So you didn’t make finals, eh?

On several occasions recently I’ve heard conversations from disappointed competitors about not making finals, or, in some cases, of not placing or even winning. Not surprisingly, these conversations involve a heavy dose of negativity – towards other competitors, towards the judges, and even towards the event and the event directors.

The truth is, if everyone’s only in it to win it, then everyone but two people will be unhappy at the end of the competition.

Look, what we do – this whole dancing thing – is inherently subjective. It’s technical, yes, but it’s also an art form, and along with artistry goes personal opinions, values, and biases. On top of that is the fact that each event has different judges with different values and opinions. And on top of that is the fact that judges will only see a fraction of your dance – and you don’t know which fraction. Plus, each competition has a different mix of competitors. And honestly, someone may have just had a better day than you. It happens. But the bottom line is you just don’t know. You don’t know how other people are performing (especially if you’re on the dance floor with them). You don’t know what the judges saw. You don’t always know what the judges want to see. And the way we do judging is relative, meaning you may have had a great day but there were enough people who had a better day. There are a lot of variables at play, and if you choose to compete, you choose to accept the variability, the unpredictability, and the risk.

If you’re thinking, “Sure, Eric, easy for you to say,” then you don’t know what you’re talking about. I started West Coast Swing <gulp> twelve years ago. And while I had some early success and some recent success, I’ve had a lot of my own struggles – and the frustration that goes with them. There were years when I didn’t make finals, to the point that I stopped competing for a few years. “What’s the point?” I would ask myself. I resigned myself to thinking that I was a great social dancer and a great teacher, but I just didn’t have what it takes to be a good competitor. I had more fun at events once I stopped doing Jack & Jills, but the truth is that I had adopted a negative internal story. On the outside I pretended I didn’t care, but on the inside I was down on myself.

My complaining was symptomatic of an underlying combination of insecurity and self-doubt (something I can’t help but hear in some of the complaining I now hear from others). The idea that I deserved to make finals over other people, that at every and any moment I was superior to others, that my own perceptions and judgments were objectively and definitively correct and accurate – it wasn’t just foolish but also arrogant. And of course the fact that I cared so much about the outcomes of competitions and that my happiness was dependent on them was symptomatic of insecurity – a lack of something that left me without an internal sense of my own value. It was as if my own self-worth – as a dancer and as a person – was based on my success in competitions.

By now I’ve been around long enough to see the ups and downs of competing – in myself and in many, many others. I’ve seen the same story play out time and time again, variations on a theme, but a common archetype nonetheless. And, well, maybe I’m getting wiser in my old age. Maybe I’m just getting mellower. Maybe with experience comes more maturity. Or maybe I’ve just learned from my experience. But I’ve adopted a better attitude for myself and I like to think it’s paying off – in competition but more importantly for my enjoyment of this dance.

So listen, if you compete, or if you’re considering competing, here’s my advice, for what it’s worth:

  1. Accept the reality of competing (see above). Honestly, a lot of the time it’s a crap shoot, and you should truly be okay with that.
  2. Think about why you compete. I started competing to earn accolades so I could teach and contribute to the community. But somewhere along the way I began competing for the ego boost, for the recognition and praise, for the sense of self-worth it gave me. If the latter is what you’re after, you’re going to be disappointed. A lot. And if you’re not honest with yourself about this, the disappointment will continue. (Signs to watch out for when you don’t make finals: you blame others, you feel badly about yourself, you don’t want to see people, you don’t want to dance.) Find your reason for competing and make sure it’s something positive and healthy – an internal drive to grow instead of a need for an external reward.
  3. Don’t point fingers. No matter the outcome, whether you win or don’t make finals or not. The blame game does no one any good. It’s not nice, it’s not fair, and, most importantly, it’s not productive. Blaming others is absolving yourself of any control over the situation, as if there’s nothing you can do, and that kind of attitude isn’t going to help you move forward (nor will talking poorly of other people in a very social community). Which leads to…
  4. Take responsibility for your own dancing. Stop blaming your partner or the judges or anyone else and start working on your dancing. Appreciate your strengths and work on your weaknesses. Develop your dance so you can be great consistently, no matter the judge, no matter the partner, no matter the day.
  5. And for goodness sake, have fun! This is dance. It’s not world peace or solving hunger or curing cancer. The stakes are low and the rewards should be high. It’s something we should do because we love it and because it brings out the best in us. It shouldn’t make us unhappy, frustrated, stressed, or negative. Who wants to be that person?

My goal is to keep pushing myself as a dancer, and I use competitions as one measure of that progress. But honestly, I’m up against some great talent – guys I really admire and look up to – and I know I won’t always find success. Plus, at the upper levels there’s more differentiation among competitors, so that each dancer’s best is different from the next, and that makes the judging even more challenging to decipher. So if you can’t handle the disappointment at the lower levels, you’re in for a ride as you move up the ranks. Instead, do your best now to find your inner strength, work on your dancing, and enjoy the journey.

And leave the negativity to someone else. You’ll be better off without it.

Have you had challenging experiences competing? How do you handle frustration or disappointment? How do you console others who might be upset by the outcomes of a competition? Teachers, how do you help your students prepare for competitions, mentally and emotionally?


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