Countdown to Embassy: 2 Days – Mind Games

The day’s almost here! I compete at Embassy Ball and the World Championships on Thursday! While Thursday is my only performance day, some of Teacher’s other students will be competing at both Embassy AND USDC, a.k.a. Nationals, next week. Stress levels were getting a little high, and so Teacher and his pro partner arranged a pre-comp gift for all of us. They invited sports psychology consultant Mario Soto to come to the studio and do a group session.

Leading up to this comp, I’m actually feeling good. I wanted to improve my stamina following Desert Classic and the exercise-infused rounds during my lessons have proven to me that I have. I feel stronger in my knowledge of the choreography, and at the practice rounds this past Saturday, another teacher commented that she really liked the extension and expression of my head. That was another thing I was working on! Yay, success!

So it’s kinda funny that this comp is the one where we get a pep talk by an expert in the mental part of the game. It was only supposed to be a short half hour or so, but we ended up meeting for an hour and a half! “Coach Mario” was very generous with his time, and while I didn’t necessarily learn anything new (I’ve been blogging about the same things for how many years now?), it was validating to hear the same things coming from an expert and know I’m on the right path.

One thing a lot of the women in the session wondered about was how to handle their stress and anxiety on the day of competition. How are you supposed to control that adrenalin rush that makes your body shake like crazy? How do you handle all of the negative thoughts that swarm your brain after a bad round?

Mario talked about breathing, not overthinking, and practicing just letting go of the bad round (he gave the visual of flushing a toilet). He also emphasized the need for a routine. Every top athlete or performer has some kind of pre-game/pre-performance routine. They listen to music, meditate, or do whatever they need to do to warm themselves up and get into game mode. He tasked us with coming up with a checklist of what we personally need to do to get ourselves ready to dance the day of the competition and invited us to share with each other.

I do have a specific routine and actually already wrote about some of it last year as part of my review of CalOpen 2016. A lot of that article focuses on the logistics and practical preparations. So I thought I’d share more of my mental prep today.

For me, the competition starts when I enter the hotel (or leave my hotel room that morning if I stayed there overnight). My day-of mental prep begins when I wake up. It might sound weird, but the first part of that prep is not doing anything different from any other day. I do my morning stretches, get dressed, make my tea, eat my breakfast… My anxiety is kind of like a dragon. If it’s sleeping, I’m not going to do anything that I know will wake it up! So the morning of a comp is treated like any other morning. With a few more deep breaths.

Breathing is really important. In through the nose, out through the mouth. If I feel that anxiety dragon started to stir, I inhale and exhale as slowly as I can. I once heard someone advise to imagine a lit candle is right in front of your face. Try to exhale slowly enough so you don’t blow the candle out.

I continue breathing as I get my hair and makeup done, put my dress on, and finally head to the ballroom. I focus on the task at hand. I do NOT review my routines in my head. I do not think about my technique or my styling. I think about the brush in my hand as I do my hair or the texture on the wall behind the person doing my makeup. This is how I get into game mode. I know I’m prepared as I can be, so I focus on keeping myself calm and positive (and remind myself that I’m as prepared as I can be). After all, this is a happy day. I get to dance!

Once I’m actually in the ballroom and I’ve set down my bags with Teacher’s and the other ladies’ stuff, I put my dance shoes on, grab my music, and find a quiet corner. Anyone who has been to a ballroom competition knows how much it can be a sensory overload. As an anxious introvert, I need to retreat from that external stimuli almost as soon as I’m exposed to it.

I don’t leave the ballroom though. That’s important. I can’t isolate myself completely from the environment because I’ll soon be on the dancefloor and in the middle of it! I just need to work my way in slowly. So I find a quiet corner to do more stretches and a light warm-up to warm up my muscles and also get rid of some nervous energy. From this safe place, I can also observe the energy around me before I have to jump back into it. Mario called it creating a bubble for yourself.

Once I’ve done that, I can return to the table with Teacher and his other students. From that point until it’s my time to dance, I focus on enjoying the other dancing that’s going on. I don’t care so much about who’s more skilled on the floor. I look for those students who look like they’re just having the best time of their life. That’s the energy I want to feel. Witnessing that reminds me of my own similar feelings, which also helps keep the dragon asleep.

