Chelsea: Hi, it’s Dr. Chelsea. This is the Passion for Dance podcast where we talk about mindset, motivation, and resilience in dance while building a community of supportive dance educators who are all here to do the same.
This Episode’s Question – 0:11
Today, I have a question submitted by a listener who is struggling with a lack of motivation in her dancers. I hear this from a lot of teachers and coaches, so if you’ve ever felt like your dancers aren’t giving 100% effort, and you know they have more in them, then listen in because I’m gonna help you deal with the frustration of lazy dancers.
This is what Emily had to say.
Emily: Hey, Dr. Chelsea, this is Emily. Here’s my question: I have a group of high schoolers on a studio dance team that just really don't want to work that hard. They love to dance, and they love hanging out with each other, but whenever I give them critiques, they don't work very hard to make adjustments. They don't really care for their bodies in terms of doing their warmups and making sure that they're paying attention in their exercises and they're not growing like I believe they’re capable of.
In rehearsals, they just give it maybe, like, 30% effort, and when I called them out on it, they just agree that they could give more but I can’t actually get them to give me more. I really don't care as much about the outcome as I do about the effort they give and making sure that they become good students. I can sometimes get them to get up to maybe about 70% effort, but that’s maybe only for one run through of a dance. This is also a group that struggles with anxiety and some mental health issues, so I want to be sensitive to this, but at the same time I feel like I’ve hit a wall with getting them to actually try.
I’ve tried to relax a bit, I’ve tried to give them their own time to work together, I’ve tried to make things more fun in class and less stressful, but no matter what I’m just met with apathy, and I don't know what to do. I want to make sure these kids get good training and not only in dance but as good people, but I also want to be sensitive to their wants and needs. So, any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!
[Motivational Intro Music]
Welcome to the Passion for Dance podcast. I’m Dr. Chelsea, a former professional dancer and a dance team coach turned sports 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!
Chelsea: It can be difficult to help someone who is not motivated to work hard. I just want to acknowledge that at the top. Sometimes we feel pressure, as a teacher, to be the complete source of motivation and, yes, there are a few things you can try, but, ultimately, their motivation is not 100% your responsibility. That said, there are options, right? There are things you can do.
So, motivation is a mental process that initiates or sometimes it sustains an athlete’s behavior, but the important part I want to bring your attention to of that definition is that it’s a mental process. It means it’s going on inside someone else’s thoughts and what you see on the outside, their lazy dancing, may not truly reflect what’s going on on the inside. We don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s head, and it’s easy to get frustrated with a lack of effort because we assume that the thoughts are that they don't care, and that may not be true.
Understanding The Reason Behind Their Fear of Failure – 3:32
The first step here is to try to understand the reason behind their low motivation. It may not be what you think, and it may be only a few dancers who have brought down the mood for everyone else. Once you have a better understanding of the situation, you can try to provide practical support, and when I’m consulting with athletes, I see three main reasons that motivation drops: fixed mindset, low autonomy, and fear or failure.
Fixed Mindset – 3:58
Starting with fixed mindset, I’ve talked about it a lot on the show before, but if you're not familiar, go back to episode 18. There’s a deep dive into it. But, essentially, it’s the belief that you have a fixed amount of talent as a dancer and effort won’t really make a difference. It’s when a dancer believes, “Oh, I’m not a turner,” or, “I look silly doing hip-hop,” and they have this fundamental belief that they can't get much better even if they work hard which, then, of course, means they won't put in any effort.
Helping dancers get past this fixed mindset isn't a quick fix. You are probably battling years of feedback that taught them this fixed mindset, but you can address it head-on and give them the tools to fix it. In the first place, just helping them identify that this is a fixed mindset and notice when it comes up is that great first step. Once they notice it, they can start to practice changing their mindset. For many dancers, they aren't even aware that their thought of, “Oh, I’m just not a good turner,” is stopping them from putting in the full effort which, then, if you're not working hard at it, you won't get any better, and that just reinforces the thought, “See, I’m not a good turner.” So, just helping them be aware of that is a huge first step.
As a coach, you can keep using growth mindset language like, “I know this is hard, but I believe you're capable, so I set the bar high,” or something like, “This is a challenge because I know you can do it. It will take time, and that’s okay, but keep working, and you will see the growth.” Again, you're probably trying to overcome years and years of feedback that has created this mindset, but you can use your language and class to help get around it and help them work through it.
Lack of Autonomy – 5:45
Another reason motivation is low can be a lack of autonomy. Now, based on what I heard in this particular question from Emily, I don't think that’s the case here, but I want to mention it anyway in case it helps someone else in our community. Autonomy is a sense of control. When an athlete has a sense of autonomy, they have a belief that they have some control on their surroundings. It’s essentially self-government, and we know that when people feel in charge of their own experiences, they're gonna feel more motivated.
Just think about times in school if you got to pick the class, you usually are more motivated in that class than if you are assigned a gen-education course or even if you're assigned a project that how much autonomy and choice you have over the topic increases your motivation to do well. We see that broadly in our lives. If you have a sense of autonomy, you tend to be more motivated.
So, you want to make sure athletes are involved in decision-making, wherever appropriate. You want them to be setting their own goals and have choices during practice and rehearsals. For more on this, you can go all the way back to episode one. It explains the psychological basic needs. One of those is autonomy, and it’ll help kind of walk through different things that you can do to increase autonomy for your dancers.
