Want to make circus even more fun? Follow the principles of self-determination theory!

Self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2010) suggests that people are more likely to enjoy an activity (and stick with it) when participation in this activity fulfils three key psychological needs. These three psychological needs are the need for autonomy, relatedness and competence. In this blog, I will explain how you can use the principles of self-determination theory to increase students’ enjoyment in circus classes.

Fulfilling the need for autonomy

Autonomy represents the feeling of being allowed to make your own choices. Research suggests that autonomy is highly predictive of people’s enjoyment of an activity (Vansteenkiste et al., 2004). This is the case for children, but even more so for adults.  So how can you provide circus artists with experiences of autonomy while working within the boundaries of what is safe for that student? Below are three options to increase autonomy that I believe are easy to implement within circus schools:

  • Provide your students with options. For example, during warm-up, show your students three exercises that target more or less the same outcome, and let them choose individually which one they’d like to do.
  • Ask your students if there is something in particular they want to achieve during the term. In each of your classes, give students a bit of time (for example 5 minutes) to work on exercises that will help them achieve that goal. Make sure the students understand how these exercises will help them get closer to their goal.
  • Provide students with opportunities to create their own mini-acts and routines. This provides students with choices about the character they would like to portray, the music they’d like to use (if any), and the skills they would like to incorporate in their act. As a bonus, this will help your amateur students feel like true circus artist.

Hitting the ‘relatedness’ sweet-spot

The second psychological need, relatedness, refers to feeling part of a community, and creating friendships with other people in the circus. Relatedness is important for adults and children, and seems key in exercise participation of females. In my experience, circus excels in fostering feelings of relatedness. That being said, some coaches and schools are better at this than others. One best practice example I vividly remember was from a training centre I went to after I had just moved to Perth. Before the class even started the coach came up to me and said, ‘Hi you must be Fleur!, I am … and I’ll be taking your class’. He then proceeded to quickly explain what I could expect from the class, showed me where everything was, and then – perhaps most importantly – walked me up to a classmate and said ‘Hi …, this is Fleur, she just told me she loves lyra, just like you’. Instantly this coach had made me feel part of the group by not only showing that he cared enough to learn my name, but also to introduce me to someone he knew I had something in common with. This made it easy for me to talk and connect to that person. I later learned this training centre also organised occasional outings, for example visiting circus shows together. This also fosters feelings of relatedness among students.

Experiences of relatedness can also be created during circus classes by making students work as a team. This can include partner stretching or doubles/group skills, as well as providing specific challenges to pairs of students. For example, you could challenge two students to together come up with as many transitions as possible out of a particular move, to perform the same skills portraying as many emotions as possible, and so on. Within this, be mindful of the personalities of your students. You’ll want to avoid overwhelming your more introverted students with too many team/group activities, and too many partner-swaps. If this occurs, they will feel uncomfortable and will experience low levels of relatedness. As a result, they will be likely to quit your classes. Similarly, if you have managed to create a tight group of students this is wonderful, but please ensure that any ‘new’ students quickly feel like the have become part of the group. If they feel like an ‘outsider’ for too long, they are also more likely to quit your classes.

Fleur in Lyra
Picture by Jealous by Nature

Making your students feel competent

The final psychological need, competence, refers to feeling like you’re successful in what you’re doing. Beginner students in particular may feel like they are failing in classes, and that they can’t keep up with others. Of course, providing options and progressions of skills will help students achieve little victories which likely will make them feel good about themselves. But don’t let the feeling of competence solely depend on the circus artists’ own thought processes. Instead, simply point out what you believe they are doing well. As a guideline, research suggests that 80 to 90 percent of feedback to students should be positive. This is particularly important for children, but adults like positive feedback too. So is your student getting more flexy? Compliment the student on their progress. Is a student working extremely hard at a skill and still not getting it? Make a comment about how proud you are of their work-ethic. Did a student finally overcome an (irrational) fear? Celebrate with them! Creating feelings of competence amongst students is all in the little things, you’d be surprised about the difference a high-five or a simple smile can make. Further, when you provide instructive feedback (for example: point your toes), make sure that you also reward the student for following your feedback (that looked much better with pointed toes, well done!).

Even if you’re not a circus coach, providing a few honest compliments can change the dynamics of the entire circus setting. These compliments can range from ‘I love the pattern on your leggings!’ to, ‘I noticed how hard you have been working on this skill, you have made so much progress with it’. I recommend any circus artist to give this a go and to see what happens. As long as these compliments are honest and true, you will start noticing that others will join in on the positive attitude, and that the environment will become more supportive of people’s accomplishments.

References  

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Vansteenkiste, M., Simons, J., Soenens, B., & Lens, W. (2004). How to become a persevering exerciser? Providing a clear, future intrinsic goal in an autonomy-supportive way. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 26(2), 232-249.

Trouble sleeping after performing or training in the evening? Using psychological skills might help!