Sometimes, ok frequently, the dragon still wakes up despite all my preparation. Heck, just writing about all of this is making my heart beat a little faster in anticipation for Thursday! I start feeling an adrenalin rush and my heart starts beating faster or my hands get a little shaky. I can’t stay in this state and I certainly don’t want to be waiting in the on-deck area or walking out on the floor in this state. So I stand up and move. I’ll stand at the table and just rock back and forth to the music playing for the dancers on the floor. I’ll go for a walk. I’ll lightly jog in place. When that anxious energy comes up, I need to just get rid of it. It’s not going to be useful on the floor.

I want to point out that I’m still not reviewing my routines right before I dance. It’s just too much information to go through right before performance time and that dragon will definitely wake up roaring if I can’t remember a piece of the choreo. So I don’t even go there. Honestly, whatever I don’t know at this point, I’m not going to learn right before I take the floor! I focus on more general things like my posture and my breathing.

In the final lessons leading up to a comp, Teacher and I will also pick one or two specific things for me to focus on at the comp and those things are what I think about. For Desert Classic, my thing was keeping my eyes up. That was it.

Something else I want to point out is that Teacher is not involved in any of my day-of prep. I interact with him, of course, and may request an encouraging hug if I’m really nervous. But the majority of prep is done on my own.

Teacher’s role the day of a competition was another topic that was brought up at the group session last night. A lot of the women looked to Teacher for support, encouragement and reassurance on the day of, and when he’s dancing with five, six or even ten students, it can be difficult for him to provide that to everyone. Mario brought out a little tough love and encouraged everyone to take more ownership and be more responsible for their half of the partnership. Teacher may not be available to review steps or give a 10-minute pep talk. He may not even be able to walk out on the floor with us because he’s already on the floor with another student!

Pro-am competition comes with a unique challenge because we compete with our teachers. In other sports or performance arts, you work with your coach and then they stay on the sidelines while you go out and do your thing. But in pro-am ballroom, your coach is coming out and performing with you.

I realized, and after last night, I’m better able to put it into words, that I’ve stopped thinking of us as student and teacher on the day of a competition. We are dance partner and dance partner. That means I have a responsibility to myself and my partner to be present and ready to dance. I pay a lot of money and Teacher and I both put in a lot of time and energy into preparing for a competition. But when it comes time to actually dance, learning time is over. I’m not a student and he’s not a teacher; we’re just dance partners.

The more I’ve embraced this mindset, the better I’ve felt at competitions. It makes me feel equal in a normally unequal relationship and that gives me a greater sense of pride and belonging. I’m an equal partner, so I need to step up and be there for my partner as much as he is there for me. If he’s looking tired from dancing with five other partners, I stand taller and smile more because I have as much ability to support him as he does me. As a student, I might feel I’m overstepping my bounds to think I can be the strong one to support my teacher. I might think “who am I to think I could make any difference to him? He’s the teacher!” But as a partner, it’s very much within my right and responsibility to step up and be there for my partner if/when he needs it.

Of course, as students, we’re a little spoiled. Our partners are professionals and rarely, if ever, need us to lift them up. Thinking of Teacher as my equal partner on competition day though, even if he doesn’t need support from me, gives me a greater sense of pride and confidence, which makes me stand taller and own my space more. I’m not just a student; I’m a dancer. I belong here.

What about you? Do you have a specific routine you go through to mentally prepare yourself the day of a competition? Please share!

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4 thoughts on “Countdown to Embassy: 2 Days – Mind Games

  1. Barbara says:

    I wish I could have read it before my recent dance. My “dragon” took over. I tried to focus on watching other enjoy dancing (I smiled as I read this, as I usually do that too), but it didn’t work for me. But, I’ll re-read this before my next time. Thanks so much and the absolute best of luck to you! Enjoy your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Suzan Clancy says:

    Love this post – thank you for sharing these thoughts! Am prepping for first USDC next week and can relate to a lot of this 🙂 Especially like the comments about the duality of being both externally focused on the ballroom and maintaining internal focus – always a challenge. For myself, I always go down to the ballroom in jazz flats or sandals and run through feet warm up and standing core exercises from my ballet teachers. Then, when I put on the heels or pumps, it is game on time 🙂 Best of luck at Embassy and have a fabulous time!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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