CRYSTAL LAKE – Breathe, Judith Svalander said. Just breathe.
Cary-Grove’s volleyball players obliged, grabbing the bars in front of them inside the Judith Svalander School of Ballet studio in Crystal Lake and raising their legs behind them. Then, standing straight again, the Trojans brought their shoulders up, sucked their tummies back toward their spines and relaxed their knees over their toes.
This is how the body naturally should align, studio owner Svalander explained. By standing straight, pelvis back and knees over the toes, athletes can learn to jump better, be stronger and, ultimately, exude confidence.
It’s about sleek lines and aesthetics – not something on which volleyball players, or many other athletes for that matter, focus. That’s part of the reason C-G coach Patty Langanis booked time in the ballet studio. While her young team needed confidence, the Trojans also needed fresh perspectives on how to play the game.
Ballet has supplied both.
“This is cross training that is necessary to keep the body as healthy as possible,” Svalander said as each Trojans player worked on pressing her knee out
over her toes inside the bright room with a white ceramic ceiling. “If you train in an activity that’s different than what you’re doing, you use different muscles. Your brain and central nervous system is challenged in a way that makes you more mentally alert, which will bring out more peak performances.”
Langanis thought her players could benefit from cross training in ballet, especially after watching her own young daughter, Kobi, become a successful ballerina. Langanis saw the different ways Kobi worked to develop her muscles and the precision with which the ballerinas at Svalander’s studio practiced.
Langanis initially was inspired to take her quizzical players to the studio because Langanis’ daughter, Kobi, is a successful ballerina. The different stretches and movement Kobi uses intrigued Langanis and made her think about how the techniques could help her volleyball players.
After just three ballet sessions, the Trojans suddenly had more breath control, better posture and improved alignment.
As Svalander walked around the studio, her eyes trained on middle hitter Kayli Trausch.
“Jump off your heel,” Svalander told Trausch. Trausch tried and nodded.
“Usually you just jump off your toes because that seems natural,” Trausch said. “But going off my heels I felt like I was jumping so much higher and it was actually easier.”
It helps prevent injuries too. It’s common in volleyball to see girls with knee braces and ankle supports, and shoulders tend to wear down from overuse.
Since starting the ballet training, Trausch hasn’t reached for an ice pack after practice. The Trojans all are more cognizant of the way they protect their knees. Learning how to shift their balance, a focal point for ballerinas, also has helped.
“For setting, I have to make sure I do that,” said Meghan Seymour, the Trojans’ senior setter. “I am more level, and I’m more aligned with myself.”
When the Trojans came into the studio, their feet thudded against the wood floors. Instead of coordinating movements, they just kind of danced around, Kobi said. Now, C-G players correctly turn out their toes from the hips instead of the knees, point their feet, hold their posture and move their arms correctly.
“I’ve already seen a huge improvement,” said Kobi, who landed the lead in this year’s rendition of The Nutcracker. “They know what they’re doing now.”
It isn’t just about the way their bodies move. Like Svalander promised, the Trojans present themselves differently. Svalander often tells her dancers to present themselves as if they’re wearing royal jewels around their necks. Tall. Proud. Confident.
“When you’re standing up straight, it affects the eyes,” Svalander said. “You’re looking at someone and saying, ‘We’re going to win. We’re powerful. We’re strong.’ When your body posture caves in, you’re exposing weakness you have, or ones you don’t even have.
“It will help them later on whether it’s a job interview, whether it’s volleyball, whether it’s dance,” Svalander said. “They’ll be ready to succeed.”
Toward the end of the session, the Trojans donned tutus and worked on their footwork. Forming a long line in the middle of the studio, each player moved quickly and gracefully through the four ballet positions to music from the famous Swan Lake.
“So much of our sport is about balance, control and core strength and flexibility,” Langanis said. “We’re not here to get immensely stronger. It’s about having an awareness of your body, which I think can help anybody be better at their sport.”
The Trojans turned their season around to finish tied for second place in the Fox Valley Conference Valley Division with Prairie Ridge. C-G will face Jacobs at 6 p.m. today in the IHSA Class 4A Dundee-Crown quarterfinals, a chance to advance to Tuesday’s semifinals and play rival and top-seeded Crystal Lake South hanging in the balance.
C-G just has to remember to breathe. Stand up straight. Face its opponent with confidence.
“We definitely look at the other teams with more confidence,” Seymour said. “We really stand up tall after what we’ve learned here. It kind of makes all the girls feel confident, and that is contagious.”