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The mind power of Mao’s last dancer, Li Cunxin – and how he is now helping the performance of our Australian swimming team.
He was just a boy of eleven when Li Cunxin was plucked from a classroom in poverty-stricken Shandong in rural China, separated from his family and taken to Beijing where he trained with China’s premier ballet academy and eventually became known as Chairman Mao’s last dancer.
Li was offered a place in the Houston Ballet summer school. Arriving in a borrowed suit and a suspicious attitude towards the west, Li eventually recognised the freedom of expression in his chosen field of dance and appreciated the opportunity to extend his studies. He also fell in love with an American ballerina and married her. This became the much-publicised defection which is now immortalised by Hollywood.
Five years ago, Li migrated to Australia, his “land of opportunity” as he calls it, and is currently the artistic director of the Queensland Ballet Company. Through personal experience, Li has learned much about the power of the mind and he is not only applying his mental strategies to his ballet prodigies, but also to our elite athletes.
Li had a wonderful teacher in China called Xiao who taught him an important lesson in his formative years at Madame Mao’s Beijing Ballet Academy: “Xiao lived by self-discipline and his mantra was: perfect practice is the best mental preparation because on stage and in the moment, muscle memory takes over and this allows your mind and body to work as one in delivering your best performance.”
This lesson certainly resonates with the Australian Swimming Team given it’s below par performance at last year’s Rio Olympics. Ditto London 2012. Simply, some of our swimmers did not handle the pressure of performing, and this is where Li comes into play.
Li challenges his dancers to get to the next level and says they are competing against themselves. There is a competition between their doubting conscious mind; what they have to harness is their subconscious mind, because that is where their inner confidence lies.
Pressure is something Li Cunxin knows more about than most. Can anyone imagine the pressure Li was under when as a boy he was removed from his family, domiciled in Beijing, put through extreme training sessions and expected to perform phenomenal ballet feats in front of delegations from Chairman Mao’s government, and all faultlessly? For Li, mistakes would not be tolerated and he lived with the continual risk of being banished back to his poverty-stricken farmland where there was no opportunity in life.
Li realised being a dancer in Madame Mao’s elite ballet group was an incredible opportunity but one that relied on perfect performances, so each day involved countless hours of rehearsal, as if he was performing in front of Chairman Mao. This relentless perfect practice enabled Li to synchronise his mind and body so every movement became instinctive and flowed from the mind, triggering each perfect physical movement.
Through hours and hours of practice, Li had achieved what every athlete desires: a level of confidence where the subconscious mind totally trusts the body to “nail it”. Discovering how to “centre” the mind and body at such a young age put Li well ahead of his ballerina peers; in fact, he stood out, and this led to him being selected to tour the USA, meeting and falling in love with an American dancer and reaching out for every wonderful opportunity that the United States could offer, from a book deal to a movie, to citizenship, and then finally relocating to Australia.
It is an incredible story that Li still finds hard to believe is not a dream. “I am so fortunate and at times I think I am living a dream. But given my great opportunity, I want to make a valuable contribution to Australian ballet – and also through my friend John Bertrand, to our elite swimmers. The key element for every top line athlete to master is to overcome their own mental pressure and perform to one’s potential.”
However, life has also dealt some blows. First, Li was kept from his parents and family for a large part of his formative teenage years and his decision to stay in America was fraught with fears he may not see his parents again, and of what the Chinese Government would do to them. Fortunately, his parents were not harmed and they were eventually allowed to visit him in America.
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So now let’s explore Li’s mind power as well as what he teaches his ballet company and Australia’s best swimmers. The cornerstone is “perfect practice guarantees a perfect performance”. To many Aussies, training and performing are two different realities, yet as Li points out, they should be one and the same. When Li was a ballet dancer he would generate his performance mood in training and it is something young Aussie athletes have to learn and apply to their training – to generate the competitive attitude and emotion expressed when performing.
“It was so important for me to become mentally comfortable when performing because when you fear something it usually happens.”
The next mind power building block is what Li did when his head hit the pillow, and it is here where mental rehearsal begins in a relaxed state. In his mind, Li would see himself on the stage preparing to begin his performance. He would rehearse the way he would feel in that situation while ticking off all his moves and bringing on the mental state where he’d feel centred, and imaging how he’d submit his mind to his body for the performance.
“It is the sense of total confidence in oneself that tells me I am ready to begin and this must be rehearsed and consigned to memory.”
In his mind he would watch himself go through the whole performance perfectly with his body at the peak of its powers, whilst experiencing that much-sought after-feeling of self confidence in his mind. Knowing the body will do the job is what Li calls submitting to muscle memory, and that is the ultimate competitive feeling of confidence. As he says “perfect practice makes for a perfect performance”, as long as the right affect and synchrony is in play.
“It was so important for me to become mentally comfortable when performing because when you fear something it usually happens. It is the sense of total confidence in oneself that tells me I am ready to begin and this must be rehearsed and consigned to memory.”
When Li Cunxin was performing, he had to train his mind to trust his body to get the performance right, as it was a matter of necessity. What his perfect mind and body practice gave him was a freedom and a knowingness that he would perform mistake-free and to his potential. He could generate the right mindset and therefore could deal with the pressure of mistake-free dancing. This, he says, is what many local athletes and dancers do not achieve as they allow external interferences to create mistakes when performing. Again, he mentions the inability of so many elite athletes to practice with the mental state that they perform in.
However when Li was living and training in Beijing, he knew he also needed to have positive mood breaks from the incessant dance training and here again he provides an insight into his mind training. Li had a sense of humour but Madam Mao’s Beijing Ballet Academy did not provide any laughs, so Li would play another imaginary game when walking to and from the academy. He would focus on watching the way people walked in the street and would find the funny walks and laugh all the way home.
“Laughter is a key relaxant and something that provides a lovely contrast to performance mind training. Every athlete should find things to laugh at, and it is another element of the power of imagination.”
In the studio, Li challenges his dancers to get to the next level and says they are competing against themselves. There is a competition between their doubting conscious mind; what they have to harness is their subconscious mind, because that is where their inner confidence lies.
All this self-discovered wisdom of Li Cunxin would be so beneficial to our swimmers, because swimming fast is up to the individual. Swimmers travel up and down their own lane so they are with their own thoughts and feelings throughout their performance, just like ballet dancers. The more relaxed and the more confident the stroke, the faster the swimmer will go.
Li’s mind power strategy will be perfect for our swimmers and help them to go faster than what they consciously believe they are capable of. However, they will have to learn to use their imagination and learn how to practice as they perform – then once they master their inner confidence, chasing the black line could well become a winning one.