With the festive season in full swing, many circus artist are experiencing their busiest time of the year. Late night performances are common, and might result in disturbed sleep. Disturbed sleep does not only affect your physical recovery, but also increases chances of experiencing accidents. So what can you do about this?

There are several psychological skills that have been shown to improve sleep, one of my favorites is progressive muscle relaxation (McCloughan et al., 2016). Over the past five years I have taught progressive muscle relaxation to over 500 university students and elite athletes. Based on feedback approximately 90% finds it relaxing and useful.

Fleur in lyra
Picture by Olive Oates Photography

What is progressive muscle relaxation?

Progressive muscle relaxation uses conscious awareness of the difference between muscle tension and muscle relaxation to promote overall relaxation. For this reason, it is called a ‘muscle to mind’ relaxation technique, meaning that you are using your body to calm your body and mind. I think this technique is particularly useful for circus artists because we are often unaware how tense and tight our bodies are after performing/training. Awareness of this can help you reduce the tension in your body, calm your mind, and as a result you are likely to fall asleep more quickly.

How does progressive muscle relaxation work?

Essentially, during progressive muscle relaxation you tense muscles for approximately three seconds, and then you release them. You do this in a systematic manner, either from your head working your way down to your toes, or from your toes working your way up to your head. Avoid randomly tensing and releasing muscles, it doesn’t work as well. While you are doing your progressive muscle relaxation, you focus on how heavy and relaxed your muscles feel after you release the tension. Prior to starting progressive muscle relaxation I recommend everybody to find themselves a comfortable spot (for example: your bed), to close your eyes, and to take a couple of slow, deep, breaths in and out. After this, you start your progressive muscle relaxation. I use my own progressive muscle relaxation script with my students and clients, but there are several great scripts available on youtube and in apps. An effective video on youtube that I quite like is this one.

Psychological skills need to be trained

Notice how I have used the words ‘skills’ and ‘technique’ through-out this blog. Just like circus skills, psychological skills require a bit of training before you become an intermediate, advanced, or expert user. So don’t expect miracles the first time you use the skill ‘progressive muscle relaxation’ (or any psychological skill). Instead, give yourself time to develop the skill via training and practice. Once you’ve got the basic down, it will start to pay off. As an extra bonus, progressive muscle relaxation hasn’t just been shown to improve sleep, it is also helpful to reduce performance anxiety when you use it prior to going onstage (McCloughan et al., 2016).

Are there other techniques that can help me fall asleep?

Which psychological skills work for you depends a bit on your personality and personal preferences, and although it works for many people progressive muscle relaxation might not be the relaxation technique that comes most naturally to you. Usually you would figure this out in collaboration with a psychologist (sport psychologists for example are well-trained in this). Together with your psychologist you could explore other relaxation techniques such as mental imagery and deep breathing exercises, or implement sleep hygiene strategies.

Reference:

McCloughan, L. J., Hanrahan, S. J., Anderson, R., & Halson, S. R. (2016). Psychological recovery: progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), anxiety, and sleep in dancers. Performance Enhancement & Health4(1-2), 12-17.

Psychological mechanisms underlying accidents and near misses in contemporary circus

Last weekend, I attended the Australian Society for Performing Arts Healthcare conference in Melbourne. An inspiring conference during which I learned more about the psychological and physical health of performing artists in a range of different domains, including ballet and music. At this conference, I presented the findings of a recent study (van Rens & Filho, in press) about psychological mechanisms underlying accidents and near misses in contemporary circus arts. For this study, 248 circus artist completed an online survey containing measures of sensation, emotion regulation and agency (Barlow et al., 2013), personality (using the “Big Five”; Costa & McCrae, 1992), accidents and near misses as well as demographic information.

Dr. Fleur van Rens presenting at ASPAH conference
ASPAH presentation

Predictors of accidents and near misses

We used the data from the survey to create a model which predicts accidents in contemporary circus arts. Our findings showed that the personality trait conscientiousness (i.e., being self-disciplined, diligent, and careful), experiences of emotion regulation (experiencing that circus increased control over one’s emotions), and the perceived risk associated with the circus disciplines predicted accidents and near misses. Specifically, artists who score high on conscientiousness experienced less accidents and near misses. Artists who perceived the risk associated with their circus discipline to be high, and artists who experienced more emotion regulation during participation in their circus discipline were more likely to experience accidents and near misses. Unlike artists in other domains such as music and dance (Feist, 1998), circus artist scored high on the personality trait conscientiousness. It seems that this could protect circus artists from experiencing accidents.

