Cultivating the Dancer’s Mindset: Mental Training for Performance

Cultivating the Dancer’s Mindset: Mental Training for Performance

The Missing Piece

When I was dancing 20 hours a week and basically living at the studio, I was always focused on improving my technique. All my energy went into getting stronger at the ballet barre, working on my flexibility, and trying to nail that hard across-the-floor combo in turns and leaps class. What I wasn’t thinking about was my mindset. I wish I could say I got it intuitively and knew how to harness the power of sport psychology at an early age. But in reality, I was – and still am – a perfectionist who worries about what other people think ALL THE TIME.

There were some tools in the sport psychology toolbox that I used regularly, like visualization. But for the most part, I was a typical studio kid who was desperate to keep my place in front of the jazz routine, get noticed by my ballet teacher, and win at competition. I thought the only way to accomplish those goals was to work harder and push my body further. Sport psychology didn’t enter my life until years after I stopped performing and competing. It was actually my love of coaching that led me to the field.

The Awakening

I started coaching a high school dance team at 20 years old, and I would read everything I could so that I could be the best possible coach for my team. What I found along the way was this field of psychology that I previously didn’t even know existed, and my whole life changed.

Sport psychology emphasizes how the mind and body work together in the pursuit of athletic success. But one thing I love about the field is that it’s grown beyond that. Researchers are starting to examine how psychological tools developed for traditional sports like soccer and football work in other areas like the arts, military, and even medicine. Now I see sport psychology as a focus on the pursuit of our highest physical performance in whatever discipline that may be.

A primary goal of experts in the field is to help athletes – and in my case, dancers who are athletes, but that’s an argument for another time – increase their motivation, performance, and enjoyment in their sport. Many people view psychology as an academic field designed to help people who are suffering from things like depression and anxiety. While many psychologists do just that, those in the field of sport psychology help everyday athletes learn how to be mentally stronger.

The Toolkit

It’s just like how athletes will seek out a new strength training exercise or nutrition plan to complement their training. Athletes who want to perform at an optimal level seek support for their body and mind. Sport psychology is the expertise that makes that connection possible.

The field of sport psychology is vast and growing every day, but here are a few key areas that can specifically support a dancer’s journey:

  • Goal Setting: Helping dancers set achievable, measurable goals that keep them motivated and focused.
  • Concentration: Teaching techniques to improve focus and eliminate distractions, both in the studio and on stage.
  • Motivation: Uncovering intrinsic sources of motivation to fuel a dancer’s passion and persistence.
  • Relaxation: Developing methods to manage pre-performance anxiety and stay calm under pressure.
  • Confidence: Cultivating a dancer’s belief in their abilities and overcoming self-doubt.
  • Emotion Management: Learning to recognize and regulate emotions that can impact performance.
  • Imagery: Practicing mental visualization to enhance physical training and boost performance.
  • Leadership: Developing the mental skills necessary to be a positive influence on a dance team or company.

The general goal is to teach a dancer the mental skills necessary to perform consistently in both training and competition. Dancers need to train their mind to ensure that what they train for in rehearsal actually happens on stage when it counts.

The Whole Athlete

My whole mission as a sport psychology consultant is to help dancers and dance teachers realize their full potential – and actually enjoy the journey. As an example, I love teaching high school dancers about growth mindset so they can find the motivation they have lost. Or helping a dance teacher understand how to give feedback during class in a way that increases student effort and persistence.

Teaching dance is so much more than pointing feet and learning the value of hard work. While I firmly believe dance teaches valuable life lessons, it can also be a place where we learn the skills to be the best version of ourselves. And THAT is something that will change your life.

Positive Psychology

Along with sport psychology, there is another area of study I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up: positive psychology. Similar to sport psychology, positive psychology focuses on improving the lived experience. Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living (Peterson, 2008).

The main reason I was attracted to positive psychology in the first place is because it focuses on strengths instead of weaknesses. It helps us build on what’s good in life and focus on growth and self-improvement. Positive psychology is not specific to athletes and is relevant to every area of life, but I love to bring the tools of positive psychology to dancers.

I think it’s important for dancers to learn about how to increase their positive experiences in life – things like happiness, joy, and inspiration. Dancers can also improve their lives by increasing positive mood states like resilience and gratitude. Dance is HARD. I remember some days in the studio where I was wrapping my toes before pointe class, thinking about how tired I was. I often thought about how I would rather be with my friends and actually have a social life in high school. Of course, I always chose the ballet barre over high school football games. But I know positive psychology tools could have helped me be more present in the positive moments as a dancer.

Finding Balance

So rather than ignoring those days that were so hard, positive psychology teaches us about creating a balance and intentionally focusing on the positives. Dancers often experience anxiety or negative self-talk during training. It takes discipline and focus to find continued inspiration, happiness, and resilience. Unrealistic optimism isn’t the goal here. Instead, the goal is to increase the number of good days and even learn to intentionally create them.

Science has taught us that positive emotions boost job performance, and that’s likely true for dancers as well. Experiencing gratitude, setting goals that are in balance with other aspects of life, increasing focus, and being present in the moment all help us feel an increased sense of meaning in our lives. I believe this is especially true for dance teachers and coaches. If you’ve decided to dedicate part of your life to teaching dance, I hope you find it meaningful and a source of joy.

The Whole Picture

Taken together, positive and sport psychology have so much to offer us as dancers. If you’re willing to embrace the idea of mental training and strive for continual personal growth, dance will shape every aspect of your life in a positive way. Even years after you leave the stage, the lessons you learn will continue to serve you.

So, the next time you’re feeling stuck in your head or struggling to find the motivation to push through a challenging routine, remember that your mindset is just as important as your technical training. By cultivating a dancer’s mindset through mental training, you can unlock your full potential and truly enjoy the journey of becoming the best dancer you can be.

And who knows, maybe you’ll even find yourself coaching a high school dance team one day, just like I did. The Musical Theater Center is always looking for passionate dance educators to join our team and help shape the next generation of performers.

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