Mental Toughness in Sports: A Ballerina’s Perspective

Imagine sitting in a backstage dressing room, snacking on trail mix and chatting with your friends, when your ballet teacher rushes in, frantically calling your name and informing you that one of the princesses has sprained her ankle and must be replaced in the ballet’s final act just ten minutes away. You are the shocked understudy required to dance in her stead. Then, picture the frenzied rush as everyone buzzes around you trying to help as you throw off one pair of pointe shoes, hastily tie on another pair, and stand trapped in place in front of a costume mistress sewing you into a too-large costume as your mind races with nerves. How do you gather the mental strength to perform when your limbs visibly tremble and your stomach is assaulted by butterflies?

In my case, all the preparation and work of the weeks and months prior to the performance were key to moving me to perform well in this nerve-wracking occasion. I had set goals for myself to improve my technique and performance with each ballet class and rehearsal and used positive self-talk and attributions to build my confidence in my ability to perform. Prior to the performance, I had warmed up with a full ballet class and proceeded through my pre-performance routine of reviewing the steps in my head and allowing time to fully stretch and relax to ready myself prior to the start of the performance. These skills I worked so persistently to develop are all mental skills Jennifer Etnier describes in Bring Your ‘A’ Game: A Young Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness as vital for building the mental toughness required to perform while dealing with the stresses of a competition or performance.etnier_bring

As I have learned, beginning with this particular performance at age 14 and continuing through my years as a ballet student at the Raleigh School of Ballet and as a professional ballet dancer at Carolina Ballet,  the mental toughness built by a combination of this variety of mental skills becomes just as necessary as daily practice in a young adult’s evolution to a successful, fulfilled athlete or performer. I would never have been able to enjoy performing with all of its uncertainties had I not developed the ability to manage the added pressure and even learn to enjoy the idiosyncrasies and spontaneity of performing live. These learnable skills maximize all of the hard work a young athlete gives. As a former dancer, knowing anything and everything can and will happen during a performance, I believe Jennifer Etnier’s forthcoming book maps out the preparation essential to any athlete that wants to perform when beset by unnerving challenges. So, when you go out to buy a new pair of pointe shoes, those new soccer cleats, or an upgrade of your sports equipment, remember to pick up a copy of Jennifer Etnier’s Bring Your ‘A’ Game: A Young Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness to help train you to perform your best.

-Yvette, UNC Press publicity intern (pictured below at age 16)