The Overlooked Skill Students Need to Have

(photo credit:

(photo credit:

“I like this sport because no one tells me I’m good at it.” I overheard a middle school student saying this to his friend the other day, and it caused me to spend a workout or two thinking about kids and pressure.

Pressure. What do others expect me to do? What do I expect myself to do? Can I live up to the hype? What do I do with the possibility of disappointment? Or with actual disappointment? It’s a good question to ask adults, much less middle schoolers.

How do you deal with pressure?

Handling pressure is a learned skill. Even more than Latin or AP Calculus, students need to learn how to handle pressure.

I came to this realization in perhaps an odd, but personal, way: I took the GRE twice – once during my senior year in college. And a second time, ten years later, at the tail end of my sport career….which is another way of saying I took a second crack at the GRE after I had discovered (and become an unofficial expert in) something called “sport psychology.”

The second time around, in the day leading up to my testing appointment, as I expected, performance anxiety kicked in. What I didn’t expect was that I would reflexively turn to the tools I used to quell nerves and enter “the Zone” as an athlete. And it hit me: Standardized tests are mostly a measure of a person’s ability to handle pressure.

If you don’t have effective strategies for managing stress and anxiety, it doesn’t matter how good your vocabulary is, or how quickly you are able to calculate the missing measurement on an irregular trapezoid. Can you control your focus and attention in order to use the skills and abilities you’ve trained?

The sport psychology skills that carried me through tremendous adversity to the podium in London also carried me through those hours in the testing center. So sure, let’s teach kids useful pieces of information in school. But let’s also give them the mental skills to help them access that knowledge when they need it most: on test day. 

We can teach mental skills really effectively in sport. All kids should play sports – competitive sports – not just because it’s good for their physical health or their ability to function on teams, but also because it will give teachers and coaches a chance to help them discover mental tools that will serve them in all arenas of life.

As one of my Paralympic swimming friend said of the insanely competitive interview process for jobs at the big New York law firms: “We were in the conference center at this huge hotel, and you find your name on this piece of paper on the wall, and it tells you what time to be at what room. Everybody was freaking out, and I was like, ‘This is exactly like swimming in the Paralympics. Pshh. I got this.’”

Indeed. (She got the job.)

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