canadian dance expo“I can’t believe I’ve never even thought about this before… But it makes so much sense!”

The response of one dance-parent in a conversation we had following my “injury prevention” seminar at the Canadian Dance Expo this week.

Yes, I had the honour of speaking on the sexiest topic in dance training: How to not get hurt. That thing we try not to think about.

Well, except for you. You’re different. Keep it up.

Needless to say, I didn’t get a crowded room, and to be fair, there were some pretty awesome choreographers holding workshops at the same time. Why talk about injuries when you could dance?? A sentiment I completely understand. That said, I had a great group of dancers, teachers, and parents, and really enjoyed the discussions we had.

But to call it an injury prevention seminar isn’t quite accurate.  We didn’t talk straight up about injury prevention in the conceptual, literal sense, and to be honest, I don’t really like those two words strung together and the frame they conjure up. What comes to mind first, what images, situations, and places, when you hear the words “injury prevention”?

Exactly. It ain’t no dance party.

 

I propose a re-framing of this injury prevention thing.

And so, partway through the workshop I found myself telling a story about pick-pocketing, inquiring into values, and opening a discussion into how people change their habits. Who knows… Maybe they’ll even invite me back to speak next year.

My issue with the way injury prevention is traditionally taught is that it is simply information. We’re trying too hard to educate, re-hashing statistics, scare-mongering, and hoping for the best that something will be retained, and dare I say, maybe even applied. But the injury rates in dance aren’t going down. This information only approach simply doesn’t work. That’s why I can’t remember anything from grade 9 chemistry.

We can’t change the rate and severity of injuries, and the time off dance due to injuries until we can change the value dancers perceive they will get from proactive injury prevention.

Or to quote Gary Ward“We can’t change the way you move until we can change the value you get from it” 

Would you go out of your way to do something if you didn’t see value in it? Hell no. That’s why I can’t remember anything from grade 12 physics.

I think we’re asking the wrong question. We can do better than “how can we lower the dance injury rate?”. Find better questions, get better answers.

The following are some of the questions I asked at the seminar (the ideas that, as the aforementioned dance-mom stated, “we don’t think about”). And honestly, I don’t have all the answers, so I appreciate your feedback and input as to how we can better address these, as well as your ideas on what other questions we could be asking.

What if we could re-frame injury prevention as performance enhancement?

A no-brainer to improve buy-in, right?

Instead of harping on dancers about the risks of injuries, what if we made a painless shift to, “Do you think that if you could dance without pain and worry of injury, you could take more risks, excel technically and artistically, and dance for longer?”

What would happen if you placed just as much value on your self-care, cross-training, and recovery practices as you did on your dancing?  

I asked them, out of 10, how important is it for you, your students, or your children to be able to dance at the best of their abilities, reach their potential, and keep dancing for as long as they want. One dance teacher raised her hand and said “20/10!!”

Imagine if dancers also put a 20/10 importance on their self-care? Game. Changing. Awesomeness.

What would it take to make you care about injury prevention?

An injury.

Kind of sad, but this is the only answer we could come up with. The issue is that after an injury is sometimes too late. So how do we appeal to this shift in priorities before an injury happens? A question that remains unanswered for now, perhaps…

What makes people change their behaviour and want to form new habits?

If we were to treat injury prevention not as a concept, but as behavior modification- a habit, it could be a game changer.

Less: “Do this, do that, get stronger to prevent injuries! You’re gonna hurt yourself if you keep doing that”. Who cares. I don’t want to hear that. When people tell me what to do, naturally, I want to do the opposite, especially if I don’t understand why or have any emotional investment in it.

Remember, we can’t change the state of dance injuries until we change the value dancers perceive of our injury prevention strategies.

What if we asked things like, “Do you value your body? Would you like to enjoy movement more? How long do you see yourself dancing for?”

In The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, the way in which people are described to change their habits is through the structure of trigger, habit, reward.

Trigger: Sit in front of the TV.
Habit: Eat a tub of Tiger Tiger ice-cream (mmmm, my favourite)
Reward: Temporary satisfaction of relaxing and unwinding via the tasty tasty ice-cream flavor

But we can interrupt this pattern by keeping the trigger and reward, but changing the habit.

