“We talk about the will to win. Let’s eliminate the will to win and think about the will to prepare to win. Because the preparation is much more important. Everyone wants to win, but not everybody wants to prepare to win.” The late, legendary basketball coach, Bobby Knight, said this in an interview years ago and it is a valuable lesson for a person’s approach to any area of their life. He is talking about focusing on what you can control in the present moment and not on the future result that is out of your control right now.
Recently, I was meeting with a student who was having concerns about his math course. Specifically, he was “blanking out” during a few of his tests. This student has not missed a homework assignment, is engaged in class, seeks extra help from his teachers, and studies diligently. This young man is a strong student, a three sport athlete, well-respected by his peers, and has transitioned to high school well. I am very proud of him. I could tell from hearing him speak, however, that he was “stuck” with math. He could not figure out what was going on when he sat down for his assessments.
Digging a little deeper and asking him some additional questions, it quickly became apparent that he was putting a great deal of pressure on himself and connecting each potential individual test result as a predictor for his future. “If I fail this test, my grade for the quarter is going to be a “C”. I have never received lower than a “A” as a final grade in a class in my academic career up until this point. I’m not going to be able to recover from this test grade. I may not be recommended for the advanced math course next year. My final grade on my transcript may be a blemish that prevents me from going to a great college one day.”
This student plays baseball. Hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult skills in all of sports. If you are a professional baseball player and succeed at hitting the ball in play 3 out of 10 times (30% or a .300 batting average) throughout your career, you will be going to Cooperstown, New York as a Hall of Famer. The best players in the history of the game fail 7 out of 10 times.
I asked this student a question.
“When you are in the batter’s box and the ball leaves the pitcher’s arm, coming towards home plate, what are you thinking about?”
There was a pause.
And then a longer pause.
He could not describe what he thinks about in that moment when the ball is coming towards the plate. That moment, in baseball, of success or failure.
He had answered the question without saying a word.
He does not think about anything in that moment.
He relies on the hours and hours of preparation and practice that he has put in on this particular skill of hitting a baseball. When he approaches the batter’s box, he has a pre-swing routine that he goes through. He then gives himself some positive self-talk messaging (internal confidence building and visualization of success), takes a deep breath, gets into his comfortable stance and awaits the pitch. He is not thinking of the result of if he succeeds or fails to get a hit, he is focused on his process of preparation. Once the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, he has done all that he can. He is now at peace and can live with the result. The work has been done. The hay is in the barn. Now he can react.
The same is true for the next math test this student takes. He will have another type of preparation, practice, pre-test routine, positive self talk and visualization but he will take a deep breath, get into his stance (at his desk), and react. His focus will be on the process and preparation, not the outcome. He will be at peace knowing that he did everything he could to be successful.
Oftentimes, when students are experiencing performance anxiety of some degree it is because they are focused on the outcome or a future goal that is not in their immediate control. Help them reset, return to the present, focus on the next right thing they can do, and control what they can control. It sounds simple but simple wins. Simple works. Keep it simple. This mindset takes consistent practice and is a skill that needs to be worked on but it is proven to work. Focus their energy on the process, not the results, and they will find the results will take care of themselves.