“You know what Sylvia Sykes told me when I was a new dancer?” Valerie Salstrom said as we got ready for the evening dance. “If you’re not willing to place last, don’t compete,” she said.
Stunned, humbled, and yet somehow deeply satisfied, I felt like I found the missing puzzle piece to something I had been pondering for months: how to navigate the “Dark Side” of competing. That is, how to mitigate negative emotional and mental states that surface when we don’t win, place, or make finals in a competition.
Every competitive dancer knows what it feels like to be ashamed, disappointed, and frustrated when they don’t compete well. Often these feelings come with an internal monologue of destructive self-talk and emotional abuse that rips apart our self-worth and our dancing.
Throughout these past few years of regularly competing, I often ripped myself to emotional shreds after a disappointing competition, to which my close friends can attest. It wouldn't matter how well I did or didn't do--I would beat myself up over something. I let it happen so often that it started negatively affecting me and the way I approached dancing and competing. I even began to wonder if I should stop competing all together because it hardly felt worth the emotional cost. With that in mind, I started exploring why competitions affected me so much and how I could mitigate the negative impact they had on my heart.
Here’s a diagram of the emotional process and destructive self-talk I went through after a disappointing competition:
Here’s another version of the diagram with positive self-talk answers I've started using for each of these responses:
I based these positive responses on five key anchors that I use to mitigate this negative emotional cycle when I don’t win to ensure disappointment doesn’t lead me to apathy and to stop competing:
1. Change your paradigm of what “success” and “failure” really mean. “Failure” is not failing to place, it’s failing to try. By choosing to compete, you need to accept that you may place last. If you can’t accept that, then, like Sylvia said, don’t compete. However, if you can accept that, then competing will help you become a better dancer, give you new ways to handle competition pressure, and allow you to receive valuable feedback from your judges and teachers as they offer critique. So no matter where you placed, you will have learned something, and thus succeeded. Remember, winning may not always come to those who try, but it will never come to those who don’t.
2. Refocus your expectations from “winning” to doing your best, having fun, and giving your art to the world. Focusing on winning puts the act of getting something from the world above the act of giving something to it. This stress can take the fun and ease out of the whole process. If you refocus your expectations away from the pressure of winning to the goal of doing your best, having fun, and giving your uniqueness to the world, then not only will you relax and dance better, you will feel more satisfied and fulfilled by the end of the competition process.
3. Root your identity in self-love, not dancing. Do not use dancing as the basis for your self-love and identify. Dancing should be something you do to enhance your life because you enjoy it, not to define your value as a human or whether you can love yourself. Competition is a way to test someone’s ability to perform well under pressure and time constraints compared to the other dancers. It is not the sole referendum on your dancing or who you are as a person. Stop treating it as such.
4. Be humble and realistic. Be willing to accept that you are still learning (we all are) and that you do have areas to work on in your dancing and your ability to compete (we all do). Be realistic with the time you commit to training. Are you actually committed to improving your dancing on a daily basis, or do you assume because you’ve been dancing a long time, you should be placing in competitions? Either way, remember, competitive Lindy Hop is an art form that is being treated like a competitive sport without many defined rules. Comparing art forms is difficult to judge, no matter what the constraints. Don’t let placements devalue your art or keep you from constantly refining it.
5. Do your best and leave the rest. Always give 100 percent in training and put your best out on the floor every time you compete. Your best may not be ranked as highly as someone else’s due to a variety of factors outside of your control. But if you did your best with what you can control, then you can walk away feeling proud of what you did. It’s totally okay to feel disappointed, frustrated, and angry about not winning or doing well in a competition. Just be ready to pick yourself up as you would your best friend, be patient with yourself, and commit to doing better next time you compete. Take action, get better, keep dancing.
Have you been through a similar experience to this? What has worked for you in overcoming negative self-talk and disappointment?