Crunch time – Coping with stress and the jitters

Most of us are no strangers to that sickening feeling, known to some as butterflies-in-the-stomach or the pre-exam/competition jitters. That moment when you know the stakes have been raised and you’re seated down across your opponent, be it manifested in form of paper or of a living, breathing opponent ready to strike at any opportunity. It’s us against them, me against the enemy- characterize it however you will.  In our grade-obsessed society, the battle known as finals will be one we have already been familiarized with.

We lose sleep and spend hours revising, comparing notes with one another, and making sure all our bases have been covered. Mumbles of prayers, religious or otherwise, are heard as strength is called upon to cram down all that information, memorize the various applications of methods and formulae and practice, practice, practice. But when it comes down to the crunch time, it happens. The nightmare of every student comes true.

The examiner announces “you may begin” in that ever nonchalant tone, you sometimes wonder if they take a sadistic pleasure in watching students squirm as they scrap and struggle for every mark they can get. You flip the page and look at the first question: a simple conceptual one. You muster upon your memory magic and chant a rite of incantation to summon the fabled answer to the question, but all that comes up is the picture of nyan cats and the video of some cute puppies your friend shared with you the previous night. You stare at the question, half in disbelief that you can’t recall the key to the answer and half in anger that such a thing could happen. Startled but not yet stopped, you take a deep breath, flip the page and carry on.

The second question contains a completely foreign diagram, you’d never seen this in your notes nor tutorials. Once again, staring ensues as you try to figure out how to approach the problem, but as if a magic seal had bound your wrists in place, you come up blank, not knowing where to start or what is the principle being tested in the question. Once again you flip the page – another question that eludes you, and panic begins to set in. Flip flip flip and then you reach the end. Some papers are even kind enough to print those words on the last sheet of paper, perhaps to deliver some catharsis to those who just slogged through two hours of grueling cognitive testing. Fifteen minutes in for you and they seal the deal. This was no mistake, there aren’t missing pages or questions that you can go and solve to try and salvage the situation. You flip back to the front page and double check to make sure you sat for the right paper and reality sets in – you blanked out on the exam and failure is imminent.

In my experience taking exams and playing games on the competitive circuit, this happens on a frequent basis. Be it emotional reasons or underlying self-beliefs that affect the way we see things, when things deviate from what we usually expect, we might find ourselves having our rational thinking affected. This can result in a range of consequences, from recovering and regaining our composure to underperforming or even the nightmare scenario where we completely blank out and make all that effort put in previously go to waste.

Examining how top sportsmen and competitive gamers deal with setbacks, self-talk is a very integral part of their routine, using it to reaffirm their beliefs, keeping them on the task at hand and staving away emotions such as panic, anxiety, and fear. There are three R’s in this approach: respond, relax, and refocus. In responding, a positive response is created from the feedback of information just received, relaxing deals with the emotions and stress that comes from facing difficulties, and refocusing specifies the area to avoid making the same mistake. This can be a very useful application in dealing with the stresses we face in our tests and examinations.

Upon hitting a poor backhand in tennis, the normal response would be “Darn, I messed that up, I‘ve done this before, time to get serious”. Notice the lack of focus and the presence of emotional undertones in the self-talk. Top players on the other hand, are more likely to respond in the following manner “Mistakes happen, breathe and let it go. Step in, eye on the ball, follow through”. This provides an immediate positive response to prevent the mistake from happening again, by reminding oneself to focus on the technique that is relevant to the issue.

Similarly, we can hack our own performance in pressurizing situations with the use of self-talk to avoid running into a complete mental meltdown. Instead of expressing unfocused frustration at the problem, admit that mistakes happen, develop a positive response, tell yourself to breathe, calm down and slowly recall the fundamentals that you had so diligently acquired over the course of the semester. Of course this technique is not magic and would not be a substitute, but nonetheless it would serve as a good tool to help deal with the stresses faced during the semester.

In sports as well as in academics, a large portion of the actions taken are driven by our subconscious and what we have practiced prior to the test itself. These actions  are often the most optimal and accurate as we have had time to refine and develop them over the course of practice. Question-spotting, pattern recognition and keyword association are what we develop in practice and apply in examinations. These give us a good framework by which we identify the problem at hand and dissect it down into a series of steps and applications through which we input our knowledge, formulae and facts acquired over the semester. The importance of developing these frameworks during practice will assist in the refocusing aspect of the recovery from deviations.

Nothing compensates for a good understanding of the subject matter, but self-talk can help bring that back into focus when the questions deviate and the examiners get creative with the questions for that year.

About the Author
As a competitive gamer, Jensen’s personal field is the study of winning. As a Shoutcaster for Garena League of Legends, Jensen loves to discuss the E-sports industry: how is it perceived? And how does it interact with our society? He is also a firm believer that competitive gaming will be recognized in the future. Trust him, he’s an engineer.