When I hesitated during the rehearsal, the stager scolded me in front of the rest of the cast, and she said she would have fired me if she were the Artistic Director. I had to recover quickly and recalibrate my mental frame to be ready in 24 hours for opening night. I managed to get through the shows and make a big break from the success of overcoming, but I learned that no matter what position you’re in, first or last, you should always be prepared so that when the time comes, you are ready to produce.
As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewingJohn Lam.
John Lam is ballet’s first male Vietnamese-American principal artist known for his movement versatility and exquisite artistry. John is a principal dancer at Boston Ballet, husband and father of two.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born and raised in San Rafael California to refugee parents from Vietnam. At the age of 4, I was introduced to ballet at my childcare center through an inner-city scholarship program called Performing Stars of Marin whose mission is to expose inner-city children to the arts. I loved the idea of expressing myself without using my words. None of my family members knew anything about dance at the time, so I had no idea what this opportunity could do for my life. For me, growing up was going to school during the day and looking forward to dancing classes in the afternoon. As dance became an increasingly important part of my life, I pursued a pre-professional ballet school in Canada. I spent my last three years in high school at this rigorous dance school which then, upon graduation, led me to Boston Ballet in 2003. I have sustained my career at Boston Ballet for the past 15 years, where I am currently a Principal Dancer.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high-level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.
During my adolescent training at Marin Ballet, CA, I was fortunate to meet so many important role models and mentors who paved the way for my career as a professional ballet dancer. My first ballet teacher Svetlana Asensivea was a purist in the Vaganova technique who always reminded me that the reason “why” I dance was because I love it so dearly and it was my responsibility to showcase this commitment. At the same time, I met my first modern teacher Suzanne Saltmarsh, who introduced me to the Graham technique and allowed me to further explore movement beyond classical ballet. These two tour de force teachers allowed me to blossom and find my inner voice to discover what type of artist I would become. I then met my first male role model, Mikko Nissinen, who helped me to develop as a male lead dancer. When Cynthia Lucas took over my ballet school, she immediately suggested that I go to a pre-professional ballet school, which brought me to Canada. Although my three years of early training were complete, my dear teacher, Sergiu Stefanschi, peeled me apart and put me back together to prepare me for the professional world. He imprinted his passion and values on how I dance and what matters to me as a dancer and as an artist. Meanwhile, Mikko Nissinen had kept tabs on me, and he invited me to come to Boston Ballet when he took over as Artistic Director. All of these people significantly influenced my dance and imparted important life lessons to help me grow and become the dancer I am today.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
During my time at the National Ballet School in Canada, I met a particularly important teacher and mentor who truly encouraged me to believe in my self worth as a dancer and as an artist. Sorella Englund was my drama and expression teacher who helped me to dig deep within myself and discover meaningful expressions and interpretations to bring my characters to life. She imparted upon me the importance of bringing forth and conveying innate feelings as a beautiful and vital aspect of ballet.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
During a dress rehearsal, I gave up on myself while dancing a very difficult role for which I was not prepared. I was 5th cast for a principal role, but I was asked to dance as the lead during the dress rehearsal. When I hesitated during the rehearsal, the stager scolded me in front of the rest of the cast, and she said she would have fired me if she were the Artistic Director. I had to recover quickly and recalibrate my mental frame to be ready in 24 hours for opening night. I managed to get through the shows and make a big break from the success of overcoming, but I learned that no matter what position you’re in, first or last, you should always be prepared so that when the time comes, you are ready to produce.
What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?
I would say, you have to find your voice within your sport. Ask why you matter, what makes you important, and why you stand out among your peers. The more you are invested in yourself within the work, the more intimate and special it can become, which will, in turn, allow directors and choreographers to be intrigued by what you possess.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
During COVID-19 I have been forced to find new creative ways to continue my art and continue to stay active physically and mentally. Thankfully my creative curiosity has allowed me to team up with amazing artists outside of my field to create dance on film. I’ve been able to explore what choreography is and how to capture and share what I love best about my art: telling a story.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
Make certain that your body is well hydrated and fed properly. I find that I drink more water the week of performance to get my body well hydrated. I try to carbo load 2 days prior to dancing a stressful piece. I also have honey cough drops to suck on during show day, to keep my air ways open, while the honey gives me a little punch.
