The parallels between sporting events and exams are perhaps more common than you first think: intense, one-off events, the culmination of months, if not years, of preparation and hard work, with success defined by narrow margins.
In the world of sport, athletes seek to gain any advantage they can to deal with such pressures by not only focusing on their physical training, but on their ‘mental training’, too, in the form of sports psychology.
A notable example is the New Zealand rugby team, aka the All Blacks. After they lost in the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter-finals, despite being tournament favourites, they embraced the use of sports psychologists to complement their physical preparations and prowess. They won the next two World Cups in a row.
Given the similarities between sports and school exams, could some of the psychological techniques used by the world’s best athletes apply to pupils, ensuring that they rise to the occasion rather than buckle under nerves?
Dr Duncan Fletcher, senior lecturer in performance psychology and management at Loughborough University, certainly thinks so.
“There are lots of crossovers from sports psychological to academia, where motivation, training and performing under pressure are all central to achieving your goals,” he says.
Here are his top sports psychology tips for exam season.
Embrace the nerves
In a world of fine margins, even the most fleeting lack of focus due to nerves can cause performance to suffer. A dive that was perfect in training leans slightly to one side in competition; hurdles cleared with ease in practice are suddenly unleapable obstacles on race day.
Similarly, every teacher will know students who are more than capable of passing their exams, but who fail to achieve their potential because they let nerves get the better of them.
Interestingly, Fletcher says that the idea shouldn’t be to eliminate these nerves.
“Nerves are a good thing as they show the student knows it’s important and that they care,” he says.
But teachers do need to help pupils control these nerves and even use them to their advantage. “It’s not about getting rid of the butterflies, but getting them to fly in formation,” Fletcher adds, quoting a common sports psychology mantra.
One of the most important ways to do this is by ensuring students have the confidence to know that they can perform on the day of the exam. Fletcher says that a good way of doing this is with ‘simulation training’, such as holding mock exams that are actually harder than the real thing.
“This might be done by adding more questions, or reducing the time they have to sit the exam by five or 10 minutes,” says Fletcher.
This is similar to the way that runners will train further than their event distance or swimmers train in damaged suits to slow them down. Doing so is often why the world’s best athletes win even when they are clearly not performing at their best.
“This sort of exam testing will mean that even if nerves do affect a student’s performance, they should still be able to perform as required, because the test itself will seem easier by comparison than what they were doing in training,” Fletcher explains.
Analyse every aspect of performance
This is another key area of sports psychology. The success of the British cycling team has been helped by their obsessive performance analysis looking for marginal gains. Similarly, the process of reviewing the minute details of a 100m runner’s start technique can bring significant race-time benefits.
Fletcher says that it’s important to discuss with pupils who don’t perform well in these tests why they felt it went wrong, so that they can understand how to improve. This should be collaborative and dig into every detail. Small things can make a big difference.
Rehearse the situation
Fletcher says that time should be given to rehearsing the exam day itself as closely as possible, just as athletes run through competition day. This enables the individual to focus their minds on the task at hand, rather than worrying about how to get to the exam hall or being overawed by the surroundings.
“I know a diver who was part of the synchronized dive final at the Olympics,” he says. “He and his partner rehearsed their entire finals day the week before the event, from the breakfast they ate, to what time they got the bus to the venue, to the exact length that they would have to wait between dives – all so that they knew exactly what to expect. They won the silver medal.”
“This is definitely a tactic that can help with exam preparation,” he continues. “Of course, some of it is out of teachers’ control, like what a student has for breakfast, but they can still do things like take the pupils to the exam hall so that they’re familiar with the location.
“It’s also important to ensure that any mock exams mirror the feeling of the day itself, such as the wait before they enter the exam hall, the order they walk in, what they’re allowed in the exam hall and so on, so they know what to expect and don’t feel intimidated by the exam situation itself.”
Anticipate the unexpected
No matter how good the preparation, it’s never possible to predict what questions an exam will pose. But, again, there are some sporting tips that can help students to deal with the unexpected.
“Often players or teams will discuss how they’ll react in certain situations, both positive and negative, and this is something that teachers should do as well,” says Fletcher.
“You should talk with pupils about how they will react if, say, they feel that the paper has no questions they feel confident answering, or how to remain calm if every question is perfect for them and that makes them too excited to focus properly. It really helps to verbalise these sorts of scenarios and how to react to them, so pupils feel confident they can deal with anything the exam throws at them.”
Teachers need to be visible
The role of the coach in sport is central to the success of the athlete or team – and not just in the preparation stage. Whether it is Jessica Ennis-Hill or Andy Murray, the coach is a visual presence throughout the performance itself.
At certain points, they can offer advice, but their role at this stage tends to be more to provide reassurance and confidence.
Fletcher says that the presence of the coach can be a key factor in success, and that teachers should try to ensure that they perform a similar role on exam day. With timetables and workload as it is, that may be tough, but if teachers can make an appearance during the day, your students will invariably benefit.
As to what you might say to your students, Fletcher says: “You should focus on the facts to boost their confidence: so point out successes they’ve already had, that they sat a mock that was harder and that they’ve spent a year studying and know the subject.”
Daniel Watson is a freelance journalist based in London