CN D Magazine

#6 june 24

Preparing “Arthletes” to Break at the Olympic Games

Léa Poiré

Mathilde Uson, physical trainer for the French breaking team

Born in the streets of the Bronx in the early 1970’s, breaking has since made its way to the Olympics. The urban dance style was featured in the 2018 Youth Games in Buenos Aires, and will be added as a new sport in this year’s Paris competitions. This stunning evolution has brought international recognition to b-girls and b-boys, and made it easier for some of them to make a living from breaking. Along with these changes has also come a greater emphasis on something the discipline had long neglected: the health of performers. Mathilde Uson is a trainer specializing in the physical preparation of athletes, and she works with the French breaking team at the National Institute of Sport, Expertise, and Performance (INESP) in Paris. As the last round of selections for the Olympics approaches, she tells us about her behind-the-scenes job training these high-level artists-athletes.

How would you define your job as a physical trainer?

Mathilde Uson: Our job is to develop athletes from a physical point of view. We seek to make the most of their athletic potential and improve their performance in their chosen field. It’s a lesser-known profession compared to coaches, who have usually been in the business for a long time. Our work is multi-disciplinary, focusing as much on weight lifting as on increasing strength or explosiveness, while also working on nutrition and sleep. I often stress that, as a woman, it’s still very complicated to enter the field of high-level training and to do this job.

In the world of break dance, health and awareness of the body hasn’t always been a priority… 

M.U.: Many breaking pioneers damaged their bodies. It’s a discipline where the body endures a lot, and one of the sports where the risk of serious injury, including chronic inflammation, is highest. Dancers are constantly taking risks in their movements, with lots of stretching, speed, and power. And if the body isn’t prepared, it won’t compromise. The main injuries are to the menisci – because of footwork, to the cervical vertebrae – because of turns on the head, and to the wrists –because dancers use them so much to push off the floor. The pelvic girdle – the adductors, abductors, hip flexors – are also used a lot for rotational movements. These are very small muscle groups that don’t like to be pushed too much.

Is there a specific physical preparation for b-girls and b-boys?

M.U.: My approach is to bring together ten or so athletes, to create a collective that I train together in the same sessions. Whether they’re judokas or breakers, they all have the same goal – they want a medal, in the Olympics or Paralympics. On average, preparation takes place over four one-hour sessions per week, with a program that balances the development of physical capacities, preventive weight lifting, and cardiovascular training. Outside of competition periods, our sessions can be twice as long. It’s important to remember that, in breaking, training sessions are very long, sometimes lasting up to five hours. The older generation would even spend all day in the studio. So, the idea is to help dancers understand how to optimize their workload. For example, to do more cardio during our sessions in a focused way in order to be more effective. The idea is for me to learn from their discipline and for them to understand physiology, so that we can work hand in hand.

Have you seen any evolutions in the dancers you train? 

M.U.: These days my focus is particularly on Carlota Dudek – whom I’ve been following since 2018, right from the start of her Olympic career – and Khalil Chabouni. Khalil is a senior b-boy, with a 20-year career behind him, so he wasn’t expected to be preparing for the Games, and yet here he is. Carlota has developed her muscles a lot, and I often laugh and say: “I’ll take 10% of your shoulder gains!”. Her heart rate has also improved – she gets much less tired and she’s faster. Also, some of the moves she couldn’t do at first, she can now do easy-peasy. It’s hard to tell whether it’s thanks to an improvement in break technique or strength, but for me it’s a combination of both.

What do you do in terms of recovery and warm-up?

M.U.: When breaking was first recognized as a sport, we worked with various professions – physiotherapists, coaches, doctors – to set up recovery protocols. INSEP provides everything we need for this. We give as much information as possible to breakers so that they can implement recovery protocols in their daily lives: stretching to keep their break style elastic, taking a cold bath after working out or to recover from jet lag, and when to use hot water instead. Warming up, on the other hand, is very personal. We’re there to guide them, to remind them of the importance of joint mobility, how to gradually increase the heart rate, etc. Everyone organizes their warm-up in their own way. Some need to put themselves in a bubble, while others need to be pushed around a bit. That said, I still see a lot of young people throwing themselves onto the mats without having warmed up properly!

How do dancers approach an Olympic competition?

M.U.: An event like this needs to be prepared over the course of at least four years. At the beginning, everything had to be done with these athletes: in-depth work to prevent potential injuries, to raise the bar physically, to educate. Now, with the qualifying rounds, we’re in the final phase. Preparation is more specific to their individual styles: very short and intense cardio, prophylaxis [Editor’s note: preventing the onset or spread of disease and injury], more recovery. The aim is to boost their energy so that they can be as fresh as possible to tackle the battle.

What about preparing their minds for the event?

M.U.: Breaking is an artistic sport, which gives a lot of room for freedom. With the psychologists here at INSEP, we try to make sure that the physical aspect is closely linked to an athlete’s emotional and mental state by asking, “how can we make sure that they are in the best possible frame of mind in a complicated environment?”. As the Games get closer, the stress level is enormous! I think that every person involved with preparing an athlete has their mental health impacted. I pay particular attention to the words I use, to showing empathy, and to establishing a relationship of trust. They are human beings first and foremost, as well as top-level athletes and dancers.

Léa Poiré is an independent journalist based in Paris and Lyon. After studying choreography and being in charge of the dance section and co-editor in chief for Mouvement magazine, she is now working in cultural journalism, media education, and she collaborates regularly with choreographer Mette Edvardsen as a researcher. She is also the editor of CN D magazine.

Qualifying series in Shanghai
Watch online

Qualifying series in Budapest
June 20 to 23, watch online

Breaking events during the Paris Olympic Games
August 9 and 10 at place de la Concorde