Finding your inner chi is vital. Physical activity requires a strong mind to get you through anything that may feel overwhelming. I visualize what the task is at hand, I meditate, and take a power nap for about 20 minutes about 2 hours prior to curtain. Finding the right musical playlist allows me to find a good beat, and then when its showtime, I find myself alone, keeping my mind blank, so that when the curtain rises, I am ready to attack with all I’ve been working on.
The biggest component of them all is to trust yourself and trust your instincts. Live art is never a guarantee of a perfect technical experience. So many things can go wrong that are out of your control, so trusting your intuition is important. This gets me in the right mindset and allows me to perform at the highest caliber possible.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?
Yes! Finding a calm breath is essential to calm the nerves and keep the oxygen flowing throughout the body. When I’m put in a very stressful ballet, I concentrate on my breathing that allows me to continue to move and stride forward with power.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
Allow yourself to be alone. I find that being alone before something very stressful helps you find your inner courage and ability to get out there and focus on what needs to happen.
How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?
I try to do acupressure points that trigger anything tight, and do ice baths that help with reducing lactic acid. These two strategies have helped me in all my high demand roles to overcome anxiety and be successful.
These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?
Being in my 15th year as a principal dancer, I have tried things that work and things that fail, and so you gather as much information every time you get out there to produce a high-quality show. I believe that I have created a go-to list that has become second nature in what works for my body and mind.
I wouldn’t call it a habit, I would call it being smart about optimizing your sport to achieve success. No one is perfect and so, knowing that, you’re truly striving for the best perfect within yourself.
Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
Stopping bad habits it’s simple. If you truly care about your work, you will simply pivot to anything that will make you successful. I think if you’re a type of athlete who falls into developing bad habits, then a personal coach you trust can help remind you to diminish that bad habit so that you can see successful results.
As a high performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?
This is indeed a personal question requiring self reflection. Flow is hard to achieve but, with training, persistence, patience, and above all, integrity to your own art form, you may be able to enter the world of flow. I think we all try to measure “how” to sustain or achieve that, rather than talking about how you see yourself in your own art, and what others may see you in your art to achieve optimal technical ability and artistry. It’s a fine line to try to achieve this. But not impossible. You have to believe that you are open to criticism yet have a trust in your own natural instinct. I don’t think one would “always” want to achieve flow in their daily lives, as it would lead to a type of ethereal boredom. If you achieve it, you aren’t growing any longer, and that is the death to flow. The ability to accept, stride forward, believe in one self, I believe you can achieve that flow by always wanting more, and continuing to better oneself.
Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.
The only real mediation I do is on the night before and day of the show. Visualizing what needs to happen, and then forgetting about everything and just focus on clearing my mind of distractions. I am not sure if that is technically a form of meditation but has help me focus and regroup when I’m in a stressful situation.
Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?
The best advice I can say about this is imagine you are a well-bred racing horse, ready to race, and the ultimate end game is to win, but the stakes are high. To focus in to what you need to do is to put those blinders on. If you turn your head, you will be distracted, but if you put your blinders on, you can focus on yourself and your goals. There will be endless amounts of chatter, and self-sabotage, but if you are able to focus on what you want to do, and allow all other things in your environment to not affect you, then you’ve done the best job you can do
Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have always been generous in helping my co-workers and guiding aspiring dancers if they are open to the assistance. I am forever refining and relearning my own creative art and won’t just settle for good, but always strive for more. I think if I continue to strive, everyone else will, too, because in the end, we are all striving to be the best we can be.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“Show us how much your art means to you”
I love this saying because the possibilities are endless if one is able to dig deep and showcase an honest place of what art means to them.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
I would love to sit down with Madonna. She is an artist who defies what the music industry expects and continues to innovate by continuously challenging herself. I love her bravery and her honest ambition to be a pioneer and superstar. She has set an example for many artists of all generations well beyond the world of music.