So…

Trigger: Sit in front of the TV.
NEW Habit: Knitting.
Reward: Satisfaction of relaxing and unwinding born from a sense of mental focus, presence in the moment, and flowing creative juices

In the case of dancers preventing injuries, we can use the example of the typical shitty warm-up (or lack thereof…):

Trigger: Time for dance class!
Habit: Sit in the splits and stretch passively to “warm up”
Reward: Temporary feeling of improved flexibility, and sense of confidence and preparedness from having gone through a meaningful ritual.

But we know this might not be the most sustainable long term. So what if, instead:

Trigger: Time for dance class!
NEW Habit: Treat warm-up as a deep practice of movement, requiring complete presence and awareness, respecting the body’s limits and needs, while preparing it for the demands of dance class.
Reward: Lasting sense of improved connection to the body, range of motion, and a sense of preparedness and confidence that can only come from being totally present in your body.

Same trigger, a more useful habit, and similar (yet superior) reward.

But still the question remains, how do we make the habit change seem valuable in the first place? They have to feel the reward! Just one exposure to something different with a perceived value to it. That’s all it takes. And ideally, this should happen before an injury.

If we consider the performance pyramid hierarchy, at which tier does a dancer’s training generally begin?

If you’re not familiar with this pyramid. That’s it to the right —>

As an early specializing sport, there aren’t many opportunities for dancers to experience to reward of good quality fundamental movement from a young age, and how empowering strength training can be.

We start right out the gate at the top of the pyramid- specific skill, with plies and back-bends without having learned to hip hinge or lunge… Some dance teachers, though I beleive they are a fading generation, still encourage dancers not to participate in any other sport or activity other than dance, limiting their movement options and general physical preparedness.

What if we could include fundamental movement as an important component of a dancers early education?

Does being highly proficient technically automatically infer a strong base of fundamental movement and physical performance?

Nooope. Just ask my mom. I bet she could do more push-ups than I could when I was in the self-proclaimed “best” dancing shape of my life at age 15.

We shouldn’t assume that just because a dancer is strong technically, they are good movers in a fundamental sense, or have a requisite base of strength to perform their best, because they might have unlearned some important human motions in favour of fancy tricks and to fulfill a specific aesthetic and neglected any other forms of cross-training.

Feeling the reward: The simple power of breathing and natural spinal movement

Providing dancers an opportunity to experience the beginnings of a new habit and a superior reward isn’t rocket surgery.  It can be as simple as taking some time to breathe, and explore movements they might not have the opportunity to in classes.

So to close the seminar, we explored some movement.

We checked in.

We breathed. 

We cogged

Some cool stuff happened. One younger dancer’s face lit up. I asked her what she had experienced and, with a smile and tone of wonder to her voice, she told us that all the pain she usually had in her back was gone, and her weight felt even on her feet.

Another gentleman, a parent of one of the dancers who was totally awesome and uninhibited and participated in the movement session, reported something similar.

And by the way, I think it’s so great to get the parents involved in this re-framing process. As parents, one of the most helpful things we can do is to model a behavior and mindset we’d like our children to adopt (but that’s coming from me, a non-parent, what do I know? I know that we can’t fix or change people, that power lies only in the individual, and kids are no different).

If you’d like to learn more about stuff like this, my colleague Bizz Varty and I are currently planning a teacher training workshop based on the concepts and exercises from Dance Stronger, which is tentatively being held in London Ontario on October 3 2016. Just shoot me an email if you’d like to be kept in the loop. This will be our pilot workshop, and hopefully the beginnings of a full length training program for dance teachers. Very stoked.

PS for anyone interested in public speaking, I discovered a cool “trick” that really helped- Nose breathe. Only. No inhaling though your mouth while talking. I found I was able to retain my mental energy and was not drained after presenting. When you practice nose breathing while talking your throat doesn’t get dry, you create natural pauses between sentences to keep the audience engaged and better choose your words. You’re forced to slow down. You become aware of yourself, and fully present in the moment. Game changer, for sure.

I attribute this tip to Steve Donald, who taught a Buteyko breathing method seminar in Toronto a few weeks ago. Among the many benefits of nose breathing over mouth breathing, he brought up the fascinating correlation between effective communication and nose breathing. Not just for performance enhancement and health, nose breathing helps us build better relationships by improving our communication.

mouth breather

 

PPS If you want learn more about what I mean by breathing and cogging, it’s covered in the 30 Day Challenge, something I created with just this intention of changing our habits and the value we get from movement. Sign up for free and check it out.