Not all circus disciplines are the same

I also want to highlight an important secondary purpose of the study. Most scientific research about contemporary circus arts has classified circus artists from a range of disciplines (e.g., clowns, acrobats, object manipulators) all together under the umbrella ‘circus artists’. No distinctions between their respective circus disciplines were made. To me this seemed problematic. Therefore, we conducted statistical analyses to explore differences among circus artists in the disciplines aerial acrobatics, floor acrobatics, and object manipulation.

girl in lyra

Our findings showed that aerial acrobats scored particularly high on conscientiousness, significantly higher than object manipulators (floor acrobats scored somewhere in the middle, not significantly different to aerial acrobats or object manipulators). This high score on conscientiousness is consistent with efforts from aerial acrobats to create an illusion of risk and danger, while simultaneously engaging in preventative behaviour to reduce the actual risks of accidents (for example by engaging in equipment checks, and carefully selecting relatively safe tricks to perform). Further, aerial acrobats scored higher on the personality trait agreeableness than object manipulators, perhaps this reflects the amount of teamwork and trust involved in (particularly group/duo) aerial acrobatics acts. We also found that aerial acrobatics and floor acrobatics were seen as equally high-risk, meaning that the consequences of mistakes or accidents were deemed equally detrimental to the physical health of the artists. Object manipulation was seen as significantly more low-risk compared to aerial acrobatics and floor acrobatics. However, floor acrobats reported experiencing the most accidents, scoring significantly higher than aerial acrobats and object manipulators. Floor acrobats also experienced significantly more near misses than aerial acrobats.

What does this mean?

First, our results confirmed the expectation that conscientiousness, emotion regulation, and perceived risk are predictors of accidents and near misses. Experiences of sensation (i.e., chasing an adrenaline rush) did not predict this, neither were there differences between circus disciplines on experiences of sensation. Second, the findings suggest that we cannot simply group all circus artists together in scientific research. Instead, we need to start investigating differences between circus disciplines to better understand the costs, demands, and benefits of the different contemporary circus disciplines. Finally, the findings emphasise that it is important to focus on floor acrobats when it comes to accident prevention. This may also have implications for research investigating acute and chronic injuries among circus artists.

 

Our study is available ahead of print now:

Van Rens, F.E.C.A., & Filho, E. (in press). Not just clowning around: investigating psychological mechanisms underlying accidents in a heterogeneous group of contemporary circus artists. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/aca0000289 or download the full-text accepted version for free here.

Other references:

Barlow, M., Woodman, T., & Hardy, L. (2013). Great expectations: Different high-risk activities satisfy different motives. Journal of personality and social psychology105(3), 458. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23795909

Costa, P. T., Jr., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). Four ways five factors are basic. Personality and Individual Differences, 13, 653–665. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0191-8869(92)90236-I

Feist, G. J. (1998). A meta-analysis of personality in scientific and artistic creativity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2, 290–309. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr0204_5

The journey from elite gymnastics to professional circus: “It’s like placing for another Olympics”

Recently, our research project about career transitions from elite gymnastics to professional circus was published in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. I interviewed eight (inter)national level gymnasts who achieved a career as a circus artist. What can we learn from their experiences? Our analysis showed that the journey from elite gymnastics to professional circus is challenging. We identified three phases within this transition process:

  • During the realising phase, the gymnasts try to achieve a circus contract in order to become professional circus artists. The gymnasts participate in audition processes, intensive training programs, and often face several rejections. High levels of psychological resilience are required to be successful in obtaining a circus contract.
  • The adapting phase requires new circus artists to adjust to their new life. The former gymnasts will encounter various stressors during this phase. Some are similar to those commonly experienced in sport, for example the high physical demands of circus. Other stressors are specific to the circus environment, such as unique performance pressures, managing the risks involved with several circus disciplines, interdependency, and fitting into the circus culture. Due to these stressors, the new circus artist may feel overwhelmed, isolated, and may lose their self-confidence.
  • During the thriving phase the circus artist flourishes both in terms of performance as well as psychological wellbeing. Key to achieve this thriving phase were experiences of freedom, personal development, and social connections. Achieving the thriving phase was indicative of the artists’ career longevity as a circus artist.

49698538_10156293113424779_8692261857114718208_oWe can use this information to help prospective circus artists during their journeys from sport to the big-top. During the realising and adapting phases of the career transition, the ‘social support’ component of psychological resilience is expected to weaken because the new circus artists are away from their existing social support networks. Yet this form of support is very important during these phases. To support psychological resilience during these phases we recommend:

  • Formalised buddy systems in which new circus artists are matched with more experienced circus artists by their circus companies.
  • Practitioners in gymnastics are encouraged to remain in contact with retired gymnasts during the realising and adapting phases of their career transitions.

To facilitate thriving, we recommend circus companies to create and maintain an autonomy-supportive environment, in which circus artists may voice their opinions, feel listened to, and have opportunities to continuously develop their skills (be it circus skills, creative skills, or any other skills that could be applied to the circus context).

Reference:

Van Rens, F.E.C.A., & Filho, E. (in press). Realising, adapting, and thriving in career transitions from gymnastics to contemporary circus arts. The Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. 

Download the full-text publication for free here, or view it on the journal’s website.