It’s that time of year again, when minds suddenly become focused on what lies ahead and there is that dawning realisation that it’s now or never! Exams. Whether results are the key to unlocking the next level of achievement or are the make-or-break when it comes to career success, there can be so much resting on the outcome of these tests that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by expectations of success.
Each year tens of thousands of students sit formal examinations, be they for school, college, university or work – there’s no getting away from the facts here – exams are part of everyday life. Their very purpose is that they are there to test us, but for some, that challenge can feel overwhelming. The possibility of failure weighs heavy, and in my experience, this can cause one of two reactions – either the student decides it’s all too hard and far easier not to care, or they work themselves into the ground, driven by fear of failure, and end up buckling just when they need to perform.
So, how is it that some people are seemingly able to sail through their exams with little obvious fuss or concern, while others stutter, stumble and stress out throughout the entire process?
The secret lies in thinking like a ‘winner’. You ask any sporting personality (and I’ve had the privilege of being able to ask a few!) what gives them the edge and without fail they will reply: preparation, practise and positivity. So many students bristle with panic the minute they walk into the exam hall and this creates a ‘thought environment’ that is unconducive to success. Thinking like a winner never depends on what environment you are performing in. Of course, it’s important to understand the lie of the land – whether it be the Yas Marina circuit, the crease at Eden Gardens or the exam hall – performance depends far more on mindset.
So, how to think and deliver like a winner? This is all about learning how to frame what’s expected of you; the ability to think in a certain way. Successful sports people do this in a variety of ways, but underpinning everything is self-confidence and self-belief. They build an understanding of what makes a winner tick, a blue-print for success.
Over the years I have interviewed numerous successful sports people from a range of disciplines. When asked what they are thinking about when they perform, this is how the conversation goes:
‘Are you concerned or worried about winning the trophy today?’ No.
‘What are you thinking about when you’re out there on the course?’ – Nothing I’m just playing golf.
‘Do you worry about the crowd’s opinion, if you hit a bad shot?’ – No.
‘What are you thinking then?’ Nothing, I’m just playing golf.
‘Come on, you must really worry that last time you played against this person, you lost to them?’ No, not me, I’m just playing golf.
‘The last time you were at this circuit you made an error and spun out of contention? These past mistakes or the times you’ve lost must play on your mind?’ Nope. No. I’m just driving my car. Driving my race.
‘But the sponsorship deals, the trappings, adoration they must weigh heavy?’ – No, just doing my thing.
Over the years, I’ve worked with many sportsmen who come to me when they are in the grips of a losing streak, trying to regain their winning form. It’s always struck me that when asked similar questions, their responses reveal a very different mindset.
‘What are you thinking about out there?’ – There’s so much to take in, so much to remember, it can be overwhelming.
‘Do you worry about the trophies and the sponsors?’– Yes of course I do – it’s unbearable – I must win at any cost, I need the credibility winning brings.
‘Do you worry about the crowd’s opinion?’ Oh yes of course, I don’t want to let the crowd down.
‘What about past mistakes?’ – Oh yes, my mind is always on what I did wrong last time, I cannot allow that to happen again. Last time I played this person, or at this venue, I messed it up.
So, what did I learn? The answers prove that by thinking about the consequences first and foremost, those who were struggling to perform were overwhelmed by extraneous concerns and couldn’t hook into the reason they were there in the first place. The result? Their minds were not actually in the game at all. They were off somewhere else focusing on the outcome and the game play.
I see this replicated in students all the time. It’s exactly the same, except the trophies they’re chasing are A grades, the expectant supporters making up the crowd are their parents, their peers and their teachers and it’s their fear of the outcomes that leads them to underperform. Past mistakes, errors and missed opportunities crowd the mind and make it difficult to drown out the negativity.
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‘I can’t’ suddenly becomes the mantra and when that happens it causes the brain to fog and the resilience to falter.
This negativity clouds your ability to recall the information needed. In fact, so many people who fail to perform properly in the exam or panic when the information doesn’t come readily to them, cruelly remember the answers the moment they have finished the exam! You then risk getting a layered effect; the next time you sit an exam you remember the blanking and memory paralysis of the previous time. Subsequently, going on to blank even more. The compound effect is that a student’s confidence is eroded over time.
The most important part of a winner’s psyche is to be fully and properly prepared. Success takes hard work. There is no other way to dress it up. It involves sacrifice. The question you need to ask yourself is are you prepared to commit? Think of studying as your training regime, commit to it, build up stamina and learn to form a winning habit.
Your state of mind also affects your memory and your ability to recall facts. Positivity and that ‘can do’ attitude go a long way and is closely connected to that first winning strand ‘preparation’. If you feel properly prepared it gives you an innate sense of positivity. Learning how to learn is just as important as the knowledge we’re acquiring. Flexing your memory muscles, your critical thinking processes and being active rather than passive in your revision will bind those skills and knowledge together, so that when it comes to the big day you can pull out your A game.
Pressure has become a negative word in our vocabulary, and when we have too much it can be debilitating, but all of our sporting successes will tell you that some pressure is good for you when it comes to delivering a top performance. Stress produces adrenaline and adrenaline in small amounts can actually help you. It’s only when adrenaline levels peak that it starts to become a problem. You need a balance of pressure and calmness at exam time. You should have trained well to disseminate the required knowledge on the day, you should be well versed at delivering it, whatever and wherever the circumstances or venue.
A good technique is to practise by reproducing exam conditions. This begins to train your mind to associate exam conditions with what you are recalling. Timing is an integral factor in exam success, so break every element down to time and replicate it over and over again. Finally, recognise that during the exam itself all you are doing is communicating what you’ve learned. In the same way that during golf’s Dubai Desert Classic the players are just playing golf… that’s all. Trophies, prize money, public opinion all disappear… that time, in that moment it’s just golf.
Russell Hemmings is a Dubai-based life coach and hypnotherapist.