Should people accept that pressure is a fact of life?

Composite image showing from left: Stressed office worker, John Terry, Michael Johnson, students taking an exam, graduates

For thousands of youngsters, crucial exams are nigh. Many say the pressure on students should be minimised, but should people just accept it as a fact of life, asks Matthew Syed.

Is it any wonder that many students fail to perform, not because they lack ability, but because of the unique pressure of the exam room - the ticking clock on the wall, invigilators pacing up and down, and the surreal sense that one's very future is in the balance?

We are competitive animals and, however we decide to evaluate each other - whether at exams, job interviews or even on romantic dates - we are occasionally going to get nervous. Removing pressure altogether from life is, in many ways, an impossible dream.

A new test about the psychology of pressure, devised by the BBC's Lab UK, will offer a new look at why some people are particularly prone to pressure, while others cope rather well. The scientists want to find out why some people lose control of their emotions, while others stay in control.

Can you compete under pressure?

Michael Johnson
  • BBC Lab UK's test takes 20 minutes
  • Complete a test against the clock and an opponent
  • Get psychological training from Olympic gold medallist Michael Johnson

It is not just students who face a psychological ordeal this summer. Olympic athletes, too, are about to come face to face with a life-defining moment - and many will struggle to cope.

When I played at the Olympic Games in Sydney as Britain's top table tennis player I was in the form of my life. But when I walked out into the mega-watt light of the competition arena, I could hardly hit the ball. To put it simply, I choked.

Almost all of us know what it is like to choke. Perhaps we froze during finals, or perhaps we got tongue-tied during a hot date, or maybe we just couldn't remember our lines during a big job interview.

Why does it happen? The neuroscience of choking is rather intriguing, and it can best be understood by considering what happens when you are walking along the street.

None of us actually think about the mechanics of how we walk as we are ambling along - we are thinking about what we are going to have for dinner, or what we are going to say at our next meeting, etc.

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At one competition, I remember hearing an opponent muttering under his breath - "It is only bloody ping pong!" - he defeated me by three games to one”

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But now imagine that you are walking along a narrow path with a 10,000 foot precipice on either side. Now, we might think about how we are moving our feet, the angle of our tread, the precise footfall on the path. And this, of course, is when we are most likely to fall.

Walking is, when you think about it, quite a complex set of movements and if we think too much about them we are far more likely to get confused. This, incidentally, is why walking feels so weird when we are in front of a lot of people, like at graduation.

The same thing happens when we get tongue-tied. We are so anxious about saying precisely the right words that, instead of just saying them, we try to say them. We are, in effect, striving too hard.

Instead of using the subconscious part of the brain, which is the most efficient way to deliver a familiar skill (like talking, walking or remembering a maths formula during an A-level), we use the conscious part. And this is when it all goes wrong.

To put it another way, in order to overcome choking we must trust our subconscious competence. And, it turns out that we are far more likely to do so when we are as familiar as possible with the situation we are about to face.

As Sir Clive Woodward, the rugby coach turned Performance Director of Team GB, put it: "It is no good going into a high-pressure environment unsure of what to expect. You need to be on top of everything."

Jessica Ennis training at the Aviva GB&NI Team Preparation Camp in South Korea British athletes will have to prepare for all the distractions that occur at a home Olympics

In preparation for the Olympics, athletes will spend as much time as possible getting used to the competition venue - the lighting, feel, and acoustics.

They will also have studied possible opponents and planned a routine for the hours leading up to the contest, so that everything is smooth and calm. By ensuring that they are not assailed by the unexpected, they are less likely to experience stress.

When it comes to exams, the parallels are obvious. Many students are profoundly spooked by working up against a hard deadline - in which case, diligently practising essays or problems under time constraints, perhaps with a parent or friend acting as invigilator, would help dramatically.

Many students complain of running out of steam because of the nervous energy they expend - in which case, taking a banana and a bottle of water would boost mental performance.

Others complain about the noise of invigilators pacing around - in which case a pair of earplugs can help to regain focus. Many students are vexed by the unfamiliar format of an exam paper, or the tone of the questions - in which case deep familiarity with past papers, as well as chief examiners' reports, will work wonders.

All these small things are easy to do, but often forgotten.

