Meet Chris McCann, Physical Development Lead at The Royal Ballet School
From living in Japan as a rugby union strength and conditioning coach to travelling Asia with the Chinese Olympic Committee, Chris McCann now combines his passions for science and high-level performance at The Royal Ballet School.
Joining the School as the Physical Development Lead in September 2023, Chris oversees our strength and conditioning and sports science programme at White Lodge and Upper School.
We spoke to Chris about his work at the School and his role in optimising dancer development in training.
Integrating strength and conditioning in ballet training
Much of your role involves working within our multidisciplinary Healthcare team to reduce injury risk and achieve artistic excellence. Can you tell me more about the aim of your work as Physical Development Lead?
We put programmes together that aim to create the physiological adaptations we want to target in the student’s training, from increasing bone mineral density and tendon strength to the general robustness of muscle tissue. We know that the students do so much at the School and train for long hours, so first and foremost, they need to be as robust as they can to handle that load. Another big part of my role is working with the Artistic staff on specific physical qualities they feel need improving on a case-by-case basis.
You bring a wealth of experience in elite sport to your role, from professional golf to rugby league, athletics, football, and now classical ballet training. What excites you about working at the School?
There is a lot of potential in integrating strength and conditioning into the training of ballet dancers, the part that it will play in the future and how positive it can be in supplementing their training and keeping them robust from injury.
Art meets science
Chris’ team conducts termly screening and profiling exercises to understand our young dancers better. The results help gather rich insights to inform conditioning programmes to support student development and performance outcomes.
Using force desks, the team conduct jump-testing to measure lower body power, isometric squat tests to measure general lower body strength, isometric plantar flexion to measure calf and ankle strength, and a drop jump to measure a student’s reactive strength index. Boys from Year 10 upwards also undertake overhead strength testing.
When conducting the tests on the students, what do you look for in the data, and what is the purpose of profiling?
All the decisions we make in terms of rehabilitation are evidence-based and backed by the data we collect in profiling. Profiling essentially paints us a picture of the dancer as an athlete, what they’re good at, and what they’re not so good at, so we can mould their programmes in accordance with their strengths and weaknesses.
Research shows that anything bigger than a 10% asymmetry is a potential risk factor for injury. If an athlete can jump 12% higher on one leg than the other, we know we need to change and target their programme.
Utilising data to improve wellbeing
You mentioned using data and science to support our young dancers. Used also by the Healthcare teams at our parent companies, The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, can you tell me about Smartabase?
Smartabase is an athlete performance management system, that has an app that we use at the School to measure the students’ wellbeing. It’s where we house all our medical notes, and we display various collections of our data, on specific dashboards for simple visualisation. In particular, we can keep track of the short-term and long-term load our athletes are experiencing and how they respond to that.
Through initiatives like profiling, Smartabase, and sports science research, Chris and our Healthcare team are driving forward dance science, helping support students in managing the demands of vocational training in preparation for life as professionals. Can you share anything you have learned while with the School?
I’ve learned how demanding life as a ballet dancer is. The physical qualities of the students have surprised me, and there are a handful of students who are producing world-class numbers in their profiling tests. I’ve still got a lot to learn in terms of ballet technique, and I’m definitely in need of some lessons.
Lastly, what advice could you give fellow strength and conditioning and dance professionals?
My philosophy on how I work in strength and conditioning is based on two principles. My first is to keep things simple. People feel pressured to do something different, but there are years of research behind why certain things work, so there’s no point in trying to reinvent the wheel. The other principle I work by is thinking long-term rather than short-term. There’s no point in chasing short-term gains at the expense of the long-term. There’s potential here to have up to eight years of structured development with a student. Alongside our Artistic staff, it’s an exciting journey we can all be a part of.