Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Art of Being Clutch: How to Perform Your Best on Exams and Avoid the Choke Part 1

It was my junior year in high school.  I had been playing golf for a few years now, but I was playing in my first real competition of consequence.  I was playing in the qualifying tournament to make the varsity golf squad at my high school.  If I finished in the top three, I would make the team.  If I didn’t, I would have to try and qualify again months down the road. 

Despite it being my first real tournament, I played well.  I suppose I went in thinking I wouldn’t have a chance, that the players who had made the team before would do the same now.  But after making a birdie on the 8th hole of the 9-hole competition, I found myself 2 strokes ahead for the final spot.

I saw my next closest competitor as I was leaving the 8th hole green.  He said something to the effect of “OK, let’s see what you got.”  It finally hit me that I had a real chance to make the team.  As I teed up on the ninth hole, a par 3, I was nervous.  Real nervous.  Lining the left side of the fairway was a giant net that separated the course from the neighboring driving range.  I looked at that and thought, OK, just don’t hit it over there.  My first tee shot was pulled way left, out of bounds into the bordering driving range.  My second attempt landed in just about the same spot.  With my chances of making the team nearly gone, and thus the pressure off, my third try landed safely on the green.  I made my put, and took my score of 8, and left the green.  I wasn’t disappointed, I was mad.  Mad that I had let my chance get away.

So why did I choke when the pressure was on?  What could I have done differently?  Most importantly, what can I learn from this incident that might help myself, and others, perform at their best when the pressure is on?  In particular, is there anything students can do to insure peak performance on law school exams or the bar exam?  While this is a very complicated issue, there are some very simple techniques and solutions that may be utilized. 

Why we Choke

 Working memory is the essential key to most cognitive functions, and a law school exam or bar exam is no exception.  Working memory is what we use to analyze information, evaluate potential outcomes, and eventually solve problems.  It is also where our “internal monologue” takes place, and where our worries and stresses reside.

We also might draw information from our procedural, or long term, memory.  This is where we store the things we have “committed to memory.”

The problem arises when a student’s working memory is compromised.  There are numerous ways this can happen.  For example, if a student is aware of a certain stereotype, it can bring down their performance.  How?    By just being aware of the stereotype, a certain portion of the student’s working memory is occupied by that awareness, and possibly worry.  By reducing working memory, the exam becomes more difficult than it should be. 

This is a greatly simplified explanation of why students choke, but essentially students fail to perform their best when their working memory is compromised.  This is exactly what happened to me in my golf tournament.  I played great when there was no pressure, when my working memory was solely focused on my play.  When I began to worry about whether I would make the team, whether I would be able to continue my great play, that occupied a certain portion of my working memory, and I was done.  

Another, much more famous example of how compromised working memory can affect performance, and the ability to be clutch, is Tiger Woods.  As many people know, Woods is perhaps the greatest golfer of all time.  More than just being great at the game of his choosing however, Woods was beyond clutch, pulling out his best performances when it counted the most.  This clutch ability was best on display during the 2008 U.S. Open, which Woods won in a playoff after playing 91 total holes.  Woods won this tournament despite having a knee injury so serious that it required reconstructive surgery, and would keep Woods out of competition for months.  “He beat everybody on one leg,” competitor Kenny Perry would say after the tournament. 

Soon after this triumph, everything fell apart for Woods.  A well-publicized scandal regarding Wood’s private life hit the media.  Woods had to deal with the public humiliation, but also lost endorsement deals and eventually faced a divorce from his wife.  In 2009, Woods choked for the first time in his professional career.  Woods led on the final day of the 2009 PGA Championship tournament, yet lost the tournament to little-known Y.E. Yang.  This was the first time Woods ever lost a major championship tournament after holding a lead on the final day of play. 

This need for total focus and a lack of distractions is not just apparent in sports.  David Boies is one of the greatest trial attorneys in the country.  He attributes much of his success to his massive amount of preparation, but also (relatedly) on his ability to focus.   In defending a $4.2 billion lawsuit against his client, he continually remained focused on the task at hand.  In the years leading up to the trial, between $75 and $150 million in legal fees were racked up.  Each day in court cost the parties $300,000 in legal fees alone, and the trial lasted almost a month.  Not to mention there was $4.2 billion on the line at trial.

Through it all, Boies remained focused.  “If you think in those terms, it can be disabling,” he said.  “You’ve got to try AIG against SICO just the way you would try a $100,000 case and not a $4.2 billion case, because the principles are the same.”  With that said, Boies was totally focused on the task at hand – being prepared for trial.  He cancelled his yearly cycling trip to Europe, something he had only done once in 20 years.  Leading up to the trial, he only socialized with lawyers on his team or the opposing team – he didn’t want to be distracted from the case for even a minute.  In trial, He never thinks about how the trial is going, and never about what is at stake.  He focuses only on the moment.   How is the evidence coming in?  Is the argument he is making working?  Is it believable?  Is what the other side saying believable?  If not, how can he point that out.  How the trial is going as a whole “is totally irrelevant.”  And this is the key to being clutch – focus on the task at hand, and don’t worry about anything else that may be going on. 

Looking at it from our simplified perspective, Woods lost his ability to be clutch because he was distracted.  His focus was gone, his working memory was compromised with doubt, guilt, remorse, and a feeling of being overly self-conscience.  These were foreign concepts to the “old” Woods.  Boies, on the other hand, always remained focused, prepared and ready.  Likewise, a student’s focus and working memory can be compromised by feelings of inadequacy, doubt, unpreparedness, and any number of other thoughts.  How can we avoid this?

Part 2 next week will explore more specific strategies for performing under pressure.

(Kevin Sherrill - Guest Blogger)

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