Where Sport, Dance and Mental Toughness Meet

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Provided by McGrath Academy of Irish Dance

The McGrath Morgan Academy of Irish Dance is sending 24 dancers to compete at the Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America (IDTANA) North American Irish Dance Championships, which will be held in Vancouver over the Independence Day holiday.

Although the school has sent dancers to this competition for almost two decades, this year’s team takes with them a new set of skills. In June, John Stevenson, a sports psychologist based in Edmonton, worked with the dancers teaching them how to focus and “live in the moment.” At the end of the session, he introduced a client they all recognized: Capitals goalie Braden Holtby.

Focus and Live in the Moment

“The ability to focus, stay in the present moment and remain composed under pressure are key mental skills whether you’re in the business or athletic world. The best athletes in the world know how to handle distractions and their performance is very consistent because they have developed physical and mental routines before, during and after their performance,” said Stevenson. “Whether you are elite hockey player or an Irish dancer, you understand that practice/training is 95 percent physical and 5 percent mental. However, the numbers reverse when it’s game time. The best athletes have developed the self-awareness to know what works for them. They don’t leave their mental training to chance. Whether it’s doing a daily mindfulness practice or visualizing their upcoming performance they really work hard on this area of training because they know that the mental game often is often the margin of victory.”

Competitive Dance

School founder Lauren McGrath Dutton, ADCRG, TCRG, and John Lawrence Morgan, TCRG, have taught dancers who have won numerous accolades. Most recently, in April, the 20-person dance drama team won the first-place world title. Two dancers placed in the top 20 dancers in the world (Aisling Reynolds placed 8th and Jessie Welgos placed 15th – both the top placements among all North American competitors). The school is home to three regional champions – Aisling Reynolds, Jessie Welgos and Sophia Rankin. But the teachers sought a way to give all McGrath Morgan dancers the skills to dig deeper to reach their personal goals.

“Competitive dance, especially at regional, national, and world levels is extremely difficult in that the dancers are competing against the best of the best. These types of competitions can be very stressful for our dancers,” said Dutton. “Many dancers struggle with nerves hoping they will be able to put the best possible version of themselves on the stage. We, as their teachers, are continually trying to provide as many opportunities as possible for the dancers to improve their abilities and increase their competitive rankings. John Stevenson and Braden Holtby having so much experience and education in this area seemed like the perfect fit!”

The Six Cs of Mental Awareness

The dancers showed up at the studio with pillows, yoga mats, pens and notebooks. Stevenson, former goaltender and goalie coach/scout in the National Hockey League,  taught the dancers about the 6 Cs of Mental Awareness:

  1. Confidence
  2. Concentration
  3. Composure
  4. Consistency
  5. Commitment
  6. Coachability

He offered “tricks” on how the dancers could use the traditional negatives like stress, pressure, and anxiety to work to their advantage.

The Art of Mental Preparation

“Having spoken to friends and colleagues from around the world, many of whom are among the leading Irish dance teachers in the world, I believe it was important for our dancers to be introduced to alternative ways in which they can maximize their performance on stage,” said Morgan. “This is particularly relevant for our students who chose to compete in high level, often long and stressful competitions such as the North American Nationals and regional championships. I also wanted our students to work with someone they could automatically relate to and be enthused by. It was a no-brainer to have students from the DMV’s premier Irish Dance Academy work alongside John Stevenson and Braden Holtby, who played such an integral role in helping the Washington Capitals be victorious at the 2018 Stanley Cup!”

The dancers walked away with a new appreciation for the art of mental preparation.

“I learned to focus during competitions through breathing. I also learned not to concentrate on the past and future, instead, make the current moment last,” said dancer Sophia Savage, 14. “Of course my favorite part was meeting Braden Holtby. He was so nice and gave us lots of great tips that he uses.”

At the end of the session, the dancers showed their first-place globe to Stevenson and Holtby, who took pictures with the dancers and their families.


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