This article is one of a series of interviews with Olympic Gold Medalist Skier Barbara Ann Cochran. Not only is Barbara Ann a world class athlete, she now coaches young skiers and other athletes to be extraordinary competitors. I’m so excited to share with students Barbara Ann’s insight about the mental and psychological element of competition and achievement. In this section of our conversation we’ll be discussing how to get into and maintain the right frame of mind for maximizing achievement on slopes, at bat, on the court–and, of course, at the testing center.
Understanding Mental Preparation
EK: What percentage of an athlete’s official training time should be spent mentally preparing for competition? BAC: I believe that working on mental preparation should be a daily task. The time spent on it could be from 5 minutes to a couple hours. When I was competing in ski racing, I would spend about 45 minutes to an hour memorizing and then visualizing the course I would be running. Sometimes at night when I was in bed before I fell asleep, I would also visualize. This especially helped me in some of the downhill courses, because I was terrified of downhill. Downhill was the only event I was afraid of–I loved slalom and I enjoyed the giant slalom too. Interestingly, the best I did in a World Cup downhill was 14th.
EK: That’s incredible! I would never peg you as someone who had any sort of fear of hurtling down mountains. So we can pretty safely assume that if you can win an Olympic Gold Medal in an event that terrifies you, even those students who are most petrified of test-taking should be able to achieve great scores.
BAC: Absolutely. I believe that the outcome of a performance is based on about 90% (or more) mentality and 10% (or less) skills. I don’t mean that skills are not important, because they are. But when you think of most athletes, most athletes are competing against others that—within a small range—have developed the same skills. So for instance, a high school soccer team player will probably have roughly the same skill level as another high school soccer player, but the biggest factor is the way he thinks and feels, how confident he is in his ability, what he believes about his play and team, etc.
That being said, I believe that most athletes do not work on mental preparation much at all, but if they did, they would see significant improvement in their results.
EK: So once students are equipped with the knowledge they need to outsmart the SAT, it’s all a mental game between those kids whose scores are off the charts and those who still struggle. I would have to agree with you: I know that when I take the SAT I go into the test confident and ready to do well. While we might expect that of me now, even when I was in high school I walked into the test never having seen it before and knew I would do well–and I did.
Three Tips for Mental Preparation
That being said, what are the top 3 most important things any athlete mentally preparing for an event should do be doing?
BAC: When preparing for an event, the most important thing is to understand what your beliefs are about that event and how you believe you can do. If you don’t believe you’re capable of doing well, it’s really important that you change that belief so you do see yourself as capable.
To change a belief, I use affirmations. For instance, if you’re getting ready for the SAT and you don’t believe you’ll do well, you could use the affirmation, “I always do well when I take the SAT!” You should bombard your subconscious mind with that thought.
I have athletes take 10 to 15 index cards and write their affirmation statement on each card and then put those cards where ever they’ll notice them—on the bathroom mirror, on their bureau, on their headboard, in their car, on their notebooks, etc. They practice saying the statement aloud 10 to 15 times a day or more.
The second thing an athlete can do is to visualize the event. Imagine as closely as possible where the event is taking place, what the conditions are like, who the people are that are around, what the sounds are like, what the smells are like– try to include the five senses: sight, taste, touch, sound, and smell. Imagine yourself competing in that event and finishing first or where ever you can imagine yourself finishing, incorporating as many of the senses as possible for the competition on that day.
The third thing is to develop a routine before the competition which includes specific thoughts just before the start, like at the start or starting line or on the court/field before the competition/race/game begin, (or, in this case, as you’re sitting at your desk waiting for testing materials to be distributed). I would recommend a routine that you do from the time you get up to the time you’re ready to begin your competition. At the start, you could have specific thoughts or a mantra. When I was competing, I always gave myself permission just to do my best, so I always thought, “I’m just going to do the best I can!” A lot of the athletes I’ve worked with use the thought, “This is so much fun! I love ….” (this event, racing at Smugg’s, playing soccer, batting, etc.) I also recommend that they smile, because that helps to bring up the right emotions that help an athlete perform well.
EK: I guess this would be an appropriate place for me to interject that I secretly enjoy the SAT and, while I don’t enjoy the act of getting up at the crack of dawn on test day, I do love to see a new test and the challenge of working through it. I think of the SAT as a puzzle that I’m really well prepared to solve, and I thoroughly enjoy the process of being presented with new challenges. It sounds like my secret love of the SAT and ACT really affect my ability to perform well on them.
So, if you choose to use visualization techniques, how long beforehand should the visualization stop before it’s time to execute?
BAC: You should stop visualizing just before you execute the skill, if that’s possible. For instance, a golfer should take the time to visualize the shot he’s about to take, right before he takes it. Obviously in lots of sports, this isn’t possible, but anytime you have the chance to visualize, you should.
EK: That means for my students that they should get into test-taking frame of mind on the morning of the test and retain focus until the test starts. In fact, they could visualize the test being presented to them and recognizing the materials they’ve seen before. They can see themselves writing neatly and moving at the pace they’ve been practicing at home, and then ultimately how they’ll feel having confidently and competently completing the test.