Of course, even when we are well prepared, we may still feel terribly nervous - but at least we will be more equipped to deal with our nerves than if we have failed to prepare.

The test is presented by athlete Michael Johnson

Furthermore, we may also benefit from reminding ourselves that the big moment is, from a different perspective, not that big after all.

Even a huge exam is not as important as, say, a loving family, or good health. And even a huge job interview can be put into perspective by looking up at the stars and remembering that it is all rather trivial in the grand scheme of things.

Many athletes attempt to change their frame of reference, in this way, just before big matches. At one competition, I remember hearing an opponent muttering under his breath: "It is only bloody ping pong!."

It seemed to calm him. He defeated me by three games to one.

Pressure is an integral part of life, of course, and sometimes we are going to stumble.

But so long as we remember to trust our subconscious competence, and, where appropriate, to alter our frame of reference, we will already be half way to defeating the curse of choking.

Matthew Syed is the author of Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice.

Here is a selection of your comments.

I work in theatre, with short deadlines and pressure to make sure everything happens smoothly and to plan as well as being as close to perfect as possible. It can be quite overwhelming and stressful, but once a show is up and running you look back and wonder why you put so much pressure and stress on yourself over something which you love and helped to create. It may seem like the only thing in the world at that point but it's hard not to put pressure on yourself.

Emily, Sheffield

I'm a scratch golfer, a game that can demand a lot mentally and physically and at times of pressure strange things can happen, what's more you have a lot of time to think about what can and can't go wrong. I find that if I have a pressure shot eg a shot over water or a putt for the win there are two outcomes, it either comes off or it doesn't, one thing for sure is that if you concentrate on the negative outcome (ball goes in the water or you miss the putt) the outcome is 100% guaranteed.. it does just that. Ironically if you were to take exactly the same shot under no pressure (after the miss) you always seem to pull it off, you approach it with a different attitude. I've found that a pre shot routine and an attitude to treat an important shot as if it were one in practice the best solution. I try not to take any more time on a pressure shot as this only gives you more time to think and freeze over it. I'm also aware of my breathing, I don't want short shallow breaths I want slow deep ones, then just grip it and rip it! I am someone who used to be affected terribly by nerves when I was younger but once I understood these facts and worked on them I have performed some of my best golf under high pressure situations.

Laurence, Birmingham

I left school last year after sitting three SQA Advanced Highers and an SQA Higher and I can honestly say that stresswise my first year at university has been a complete breeze. I think far too much pressure is put upon the two last years at school. It's a constant worry of whether you will get into your first choice and that stress doesn't end until results day. Is it a part of life? So far, my experience in the real world, the answer is no. It's a good learning curve on what your psychological willpower to do things well, but at the same time so many people think that it will define their life and for me it did because I made my grade, but my friends that didn't found other ways to be able to do what they wanted. So while at the time it is a huge pressure and I sympathise deeply with anyone who has exams right now, you do need to put it in perspective that there is more than one way to achieve your goals.

Grace, London

As a housemaster of 82 adolescent boys and the father of three children, two under the age of three, there is never enough time. As a result I am constantly tired because the day finishes at 12-1am and starts again when my youngest wakes at 6amish. I cope by living on adrenalin, coffee, cutting corners where I have to and not worrying about it. Survival means that you cannot do everything, you just have to make sure that the important things are covered. I also think I can cope on not much sleep plus the odd cat nap, but I am not good if people tell me I look tired, they are worried about me, or if I read a health scare! I think it is important to 'think' you are OK! It is important also to have a laugh at sometime in the day and not take yourself too seriously. A colleague once told me Shrewsbury School would not show up if you were looking at it from space - it is important to keep things in perspective!

Giles Bell, Shrewsbury

I'm a freelance videographer, there is a huge pressure to capture the moment, tell a story, be in the right place especially when filming a wedding. A day that a little girl has been dreaming about since she was a child, and it has to be perfect. I try to re-label "anxiety" to "excited", looking forward to the challenge. I use the anxious energy to prepare, and always have a printed out checklist, it is amazing how much more relaxed I feel once I tick off things down the list. If I still feel anxious I remind myself that I am "Lee Evans", I have coped before so I will cope again. And finally I remind myself, if no one gets hurt, no one has died... then today is a good day, no matter what didn't go according to plan!

