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Chelsea: This is every dance teacher's competition nightmare. See if you can relate. You've been cleaning your routine for months. You spent hours in technique classes. You're drilling the skills over and over. The routine looks flawless. Everyone is ready. Then the time comes to take the competition floor, and someone chokes. It's that random mistake that you've never seen before that unfolds before your eyes like slow motion.
One dancer just stands there and stares, a deer in headlights for a minute, or a dancer falters on a really simple skill she's done a thousand times. Why do people choke? You've been training and training, and everything was fine in the studio yesterday. Well, let's talk about the number one reason an athlete chokes, and it's not just a lack of preparation.
Hi, I'm Dr. Chelsea. This is Passion for Dance, the show for passionate dance teachers and coaches. My mission is to change the dance industry by creating happier, more successful dancers through positive mental skills training. With today's mental skill, I'm here to help you make sure all that hard work in the studio shows up on stage. So, if you've ever had a dancer mess up on something they've done correctly in practice a zillion times, this episode is for you.
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Welcome to the Passion for Dance podcast. I’m Dr. Chelsea, a former professional dancer and dance team coach turned sport psychologist. This podcast focuses on four main pillars: motivation, resilience, mindset, and community. Each week, you’ll learn actionable strategies, mindsets, and tips to teach your dancers more than good technique. This is a podcast where we can all make a lasting impact and share our passion for dance. Let’s do this!
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Lack of Concentration and Focus – 1:49
As a judge and a coach, I would see it happen all the time. Dancers look great in practice or in warmup, but then they get on stage and suddenly everyone's rushing the music, or there's this big mistake that comes out of nowhere in an otherwise great routine. What is causing these mistakes? It's not that you didn't prepare or train properly. It's likely due to a lack of concentration and focus. And it's not that dancers are spaced out and don't care. Not that kind of lack of concentration. It's that they're not focused on the right thing. They're not able to concentrate because they're focused on all the wrong things.
Dancers often choke or speed up. That's what I see a lot when they are too amped up. In sports psychology, we call it over-arousal. It's when your whole body is buzzing with energy and your mind is racing. It can feel like that rollercoaster that's gone off the tracks. It's not in our control, and if we don't recognize how amped up we are and that things are going too fast and try to get it under control, we mess up.
So let me explain what I mean by over-arousal. When you experience over-arousal, your muscles are usually tense. You may be sweaty or shaky. There are a lot of different symptoms. I've seen butterflies in your stomach, shaking hands, sweaty, tense headache, tight muscles in your shoulders. It looks like a lot of different things, but when it happens, you're essentially losing control over your body, especially at the level that dancers need to be so coordinated. And it's more than just adrenaline. There are plenty of times where adrenaline is helpful when we're competing, but too much can lead to that over-arousal and catastrophic results. If an athlete doesn't learn how to cope with over-arousal and too much adrenaline, she's likely to make a mistake on stage.
Over-Arousal Can Cause Dancers to Choke – 3:42
So, over-arousal can cause dancers to choke – that feeling when your body is buzzing out of control, or your mind is racing so fast you can't focus. For a lot of dancers that kind of out-of-control over-arousal feels like floating a little bit. So a dancer that should be grounded and solid instead feels kind of bouncy or jittery, and it makes them stumble on the simple mistakes. It also makes balance extra challenging, which is why this is so incredibly harmful for dancers.
So, if over arousal is causing you to choke, what do you do? It's all in the breath training. So I'm going to explain how this works, what it is, and exactly how to do it. And as simple as this is to understand, and even as simple as it is to do, it still takes practice to do it well.
Breath Training – 4:31
Athletes need to be able to regulate their arousal in order to stay mentally focused and physically in control. Breath control and relaxation has two major effects on our body. There's this overall physiological calming, and it causes an athlete to shift his attention usually from all the distractions to our own bodies and our performance. When you force your body to relax, you can reduce your heart rate, control those shaky nerves, and allow maximum oxygen to flow through your body.
Relaxation also forces you to focus your energy in and pay attention to your body. It's exactly what every athlete should be doing during a crucial competitive moment. You don't want dancers paying attention to the team that's competing right before them or worrying about the turn section they have coming up. You want them focused on their own body and their own skills and each count as it comes. Relaxation and breath training brings the focus back to your body in the present moment.
Advantages of Using Breath Training – 5:32
There are some big advantages to using breath training and relaxation during practice and competitions. One is that relaxation is entirely in your control. You control the beginning and the end. You control exactly how long it takes, and you can go as long as you need to bring your body to the optimal level of stimulation and arousal. You don't want to go too low and be tired and you don't want to be too amped up. Breath training allows us to bring this in your control. You get to decide exactly how much you need – not too much, not too little, exactly what you need.
This is also really inexpensive. You don't need extra devices or equipment or anything to bring with you. It's just your brain and your body. That's all you need. So it's free and it's with you anytime you need it.
The last big advantage is it's just really easy to learn. There are a few different types of relaxation procedures. Breath training is only one and they're all pretty simple, but breath training is a quick fix that you can easily capture and start practicing right away.
