You will regret not developing these 12 mental skills for exam success

I recently read The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive by Jim Afremow, which is used by Olympic athletes to strengthen their mental game.  As a knowledge athlete yourself, a lot of the mental skills mentioned in the book are equally important and these can be developed intentionally – much like going to a mental gym.

The mental skills focused on by Olympic athletes and helpful for exam success are:

  1. GOAL SETTING: Think It, Then Ink It – people who have specific goals written down are far more likely to succeed than those that do not. Want to know the process I follow? Read “How to set and achieve your goals” 
  2. MENTAL IMAGERY: Visualize to Actualize – Michael Phelps, the person with the most Olympic gold medals, used to visualise the perfect race every time he went to sleep.  What does the perfect exam look and feel like for you?  Visualise it!
  3. SELF-TALK: Feed the Good Wolf – this is based on an old story.  Two wolves, the good and the bad are fighting each other in your mind.  Which one will win?  The one that you feed.  Feed the good wolf with positive and proactive thoughts when you are writing and studying.
  4. CONFIDENCE: Flex Your Confidence Muscle – when you write, you need to back yourself.  Maurice Greene, 100m Olympic champion says it best “Train like you are No. 2, but compete like you are No. 1”. In other words, train your talent when studying but then trust your talent on the day of the paper.
  5. FOCUS: A Champion Is a Now-ist – you can improve your ability to concentrate.  Champions can cut out distractions and stay in the moment.  How good are you at staying in the now?  What’s Important Now (WIN) is a great phrase to remember if you feel your focus drifting.
  6. BREATH CONTROL: Breathe Life into Your Performance – deep breaths.  Not much more to add really, oxygen is good for you and makes decision making more accurate. 
  7. MENTAL TOUGHNESS: Build Your Inner-Strength Bank Account – we have looked at the importance of a Growth Mindset (Google Angela Duckworth or read my post here).  Grit is developed every time you respond well to adversity.  Working hard when it’s the last thing you feel like doing is making a deposit in the mental toughness bank account.
  8. ANXIETY MANAGEMENT: Go from Panicky to Pumped – Anxiety or excitement is proof that you care about performance and outcomes. Responding with panic is a false alarm that can and must be diffused or redirected.  Our instinctive responses to panic are always counterproductive, such as fleeing, isolating ourselves, trying too hard or beating ourselves up mentally.  Rather see anxiety as a trigger to remind you to breathe evenly and deeply and then focus on the “What’s Important Now” question.  Take the next step and keep walking step-by-step throughout the exam.  Want to know the 3 biggest mental mistakes you can make in an exam?  
  9. ENJOYMENT: Humour Is the Best Sports Medicine – Take what you are doing seriously, but learn to take yourself lightly.  Make sure that you have fun during your study time for instance.  Do activities that make you happy during this time to make sure that these days of hard work also include rewards that keep you motivated (read more about the powerful role rewards play in developing good habits here).  This will ensure a spring in your step on the day that you write.
  10. BODY LANGUAGE: Make a Golden Impression – Have you noticed that smiling has a positive impact on your mood?  Slumping in your chair can slowly tire you out even more?  Studying days and writing for hours will be tiring but keep your body language positive and proactive – you can change your mood by smiling even when you don’t feel like it! 
  11. INTENSITY: Own Your Zone – There are crucial times when writing that require your highest level of focus.  Reading the required task.  Planning your response.  You need to “own your zone” during those times.  Think of Jantjies kicking for posts or Jali taking a penalty – this is your moment to own your zone.
  12. PERSONAL AFFIRMATION WORKS: Power Phrases for Becoming a Champion – Win The Day, No Excuses, The South African now beginning to tire, or is he?  These phrases help to keep you motivated and focused. From the book, “during his successful tenure with the New York Giants, coach Bill Parcells posted a sign in the locker room reflecting his no-nonsense approach: “Blame nobody, expect nothing, do something” Another story, “Specifically, the initials DWI were written on a whiteboard and the team was told that when things get difficult, “Deal with It” This straightforward message, which the Navy SEALs live by, became the Diamondbacks team slogan. This is a stance that you can adopt. Deal with whatever you are facing—because you can.”  I have written more about The Power of One Sentence here.

All these skills can be developed by a CA(SA) student.  For some specifics of how I did it when I was struggling with studies, read “Why does all my hard work in accounting go unrewarded”.  Were these 12 skills helpful?  Any others you would add to the list?  

Paul Maughan

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