Harnessing Emotional Intelligence: A Lesson from Ballet-practicing Football Players

Emotionally Intelligent Ballet Training

A lot of football players practice ballet, including Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and Herschel Walker. Of course, being good at ballet does not in and of itself make someone good at football. What it does is help football players improve in several critical areas—flexibility, strength, balance, injury prevention, and focus.

Each of these areas is difficult and time-consuming to train, nearly impossible when you factor in the countless hours of practice, team meetings, games, and strength training. That’s why ballet is such a perfect solution. Instead of spending hours training each individual area, football players can effectively train across all of them simultaneously through ballet.

In much the same way that training for ballet helps Swann or Walker improve key football skills, training for emotional intelligence (EQ) can help you improve key innovation skills. Specifically, EQ fuels your ability to…

  • Think flexibly
  • Focus
  • Collaborate more effectively
  • Share your ideas in a compelling and persuasive way.

EQ Influences How You Think

“Think of how many slow motion replays you’ve seen where a football player looks like they could possibly be doing movement from a contemporary piece,” Ballethub wrote. Ballet trains different muscles and does so in a way that balances strength with flexibility. For football players, this equates to longer and more complex muscle extension.

Emotional intelligence improves flexibility too—flexibility of thought. Emotions—like anxiety, fear, nervousness, uncertainty—are some of the biggest barriers to flexible thinking. In her research article “Emotional Intelligence and Innovation,” the psychologist Dr. Neha Kaur writes, “Research shows that when people are in a negative emotional state, their thinking becomes less original, flexible, and tactful. To put it in simple words, we are ‘dumbed down’ by negative emotions…when a workforce is dispirited and gloomy, they lack the interest or the energy to create, to innovate, or to recognize new opportunities.” The opposite effect is also true. Positive emotions can power creative thinking. One study found that just by handing someone candy before a problem-solving exercise, their mood improved and their answers became more creative, flexible, and accurate.

EQ skills can help you tune into emotions that are in your way to better recognize, understand, and manage them. Of course, your emotions won’t disappear. Practicing EQ won’t stop emotions from fogging your thinking any more than ballet will stop football players from getting injured. But, with practice, ballet strengthens resilience to injury. And with practice, EQ can equip you to manage your tough emotions so that they get in your way less often.

EQ Helps You Focus

A common ballet exercise is for the teacher to ask the class to implement a sequence of steps they know, but in a new order. Executing this new sequence requires focus. Dancers must hold the steps in their head, putting them together in real time. This translates to football as the team huddles, agrees on a new play, and then executes.

In a similar way, practicing EQ teaches people to focus on emotions in a way that translates well when they sit down to focus on their work.

The pinnacle state of productivity is flow. Flow is a blissful state of balance, where you are fully immersed in a task, free of distracting thoughts. Flow state enables you to enjoy your work and perform at the peak of your potential. Research shows people working in a state of flow are five times more productive.

Emotions play an essential role in finding your flow. People struggling to focus will describe themselves as “stuck, anxious, bored, distractable, disengaged.” By learning to recognize and manage emotions like these, you can get yourself into a state of flow more often.

Flow chart to exemplify innovation training

Here’s an example: Every year, Raj has to do a big end of the year audit of his team’s sales that inevitably entails days of data entry. The data entry is mind-numbing and tedious. Raj constantly gets up, paces, makes food, texts his friends, and at the end of the day he feels terrible—guilty and unaccomplished. Recognizing that his boredom is getting in his way, he decides to create a game to spice up his work. He challenges himself to see how many data points he can enter in a single day. He does this again the next day, attempting to beat his previous day’s score. Soon, he has developed a whole system of improvement, and he finds that even though the work isn’t inherently challenging or interesting, he’s totally focused and feels great at the end of the day.

This is just one example of someone leveraging EQ to move from the boredom zone to the flow channel (see the image above). EQ skills enable people to tap into the emotions they’re feeling (like boredom) and then come up with a creative solution.

