The Ballerina and the Ball Player

By Douglas Nelson
[Table Lessons]

She was a charming and intelligent young lady, 14 years old, and in the starring role of a significant ballet performance.

This young woman had worked tirelessly to get the leading role in this ballet and the competition was fierce. Opportunities for this kind of role don’t come often for people in ballet. There are tons of leagues for kids in sports where multiple kids get a chance to perform. In the arts, the opportunities for really excellent experiences are much less common.

For my young ballerina, the problem was pain. The stress on the lower extremity in ballet is intense; the demands are unlike any other activity that I can think of. This young woman had trained for years already, getting serious about dance at age 6. The hours and dedication she allotted to dance were admirable. No one was pushing her. She found her calling and she wanted dance as a career.

As you might expect, when the pain began, she and her family were concerned. Her parents did not want her to do anything that might worsen the injury. They supported her love of dance, but were concerned for her long-term health first and foremost. Seeing her in pain, they took her to a physician for an exam.

As the young woman described her pain, and the doctor asked more questions about her practice and rehearsal schedule, the prescription was predictable. Essentially, if dancing is causing you pain, then you must take time off from dance for a period of six weeks. This advice was administered after waiting for almost three weeks to get in to see the doctor, during which the family had limited her dancing, not knowing what else to do. Although our young ballerina wasn’t happy about it, she complied. Unfortunately, when she resumed (and did so carefully), the pain was right there to greet her.

After I finished working on her (the details are largely unimportant to this story), I had to rush over to see a star collegiate athlete in a big-time program. The trainer had called that morning and asked if I would see the athlete the same day. Upon arrival, the trainer (who is one of the most knowledgeable and sincere I have ever worked with) gave me every detail of this kid’s discomfort. He detailed every nuance of the injury: when it started, prevailing symptoms, what had been done, who has been involved. Before the young man walked in the door, I already had tons of information at my disposal. After 45 minutes with this young man, the offending soft tissue was clearly identified, I had treated him appropriately, and the trainer knew how to integrate what I had discovered into the athlete’s daily strength and conditioning.

As I was driving home, I was struck by the contrast between these two athletes. If we follow the logic of the first doctor, and if the offending activity is the source of the pain, the activity must be ceased for a period of time. Really? In all my years, I have never seen a high profile collegiate or professional athlete sidelined for weeks in the middle of the season for rest.

You may be tempted to think that the athlete being pushed back onto the field too early was risking further injury. In my experience, the higher profile the program, the better the training and support staff. I have been awed by the care and competence I have seen, especially at the collegiate level.

In contrast, the dancer received no care at all. Why is that? My young college star played the next game (in fact, did not miss a game all season), and is in excellent shape now. Our dancer was told to give up her dream when the pain returned, something that she and her parents could not accept. Thankfully, one treatment made all the difference. She was able to resume dancing in a matter of days, except now she was far behind in her conditioning, which put her more at risk than ever for another injury.

It is sad, but the difference in allocation of resources is simply attributed to what we value as a society. A young violist or dancer with pain is not treated the same as a star basketball or football player. One gets all the resources; the other is told to redirect their ambition and passion. How sad.

I could not attend the ballet to see my young dancer, as I was teaching in another part of the country. While at dinner that Saturday evening, I happened to glance up at a monitor to see the athlete I had treated in a nationally televised game. While wonderful, it was perhaps even more satisfying later to get a text message from the young dancer, thrilled with her performance that evening.  


Douglas Nelson is the founder and principle instructor for Precision Neuromuscular Therapy Seminars and president of the 16-therapist clinic BodyWork Associates in Champaign, Illinois. His clinic, seminars, and research endeavors explore the science behind this work. Visit or e-mail him at