Exams are important, and as a result, can be a very stressful experience. Some students excel under pressure and others find it monstrously difficult. We’ve all felt for the pupils who work incredibly hard, but crumble under pressure and suffer results that don’t reflect reality.
But what if there was a way to help students increase the odds of performing better under pressure? We can take lessons from sport and apply them to the education sector to help students improve their academic performance and mental wellbeing.
WHO AM I?
I started archery on my 15th birthday as a way to get out the house after my disability stopped me from taking part in other sports. Three years later I made the Great Britain team, jumping straight in as world number one, a position I hung onto for the rest of my career.
I won Paralympic gold in Beijing 2008 and again in London 2012, and became the first disabled athlete to represent – and win gold – for England at the Commonwealth Games.
Archery started as a hobby, but it became a career and it was one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had. Sport taught me about drive, dedication and perseverance. It taught me about personal responsibility, competition and how to bounce back from failure.
I grew in confidence and esteem and I also learned an awful lot about performance – how to turn a scarily huge vision into a reality. But mostly sport taught me about myself. It showed me how mentally strong I was; that when I thought I had reached my limit I could always dig a little deeper and push a little further.
I learned that my greatest strength was my ability to produce results when it really mattered, that I would not crumble and choke under pressure.
At elite level athletes have one goal: gold. It’s exciting, it’s addictive and it’s horribly stressful. We train for years, preparing ourselves to deliver results on the day. No ifs, no buts, no excuses. Sound familiar? This is exactly what students do. Their academic career is geared up towards the exams at the end of it. They prepare, they revise and they have to perform on the day.
The difference is that athletes are taught how to deal with pressure, to turn the stress of competition into a comfort zone. Sport psychology allows us to get the most out of ourselves and make sure our mental health is looked after, channelling our nervous energy to increase the chance of performing to the best of our ability.
Since retiring from elite sport, I’ve been working in primary and secondary schools to help students deal with the pressure of exams. I deliver sports performance and psychology strategies to improve academic performance and mental wellbeing. Performance is performance, whether in a sport setting or a school, and it’s super rewarding making a difference to student’s lives.
BELIEVE = ACHIEVE
My starting point always centres around confidence and self-esteem. For me this is the key ingredient in success. It’s something I massively struggled with as a disabled teenager and it’s something that sport taught me how to build. The more confident I got, the better my results became – and not just in sport. It also had a positive influence on my academic results and now in my life as an entrepreneur, allowing me to continually deliver excellence.
Believing that we are capable of achieving is critical. When we get nervous we get an adrenaline rush. This is a classic threat response, our brain senses danger (in this case the threat to our emotional wellbeing if we fail) and it responds accordingly. We experience physical symptoms (heart racing, stomach fluttering, sweaty palms) and emotional symptoms (anxiety, doubt, isolation). If left unchecked this has the potential to escalate and become very destructive.
If, however, we change the perception of the threat our response to stressful situations changes. If we learn to believe in our abilities then the threat of failure will not be as strong and not elicit as strong an affect. Getting students to build their confidence takes time, but this is the most valuable gift you can ever give them.
Here are five of the methods I use to build confidence in students:
- Recognising, accepting and appreciating strengths and achievements
- Visualising successful outcomes
- Controlling the inner voice
- Focusing on the process not the outcome
- Changing perceptions about failure
TOP OF THE PODIUM
Confidence isn’t built overnight – it’s something we need to start building into our daily practices. As teachers you are in an incredible position to guide students and help them develop stronger confidence levels.
It’s not just the strategies you implement or the things that you say. If you’re feeling stressed about something it can become contagious. Body language is a significant part of the communication process and often subconscious. We are the most important person in our world and we interpret information in light of that.
If you’re stressed we tend to think it relates to our personal situation. ‘If my teacher is nervous, should I be worried about it too?’ Change starts with self-awareness. Recognising when you are visibly displaying signs of stress gives us a springboard to do something about it.
The best teachers and coaches I had were the ones who believed in me when I didn’t. They were the ones who offered positive encouragement, and got me to see that I was could create the successful future I dreamed of.