Mental Health in the Ballet World and Three Steps In the Right Direction.

Sports Psychology is something that has been quickly growing amongst athletic fields and has recently been gaining momentum in the ballet world as well. Though it’s becoming more common for dancers to have access to a sports psychologist it’s still considered a luxury. If you read the post ”5 Tips for Mid Season Maintenance” from Estonian physiotherapist, Sirli Hinn, you will notice how mental health is very closely tied to physical health. For someone whose body is their instrument, you can imagine how vital it is to keep your mind just as healthy as the other muscles. By recommendation of Sirli, the Estonian National Ballet dancers now have the opportunity to work with sports psychologist, Snežena Stoljarova.

Snežena is from Tallinn, Estonia, and grew to become a professional gymnast. She never had the opportunity to work with a sports psychologist during her time training, but she did hear of this fascinating occupation and kept it at the back of her mind. After completing her gymnastics career she decided to immediately begin her studies in psychology.

“I started here in Tallinn. I got my bachelor’s in social psychology. I knew I wanted to apply psychology, but I didn’t want to be a clinical psychologist. So then I went to Spain, not knowing what to do, really, just for a gap year. And then after that, I found an erasmus program for Sport and Exercise Psychology in Sweden. I was so excited to get the opportunity to study this! When I was training no one ever spoke about anything related to mental health. And I had this sense that it would have been really helpful!” 

As she studied her theory was proven correct. After graduating from Lund University in Sweden with her master’s, she moved back to Tallinn and began to put her practice to work. 

Now she teaches part-time at Tallinn University giving lectures, she has her own practice where she works with athletes and coaches, she is a part of a social-sports project for youth, and of course, also she works with dancers of the Estonian National Ballet.

Athletes and athletes/artists aren’t all that different but she has noticed that artists struggle a bit more with perfectionism than athletes do.

“There are a lot of similarities. I think because the challenges are very similar in both environments, and you need pretty much the same skill sets to work with those challenges. But I think what is a bit more pronounced in ballet at least among ballet dancers, is the harsh self-criticism, or perfectionistic tendencies. There are two kinds of perfectionisms we can talk about. There is a productive perfectionism; the belief that I can be better, I can become better, so I will work towards it. That productive part includes acknowledging your development and what you are already good at. And then there is the not-so-helpful perfectionistic tendency, which is never good. It’s never satisfied and it means you never acknowledge what you have accomplished. Within ballet, there is a bit more of this inclination towards the negative one. Other things are quite common in different sports as well. And all the aesthetic sports have the same common theme of, appearance-related problems like eating disorders, for example. But that can also be a slight difference between sports and arts. For some athletes, unless if it’s an aesthetic sport like gymnastics, how you look while you do something doesn’t matter as much, there is less of an artistic component.”

We could spend hours discussing all the problems that exist within the ballet world and the unhealthy habits that are born out of them, but Snežana boiled down three practical pieces of advice that we can all start applying today to improve our quality of living, thinking, and being.

“You need to have three main sets of skills to ‘make it’ in a healthy way. Because I would say, as culture Ballet is not the most supportive culture. It’s super demanding, very critical, quite harsh and, it does very little to support your basic needs in terms of our psychology: the need to feel appreciated, the need to feel competent, the need to feel connected to other people, to have meaningful, nice relationships. That is not always there. So you need extra resources to deal with all these kinds of things.”

Number 1. Mindfulness 

So, one of the biggest skill sets is mindfulness. To put it simply, is the skill of being aware of what is happening in the present moment and being able to direct ones attention with purpose. Its learning to be self-aware,learning to understand yourself, know yourself, and to be able to notice what is happening in terms of your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. One mindfulness skill is being able to direct your attention with purpose, to the present moment, and in a non-judgmental way. It can be quite difficult. It often happens that we get carried away with our thoughts because our souls are really emotional. A difficult situation is not pleasant at all. But the answer isn’t not having these thoughts, that’s simply not human, we all do. It’s a matter of having the skill to detach yourself, to look at them from the side, and then make a conscious decision as to what is the best way to act in this situation with these feelings?

Number 2. Self Care 

The second really important set of skills is self-care. One wonderful skill I like to work with and promote is self-compassion. In simple language, being a friend to yourself in difficult moments. Be supportive to yourself and kind to your emotions and experiences in difficult times. Self Compassion is really important. Recovery is really important; having the knowledge and the ability to take actual time off and know how to recharge your batteries and not feel guilty about it. That’s another thing that is also common among athletes, not knowing how to rest or not feeling that you deserve rest, especially if something isn’t working. Be brave to change up your routine. When you’re brave to do what you need you gain trust in yourself. Self-trust means trusting how you feel and what your body is saying you need. It takes a lot of trust within yourself to say ‘that’s actually the right or wrong decision for me’, especially when it relates to doing a bit less, and resting a bit more. So self-care is super important. And that’s usually what we all lack.

I think we need to distinguish between the practices which we use to care for our needs and practices we use to avoid stuff we don’t like. So eating a burger and just mindlessly watching Netflix, I wouldn’t say it’s something you should never do. Sometimes that’s exactly what you need, to just chill on the couch and watch some show which doesn’t make much sense. If for you, that’s your way of relaxing, that’s fine. It’s not fine when you do that because you can stand being with yourself and your difficulties. So you don’t deal with things internally and you use Netflix or social media as a means to avoid it. It’s helpful in the short term, but in the long run, it just creates more problems. There’s no right way to rest or take care of yourself. It truly depends on the individual. And that’s again where we need a bit of self-awareness and why we need to practice understanding ourselves better. There is no right answer for all the days and weeks and every person. Every day could be a bit different. Sometimes we will make mistakes, that’s also fine.”

Self-care is also a lot about balancing out the work-life. Work shouldn’t be all there is to your life. When we give all our attention to how well do we do, be it in sports or ballet, it usually burns us out. One athlete put it well, ‘sport is not who I am, it’s what I do.’ Sometimes I can do better, sometimes I don’t have good days, weeks, or even a season. But that’s not who I am. It’s something I choose to do. So this leads to skillset number three.

Number 3. Resilience

Resilience is like the warrior mindset. You need to push through sometimes. You just need to show up, you need to do the hard stuff. But a lot of times we also misunderstand resilience. Instead of becoming resilient, we become angry dictators to ourselves. We just whip ourselves, which is, again, not helpful in the long run. I like stoic philosophy, in terms of resilience, there are some principles that are applicable. Like, when things are difficult, you find things that are under your control and work with that. For example, we often burn ourselves out by trying to control things that we can’t. You cannot always choose what happens to you, but you can always choose how do you respond to situations? How do we frame it? If you take it right, there’s a lot to learn from them. Gratitude is another part of resilience. Those who can see the good around them are the fastest to ‘get up’ when life has knocked them down, so to say. That isn’t to say we can never acknowledge the bad that has occurred. We can try changing our language from ‘but’ to ‘and’. So for example, the dancer who has a bad day would feel that there’s something wrong. When we say, ‘but look at that,’ it invalidates their emotions. If there’s something bad, there cannot be something good. But what the word ‘and’ does, it says that these things can coexist. So it’s like, ‘it’s a tough a week. We are really tired, and this part of the dance is really fun!’ Yeah. So we hold kindly both parts. You don’t invalidate either way. So when we try to remember that we do a bit better.”

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