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How to bring your A-game to exams: Tips from a sports psychology researcher

It isn't easy to keep your head in the game at exam time (photo by Richard Lautens/Toronto Star/via Getty Images)

Months of hard work come down to one moment: finals. 

As students enter the home stretch, they may benefit from some of the same strategies that help Olympians reach the podium.

Katherine Tamminen, a sports psychology researcher and assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education at the University of Toronto, has helped athletes at all levels do their best even when they are under the gun. 

She has advised hockey players, figure skaters, curlers and many others.

She spoke with U of T News about how students can use these same methods to keep their head in the game at exam time. 

One of my worst memories of being a student was when I blanked on a Russian history exam, although I had studied for it. What went wrong? 

It's hard to know exactly what happened. In sports terms, we sometimes say athletes choke in competition. They've been practising really well, everything seems to be going well, and as soon as it comes to competition, when everything counts, they freeze up. 

Sometimes we can get overwhelmed by the pressure of the situation. Sometimes it's the stress of being in a foreign environment, especially for first-year students who have never been in a stressful exam setting. 

Or it might be that you had a bad experience in a previous exam. That could also lead to heightened anxiety when you're in that setting again. 

So how do you avoid choking? 

It's very idiosyncratic. But many times, we encourage athletes to use mental cues or reminders to keep them grounded and focused at the task at hand. Sometimes we have athletes develop cue words to keep them focused. They might repeat a line to themselves like, “Take it one step at a time,” or one question at a time if you're a student.

Or a student could write the word “Breathe” at the top of the exam page to remind themselves to take deep breaths. 

In sports, sometimes people will write a message or exclamation mark on their hand to remind themselves of something. But I probably wouldn't encourage students to do that for an exam because that might look like cheating (laughs). 

You hear about Olympic skiers and bobsledders visualizing a course before competition. Could you use a similar technique to prep for exams? 

Some students do this in their review sessions. They'll give themselves a time limit to answer example questions in their textbook. Often for short- and long-answer essay questions, I think we underestimate how much time it actually takes to craft a response and write it out fully by hand. If you can try to emulate those conditions in your training or studying sessions, then when you get to the exam it's like you've been there before. 

You could also visualize what the exam centre will look like, what the room might look like, what it might sound like – people coughing and chairs scraping against the floor. This might help you block out those distractions. 

Any tips for loosening up in the days before a final?

There are different things that work for different people. I think our student health and wellness centre is a good place to start looking for resources. I encourage students to check out their tips online. 

The things that I'd tell athletes I would also tell students: Eat good food, not junk. Get to bed at a reasonable hour and set a good sleep schedule. Stay hydrated. 

We also talk about relaxing and breathing. Even something like taking a couple of minutes to focus on deep breathing. When we're stressed out, our breathing becomes much shallower and centred in our upper chest, whereas when we focus on taking deep breaths, way deep down in our belly, that is associated with triggering relaxation responses. 

This is something people should be doing on a regular basis. You can't just do it once before the beginning of an exam and expect it to magically work. 

Some athletes listen to music in the locker room before a big game to pump themselves up. So, my question is: Which Kanye West song is scientifically proven to maximize performance? 

That's a great question (laughs).

There's a full field of research on which music is best for different types of workouts. I hesitate to give an answer because some people need to be more relaxed, so giving them a more hardcore song might be challenging. Other people find that listening to classical, soothing music puts them to sleep. 

But I assume students should probably avoid Kanye's The College Dropout album?

I don't know. Maybe they have an ironic association with it. Whatever is comforting and reassuring and puts you in a good mood can help. 

What helped you overcome the stress of exams?

The exams I was most successful in were the ones where I went in and didn't rush. I took my time – especially when it came to written responses. Really spend time structuring your answer. I would write out almost an outline of my answer in advance.

Any exam horror stories? 

I remember being herded down a hallway to some sort of holding pen before going up into the gladiator arena, where everyone filters in. I remember hearing students trying to study at the last second in the hallway with their notes. I recall thinking it's kind of ridiculous, because if you haven't learned the material by now, what is this last-minute review going to do? 

It's quite funny because now I study stress and coping, and some of the stuff I look at is how emotions can be contagious. [Tamminen examined athletes' emotions in this 2016 study based on interviews with varsity players.] If you're around a person who is really anxious and amped up – like, “Oh my God, I don't know about this and I didn't study this and that” – that can actually spread to other people around them. 

I would say, if there are people who you know are really anxious before exams and they talk a lot and make you stressed, pay attention to that and avoid those people in the moments before an exam.