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Resilience in Dance – Building Psychological Skills

Consultant Sports Psychiatrist Dr Allan Johnston works with a range of elite sports people, including members of Northern Ballet. Here he explains how stress can affect performance, and how building resilience is key to delivering optimal results.

Northern Ballet’s Abigail Prudames and Joseph Taylor in Victoria. Photo: Guy Farrow

In dance, as in life, we are met with a range of biological, psychological and social challenges to our wellbeing and performance. In my clinical experience, I have often found the challenges that dancers must overcome in their daily lives are perhaps greater than the majority of the general public, though there is much overlap. In my experience the stressors are more akin to athletes in the sporting field. We meet these challenges with our own personal qualities which are made up of a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. The qualities of the team are also important to developing an appropriate culture and facilitative environment to respond to individual and collective needs. The psychological resilience of both the individual and the team is a vital factor in how we meet and overcome these challenges to achieve our collective goals. As a Sports Psychiatrist to the GB Olympic Teams with the English Institute of Sport and via independent practice in Leeds where I see a range of athletes, dancers and other high-performance clients, I work with both individuals and teams to take an evidence-based approach to the development of resilience for elite performance.

What is resilience?

‘Resilience’ is a diverse term which has different meanings in different contexts. It is defined as the ability of a body to recoil or return to its original shape after change1. This is close to my preferred definition of ‘bounce-back-ability’. The term conveys the notion that we are all not very far away from the next challenge. At times it will feel like we are struggling, even falling. It is difficult to predict when or from where the next challenge might come. We can prepare ourselves in terms of resilience, to help us bounce back from this future challenge and return to our previous position or reach even greater heights. I ask clients to imagine a rubber ball bouncing off the floor. Sometimes the further the fall, the greater the bounce.

Why is resilience important in dance?

It is widely acknowledged that dance can be both beneficial for subjective wellbeing and physical health or sometimes detrimental for physical and mental health2,3. A 2007 study4 of subjects involved in competitive ballroom dancing found substantial increases in the stress hormone, cortisol, compared to non dancers. The increased cortisol found was not due to any physical strain of dancing but was due to mental stress, for example due to the perception of being judged. There was no difference between novice and experienced dancers. Contrary to expectations experienced dancers did not habituate to stress over time. The stress response showed the greatest increase in environments featuring what authors called ‘highly focused conditions of threat.’ Psychological threat can arise and be perceived in many forms. In my experience of working with dancers from across UK and European schools, the environment of dance can at times be, or at least is perceived to be, threatening to an individual. Dance training and rehearsal often involves a critique of an individual’s shape or body. In my clinical experience, this is perhaps most true of ballet. Similar to many sports, ballet involves high levels of discipline, in order to meet a variety of challenges including physical demands, competitiveness, sometimes perfectionistic attitudes of trainers, and acceptance of emotional and physical suffering as a part of the job. Working under this specific type of pressure can take its toll. One meta-analysis (a research method grouping together studies in order to determine an overall trend) of 33 dance studies taken over a 47 year period5 concluded dancers’ risk of having an eating disorder is three times greater than the general public with the highest rates seen in ballet.

What can we learn from Sports Psychiatry?

Whether working with a rugby prop forward or a principal dancer I have found the key ingredients of resilience translate well from one environment to another. I often refer to the work of two Loughborough based Sports Psychologists Fletcher and Sarkar. One study in particular6 interviewed Olympic Champions across a range of sports regarding their experience of withstanding pressure during the highs and lows of their sporting careers. Interview transcripts were thoroughly analyzed to produce five key traits of psychological resilience that protect the world’s best athletes from stress and help to deliver optimal performance. These are:

  • Positivity – optimism, openness, proactiveness
  • Motivation – having multiple motivations; passion, choice, proving your worth
  • Focus – on process not outcome, avoid distractions, ability to de-focus at rest
  • Self Confidence – self belief in own ability and the abilities of the team
  • Perceived Social Support – the perception of & gratitude for available support

These key traits are essential for how an individual appraises a forthcoming challenge and whether they respond and adapt in a way which is facilitative or is potentially damaging to their health and success.  Importantly this study and their later work acknowledge that resilience is not something we are necessarily born with. It can be developed, it can be coached, and it can be learned.

How do we apply this in the Sports Psychiatry clinic?

As part of my standard assessment process I use a variety of strategies to help an individual to consider the role that resilience plays in their past and current issues. A variety of exercises which I have developed are completed, often with the individual taking away ‘homework’ to be completed in their own time when the dancer has time to reflect on their own journey.

  • We first discuss the resilience and strengths that an individual dancer already possesses in exercises aimed at analyzing prior challenges and how the individual has overcome these
  • We discuss the dancers’ own views and definitions of resilience
  • The above model is explained and explored together
  • Resilience diaries are taken away to be completed by the dancer over a period of weeks with the individual assessing their own strengths and also areas for development
  • We together analyze the dancers resilience diary

We develop strategies for maintaining areas of strength and also explore the reasons behind and develop strategies to improve, other areas such as variable motivation or low self-confidence. Many dancers will be familiar with the concept of prehabilitation or “prehab”. These are strategies commonly used to improve physical health and reduce in incidence of future injury by improving flexibility, strength and control of movements. I think of the resilience work we do in clinic in the same way. We work together to prehabilitate or strengthen the dancers ‘mind muscle’, improve their mental health and reduce the incidence of future psychological injury or distress.

Resilience for all, and all for resilience?

I hope you have found this brief article of interest. My aim was to explore the concept of psychological resilience and its role in helping us to manage stress, particularly found in certain environments such as the fields of dance and sports. Resilience plays an important role in mental health which is increasingly acknowledged to be central to health in general. Whoever you are and whatever you are currently going through resilience is something that may help. It is not something that you are born either with or without. It can be taught and it can be learnt. In dance, as in life, the more you work at your own resilience, the further your resilience will take you.

Further information

  1. Strumpfer D.J.W (1999) Psychological Resilience in Adults. Studia PsychologicaVol 41 (2), 89-104
  2. Mansfield L, Kay T, Meads C, et al. Sport and dance interventions for healthy young people (15–24 years) to promote subjective well-being: a systematic review BMJ Open 2018;8:e020959. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-020959
  3. People Dancing 2018. Making the case for dance in health and wellbeing. Accessed 13 Feb 2019, https://www.communitydance.org.uk/creative-programmes/health-and-wellbeing#case
  4. Rohleder N et al (2007) Stress on the Dance Floor: The Cortisol Stress Response to Social-Evaluative Threat in Competitive Ballroom Dancers Pers Soc Psychol Bull. Jan;33(1):69-84
  5. Arcelus J et al (2014) Prevalence of eating disorders amongst dancers: a systemic review and meta-analysis Eur Eat Disord Rev. 2014 Mar;22(2):92-101
  6. Fletcher D, Sarkar M (2012) A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions Psychology of Sport and Exercise 13 (2012) 669-678

Originally published in One, Issue 6 – Spring 2019