Why Every Company Should Have a Performance Psychologist on Staff

November 12, 2018

A dancer once contacted me because he was devastated after walking in on his girlfriend with another man. While he was distressed about ending the relationship, he was most concerned about a major performance coming up. They had to dance a romantic pas de deux. When I met with them together, she was afraid he would drop her and he didn’t want to look lovingly in her eyes. My role was to help them find ways to make magic onstage and keep their personal difficulties offstage. They ended up dancing to rave reviews.

Many dance companies have health care teams composed of physicians, physical therapists and dietitians. Unfortunately, few have performance psychologists on their rosters, even though all dancers can benefit from working with one—they do not need to have a mental illness. Dancers are expected to be emotionally expressive and technically superb, so peak performance depends not only on physical training but also mental conditioning.

Performance psychologists can help dancers overcome stage fright or fear of reinjury or assist company members in supporting rather than competing with one another. They underscore the value of pre-show rituals, meditation, visualization and exposure (performing if you’re afraid instead of avoiding it). They also help dancers learn how to change thinking patterns that make them feel more stressed-out. And they can teach artists to channel negative emotions so they don’t interfere with performances.

Psychologist Nadine J. Kaslow works with Atlanta Ballet and is a professor at Emory University. Photo Courtesy Kaslow

Without a psychologist, dancers might be more likely to push through pain, unaware of the psychological factors associated with dance injuries. Performers with extreme perfectionistic thinking may strive to reach unattainable standards, making them susceptible to burnout and injury. But a psychologist can help company members set achievable goals, aiming for excellence rather than perfection. Dancers can learn to be less concerned with unreasonable expectations, and balance their hard work with self-care, socializing and fun.

I recently worked one-on-one with a dancer who did well in rehearsals but struggled to do her best in performances, so she was cast less often in major roles. I offered her exercises and specific strategies related to both her anxiety and her intense need to be perfect, which enabled her to not only manage but to flourish. I have found over the years that this type of coaching boosts dancers’ confidence and their capacity to respond to feedback without intense self-criticism. It can transform them into more compelling performers and better collaborators.

Working with a performance psychologist can transform dancers into more compelling performers. Photo by David Hofmann/Unsplash.

Ideally, psychologists associated with dance companies have expertise treating eating disorders or well-trained colleagues who provide comprehensive interventions for dancers diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia—someone who can capitalize on dancers’ strengths, dive into their developmental and cultural backgrounds, and incorporate families and medications to manage symptoms when indicated.

Another important, but lesser known, role of a performance psychologist is preparing dancers to transition professionally after their life onstage. In my experience, this involves helping artists discover their other passions and providing them access to career guidance.

Adding a performance psychologist to a dance company’s health care team shows dancers that their director genuinely cares about their overall well-being and not just their physical performance.