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Sport & Performance Psychology (SPP) for Injured Dancers

Written by Arianna Shimits, MA & Persistence Psych Co-Founder

What is Sport and Performance Psychology (SPP)?

“Doing therapy with a person who happens to be an athlete is not sport psychology” (Aoyagi & Portenga, 2010; Swann, Morgan, & Piggott, 2015).

There is an analogy that I think captures the nuance of sport and performance psychology: “a square is always a rectangle, but a rectangle is not always a square.” Similarly, SPP is a specialized practice in the field of psychology, but psychology is not always considered SPP.

SPP is usually defined by the population we are working with instead of its foundational concepts. SPP applies psychological principles to help athletes perform well and perform well consistently, but the athletes we work with define those goals themselves.

Counseling and clinical psychology can have similar goals, wanting to help individuals learn coping skills and “perform” consistently in life.

However, these branches of psychology are focused on helping individuals with more immediate concerns like developmental challenges or psychopathology. Outside of the three branches of psychology mentioned, there are dozens of different sub-fields that work with specific populations and their specific needs!

Now, back to SPP and injury…

Injury is a complex topic. Dance medicine and research have come a long way in the last few decades, however, there is still a lot we don’t know about injury and recovery, especially on the psychological side. In this article, we will focus on 3 concepts about injury: 1. Injury is inevitable, 2. Injury is still viewed in a binary, you're either hurt or you aren't 3. Even as your body recovers, your community, psyche, and confidence all need to heal as well (even if you don't realize it). When performers experience injuries there is an immediate need to fix what is physically happening, but what about our psychological experience? SPP has been utilized as a treatment modality for injury and recovery in athletic domains for decades and SPP interventions have been associated with positive outcomes including, “increased adherence, reduced stress and anxiety, and enhanced recovery rates” however, this practice is less common in the performing arts (Swann, Morgan, & Piggott, 2015).

**Below is a case study highlighting the importance of performance psychology during injury and recovery. Details have been altered to ensure the performer's confidentiality**

Scene One:

The performance season is quickly coming to an end and Ben is excited for the off-season and all the opportunities he has lined up. He has been working hard to show the artistic staff his growth and push for promotion. Two weeks before the company moves into the theater Ben was taking company class when he rolled his ankle during petite allegro. Shocked and flustered, Ben stood up quickly and went to the side of the studio to “shake it off” as he had done many times before. By the end of class Ben’s ankle was feeling slightly better, and he walked into the next studio to begin the rehearsal day. After the ballet master specified that Ben’s cast was going to run the piece, Ben walked to stage left to practice his entrance. The music started, and Ben ran in to take his first soutè and fell to the floor again. The ballet master, who also taught class, sent him up to the PT to get his ankle looked at. By the time Ben sat on the PT table his ankle was swollen and tender. Shortly after, the PT confirmed that he had sprained his ankle. As the PT went through instructions for the next few days (no dancing for 5 days and then we reevaluated), Ben felt himself become very anxious. Soon after Ben sent me an email.

SPP Session 1

After Ben explained his situation, we used our first session to explore his thoughts on the injury and the emotions that it triggered. Ben described feeling angry, frustrated, incompetent, and relieved and we explored these emotions one by one. Ben was angry at himself for not being able to push through the pain, and we reflected on how this is often an expectation of dancers… to be resilient… no matter what. Ben reported feeling frustrated because he felt this was his last chance to “prove himself” …and we poked holes in this idea. He had performed well all season and this injury wasn’t going to change that. As we explored Ben’s feeling of incompetence, he reflected that he often focuses on the moments of “failure” instead of on his “success”. At the end of the session, Ben disclosed that part of him felt relieved. Ben realized he felt relieved because this injury finally gave him the break he needed. At the end of the session, Ben was given “homework” to notice his emotions throughout the next few days and reflect on them.

***Homework is occasionally given to help performers focus their attention on one of the concepts discussed during a session. In this example, Ben was asked to notice and become more mindful of his emotions. Some individuals like to do this by journaling, and others prefer to reflect internally. (Personally, I like to leave this up to the performer. Ben did not enjoy journaling, so he decided to engage in a moment of internal reflection instead of making this a formal written practice.)***


  • Goal: Debrief Ben’s accident and become more familiar with the cognitive and somatic experiences he was having.

  • (Desired) Result/Progress: Ben developed a better understanding of his situation and was provided a space to speak freely about the cognitive and somatic experiences mentioned above.

SPP Session 2

During our second session, we reviewed Ben’s homework and highlighted themes that emerged from this experience (negative emotions he experienced when he was watching class or rehearsal and was feeling more motivated when he was away from the studio and focusing on something else). At this point, Ben was 1/3rd of the way through his 5-day rest period, and we began to shift our focus. First, we developed goals for the rest of the recovery time using the