Fear of Failure – 7:06
Lastly, and what I think may be going on here with Emily’s dancers and, again, it’s what I see in a lot of athletes I talk to who appear apathetic, it’s actually a fear of failure. They're worried about what will happen if they go for it and it’s not good enough or they fall short. It’s easier to protect ourselves by not really giving a full effort so that if you don't get the success you hoped for you can say, “Well, I didn't really try, so that failure isn't a reflection on me.” It’s a very normal reaction to be afraid of failure, and we all do it, and not just as dancers, not just as teenagers.
It is also usually worse for people who are perfectionists which is all over the dance world. “If I can't do it perfect, I’m not doing it at all.” That thinking also solidifies the fixed mindset. So, there’s this vicious cycle of this need to be perfect but then not truly believing you're capable of being any better so you hold back the effort which, then, protects your need to be perfect because you can say, “Well, again, I didn't try very hard, so it’s okay that it wasn't perfect because that wasn't my full effort, and then at its root I don't believe that that effort will really make a difference.” You can see how this cycle continues and dancers get stuck and, again, this is what’s going on in their mindset, but what you see as a teacher is a lazy dancer.
If you believe perfectionism and fear of failure is what’s really going on, you can help them by just slightly recalibrating their goals. They might be focused on a specific skill that they really want or a competitive outcome, and that is paralyzing their effort rather than helping them focus on the process it takes to get there.
Define Success and 100% Effort For Your Program – 8:52
My concrete advice to Emily or anyone else who is in a similar situation is to define success and 100% effort for your program. You have to have a clear understanding of what that means to you. Once everyone is on the same page, you can start dancing and talk about it some more. Get really narrow on your goals so that they are a daily task rather than a season-long task. Maybe today we have three specific things we want to achieve with full effort, and along the way, keep talking about it, keep giving them a perception of what you believe that looked like and what they believe it felt like.
Reward Them for Growth – 9:31
Reward them for growth. Even if they give 70% effort instead of 50%, it’s growth, and you want to reward the progress. No, 70% is not what you want, but it is growth, and you can celebrate the growth and then keep pushing. You want the goal in front of them to be challenging but doable and keep slowly pushing the envelope everyday and rewarding the growth that you see.
Low Internal Motivation – 9:57
There is one other possibility here, and it could be that you have a group of dancers who have low internal motivation. They personally just really don't have an internal drive. Maybe they’ve never had to push themselves because parents, teachers, every other adult in their life has always offered extrinsic motivation and rewards or punishments, so they don't even know what they want. They’re just used to going along with what the adults in their life have pushed.
I am seeing that more and more, and we have dancers who just genuinely have never had to motivate themselves, and they don't know how to do it.
This is where working on that definition of success comes in along with the coach who expresses that you believe they are capable of more. Help them see that, “I genuinely believe you are capable of more, but you have to believe it too.” You may be the first one to really challenge your dancers and tell them that you believe they can do more and you're going to hold them to it.
Keep the challenge and the praise narrow so that they experience small wins. Talk about the feeling of accomplishment you get after setting a goal and getting there. Help them reflect on what it feels like to really go for something, and then maybe you don't get it immediately that day but you get it in a week or a month. Helping them actually process and reflect and notice, “Oh, that hard work really was worth it.”
When you're first getting started, ask them about a skill that they couldn't do six months ago that they can do now, right? Helping them notice, “Oh, I did really have to work for that, and it is pretty cool that I can do that now.” Helping them notice the hard work that went into the skills they have now.
Protect Their Mental Health – 11:40
Finally, I really appreciate the part of Emily’s question about protecting their mental health. I’m so glad you were thinking about that, and I simply want to point out to you that mental health and mental toughness are not the same thing. Mental health is the presence or sometimes the absence of a mental health issue and, really, it’s just your overall state of wellbeing. When you talk about dancers who struggle with anxiety or depression, that’s their mental health. We are always looking to protect that, but it’s not the same thing as mental toughness.
Mental Toughness – 12:14
Mental toughness, on the other hand, is the ability to cope with negative emotions or sometimes it’s even as simple as the ability to understand our emotions. It’s knowing when to lean into a challenge and when to step back and take care of yourself. When we challenge our dancers, you're asking them to set high goals. You're believing in them. You're offering positive reinforcement. You're creating a positive team culture. You're encouraging positive leadership. All of that is improving mental toughness, and it doesn't come at the expense of mental health.
Again, if you have that positive culture, you're doing it in a way of offering reinforcement that you believe in them, you are by their side as you’re challenging them, it’s not at the expense of mental health. That only happens if you use negative coaching strategies like yelling, shaming, or berating your athletes, and I know that’s not the type of teachers who listen to the show. So, I hope that distinction helps you feel more confident in challenging your dancers and helping them improve their mental toughness.
Thank you, Emily, for submitting your question. I truly hope that this helped, and I know there are other coaches and teachers out there who are probably dealing with the same thing, so I appreciate your willingness to send it in.
If you're listening and have a question that you think would help the community, please submit it, and it could be on a future episode. You can go to speakpipe.com/passionfordance. Check out the link in the show notes, or if you just go to the homepage for the podcast, you’ll see it there as well at chelseapierotti.com/podcast. It’s really easy. There’s one button. You just hit record like you're leaving a voice note, and that’s it!
So, thank you for listening and sharing your questions with me. This community of passionate dance educators is a really special place. So, thank you for being a part of it, and thank you for sharing your passion for dance with the world!
[Motivational Outro Music]