Part Four of the series Better Test Performance the Navy SEALs Way.
In a documentary interview, Navy SEALs command psychologist, Dr. Eric Potterat, listed four key mental techniques taught to United States Navy SEAL candidates (BUD/S trainees). The third technique, self-talk, concerns how we focus our thoughts in high-stress situations. Here’s how you can apply this to help increase your own test performance.
Students who experience test anxiety on the SAT, GRE, or on classroom exams often have destructive patterns of self talk. They think to themselves, “Oh no. I missed those last two questions. I just know it! I’ll probably fail this whole test and make a D in the class. I’ll have to drop out of school. My parents are going to kill me! I’ll probably end up playing xBox 24/7, eating cheesie poofs out of the giant family-size bag, and drinking massive amounts of Mad Dog 20/20 just to drown the pain of the train wreck that is my life!”
Needless to say, that sort of thinking doesn’t help you solve the next calculus problem. In fact, it produces massive amounts of stress chemicals that make higher-order thinking almost impossible. U.S. Navy BUD/S trainees can’t afford to think that way. It only magnifies the stress of stressful situations.
Why West Point Freshmen Failed
Consider the 1,200 freshmen who entered West Point in 1987. 100 of those freshmen quit within the first two months.
Why? These are some of the best and brightest young people our nation has to offer. To even be admitted they must score high on the SAT, be in excellent physical condition, be top-ranked in high school, and have gone through a strenuous and time-consuming application and admissions process. What is it about those 100 young men and women that makes them drop out in sixty days or less?
Psychologist Martin Seligman thinks he has the answer. In his ground-breaking book, Learned Optimism, Dr. Seligman explains that the 100 who dropped out all explained events to themselves poorly. They tended to explain their failures in terms that were personal (“It’s my own fault”), permanent (“It will never change”), and pervasive (“It undermines everything I do”). In short, they were pessimists. Optimists, on the other hand, see their setbacks as not their fault, temporary, and not important in the long run.
Optimists turn out to be more successful than pessimists in many aspects of life. They make better sales people, they live longer, they are less likely to get depressed or quit, they do better in school, they do better at work, and they do better at sports. Optimist candidates are more likely to get elected. Optimists are even healthier!
How does this affect your test performance? If you are pessimistic you tend to see a low test score as a disaster that cannot be remedied. It’s your own fault for being lazy or stupid. It will never change. It will affect you entire college career. If that’s your take on things, why bother with studying next time? Talking to yourself in this manner causes you to give up prematurely. Even if it were true, it’s not helpful.
Change how you talk to yourself.
Think right now about the last test you bombed. Why did you bomb it? Is it because you are dumb? Now argue with that reasoning! “Wait, I’m not dumb. I beat my roommate in chess all the time, and she’s got a full scholarship. Besides, I got an A in bio-chem last semester when half the class failed.”
Make excuses for yourself. “I stayed out too late the night before, and the prof put a bunch of stuff on there that she didn’t mention in class. Besides, we get to throw out one test score anyway.” All of these excuses are fixable. You can get to sleep earlier. You can go by during office hours and ask the prof to help you make sure you cover everything.
Martin Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism, is fascinating reading and provides some more in-depth hints on how to move yourself from pessimism to optimism. It’s very worth reading.
Your Personal Cheerleader
So instead of talking yourself into a panic, talk yourself into a better state. One easy way to put this into practice is a technique I call the personal cheerleader technique. Here’s how…
- Think of someone right now who encourages you when you feel defeated or depressed. Could be your mom, dad, a coach, a boyfriend, girlfriend, whoever.
- Mentally take that person with you to the test.
- When you start to panic, have your mental cheerleader give you a little pep-talk. “You can do this! Don’t worry about that question. Concentrate on the next one.”
- BONUS: You can take as many mental cheerleaders as you like to the test, and you can take whoever you want. Try taking your mom or your third grade coach. Take’em both!
Changing the way you talk to yourself as a way to increase your success is supported by scads of great research. But it doesn’t work unless you do it. Put it into practice today.