Unlike other sports, dance and cheer coaches don’t get to coach ‘during the game’. Instead, we have to watch from the side and hope that our team can perform under pressure. We have to just watch and hope and pray they don’t make a mistake during the 2 minutes they have to prove themselves. Here’s my story, and if you’ve coached long enough, you’ve probably experienced this competition nightmare too…
The team takes the floor, ready to compete. I said my final words of encouragement and walk around the floor to my designated coaches box in the front. They take their first formation and all I can do is hold my breath and watch. I don’t think I breathe or blink for 2 minutes straight! I constantly scan the whole routine, watching every girl… did she remember that change? Did she hit that line? Was that transition smooth? Did she remember to straighten her arm? Constantly, for two minutes, I just watch from the side and hope no one makes a huge mistake.
And then it happens … and my stomach drops. It’s something simple, a skill we’ve done many times, but there’s a new formation change because of a last minute injury and one girl doesn’t hit and there’s a big mistake. Overall, it’s just one skill, but I know in my heart that the championship just slipped through our fingers. For me, that’s when the self-blame starts. How could I have better prepared them? How could I have helped makes sure that mental mistake didn’t happen?
Practicing to Prevent Choking
While I still try, I know that I can’t help my athletes mentally prepare for every situation. (Although there is a lot you can do to improve their competition mindset). Looking back with my veteran coach glasses I know there wasn’t much I could have done to better prepare that year (or much the dancer could have done really). However, there is something you can do to dramatically reduce the chance of a major mistake or choking incident on the competition floor. Psychologists call it OVERLEARNING, and it’s a simple idea with some pretty amazing neuroscience behind it.
Overlearning is when you continue to practice a skill after you have already mastered it and your improvement has plateaued. For many athletes, once they get a skill, they think “OK, I’ve got it. Now I can do it, no problem.” Sure that’s true, but can they do it consistently? Is it automatic? Probably not. Once you have mastered a skill, you have learned the proper motor coordination to do it. But science suggests you should keep practicing long after your performance has plateaued because there that practice is actually making a difference in your brain.
Creating Motor Programs
When you learn a new movement, it’s stored in your memory in the form of a plan or a program. It’s called a Motor Program (not the same thing as muscle memory – that’s for another time). These Motor Programs store the information necessary for performing that motor skill and makes it available for later retrieval when you need it (like the competition floor). When you are overlearning or practicing a new lift for example long after it’s been mastered, you strengthen the motor program in your brain, making it easier to retrieve the information later on. That means it’s more likely you’ll retrieve the right information when it matters: during competition.
Remember learning to drive? For many of us, it was stressful. Until it became automatic…
Think about what it was like when you learned how to drive, especially if you know how to drive a standard or stick shift vehicle. Those first few times behind the wheel you probably had a million things going through your mind… hands, blinker, look over my shoulder, check the mirror, break, blind spot, slowly release the clutch, give it gas, etc.
But now that you’ve been driving for many years, you don’t have to think about it so much. The gas/clutch balance is straightforward and you don’t have to spend a lot of mental energy getting it right. You’ve made a motor program for how to use your legs and feet and create the right balance when you shift gears. (You can tell how powerful this is anytime you try to drive a different vehicle and have to really pay attention all over again… your motor program doesn’t necessarily work in a new car!)
So when your dancers are overlearning a skill, they are creating and cementing a motor program for that skill. Every time you drill your prep for a pirouette, you are creating a motor program of exactly what muscle placement and coordination you want your body to have when you execute that skill.
I understand this may not be news to you. We’ve all grown up training certain skills over and over and over. There are warm-up drills that we have repeated nearly every practice since the beginning of time! But what science didn’t always understand until recently is why it matters, and what’s happening in the brain.
Creating a Habit
When you are creating a motor program, you are essentially creating a habit. A motor skill habit. And when you have made something a habit, you are using a different area of the brain. When you first learn a new complex skill, you often process that learning in the prefrontal cortex. It’s the area of the brain behind your forehead and it’s responsible for a lot of the more complex thought processes we can do as humans: planning, decision making, impulse control, and your personality. So the first time you try to learn a complex skill, it takes a lot of thought, attention, and mental power to execute the skill correctly.
Then something amazing happens. Once you have learned that skill and can perform it correctly, you can start to overlearn. You can keep practicing and rehearsing a skill even after you no longer improve on the outside, but there is an important improvement happing in our brain. Once that skill has become a habit, you actually start to use a different part of your brain. When you are performing a skill from habit, it’s the basal ganglia that is now responsible for that motor program. You no longer have to use the high powered complex thought part of the brain. Instead, you can use the part of your brain responsible for learning habits. It becomes the automatic response under pressure!
Perform Under Pressure
So what does that mean for competition? Here’s why we care about performing from a habit: when a cheerleader takes the floor at a competition, things can get stressful. Her body is influenced by stress hormones and her attention is often strapped making it difficult to focus. The crowd is going crazy and makes it hard to think. She notices one judge looking down and starts wondering if he’ll look up in time to see the beginning of the routine. She notices a teammate starting slightly off center and wonders if she should do something to try and fix it before the music starts. With all of this going on, you as the coach are in the box just hoping everything goes right. Well, if your cheerleader is having a hard time focusing, or the stress is getting to her – even just a little bit – there is potential for disaster.
Can you rely on your habits?
When we are stressed and overwhelmed, or need to make a quick decision without time for internal debate, we resort to whatever motor program is a habit. If we have time to focus and think about it, we can use the prefrontal cortex, but if it’s crunch time and we have to make a quick decision, we will use whatever motor program is stored the basal ganglia.
That means if something happens in the routine like a transition goes a little askew, or your dancer gets distracted for even a count and starts to panic that she’s off, she’s going to rely on whatever motor program is automatic. Does the right motor program you’re hoping for require the prefrontal cortex because it’s still new and not yet a habit? Then she’ll probably make a huge mistake. Hopefully, you’ve done a lot of overlearning in practice and her body will perform the skill correctly because she has created a habit of the right skill execution.
Habits Make Perfect
So if you watch your dancers nail it in practice but they fall apart in times of stress, it’s possible their brains are overwhelmed and resort to the auto response of the basal ganglia, which just might be a bad habit you haven’t had the chance to correct with overlearning. Whatever habit your have drilled is what’s in that brain region and that’s the resource your dancer will use in a time of stress. Overlearning helps make the correct skills automatic through practice.
I’m sure your practice session already includes repetitive drills of some of the most basic skills in our discipline. There’s a reason even the most skilled ballet dancers in the world complete the same basic ballet barre sequence before every show. But now I hope you understand there is actually an important change in the brain that overlearning is helping you achieve.
It’s also a little lesson you can teach your team the next time they try to roll their eyes at you when you say it’s time to drill preparations for your turn section. Do you want them to prep correctly when it counts on the competition floor? Or resort to a bad habit because there isn’t time to stop and think?
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