Gold Medalist Olympian on Good Test Takers

We’re always hearing about people who are “just really good test takers” or kids who “don’t test well.” While we’d like to think that a standardized test is profoundly different from other life experiences that require us to perform under pressure, a test is a test is a test. If you don’t test well in school, you may also be a kick that freaks out on the tennis court or gets deeply nervous during an interview.

In this continuation of my conversation with Olympic Gold Medalist and Coach Barbara Ann Cochran we’re going to look at what makes these “good test takers” so darn good and learn how to emulate them. 


EK: Are there people who are naturally good competitors? If so, what makes them so good?

BAC: Definitely, there are people who are naturally good competitors.  What makes them good is that they thoroughly love what they’re doing, whether it’s the sport or the competition.  They’re excited and feel challenged in what they’re doing.  Often, they’re willing to try new things and they evaluate the skills they’re learning.  They’re motivated by the satisfaction they gain from improving a skill.  They are motivated internally rather than by rewards or incentives that they might gain from the outside. They have unbelievable determination.  They’re in control of their emotions.

Great competitors are accountable for their actions and accept responsibility for whatever they’ve done.  They look at the positive side of things and focus on what is working rather than on mistakes they’ve done in the past.  They understand that mistakes are part of learning and are actually a good sign.  They don’t beat themselves up for making mistakes.

EK: This makes so much sense– these folks really love whatever activity they’re engaged in and so they thrive while they’re doing it. What really stands out to be here that my kids can take on is this idea that they feel excited and challenged by the material we’re working on. Not only that, as much as they may hate the SAT, they find satisfaction and excitement in being able to learn something new and apply that skill: those small victories propel them forward.

If all this is the case, how often do folks with better mental performance skills defeat folks who may be more naturally talented than they are?

BAC: I would always give the edge to the person who has better mental skills. That doesn’t mean that the more naturally talented person won’t ever do better, but his performance can be affected by not having good mental skills.

In the 1950’s my Dad accepted a teaching position at Windsor H.S. in Vermont and started coaching baseball.  He was impressed with a freshman and picked him for the varsity team.  He also was impressed with his hitting and had him batting in the 3rd or 4th position (key positions in baseball).  The player, however, was feeling like he wasn’t sure he had the talent my Dad saw and was nervous throughout practice.  His first time at bat, he struck out and his doubt grew.  The second time he was up to bat, he again struck out.  This time his doubts were even stronger and he was becoming deeply discouraged, so when he went back to the bench, he sat at the far end by himself and dropped his head into his hands.  Dad got up and sat next to him and said these words: “Do you like baseball?  Because it doesn’t look like you do.”

Once the freshman started remembering how much fun it was to play baseball, his mental skills changed.  The next time at bat, he hit a home run.

Some athletes have a natural tendency to create the thoughts, beliefs, and emotions that are necessary to do well.  They seemingly have the ability to not really be aware of mental preparation and yet develop a lot of the skills.  To some people, it may look like if you were born with a natural talent, including a good head, you were the lucky one.  And those who weren’t born with it were just out of luck.  But the truth is that mental preparation is just another skill that can be learned.  With practice, these skills will also improve.

EK: Isn’t that great news? The conversations you and I are having are really bringing to light how even people who are “naturally good” are not, in fact, just super test-takers and competitors; instead, they unknowingly foster in themselves a lot of confidence and concentration building techniques. I see evidence of this not only in my own test taking, but also in the habits of some of my students. One may learn a new skill that creates a nice shortcut and exclaim “oh, I love that;” others create little in class test score competitions with their friends to bring motivation and fun to their ongoing classroom experience. 

So, if all of this is so learnable, why do people “freeze up” on game day?

BAC: The reason people “freeze up” or “choke” on game day is because they have created an emotional inner climate that does not allow them to perform. When I’ve talked to athletes about what is happening and what they’re thinking before the start of their competition, there usually is some sort of fear that has taken over their senses.  Often it comes down to a fear of not being good enough.  There’s a tremendous risk for some people to put everything on the line.  In their eyes, what if they did their very best and that was not very good? What do you do then?

Sometimes the fear could stem from not wanting to get hurt or even to die. (Last year we lost a 16 year-old girl from Stratton Mt. School who was free-skiing, lost control, went into the woods, suffered severe injuries, and died a few days later).

Sometimes the choking stems from a fear that they will disappoint parents, coaches, or even themselves.  A lot of times the athletes have figured out where they think they fit in—where they should be finishing (which may or may not be accurate).  Most athletes do not perform close to their potential, but there is always that fear of who might beat them that shouldn’t be beating them.

Sometimes athletes put pressure on themselves because they want to qualify for a certain event and they’re afraid that they won’t come through.

EK: That sounds so familiar! I have so many students who have already decided (and decided long ago) how talented they are, how intelligent they are, and what their skill level is. So they explain to me why they can’t do one thing but can do another and set their score expectations on what their friends or older siblings did rather than looking to understand their own capacity. 

BAC: Right. And, just as there is a fear of failure, some athletes are afraid to succeed, because once they’ve proven that they are capable, the expectation is there that they could and should be able to perform at that level again. So rather than rising to the occasion, it’s safer not to succeed in the beginning.

There’s lots of reasons people “freeze up” usually based on fears that come into play.  Sometimes it comes down to just being able to believe that doing your best is all you can do and that is always good enough.

EK: You know, it’s funny you  mention the fear of success. I have several students who, in session with me at least, will talk about how they know they can do well but continually sabotage themselves. (e.g. What happens when my parents realize that I really am as smart as my brother Bobby? They’ll never let me get away with anything anymore!) I think this is a great place to wrap up this topic and challenge our readers to honestly examine, even if only with themselves, what it is that is keeping them from succeeding? 

Are you afraid you’re going to disappoint your parents? Are you afraid you’re going to impress your parents and then get hounded about your success forever? Are you afraid of not getting into your dream school, or are the demands of heading off to a campus and the rigors of more adult life unnerving you? Set down and be honest with yourself: write it all out so you can see what’s bothering you and start to address it bit by bit.

Barbara Ann Cochran is an Olympic Gold Medalist and a world class athletics coach. She currently works with some of the United States’ best skiers in Vermont. Find out more about Barbara Ann here.

Elizabeth KingComment