May 29

Ballet Keeps Athletes On Their Toes

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From: PLAN Magazine
Canadian Coaching Association
Published, September 2013 issue
Adopted and modified


Toss the tutus and don the tights!
This form of dance can reap benefits for the most hardcore of athletes.


Albert Einstein’s famous quote that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” should be an inspiration for athletes and coaches at any level to ‘think outside of the box’ to develop alternative and creative training methods. Stale performances become the norm when boredom during training sets in. Incorporating ballet exercises is one way to keep things fresh and interesting. However, just “the idea’ to engage in ballet or dance usually elicits strong reactions, especially among male athletes and coaches. Their chorus of protests includes comments such as: “I won’t wear tights and a tutu!” “What does this have to do with my sport?” and “I feel really stupid teaching this stuff.” But they would do well to consider the benefits of dance in helping fine-tune sports performance. Dancers are among the world’s most athletic individuals, a fact not often acknowledged in the sport community. A case in point: a study comparing fitness levels between dancers at England’s Royal Ballet and a squad of international British swimmers (including Olympians) found the dancers were more fit, scoring higher on seven out of 10 standardized tests, and 25 percent stronger on grip strength.

It’s clear that ballet offers effective resistance training since the individual’s body weight pushes into the floor during every specific leg exercise, whether it’s jumping, leaping, hopping, turning, or other associated dynamic movements. These activities strengthen muscles and build and maintain bone mass and bone density. Therefore, it makes sense to examine the total body training concepts within ballet for potential integration into any sports program.


The “Baryshnikov of Football”


Famous NFL players have used ballet as cross-training for decades. American professional football player Lynn Swann, (Pittsburg Steelers, 1974-1982), described as “the Baryshnikov of football,” attributes his grace and skills on the field to ballet training he began as an eight-year-old boy.

Willi Gault, the former All-American wide receiver for the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Raiders, two-time Olympian in two different sports (Summer, track sprinting, Winter, bobsledding) also credits his success in sport to extensive training in ballet.

Today, there are plenty of athletes in various sports who have taken up ballet to improve core stability, dexterous leg and footwork, to correct hip alignment and pelvic instability, to prevent injuries, and for rehabilitation purposes. For example, NHL hockey goaltender Ray Emery was told that his playing career was finished due to a bone condition known as avascular necrosis. His daily training routine after surgery included ballet, yoga, Pilates, and swimming to strengthen the core, hip, and thigh muscles, which helped to resume his playing career. It’s not just football and hockey players who report benefiting from ballet. Recently, British world-class swimmers have taken up ballet as cross-training and warm-up purpose. Liam Tancock, who holds the world record in the 50m back stroke and competed in the 2008 Olympic Games, recognizes that dancers not only deserve great admiration for their daily rigorous workouts, work ethic and dedication, but also for their concentration and focus on physical and mental components. He, had this to say about ballet:


…“[It’s] very physical and you need a lot of strength and precision. They [dancers]

make it look effortless but it requires a lot of concentration. You become more aware

of your body and what your limbs are doing, how you’re positioning your limbs, fingers

and toes” (swimnews.com)


As a former elite athlete in two sports (swimming and athletics), I benefited a great deal from dance training and gymnastics. So, it was a natural step for me as a coach to modify concepts from these sports to create the Long-term Athlete Development Model. The model is based on the study of 24 young athletes and their progress over eight years. Ballet was incorporated into their program as one type of cross-training. The athletes tested well below Canadian National Fitness Norms for their respective age group at the start of the project but were off the charts by the end of the study, thus demonstrating the positive impact of ballet.  The latter helped to enhance their physical and athletic abilities through physical literacy, and made their movement more efficient.

In summary, the artistic and aesthetic nature of ballet still creates lots of stereotypes, especially among males but ballet offers much more than layers of tulle and satin ribbons. It develops strength, balance, and overall athleticism. Indeed, athletes and coaches should be encouraged to consider the potential benefits to be gained from ballet as a choice of cross-training.


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