Keeping the Bearcats on their toes

by Tom Morlan,

The groundbreaking research of Monya Maleki ’19 brings the benefits of ballet to the football arena.

  • Monya Maleki ’19 leads the Willamette football team in a ballet exercise.
  • Monya Maleki ’19 leads the Willamette football team in a ballet exercise.
  • Monya Maleki ’19 leads the Willamette football team in a ballet exercise.
  • Monya Maleki ’19 leads the Willamette football team in a ballet exercise.
  • Monya Maleki ’19 leads the Willamette football team in a ballet exercise.

Monya Maleki ’19 took her first ballet steps when she was 3, and she brought her love of dance to Willamette. Little did she know it would propel her into the world of sports medicine research.

During her senior year, the exercise and health science major pioneered a study on the potential benefits of ballet for football players. Her work turned heads in the field of sports medicine, altered the training regimen for some of the university’s top athletes and transformed her educational experience.

“When I came to Willamette, I was all over the place I was taking economics, French and creative writing at the same time,” Maleki said. “But after I took an exercise and health science class, I said to myself, ‘This is what I want to do.’ Ever since then, it’s been a great journey.”

Maleki presented her findings at a conference of the Northwest American College of Sports Medicine this past spring. She watched in delight as Bearcat football players performed with the Willamette Dance Company in April. And she inspired Head Coach Isaac Parker to require weekly ballet classes for every member of his team next season.  

Setting things in motion

The remarkable series of events began unfolding this past fall, when Maleki was working as an athletic trainer at Willamette’s sports medicine center. One of her friends was on the football team, and she noticed his lack of flexibility. She thought she could help.

“I remember thinking, ‘You should take a ballet class,’ Maleki said. “I looked into it, and there was no research on it.”

Convinced that ballet could increase a football player’s range of motion, Maleki wanted to test her hypothesis. Associate Professor Michael Lockard told her to go for it.

“I wasn’t sure it was feasible, but he was very encouraging and supportive of the idea,” Maleki said. “Without his support, I wouldn’t have pursued it.”

With the help of placekicker KayLyn Stirton ’19, Maleki found 10 Bearcats to participate in a pilot study that measured flexibility, agility and balance. The football players took 30-minute ballet classes three days a week for three weeks. Kyra Faulstich ’19 helped analyze the results.

‘The agility data is what really caught my eye,” Maleki said. “In the Illinois agility test, the ballet group beat the control group by two full seconds. They got faster.”

The results were so promising that Lockard encouraged Maleki to share them at the Northwest American College of Sports Medicine conference in Bend, Oregon. He helped her put together a successful application, and she spoke at the conference in March.

Following a promising path

In her final semester, Maleki expanded the scope of her research. Twenty-two football players volunteered for the two-month study, which involved 45-minute classes three days a week. They embraced ballet and demonstrated their new skills in the Willamette Dance Company’s Spring Showcase.

“They were so excited,” Maleki said. “They took the challenge and ran with it. I was very impressed with the stuff they could handle. They learned Intermediate-level skills very quickly.”

The entire football squad will get with the program in the fall. Maleki will team up with Natalie Pate ’15 to teach weekly ballet classes throughout the 2019 season.

In the meantime, Faulstich is analyzing data from the latest study. Maleki is hoping to have the results published in an academic journal something she never anticipated when she came to Willamette from Eugene, Oregon, four years ago.

“My mom’s a researcher, and I was so intimidated by the complexity of research that I never wanted to go near it,” Maleki said with a laugh. “But now it’s exciting. I actually enjoy it.”

She plans to pursue a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree and keep researching. “I want to explore new ways to improve physical therapy,” Maleki said. ”Pairing research with physical therapy could be very beneficial.”

Maleki is excited about her future career, and she’s grateful for her time at Willamette. She found purpose as she followed her passion, and now she’s heading down a promising path.

“My professors provided me with opportunities I didn’t even know existed,” Maleki said. “I was definitely set up for success.”

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