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  • Dr. Erica Force, PhD, CMPC

Dancers and Mental Toughness

Hi everyone - May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and as many of you know, I'm a big fan of taking care of the dancer's mental health as well as her physical health. Dr. Erica Force is a sports psychologist who's worked with many dancers and athletes and understands the pressure we are under! I asked her to give some expert advice on navigating the exhausting world of dance. Read on for her excellent advice! Jen

Dance involves a delicate balance of physical fitness, technical skill, artistic ability, and mental toughness. Dedication to practice and training is essential for success; however, developing key mental skills for performance is equally important.

As a dancer, you dedicate many hours toward training and performing. With many talented dancers competing against each other, the margin for success can be quite narrow. So what may set the most talented dancers apart? Mental Toughness.

Baseball legend Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” Although mathematically a bit off, this superstar athlete was on track with the idea that there is more than just technical and physical skill involved with performance and competition. Mental skills play a huge role!

So what does it mean to be mentally tough? Most high-level performers refer to mental toughness as an ability to persevere, or hang in there, when things get challenging. It’s about having the mental strength and resiliency to handle the pressures and challenges that come up as a dancer.

For example, how would you react if you prepare for months to perform at a national event only to have an injury occur the day before your performance? The mentally tough athlete does not succumb to the potentially self-defeating thoughts and discouragement related to this challenge. Rather, they focus on how to overcome the situation and develop a new plan to move forward and accomplish their goals. Being mentally tough involves using a combination of mental skills to succeed while not allowing pressure to be a distraction or get in the way of goals. These mental skills include knowing how to prepare for competition, manage stress, recover from mistakes, deal with the unexpected in a confident manner, and maintain a positive attitude at all times. Bottom line, mentally tough athletes have perseverance and passion to work toward long-term goals and achieve success despite the challenges that present along the way.

To gain an edge and increase your mental toughness as a dancer, consider incorporating the following mental skills:

  • Positive Self-Talk & Self-Kindness Practice kind and encouraging statements to yourself to increase confidence. Develop a mindset of being positive and having a good attitude.

  • Goal Setting Set short and long-term goals to guide your training. Embrace the challenges. Acknowledge your strengths and successes, small and large, along the way to track your progress and boost your confidence and motivation.

  • Visualization or Imagery Practice visualizing specific skills and your overall performance. See yourself perform successfully and with confidence.

  • Pre-Performance Routine Develop a consistent preparation plan for each performance day. Include structured time in your preparation (e.g., the week before, the day before, the day of performance) for nutrition, relaxation, visualization, and other mental and physical warm up skills. A consistent pre-performance routine will help you feel confident that you are well prepared and “ready to go.

  • Flexibility Sometimes you have to “roll with the punches” and stressors that come up along the way. If a competition or training class does not go as planned, flexibility helps you adapt to adversity and setbacks so you can move forward.

  • Practice Practice being mentally tough. Recreate high stress situations as you prepare for performances. Practice coping with these stressors effectively in practice so you are more prepared to handle them during competition.

Mental skills are a key element of successful performances. Remember to make time to practice your mental skills, along with your physical dance training, to reach your goals as a “mentally tough” dancer.

Dr. Erica Force has a doctoral degree in Counseling Psychology, with a specialization in Sport Psychology, from the University of North Texas. She is a licensed psychologist in the states of Texas, Florida, Colorado, and Alabama. She specializes in Sport Psychology and is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Dr. Force also is a registered Sport Psychologist with the United States Olympic Committee Sport Psychology Registry.

During her clinical internship training with the United States Air Force, Dr. Force completed four years of active duty military service as an officer and staff psychologist. She focused on clinical and operational psychology, and provided psychological support and performance enhancement training for combat operators. Dr. Force also assisted with psychological assessment and selection of members for the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command. Following her service in the military, Dr. Force completed a postdoctoral fellowship in pediatric psychology with a focus on adolescent athletes in sports medicine.

With a specialization in sport psychology, Dr. Force has extensive experience working with youth athletes, collegiate NCAA Division I teams/athletes/coaches, elite and professional athletes. In her private practice, Force Sport Psychology & Counseling, and as a Sport Psychologist with the UNT Center for Sport Psychology, she provides counseling and sport psychology services to children, adolescents, and adults. She also provides team sport psychology services to a collegiate equestrian team and WNBA team. You can read more about what she does at her website.

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