It’s after midnight and you wake up in a cold sweat. In less than 12 hours you’ll be writing the grueling, six-hour CFA exam and you are filled with self-doubt, even though you’ve logged around 300 hours of study.
How can you stay calm when your shot at passing is around 40%?
Perhaps you could borrow some techniques from world-class athletes who know how to overcome tough obstacles and be at their best when the pressure is the highest.
Olympic gold-medal winning kayaker Adam van Koeverden, 37, now the Liberal party candidate in the federal riding of Milton, Ont., can relate to feelings of anxiety and uncertainty from his experience at the 2004 Games in Athens.
Prior to the last race in the K-1 500-metre kayak event, van Koeverden realized he had forgotten his headphones at the hotel. His pre-race routine was to listen to music, and now an important building block to success was gone.
van Koeverden finally collected himself and realized that music was playing on the loudspeaker. It was Billy Idol and the song was “Dancing With Myself.”
“I thought that was a pretty apt song because kayaking is a solo sport, so it’s almost like I’m dancing with myself,” van Koeverden said.
“I went on the water with Billy Idol in my head and had a pretty good race. I won gold.”
Said van Koeverden: “The first rule of sports psychology is control the things you can control and don’t let the things that you can’t control ruin your day.”
He knew paddlers who would get stressed if a head wind suddenly whipped up before the race.
“My response to them was, `Well, either you practice and get really good in a head wind or you just decide before you’re even on the water that a head wind is not going to beat you.’
It’s important to compartmentalize.”
Heather Moyse, 40, a two-time Olympic bobsleigh gold medallist and a World Rugby Hall of Fame player, suggests over-preparing in the days leading up to the event, but downplaying its importance once the big day arrives.
“That may sound counter-intuitive,” said Moyse, a full-time motivational speaker and author of the book, “Redefining Realistic.”
“But it’s because by that point the only way you can execute what you’re actually physically able to execute is by having your mind set on an even keel. It comes down to your optimal level of arousal for performance.”
If your adrenaline level is too low, you won’t value the importance of the event and you will underperform. But if your adrenaline is too high, you will underperform because of nerves and anxiety.
“At the Olympic Games, I told myself this is just another race,” Moyse said. “I need to do the same thing here that I’ve done in every other race to get to this point.”
Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter, a sports psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area who won the San Francisco Marathon in 1980 and finished as the second female overall in the October 1982 Hawaii Ironman, has worked with five Olympic gold-medal winners.
Her approach boils down to three P’s: Positive images, Power words, Present focus.
“With positive images, you see yourself as doing it right by visualization,” Dahlkoetter said.
“Power words is what we say to ourselves. Say what you do want, not what you don’t want. And present focus is to be fully in the present, right here, right now. For a runner, it’s focusing on just this one step so the brain isn’t overwhelmed.”
How does all this apply to CFA exam day? It all comes down to handling the pressure:
Here are some tips from our Olympians:
-Mentally rehearse the strategy you will employ at the CFA exam. For instance, maybe you decide that you will scan through all the multiple-choice questions and answer the easiest questions first.
-Create some specific word or picture imagery to build on your strengths so you can be focused, confident and relaxed on exam day.
-Have a present-centered focus so you are totally connected to the task at hand. Tune out irrelevant environmental cues and internal distractions such as focusing on past mistakes or thinking about what-ifs.
-Remind yourself that future events cannot be controlled. Only control what you can. Don’t think about what might come after this exam, or this set of questions, and focus on the task right in front of you because that’s all you can control.
-If you lose your focus, aim to get back on track quickly. Awareness of inattention is the first step. The sooner you notice the lapse in attention, the quicker you can get it back by re-tuning your brain.
-Look at pressure as a good thing. People get nervous for things they care about. Properly calibrated, nerves are capable of contributing positively to your performance.
-Do some self-talk and remind yourself that accomplishing anything worthwhile in life is hard.
-Get extra sleep two or three nights before the exam because chances are you won’t sleep as well the night before.
-Exercise every day and take a short walk before the exam. Anything to get your heart rate up to get the blood flowing to your brain, so you will be able to think more clearly.
-Have a healthy breakfast with protein. Eat enough so you are not hungry, but not too much so you begin to feel drowsy.