitive outcomes.
Successful performance depends on attending to a manageable level of meaningful details and ignoring irrelevant stimuli. For each competition, attempt to identify two or three things to concentrate on. Any more is likely to be overwhelming. To make the process easier, determine whether your attentional focus should be internal, external, or a combination of the two.
Internal focus refers to body mechanics, thoughts, or feelings. External focus refers to aspects of the competitive environment, such as tempo of the music, behavior of other dancers, slickness of the floor, or audience reactions.
Be specific about your attentional goals. Once you’ve identified what you believe are the most important focus areas for you, plan on redirecting your thoughts to these details whenever you become distracted by anything else. This ability takes practice, so set aside time during training to work on competitive focus.
No matter how prepared you are, on the day of competition, performance anxiety can mean the difference between dancing your best or suffering a disappointing setback.
Anxiety symptoms include panic, perceived loss of control, muscular tension, and shortness of breath. These unwanted reactions are likely to occur when competitions are particularly important or meaningful.
If you struggle with physical anxiety, spend 10-15 minutes each day on exercises that help you to distinguish between relaxation and tension. For muscular tension, sit in a quiet space and alternately contract then relax each muscle in the body.
For shortness of breath, lie on an exercise mat and focus on breathing not just through the chest, but through the back and abdomen, too.
If you struggle with cognitive or mental symptoms of anxiety, practice replacing undesirable thoughts with brief motivational (“I’m prepared to dance my best”) or instructional (“hips over feet”) thoughts. The thoughts you use to improve concentration may be useful here. Plan on returning to these thoughts as often as necessary to help you manage symptoms of anxiety.
Psychological skills training is an important part of reaching your potential as a competitive dancer. If you incorporate these techniques into your practice, I’m confident that you’ll experience greater competitive success.
Read the original article in the March/April 2015 edition of American Dancer Magazine.)
Photo by Jaci Clement