‘If you slip, it hurts your soul’: the stressed ballerina who asked a sports psychologist for help

<span>‘Yasmine has an athlete’s mindset – very sharp, very powerful’ … Naghdi and Tajet-Foxell.</span><span>Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi/The Guardian</span>
‘Yasmine has an athlete’s mindset – very sharp, very powerful’ … Naghdi and Tajet-Foxell.Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi/The Guardian

Earlier this year, Yasmine Naghdi was struggling in the rehearsal studio. Naghdi is one of the Royal Ballet’s leading dancers and her performance of Swan Lake would be livestreamed into cinemas around the world. But although known for her crystalline technique, she became almost too anxious to hold a pirouette.

Naghdi seems enviably poised today: back straight, eyes shining beneath strongly etched brows. But the impending show literally threw her off balance, she explains. “Performing Swan Lake to 3,000 people [in the Royal Opera House] is stressful in itself but this would be filmed and streamed live to cinemas globally, with the prospect of being on stream thereafter – that’s the version of me that remains out there. So everything has to be perfect. That’s a huge amount of pressure.”

The brain gives negative experiences two-and-a-half times the weight of positive ones

Britt Tajet-Foxell

At 32, and a principal dancer since 2017, this was hardly her first rodeo. Was she surprised by the spiking anxiety? “I saw it coming,” she admits. “Dancers are known for striving for perfection. When I’ve done a performance that was under my expectations, I hold on to it. It’s tormenting.”

Swan Lake’s flashiest section is the “black swan” third act: the ballerina ignites a succession of fireworks, most famously 32 rapid turns called fouettés. “I wanted a very complicated ending to the solo, but would continually fall out of the landing,” Naghdi recalls. A devotee of sports science, she contacted performance psychologist Britt Tajet-Foxell. “I said, ‘I need some tools to help me because I’m so fearful.’ Fear is the key word – fear of failure, in front of the audience. If you slip or something goes wrong, it hurts your soul.”

“Yasmine is the ultimate ballerina,” according to Tajet-Foxell. “She has an athlete’s mindset – very sharp, very powerful.” The Norwegian-born psychologist speaks with authority – sports science makes the running in this field, and alongside the Royal Ballet, she also helps elite athletes, including Norwegian and British Olympians heading to Paris this summer. Her career began as a physio – now she supports anxious minds inside champion bodies.

Watching Naghdi’s rehearsal footage, Tajet-Foxell spotted a loss of focus: “Something in the eyes had gone, and I know what the brain does.” Naghdi describes a dancer’s internal conversation: “The voices that come in our minds! We’re not quiet up there. Britt gives me tools – count, focus on the breath – to drown out the voice that goes, ‘Mess it up, mess it up!’”

Together, they broke down the daunting task, building up strategies towards showtime. “The brain would get busy and doubt would set in,” says Naghdi, “but Britt was always there for me. I would come away from a rehearsal, and a message would pop up, ‘How was today, give me three good things and one you feel you could improve on.’ It was as if she knew what I needed without me even asking.” They also deployed the Royal Ballet’s nutrition and pilates teams. “I tried to create a bubble of support,” Naghdi says.

Tajet-Foxell is all clean, reassuring lines: silver bob, black suit, calm voice. Dancers contact her with myriad concerns: “a step, an injury, anxiety, stage fright”. Despite initial stigma around addressing mental health, she has aided generations of star dancers. “It is incredibly personal, we touch on very private thoughts and feelings.

Citing the Nobel-winning cognitive scientist Daniel Kahneman, Tajet-Foxell argues that “the brain codes in anything we experience as negative as two-and-a-half times stronger than anything positive”. For Naghdi, the memory of her rehearsal wobble burns brighter than her many perfect turns.

Tajet-Foxell works to introduce more positive triggers, helping Naghdi stay focused on a successful fouetté. “Every single step is translated from brain to body. My job is about taking something multi-dimensionally complex and lacing it into something that feels simple.”

I’m surprised to hear that this work is self-directed, rather than at the urging of Naghdi’s director or coaches. “It has to come from within,” she confirms. “I’ve seen so many talented artists stay where they are, because they haven’t pushed themselves. You’re expected to do whatever it takes to be the best possible version of yourself. I hadn’t set myself up for failure by winging it and seeing what happens. I put in so much work – I couldn’t have done more, honestly.”

“You think like an elite athlete,” approves the psychologist. What is the difference between elite athletes and dancers? “Nothing,” Tajet-Foxell says. “It’s the same factors – focus, confidence.” Although unlike a straining sportsperson, Naghdi adds, “you have to make it look easy and not show the effort.” The dancer diligently monitors her body. “As women, we have a lot of changes through the month, which impacts on the way we perform. It’s not studied to the degree I’d like for ballet, but I’m sensitive to my own fluctuations. I was very lucky with where the date fell for the filmed performance.

“I’m not a Holly Golightly, someone who says, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ I don’t think like that. I’ve got markers I set for myself and expectations that I want to meet and go beyond. But Britt hit the nail on the head and said, ‘At the end of the day, it’s work.’ That resonated and gave me so much peace.”

As for the filmed performance? “I woke up knowing I had to hit that bullseye,” Naghdi says. “The main thing was: you’ve done all this work, don’t let yourself down. Once the third act was over, I went for the emotion and pushed all my energy until I was completely drained.”