5 Lessons Athletes Can Learn from Improv

by Emily Horgan

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As a former college athlete and current UCB improv student, I notice the same kind of teamwork in both my improv classes and my rowing practices. I didn’t take improv classes while I was still an athlete, but I really wish I had; improv adds perspective that can help athletes with performance and teamwork.

Here are five ways that improv can improve your athletic performance.

1. Improv Helps You Stay Present

Staying present is so important in practice and, especially, on race or game day. You can drive yourself crazy playing different scenarios in your head. What if we have a rocky start? What if there’s a tailwind? Why? You have no control over any of these factors. You’ll never feel ready by trying to predict every possible scenario. Instead, you need to be ready to handle the unexpected.

In improv, we learn to prepare a “toolkit” that can help you succeed  in any scene (and situation), rather thinking up a script that you stick to. We learn that it is important to have a plan, and that it’s just as important to be able to steer away from that plan and roll with the punches.

Applying this concept to sports: The more you can stay present in your actions and emotions, the easier it is to adjust to the conditions in front of you in real time and successfully beat out your opponent. In rowing, you have to focus on the task at hand, the stroke you are taking in that moment -- not on where you are going to be in 1,000 meters. Staying present helps you find that sweet spot between being psyched up for your race, but also keeping your nerves from getting the best of you.

2. Improv Reinforces That It’s About the Team’s Overall Performance, Not Just the Individual’s Performance

As athletes, we put so much pressure on ourselves to carry the team on our backs, or we may even hope for a shining moment for ourselves on the court. Neither of these headspaces are ideal or sustainable. It is most important to put the wellbeing of the team, and their performance, before your own.

The same rings true for improv. An improv show is entirely a team effort. Even when you are not in the scene, you can always listen from the backline to support your teammates by helping out with in the scene. One or two people don’t make a team, whether it’s sports or improv.

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3. Improv Teaches You How to Build Trust

Having trust in your teammates is one of the most important parts of a successful sports team.

The more you can depend on your teammates, the more you will want to work hard for these people, and the more motivated you are to show up to practice every day.

In an improv scene, you have to trust your teammates too. The more you trust your teammate, the more comfortable you’ll feel trying new ideas; you’ll feel more confident that your teammate will understand and support whatever crazy idea you have, and overall you’ll want to work hard to get better at improv.

4. Improv Helps You Really Learn to Listen to Your Teammates

Communication is key. In improv, if you are initiating (starting) in a scene, you need to communicate clearly with your scene partner. They can’t read your mind -- so if you decide that in this scene you’re a couple of bankers, you can’t assume that they’ll understand your decision just from the way you’re sitting, or the mere fact that you mentioned being at a bank.

Meanwhile, if you’re joining a scene that someone else is initiating, you have to listen for verbal cues and look out for nonverbal cues from your scene partner, making sure you have their back at all times.

The same is completely true for athletic teammates. In rowing, you have to listen to your teammates, verbally and nonverbally. You have to hear the instructions that your coxswain is giving you, see when your teammates are putting their blades in the water, feel the rhythm of the boat and adjust your next moves accordingly. In improv, we talk a lot about striving to have a “group mind,” where everyone in the scene is on the same page. Having a group mind on an athletic team is just as important and will help you be a better teammate.

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5. Improv Reminds You to Have Fun

Truly, the most important rule in improv is to have fun. Athletics are a lot of work, and it is easy to get bogged down about early morning practices or having to sacrifice in other parts of your life. However, you probably got into this sport in the first place because you had fun doing it. Improv is a great reminder to follow that fun and not to take yourself too seriously.

Want to bring an improv workshop to your athletic team? Send us an email and we'll get started on designing a workshop customized specifically for your team.

Emily Horgan is a UCB intern, improv student and former Division I athlete.