How do I inspire mental toughness in my dancers? It’s one of the most common questions I get, and honestly, it’s something I think about a lot as a coach and a parent. I intentionally try to build mentally tough children (be it my own children, or those that I work with) and I hope I was the dance coach that pushed my dancers to be tough as well. One of my big goals as a coach was to help my dancers build resilience that they can lean on as adults. We all go through challenging times, and I think a lot of our ability to be mentally tough and resilient as adults can be taught through sports. But it’s up to us as coaches to make that happen.

My Own Journey to Mental Toughness

I’m going to start off a little different this time and talk about an academic story but stay with me I promise I’ll come back to dance! When I was a junior in high school, I was taking Spanish 5 and preparing for the IB test. This test would allow me to have college credit for a foreign language and not worry about taking Spanish once I got to college. Now I’m the first to admit I’m a nerd and I love school, but foreign language was always extremely challenging to me. I worked harder on that class than anything else, and I always felt behind, stressed, and ill-prepared. Spanish 5 class felt like the death of me! I could never do well enough to get top marks and I my teacher always had feedback for how I could be better, even when I thought I nailed it.

For that class, every assignment was hard. Every presentation was stressful. Every day reading out loud to my classmates, was torture. But I did it. And I kept fighting. Know what happened when it came time to take the IB exam that would determine whether all of this was worth it? I was confident and the test felt easy. That’s right, it felt easy. Our teacher had pushed us so hard in preparation for the test, that when it was time, I felt incredibly confident and when I sat down to take the exam, I realized I was prepared and capable of succeeding.

Then it hit me…

I spent all year cursing her in my head for the difficulty of her class. But when I walked out of that exam, I realized what my teacher had done.  I realized that she knew I could do it so she wouldn’t let me back down. She believed I could get better and pass this challenging exam, so she kept pushing me even when I wanted to quit. And (eventually) I was incredibly grateful. I went right to her classroom and thanked her. She gave me a sly smile and said you’re welcome. Then went right back to her work.

That’s how you build mental toughness. You keep presenting challenges.

You keep pushing your athletes to go past where they think they can go. For every warm-up that leaves them breathless is a pom routine that will be easier to get through. For every full out where they are dead and silently curse you for saying “1 more time” is a stronger and better-prepared dancer.

It’s your job in practice to push your athletes and make practice harder than competition. Make what they must overcome in practice a bigger challenge than they will ever see from their competition. Your dancers will learn they can survive and pick themselves up when things get hard. They will learn they can continue to push, no matter what obstacles are in their way. But in order for that to be true, there have to be obstacles in their life! They have to experience something that’s challenging, isn’t easy to overcome, and takes some persistence to achieve. Then, when they face another challenge outside of your team, they will remember the lesson. They have learned that they can stand up and try again. That’s one of the greatest lessons a coach can teach to his or her athlete. You can get up and try again, it’s worth it.

Video for Inspiration

If you’d like another great source of inspiration around this topic or something to share with your team, check out the TEDx talk from Olympic Gymnast Jordyn Wieber. In the 2012 London Olympics, she was the reigning world champion and expected to win the Olympic All-Around. But the day of individual qualifications, she came in 3rd by .2 (we know what a small margin loss feels like don’t we!?) Because she was 3rd to 2 other Americans she wasn’t allowed to compete in the All-Around finals. Only the top 2 from every country can compete. She was out of the running, her Olympic dream crushed.

Only 2 days later she had to pick herself up and compete in the team finals where she crushed it and helped Team USA win the gold. How did she get over that emotionally crushing day and turn around to compete at a personal best? By falling off the balance beam thousands of times her whole life, and always getting back up. In this TEDx talk, she shares how she learned to pick herself up, take a breath, and go again. All those little lessons over and over again, allowed her to be successful on the biggest stage.

I hope you have the conversation with your team

If you’re looking for a little motivation, or want to talk to your team about this topic, show them that short TEDx video, or at least share the story and talk about what it means to be persistent and push through a challenge. Start the conversation with your team about how practice is hard for a reason. Let them know you’re trying to challenge them because you believe in them and because you want practice to be harder than competition. Then they will build that mental toughness you’re looking for, and hopefully, carry it with them well beyond their time in dance team.

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