There's no denying we live in a culture of #hustle pushing us to be more, want more, make more, do more. It may be a new hashtag that's been coined recently in mainstream society, but for ballerinas, we are no strangers to this hustle. And with our bunhead world consisting mainly of Type-A over-achievers and perfectionists, we can get caught in a dangerous pattern:
The harder I push; the more pain I inflict on myself; the more exercises/tasks I can squeeze in…the better I will be.
It’s not only dangerous in terms of the effects it can have on your mental health, but dangerous in the sense that it can wreak havoc on your physical body.
On the surface, the characteristics and mindsets associated with this pattern of behavior have come to be valued and prized, especially in the dance scene. Certainly, the right amount of hustle can make you feel virtuous, hardcore, dedicated, and can certainly help you get ahead. But, when taken to the extreme, overused, and misunderstood, this hustle can be nefarious and abusive.
Dancers have a way of going overboard with their training, to the point of causing damage. For some reason, we think pain is necessary to improve. Sure, in order to level up, you need to work hard. That can feel painful at times. But, there’s a big difference between something that feels painful because it is difficult and physically demanding…and something that is painful because it is causing actual damage to your body. Sometimes you need to stop and ask yourself:
Is this pain really improving my performance?
Or, is this just feeding my ego…my need to feel hardcore and prove to everyone that I’m dedicated and deserving?
(a.k.a. Am I caught up in the #hustle?)
Here’s an example. We all know by now that I don’t have the genetics of a thoroughbred ballerina body. In my younger years, I was determined to fight for that perfect 180-degree turnout even though my hip structure wouldn’t allow for it (I didn’t know the realistic limitations caused by genetics at the time). So, I would do a whole series of excessive “exercises” and stretches every day, often multiple times per day, to the point of feeling deep, raw, aching pain in my hip sockets. My “hustle” mindset went like this: the more I make it hurt, the better I will be. As a result, in my early twenties, I walked around feeling like a 90-year-old arthritic grandma desperately needing hip replacement surgery. The brutal part - I created so much damage and inflammation in my joint capsules that my turnout actually got worse.
Fast forward a decade or two. Now that I’ve learned the difference between pain that is abusive and pain that is transformative, I no longer feel the constant, shooting nerve pain caused by bone-on-bone grinding & deterioration in my hip sockets. Understanding my body better allows me to make improvements in my dance technique without fighting against my genetic structure. With less inflammation and pain in my hips, my turnout ironically improved. When it comes to hustle and leveling up, more (pain/work/exercise/tasks/torture) is not always better.
In your desire to improve, however noble that desire may be, it’s easy to go overboard…especially the way our society is set up to value this hustle of being over-caffeinated, under-recovered, over-stressed, under-slept, over-trained, under-nourished, and over-booked. It’s true that you need to challenge yourself in order to improve. But, there's another equally important factor that must be present in order for improvements to occur - the adaptation that occurs in response to that challenge (stress):
Stress + Adaptation = Transformation
If you get caught up in the cycle of constant stress from this hustle lifestyle without allowing your body and mind to recover and adapt, not only will you not improve, but you’ll actually start sliding backwards. Instead of transforming in a positive way that is aligned with the hard work you are putting in, your body will transform in a negative way…with all kinds of inflammation, hormone dysfunction, fatigue, weakened immunity, increased injuries, etc.
The #hustle isn’t all bad. It can be a motivating mindset if used properly. But, in order for this hustle lifestyle to work, both components to the transformation equation need to be there – stress and adaptation. If you want your body to respond in a positive way, you can’t let your hustle mindset trick you into thinking more stress is better. That will just get you into dangerous territory.
Focus on quality over quantity. Schedule time in for recovery and adaptation if that helps you realize what a vital component this is to your success and being able to reach your peak performance state. It may be hard at first; your demons will make you feel like you are slacking off and being lazy. But, once you start to feel your power and health return after months (or years!) of being in a downward spiral of over-training, you’ll have some concrete evidence to shut those demons down.
Photo credit: Steve Vaccariello