Lee Evans, St Albans

Kieth Miller, the Australian test cricketer, who had also been a fighter pilot during World War II, had the following (or similar - I may not have it exactly right) to say about "pressure". "There's no such thing as pressure in sport. Pressure is having a Messerschmidt on your arse, trying to kill you. That's pressure."

Laurie Harper, London

I don't cope well under pressure. I studied for my psychology degree and graduated at age 40. Approaching my final exams I was panicking, I couldn't eat, was physically sick and the day before I couldn't even revise the work. I dealt with this by starting revision early - four months beforehand. Each revision session was at a desk under the most precise exam conditions I could create. I knew the hall, the sounds, the paper, pen and even the temperature (and my woolly cardigan). At each session I also had a soft toy infused with aromatherapy oil for clarity - I created my own 'exam smell'. At the exams, I had the infused soft toy with me, used the same pen and wore my same comfort cardigan!! Before entering the examination hall I was sick and panicking and thought all the effort had been a waste of time. But once I had written the first couple of sentences on my paper, I was back in my house, in a revision session and everything just flowed naturally. I achieved a first. I will never sit an exam again. But, as your study suggests, know exactly what you are getting into and be fully prepared in every conceivable (and seemingly trivial) way. I was prepared to go to great lengths just in case it gave me a couple of extra marks which would get me a first. I am now trying to coach my daughter (in a slightly more relaxed way) who is about to sit GCSEs.

Jackie Taylor, Sidcup

I'm in my final year at Uni. A really stressful time as I am just sitting my final exams. However, a year ago a really close friend of mine gave me similar advice to what I read here here. He told me to close my eyes and project myself 10 minutes, days, months, years after the exam. He made me see that, yes, the exam's important at the moment, but as long as I have love and health and happiness then it's just a thing. In 10 years time the exam's not going to matter if I have all those things (and I plan on it), and I'm going to laugh at the amount of energy I put into stressing about it. So I'm sitting here about to go into one of the most important exams of my life, and yet thanks to my friend I'm sitting here with a smile on my face. During my GCSEs and A Levels I would get so nervous my hands would go ice cold and I'd shake. Right now I'm nervous, in that I want to get a good grade, but I also feel calm, knowing that, yes the exam's important, but not to the extent that it has an effect on my body. There are other things that are more important.

Sophie Corbett, Hastings

There are two ways I cope under pressure. I'll give an example. I play rugby for Liverpool Collegiate Ladies and obviously its pressure because you're going out to play a match. The first I do is to talk myself through the small actions before the game. "its just walking through that door there" when I'm going in to the changing rooms, "its just putting on the shirt" when changing in to the rugby kit. The small things help me detract from the big thing I'm about to do, and by telling myself "its only...." stops me stressing about the big thing thats to come. I find it helps for any pressured/stressful situation. The second thing is to learn to block out everything around you and focus on the main task, forget the "what if I make a mistake", "what if I miss the pass", and especially "what if I get injured". Just ignore it all and focus on why you are there. I simplify this too: I'm there to get the ball to the ground on the other side of the pitch. Nothing more.

Debbie Cahill, Liverpool

People say the 3 most stressful things you can do in your life is change jobs, buy a house, and become a parent. I did all 3 in the same month (September '97). Not quite sure how I managed to cope, I think there was so much going on I just didn't have time to stop and think about any of it. But one thing's certain: after that, nothing else stresses me out any more!

Rob, London

Simple. You just need to concentrate on the task in front of you as if that is all that there is in the world. Since it's her centenary, if you want an inspiration, just think "Kathleen Ferrier". She sang the last act of Orpheus on a leg which had fractured due to breast cancer treatment during the performance. If that doesn't inspire you to put it all in perspective and focus on the task, I'm not sure what else will!

Paula Boddington, Oxford

I have to speak to audiences a lot, ranging from a couple of business executives to a room full of contemporaries. I can get disabled by nerves and have made some colossal errors; but I deal with this now by reducing the audience to one person with whom I make eye contact, so it's just like an ordinary conversation in my mind. (Obviously, I change to another person swiftly or it becomes awkward). I find this calms my nerves & improves delivery of whatever the message is; as the language and tone become personal & empathetic, as opposed to stilted

John McCormick, Northampton

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