Consider two seemingly unrelated scenarios:
1. A professional golfer in the prime of his career, poised to finally win his first Masters, blows his six-stroke lead. Everything begins to unravel with a bogey on the 9th hole, and he eventually loses the tournament by five strokes.
2. A 17 year old high school student takes the SAT for the first time in March. She feels totally comfortable with the test. Her reaction afterwards: “I was really happy that I did tutoring when I was sitting there with the test in front of me. I could just start answering questions instead of thinking really hard and wasting time.” [an actual quote from an AJ Tutoring student who took the March 2016 SAT]
If you followed golf in the 1990s, you may have recognized Greg Norman’s epic 1996 Masters choke in the first scenario. Johnette Howard recently profiled Norman’s collapse for ESPN, applying 20 years of cognitive and sports psychology to explain what happened on the course that day.
On the surface, our high school student and the Great White Shark may not appear all that similar. Not so! Both are competing in intense, pressure-cooker situations where the psychology of the competitor is just as important as his knowledge or skill.
Norman turned pro in 1976, so by the time of the 1996 Masters, he had logged countless hours of practice and tournament time. He knew the ins and outs of the course and which shot to take when. But sometimes head knowledge and skill just isn’t enough to go the distance.
As Howard notes in her article, the choke often begins when people become anxious about their performance. Anxiety causes them to think too closely about actions that, at this point in their training, should be automatic. Emotional and physiological responses cascade from anxiety and overthinking, eventually handicapping the competitor’s motor skills and his ability to think clearly and calmly.
Identity threat and a fixed mindset can contribute to a collapse as well. Norman’s rival in the 1996 Masters, Nick Faldo, had already won the Masters twice (while Norman had been runner-up twice). Norman later commented that “Masters champions are there for a reason…they understand all those little crazy quirks of what Augusta National can deliver.” Although Norman was a golf pro, top-ranked in the world, he didn’t see himself as a member of the group that could win the Masters. He assumed there was something inherent or fixed in the persona of the “Masters champion” that allowed them to win the tournament – and Norman didn’t think he had what it took.
After our extended foray into the world of golf, let’s return to more familiar territory – standardized testing and test preparation. Anyone who’s tutored for any length of time is likewise familiar with the choke. We work with a student for several months leading up to test day. She participates in tutoring sessions, does all her homework and completes four timed practice SAT tests at our office. Her practice test scores are improving and we’re excited! All signs point to a great performance on the real SAT.
Then scores come back, and there’s not much improvement. Obviously this is a disappointing outcome for everyone – the student who was hoping for a great score, the tutor who feels personally invested in the student’s performance, and the parent who invested resources into the preparation. So what happened?
Often when this situation happens (which is fortunately rare!) and we talk with the family afterwards, it comes out that the student experienced severe anxiety on test day. The student will comment that she was so anxious that she “just couldn’t think”, “didn’t recognize the problems”, or couldn’t finish sections on time. Her test scores don’t accurately reflect her true knowledge and ability, much like Greg Norman’s performance at Augusta back in 1996.
“A fixed mindset person believes, ‘I’m either good at this or not.’ They say, ‘If I fail, it’s because there’s something missing from my total package here.’ But the trouble is, it’s not a growth mindset. Having that fixed attitude limits your ability to cope with the things that are happening to you.”
-Fran Pirozzolo, neuroscientist and sports psychologist
By contrast, consider the student in our second scenario above. Although we don’t have her scores yet, she felt calm, confident, and prepared. Most students with that attitude achieve great score improvements on the SAT. Notably, she commented that she “could just start answering questions” on the SAT “instead of thinking really hard and wasting time”. Our SAT student experienced the flow that occurs when actions become automatic and overthinking is absent.
And this is the million-dollar question: how do we convert our anxiety-ridden student into the calm and confident test-day superstar? How do you turn Greg Norman into a Masters champion?
While it’s true that some people are more anxious by nature and others are cool and collected under pressure, it’s possible for anyone to take a few steps to improve their mental state on game day. Here are a few proven suggestions:
Prepare. Nothing reduces anxiety like the knowledge that you’ve seen this golf course, this SAT question, this math problem a hundred times before. You automatically know the steps to solve the problem, so you can “turn off your brain” and run on autopilot. How do you prepare? Tutor with an expert (we’ll show you the questions that show up again and again). Do your homework so you know how to do the work yourself. Take timed, proctored practice tests so you’re used to the timing of the test and the pressure.
Sleep/eat/exercise. It seems like every high school student has an ultra-intense schedule these days. While we don’t advocate neglecting assignments or skipping school leading up to the SAT, you should make sure that you’re getting as much rest and nutrition as you can in the week before test day. All the preparation in the world won’t be much help if you’re tired or hungry. And try to get some exercise, even if it’s just a short walk. Getting the endorphins flowing helps brain function on test day.
Warm up. This doesn’t help everyone, but many students benefit from knocking out a few practice SAT problems over breakfast on test day. The point of this is not to learn new material – it’s to warm up your brain and establish your confidence the morning of the big test. Don’t even check your answers – remember, the point of this exercise is not to learn something new!
Breathe. Sounds goofy, but when your cortisol and adrenaline kick in and you’re in full “fight or flight” response, your heart rate increases dramatically and breathing becomes shallow. These physiological responses hamper performance in athletic and intellectual competitions. On test day, keep a few simple breathing exercises or relaxation techniques handy to calm down and refocus your brain. Try closing your eyes and breathing in for 10 counts, then out for 10 counts.
Bring a lucky pencil or chew gum (quietly!). Use the same pencil to take your practice tests, then bring it to test day. Chew gum while you’re taking your practice tests, then chew gum when you’re taking the actual SAT. Creating a physical link between your practice performances and test day will help lower your anxiety and remind you that you’ve done this before.
Visualize your success. To combat identity threat, picture yourself confidently completing every section of the SAT on time. You’re reading passages and understanding them, and you’re acing all the math problems. You’re in a state of flow. Rest confidently in the knowledge that you’ve done the work to prepare for the test, so there’s nothing standing between you and a great performance.
Turn the page and leave each section behind. This is a tough one, but the ability to compartmentalize while you’re taking the SAT (or golfing) is a valuable skill. What do you do when you know you bombed a section or bogeyed on the 9th hole? Leave it behind. Your performance on that section doesn’t have to affect your performance on the rest of the test. Students are remarkably bad judges of how many questions they actually missed, and they tend towards catastrophic thinking. If you think you had a bad section, try your breathing exercises, stretch, pull out that lucky pencil and get going on the next section.
Maintain perspective. Even if you don’t get the score that you want, chances are you’ll be able to retake the test. We recommend that students plan on taking the SAT or ACT two or three times in order to work out the kinks and maximize their score. Very few students achieve their goal score on the first test, and every actual test you take gives you valuable test-day experience, helping you stay calm and confident the next time. And if you never get that perfect 1600 or 36? Life goes on. You’ll still get into a good college and the SAT and ACT will be a distant memory, just another learning experience along the way to becoming an adult.
While the merits of the SAT and the ACT continue to be debated in national media, it’s indisputable that these tests provide a valuable training ground for how to thrive in high-pressure situations. Rather than shrinking away from the challenge, we encourage students to seize this opportunity to practice their “game day” skills, which will surely serve them in good stead later in life.