Here's the catch though. Relaxation is easy, but it takes practice. We can't always do it on demand unless we've practiced it. Just like other mental skills, proper relaxation is a skill to learn. As a teacher, we can't assume our dancers know how to relax or that they can keep themselves calm when it matters. Relaxation sounds easy, but it's actually sometimes challenging to master.
I mean, think about it. If you've ever been really amped up and upset about something and someone says, “Oh, it's okay. Just calm down. Just take a breath. Calm down.” You're like, “I can't calm down right now. Are you kidding me?” Just being told to relax often makes us more anxious and more frustrated. And so we need to train and learn that yes, we can take control and relax when we need it.
Hey coaches and teachers. If you are new to the show, it might be a little overwhelming to know which episodes to listen to. You can always go back to the beginning and binge listen, of course, but I also know we don't have a single spare minute in our days.
So, to help you decide where to start, I have a short five question quiz that will tell you which episodes will help you with whatever is going on right now. It's kind of like a personality quiz, and after a few quick questions, you get a curated podcast list of the top five episodes that will help you most where you're at right now.
Maybe you need some motivation or inspiration, maybe your dancers need something to listen to for help, or maybe you're looking for a little boost of confidence. Whatever support you need, take the short quiz and find out.
Go to www.chelseapierotti.com/podcastquiz to get started. Click the link in the episodes show notes, if that's helpful, and thank you for being here. I'm so happy to have you as a part of this community!
How Breath Training Works – 8:45
So how does this work? Breath training falls under this category of muscle to mind relaxation techniques. Your brain and your body are, of course, tied together. When your brain is calm, your body is calm. And when your brain is buzzing with anxious thoughts, your body is probably also tense and your heart rate elevated. They go together. So, since they are tied together, when you calm your body with deep breathing, you also can calm your brain and reduce some of those anxious thoughts.
Consider how much they go together when you are calm and confident and in control, your breathing is likely steady, deep, slow, and rhythmic. But when you're under pressure and when you're tense, breathing is usually short, shallow, and irregular. The key is to recognize that when you're tense, your breathing is probably shallow. And so then you can pause right there and employ the simple breath control procedure to get your breathing back to that steady, deep rhythm. It brings you in control of your body helps quiet the thoughts so you can perform your best on stage
Now let's break down how this actually works. There isn't one cadence to breath control that works best. You'll see lots of different numbers and different ways to count this. With dancers, I like to count in eights because that's where we're all comfortable. So it's about taking slow deep breaths in a simple pattern of breathing in and out to counts. It ensures you breathe slowly and rhythmically. You can take as many minutes as you need, but usually I do about one cycle through. It gives you about a minute of that relaxation break.
Here's how you do it: you breathe in for six counts, hold the breath there for two, and then slowly exhale for eight. So just two weight counts, breathe in for six, hold for two, out for eight. Again, I like to repeat that about four times. It gives you a sense of calm. It gives you a chance to really get into it and slow your breathing down.
Breath Control Pattern Example – 10:40
So, when I count this for dancers, I'll often snap or clap and just count through like you would when you're teaching just about anything. So I'll count through one pattern for you so you can hear what this sounds like.
So if you are In a place where you can do this with me, go for it. Close your eyes. Let's take a quick deep breath.
Breathe in two, three, five, six. Hold it there, two. And out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. And you'd repeat that about four times. And again, I tend to pace it. So the first one is a little faster or matches where the dancers are at or a more normal breathing rate. And then I slow down with each cycle, so that by the end, the dancers gain control and are using those slow rhythmic breaths.
And again, I will often count it for the dancers, but the beauty of this is if you've practiced it, dancers can do it whenever they need it. The soloist can do it backstage if they're having a moment. Teams can do it all together if everyone's feeling anxious. If you've practiced it, it's something that you know it's there and you can quickly use it. And again, you can practice it when you're a little bit nervous or a little bit tense rather than waiting for some big thing that's really got you worked up.
Practice on the smaller things, so when those big nerves hit you, you know that you can do it, and you feel confident in your ability to take that deep breath. So when someone says, “It's all right, take a deep breath,” you're like, “Oh, right. I do know how to do that. Okay.” You can close your eyes, put your hand on like your chest and your diaphragm, really connect with your body, and breathe in for six, hold for two, out for eight, and slowly come back to that deep, rhythmic, steady breathing.
And I know it's just breathing, but there really is great power in this purposeful relaxation. Most dancers arrive at competition hours before we actually compete. And if you have this adrenaline going and this excitement going for hours before you compete, you're going to be at that high level of over-arousal for a long time, and that means there's a really good chance you won't perform your best when it's time to take the stage. That anticipation of your time on the floor builds pressure and over-arousal. So, rather than staying in that stage of over arousal too long, letting too much anxiety take over, you can use the simple slow breathing from right when you get to the venue so that you're more calm and collected all day, all the way up to when you're backstage, anytime you need it.
I hope you keep that simple breath training technique in your back pocket so it can help your athletes maintain control and dance their personal best. And if you found this episode helpful, I would love if you'd share it with someone in your dance community. I want to help all dancers use mental skills to be happier and more successful, so the more people who can learn about this, the better. So, if you found it helpful, if you would share it with your dance bestie out there, it would mean a lot to me! Thank you for listening in and keep sharing your passion for dance with the world!
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