4. The Will-To-Win

A gentleman named Maximillaan Winkelhuis, in a letter to the Editor (Dance News edition No 1501) writes on my stressing of the fact that the ’Will-To-Win’ is a vital element in ’The Making of a Champion’. He agrees with my conviction. Well, so he should, as he claims to be a specialist in creating mental training programmes for competitors. Clearly, we are both on the same wave length as believers in the power of the mind. Where we may differ is that he is probably approaching the subject as a professional psychologist, (though he does not state his qualifications) whereas I am writing about what worked for me as a dancer and as a coach.

However, I am in total accord with Mr. Winkelhuis that such a mental determination is not something one can easily acquire. (But then, nothing really worthwile ever is!) I also agree with him that to be truly effective the Will-To-Win has to become part of one’s lifestyle, not just the focus of one’s mind only when actually dancing in competitions. Mr. Winkelhuis then goes on to mention the negative possibility of the subconscious imposing a stress state of mind on the competitor; a stress state which I used to denigrate as “anxiety dancing”.

From my own experience and observations I know that training of the mind as an aid to physical excellence in sport can only be brought about in conjuction with total dedication to the physical practice and development of one’s chosen competitive sport. As an amateur, my nightly practice sessions – three hours minimum, on the floor for every dance – took precedence over all else. But I knew that it was important that my practice was directed on the right lines. I trusted my teacher but not my memory. To be sure that the development of ny technique of the standardised figures was wholly in accordance with the acknowledged principles. I acquired a book – in 1937 or 1938 – on the Theory & Technique of Ballroom Dancing by Victor Silvester; a book which became my ‘bible’ in these early years.

Later, as professionals, Doreen and I organised our lives so that up to six hours a day could be dedicated to preparing and conditioning our bodies and minds so that they would react positively under all possible stresses of dance championships.

I am not a professional psychologist but I have always believed in the power of the mind to achieve the ultimate. When I took up dance training I read books which dealt with such subjects as „You Can because you believe you Can” and the yet more positive „I Can and I Will”. The most apt description of mental determination, ’The steel in a competitor’s spirit’ is one which has always remained with me. In my belief, it is the trigger giving effect to the phenomenon known as ’rising to the big occasion’.

Competitors who have developed this inner mental strength are usually those who perform better under the pressures of competitive events – the bigger the event, the better they dance – than they do in the teacher’s studio or when practicing. The average competitor, by contrast, will perform better under practice conditions or when the pressured are not as great.

Of course, in the case of competitive Dancesport it is necessary that your teacher should have taught you the correct fundamentals and techniques of dance and that you have not been practising flawed ideas. The power of mind, no matter how assiduously developed, is not a substitute for incompetence of performance.

Mr. Winkelhuis recognises this when he talks about the term ’uncontrollable factors’, i.e. one’s partner, the performance of the other couples on the floor and the perception of the judges. I will agree that of these three factors one has no control over the latter two, unless you are a cynic and believe you can buy your way into judges’ good opinions.

But if a partnership is to be effective to the highest possible degree then there must be a total rapport between them, mentally and physically. Remember that I am, in the main, dealing with the Standard Dances where unbroken body contact is the key factor in establishing the physical part of this rapport; the man leading, the girl following. It may well be that many couples will require specific training in this area.

Yes, it is also true that there are many very talented performers who wilt under pressure; who allow doubts to enter their mind on the competition floor. In my long experience of dance championships – going right back to 1936 – I have known dance couples who were absolutely brilliant in practice or when demonstrating but but who could never reach this standard of artistic perfection in open competition. This can only have been due to the fact they had allowed themselves to be susceptible to mental pressures.

I remember one specific occasion at the Blackpool Dance Festival during the British Open Modern Professional Championship when I was still an amateur. I was talking to an extremely talented, artistic professional couple who had just left the floor after producing superb quality of dancing in their heat, when a spectator came up and made the gratuitous observation that: ‘So-and-so couple (the principal opposition) are dancing brilliantly tonight, you will have to watch out fir them’. In my opinion this was deliberate ‘gamesmanship’, planned to demoralise. And it succeeded! I could see that this had an adverse effect on the couple to whom I was talking; confidence visibly oozing out of them.

But had it been me, this remark would have been like a red rag to a bull, having entirely the opposite effect. In fact, it would have acted like a shot of adrenalin and redoubled my determination to succeed.

As an example, some years later, Doreen and I, having retired from competing and demonstrating, were cajoled into doing a ’come-back’ and taking part in the televised Carl-Alan cabaret which followed the presentation of the Awards by a member of the British Royal Family. I had already refused, saying that we were no longer in practice but the promoter, who knew my character, in apparently accepting my refusal, added, „I suppose it would not be a fair comparison, as I have also engaged to appear in the cabaret, the present World Champions in Standard and Latin”. Immediately, I said, „Right, I accept!” before realising how he had tricked me into this acceptance.

For the ultimate in achievement it is the power of the mind, the steel in one’s spirit, which carries one ever upward to higher peaks of performance. Oddly enough, it seems to be those who have had to struggle through physical adversity of one form or another who often triumph over those who seem to have everything going for them. The ’hare and the tortoise’ syndrome!

Those who would aspire to be champions will also need another indispensable mental quality; the resilience of mind to absorb and counteract the downward pressure – the disappointments, the doubts, the fears – which will almost inevitably stem from the defeats which will be scattered along the thorny path of the potential champion’s rise to the top.

source: Dance News newspaper Edition No.1506
Harry Smith-Hampshire, Making of a Champion series