From Footy Finals to Exam Finals: Lessons from Sports for Peak Performance

Key strategies that boost student academic achievement through unique sport and performance psychology programs⎮2 min read

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Over many decades, the field of sport psychology has generated a wealth of research that relates to the thinking and the behaviours for optimal sports performance. Techniques used to facilitate peak performances in sport can also be helpful for school-based performances, such as exams, dramatic acting, language solos, musical recitals and debating. In this 4 part series, I discuss the key psychological strategies Genazzano FCJ College teaches students to boost their performance through unique sport and performance psychology programs.

While the 2020 school year has presented many unexpected challenges, students and teachers have shown persistence and resolve to navigate the circumstances and complete the academic year. Now heading into exams, Year 12 students may be experiencing a range of emotions. The exams and final results may weigh heavily on some students for various reasons including: university selection; meeting family or personal expectations; and associating academic outcomes with identity or self-worth. The psychological stakes, and the pressure, can be high.    

Students need to know they are not alone and there are supports and strategies to promote wellbeing and performance. It is critical to ensure that the focus on results does not become all-consuming, thereby intensifying stress and anxiety. Schools can assist students to manage stress and achieve their best by promoting a balanced approach to exams (physical, mental and social activities in conjunction with study), and fostering the view that exam results do not define a person, dictate their ability, or determine their future.

We can learn a lot from sports and performance research about minimising stress and maximising performance outcomes. The knowledge and tools used by athletes can also be useful for students to prepare for exams and other performances in school or life.

Getting the Balance Right for Peak Performance

Not all ‘stress’ is bad. The relationship between stress and performance is depicted in a well-known inverted U graph called the Yerkes-Dodson Law (see Figure 1.) Proposed in 1908, the model today is used to illustrate that a moderate amount of stress or arousal can facilitate optimal performance. This ‘zone’ of peak performance, also known as ‘flow’, describes a state of optimal functioning where a person is energised, focused and fully immersed in an activity of balanced skill and challenge. Though often used to describe experiences in sporting performances, flow can be experienced by people engaged in a wide range of activities, such as performing arts, public speaking, writing, teaching, creating or working.

The Yerkes Dodson model suggests that:

  1. Where a task or activity is too easy or unimportant, the stress or pressure is low. A person is likely to be disengaged or laid-back, and the performance substandard.  
  2. Where a task is more challenging or important, and the person is skilled at the activity, motivation and engagement increases. A moderate amount of stress or arousal can promote focus and readiness. This is the ‘zone’ of peak performance.
  3. Where a task is too demanding or the stakes are too high, then a person may experience signs of excessive physical and mental stress. These include: disorganization, anxiety, forgetting, confusion, poor focus, poor memory, nausea, headaches and sleep problems. The increasing effects of stress causes a decline in optimal performance.

Figure 1. Relationship between stress and performance.

Finding the ‘Exam Performance Zone’

To find the ‘sweet spot’, a balance between motivation, skill and challenge, students will need to:

  • be invested in the task,
  • be challenged by the task,
  • be well prepared for the challenge and,
  • have the knowledge, supports and skills to moderate stress.

In Part 2, I discuss the mental game of exams and how students can use sport psychology strategies to develop the right mindset.

Catherine Brandon

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

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