Work Your Mind As Well As Your Body for Improved Performance

March 31, 2005

Do you hardly ever miss class, put all your effort into your dancing and strive to perfect your technique day after day, yet still don’t see the results you’d like? Well, it could be all in your head. Sports psychologists have discovered that athletes (including dancers) must train their minds as well as their bodies. Try incorporating the following tips into your daily regimen for a true body-mind workout.

Set Goals

Have you noticed that often when you set specific goals you suddenly acquire the will to achieve them? If so, you’re not alone. Sports psychologists such as Robert Weinberg and Daniel Gould, co-authors of Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, emphasize setting long-term goals (ranging between three months to two years) and short-term goals (anything between daily to monthly) that are challenging, yet realistic.

A good formula to remember when setting goals is the acronym SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and within a designated time period. “I will attend a summer intensive course next year,” is an example of a long-term goal, while short-term goals are more immediate targets, such as committing yourself to improve your right split through daily half-hour stretching sessions, or promising to try a new dance technique each month.

Be an Optimist

Take responsibility as a dancer to give yourself positive mental encouragement. Congratulate yourself for mastering a step, and psych yourself up to try a challenging move one more time. By saying “I can do it,” you acknowledge that your goals are within your reach, making it more likely that you will succeed in executing that difficult step. Optimism and a positive mental balance go hand in hand, as your brain releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins, which help you to focus on achievement rather than defeat. A negative attitude, on the other hand, only sets you up for failure.


Visualization is the re-creation of an image or experience in the mind, which may be linked to sensory experiences such as seeing, hearing or feeling. Eric Franklin, director of the Institute for Movement Imagery Education in Lucerne, Switzerland, advocates employing imagery to improve not only the execution of steps, but also performance quality. This method can help release muscle tension, making your dancing smoother and more graceful. (Releasing tension is also critical to preventing and dealing with injury.) Try this relaxation exercise: “[Contract] your shoulder blades tightly then slowly release them, while imagining them filling with water, like a sponge,” Franklin suggests. You’ll be surprised at how relaxed your muscles will feel.

Another exercise for strengthening your mind-to-muscle connection is to visualize specific movements before executing them. As an example, go through all the components of a grand jeté in your head, from takeoff to landing. When your brain imagines your body jumping off the ground with your legs in a wide split, it sends small impulses via the nervous system to the actual muscles used to perform a jeté. Though these impulses are the same ones that are initiated when you do perform the movement, they are too small to actually influence the muscles into action, so you won’t spontaneously jeté just by thinking about it. Nevertheless, visualization establishes a nerve pathwaybetween your brain and the muscles associated with that action.

When you physically practice the movement, your brain will recall how it has stored the directions for that movement and will send the correct signals directly to the muscles. This frees you up to think about more important things, like the choreography.

Keep on Dancin’

If you focus on mistakes while onstage, your attention shifts, which could cause your performance quality and emotions to slump. It doesn’t matter if you turned a triple pirouette into a single—all dancers make mistakes. Carry on as if nothing’s happened, and convey to your audience the love you feel for dancing, and nobody will remember the flub. You’ll look more professional, too.