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Athletes and Performing Artists: They're All Around You

Athletes and artists share many mental and physical aspects of performance.

As I write this blog, Sandy (not her real name) is competing in the Rio Olympics. She has been training for this brief moment of stardom throughout this “quadrennium” (the four years between Olympics), diligently practicing, competing in events and contests, needing to be “on”—fully prepared and ready to show her stuff—at other venues during this time. Geared toward this particular pinnacle, her focus has been on increasing her skill and competence, dealing with the huge pressures involved, managing pain and discomfort, and handling injury.

Sam (not his real name, either) is a professional musician. It may not look like he’s “competing,” though of course he is and has had to do so throughout his training and professional life: competing in music school, auditioning for university as well as subsequent gigs, attracting audiences through his engaged playing, and so on. Practicing? Rehearsing as much as he can? Playing as much and wherever as he can? Avoiding carpal tunnel syndrome from repetitive use of his muscles? Check to all of these.

For the past number of years, I’ve been intrigued by both the similarities and differences of “performers” in the most general sense, in particular, athletes and performing artists. I’ve written and edited a couple of books and a number of articles that look at these issues from more than both sides now.

It’s very exciting these days to connect with others who are also interested in the ways in which different kinds of performance can inform each other. Here are some examples:

Athletes and the Arts (AATA), initially developed by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), is a collaboration among various sports and arts organizations. Their website is designed specifically to offer useful information, initially to musicians but over time applying to other performing artists as well. “Many performers are athletes whose health and performance can benefit from knowledge, programs and techniques developed for sport athletes.”

The similarities between “Sandy” and “Sam”? As AATA points out: “Both athletes and artists:

• Practice or play every day

• Play through pain

• Perform at all times of day or night

• Compete in challenging environments

• Enjoy little “off-season”

• Feel strong pressure to succeed

• Risk career-threatening injury”

This fact sheet further indicates that artists face additional challenges, including noise-induced hearing loss, focal dystonia (a neurological movement disorder)…and performance anxiety. That last one surprised me: Athletes don’t also deal with (the potential for) performance anxiety? I beg to differ. I regularly work with athletes who are experiencing performance anxiety, whether young or old, amateur or professional.

Performing Arts Medicine Association (PAMA), dedicated to improving the health of performing artists, has become one of the groups collaborating with AATA. This year, the theme of PAMA’s annual conference was Make it! Not Break it! Creating the Resilient Performing Artist and Athlete. I had the great honor of joining with ACSM’s executive director, Jim Whitehead, as well as Dr. Linda Hamilton, a performing arts psychologist and David Murray, a bass player and professor at Butler University, in presenting a program we called “Performing Arts and Sports: Practitioners’, Performers’, and Administrators’ Perspectives on Commonalities and Differences.”

Formerly focused only on competitive sport and exercise, the newly renamed Society for Sport, Exercise & Performance Psychology, a division of the American Psychological Association, sponsors a journal that looks at performance more generally. Recently, a new section of the organization has been formed, designed to focus specifically on the broader perspective of performance—not just sports performance.

Upcoming: Check out LEAP (Leading Edge After Performance). Recognizing that both athletes and dancers need to transition out of their profession much sooner than other people “retire,” the LEAP TOGETHER Conference will be held November 11 and 12, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.

It’s a time when “Sandy” and “Sam” can learn and benefit from each others’ experiences and knowledge.

And perhaps you are aware of other such groups and ways in which athletes and performing artists are paying attention to the mutual ways they can learn from each other. Do let me know: