Exams ahead? The ‘Mental Game’ Matters

The mental game of exams and how students can use sport psychology to develop the right mindset ⎮2 min read

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Golf is 80% mental, 10% ability, 10% luck.

Jack Nicklaus, professional golfer


In the world of sports, it is well known that the ‘mental game’ matters. Distraction, self-doubt, losing focus, worry about past failure and high anxiety can undermine a person’s confidence and derail their performance when it counts most. Psychological factors can be the difference between winning and losing; success and failure.

Top athletes and professional sports people understand the value of the right mindset. This is about keeping a clear and positive focus on goals and the game plan, staying present in the moment and approaching the competition with confidence and a positive attitude. 

Developing the ‘right’ mindset

‘Positive thinking’ sounds easy, but in fact, it is not so straightforward. Much of our thinking or ‘self-talk’ is deeply entrenched and we don’t even notice it, let alone analyse how it is impacting our emotions and performances.

The founder of Positive Psychology, Dr Martin Seligman, asserts that people tend to form a ‘habitual style’ of thinking based on learning, experiences and, to an extent, genetics. It develops in childhood and often remains throughout our lifetimes. Some of us tend to be quite hopeful and optimistic in our thinking style, and others tend toward pessimism and worry, with extremes at either end of this gamut. This is of critical importance, because our thinking drives our emotions.

Seligman’s research demonstrates that habitual optimistic thinking can increase a person’s experience of positive emotions, such as hope, happiness and confidence. It can also reduce stress. A more pessimistic thinking style can precipitate low confidence, fear, worry, stress and even anxiety and depression.

Thinking and perception is the foundation of the ‘mental game’ that is so important in sport and other performances. Research from positive psychology has taught us that people can choose to change their habitual thinking patterns, thereby drastically increasing positive emotions and reducing negative ones. In a school setting, even young students can be encouraged to monitor self-talk and adapt it to be more helpful. 

Choose Optimism to Boost Performances

I’m hopeless’, ‘I’m going to forget everything,’ ‘My future is ruined.’  

When approaching exams, such maladaptive and even catastrophic thinking increases worry and self-doubt. Challenging this kind of thinking and reframing self-talk to be optimistic and realistic can inspire hope, confidence and mitigate stress.

Embracing self-talk such as, ‘I’ve studied – I’ll do my best', ‘I will be OK,’ and ‘I have strategies to stay calm and focussed’ can allow the student to better manage exam stress and stay in the performance zone.  

It takes awareness, commitment and persistence to change your habitual thinking style. Teachers can model and encourage helpful thinking, and these concepts can be explicitly taught. Optimistic thinking is a key skill promoted through positive education programs and there are many resources to teach this in a school setting.  


In Part 3, I explore the benefits of visualisation and how this popular mental rehearsal builds student confidence and reduces stress.

Catherine Brandon

Director, Genazzano Institute | Ed & Dev Psychologist , Genazzano FCJ College