EQ Helps You Tap into Other Perspectives

Ballet strengthens muscles that football players wouldn’t otherwise strengthen. In turn, stronger ankles, feet, and toes save football players from injuries, especially in one of the most common locations—their knees.

The same way that ballet trains muscles that you can’t easily train otherwise, EQ enables you to tap into perspectives that might not surface otherwise. Research on emotional intelligence shows that EQ can help build trust on teams and improve the overall team environment. Another study found that diverse teams that employed a specific strategy saw a huge jump in creativity. The strategy was for teams to intentionally jump back and forth between agreement and disagreement. When an idea was presented, the group might first share ideas they liked and ways they agreed with the idea. Then, they would step back and criticize the idea. Then, they would switch back to agreement again. The idea was to strike the right balance between encouragement and constructive criticism. To pull this off, the team needed to stay on task, monitor “encouragement” vs. “criticism,” and do all of this in a way that was authentic. In other words, these groups relied on their emotional intelligence skills.

EQ Helps You Communicate Your Innovation through Stories

Cross-training with ballet has an intangible benefit. Ballet is so different from football, that the challenge of mastering it helps players build a new self-story and mentality. Many football players have felt destined and gifted at football their whole lives. Ballet, in all of its new challenge, teaches them what it’s like to not be the most talented in the room. It teaches them how to develop a growth mindset where they learn from and appreciate their failures.

Developing EQ impacts stories too. It helps you shape the stories you tell to win interest and buy-in. In Paul Smith’s book Lead with a Story, he writes how stories are processed in the parts of the brain responsible for decision making and memory. That means that stories quite literally influence people and stick in people’s brains along with the facts that are delivered in the story. Storytelling is at its core a matter of emotional intelligence. It requires empathy to connect the story emotionally to others (social awareness), clear communication (relationship management), and an understanding of how you come across in the telling or writing of your story (self-awareness).

Here’s an example. A grad student broke his glasses on a backpacking trip, and when he got back, he realized he couldn’t afford to replace them for the entire semester. This moment, and the following months of bumping around and squinting, became the inspiration for Warby Parker, his company whose goal was to make affordable glasses. The best stories, like Warby Parker’s, don’t need to be complex. They present a problem people can connect to emotionally (not being able to afford something as important as prescription glasses) and then they show how their business solves that problem.

From Insights to Action

Ballet is an effective form of cross-training for football because it takes so many facets of a football player’s athleticism and weaves them together.  Each aspect alone has a small impact on a player’s performance, but weave each of these loose ends together and you have a sturdy, powerful cord. Start practicing EQ now and you’ll begin to weave together these critical components of innovation.

To begin to develop your EQ, here are four selected strategies from our book Emotional Intelligence 2.0. To get started, choose just one or two of these strategies and practice every day.

  • Self-Awareness Strategy #1:

    Quit treating your feelings as good or bad. Notice your feelings, and don’t judge them as good or bad. Remind yourself that they are there to help you understand something important.

  • Self-Management Strategy #16:

    Put a mental recharge in your schedule. Exercise 30 minutes at least twice each week. The release of endorphins into your bloodstream will improve your mood and help you think clearly and perform better.

  • Social Awareness Strategy #16:

    Seek the whole picture. Invite your fans as well as your critics to honestly share their perceptions of what you’re good at and where you could use some help. Whether they are right or wrong, try to learn.

  • Relationship Management Strategy #15:

    Align your intention with your impact. At the moment that the impact of what you said or did was not what you intended, stop to clearly communicate your intent, feelings, and wishes by explaining the “why’s” behind your actions and words.

For more easy-to-implement strategies to improve your EQ, purchase our book Emotional Intelligence 2.0.

To learn more about emotional intelligence training and TalentSmartEQ’s programs and solutions, please visit: https://www.talentsmarteq.com/contact/ or contact TalentSmartEQ at 888-818-SMART.

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