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Sport as an exam

All parents want their kids to succeed and most agree the best route is through education and passing exams. The question is, what is a good education and what is the best preparation for exams. I think sport itself is one of the best forms of education out there and in terms of preparing you to not just pass exams but excel in them I think there is nothing better.

I know, you probably think I am crazy but let me explain. I am big fan of sport and have been watching most of my life. I follow lots of different sports yet I noticed early on the similarities between each. Particularly in the winners and especially in those who dominate their sport. My early idols were Stephen Hendry in snooker, Pete Sampras in tennis and Michael Schumacher in motor racing.

What was clear to me was that they won through their exceptional ability to compete and not because they were technically the best masters of their art. That may sound strange but you still see it today. Champions are generally more rounded than the competition in that they are very good technically in more areas than the rest of the field. The most important factor however is always in how, when and where they put their skills to use.

These guys are always the best under pressure. They are always the guys who know how to dig out their best when it matters. They seem to have control over their ability under pressure. Everyone else has no control of when they play well. It could be at any point during a match or tournament. It is never something the lesser players really think about. The elite players only really care about when, where, why and how they play well. Being good under pressure is their main focus and it is also their main pleasure. They all want to test themselves and see the pressure as a normal natural part of life. The best wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

That is what I saw and still see in all sports. Many technically exceptional people do not achieve their potential because they lack skills in turning these skills and knowledge into results. This is also exactly what I saw in education. The reason it matters is that while I never got to compete in sports. I did get to compete in academia and I did very well. I also knew precisely why I did well and it wasn’t anything genetic. It was exactly what I just explained about sporting champions. My background prepared me well for academics and I also enjoy competing with myself. I grew up enjoying quizzes and question answer books. Constantly trying to beat my personal best. So I was really used to setting myself a question and then finding the answer. In school this just got encouraged so I got to refine it.

Then came my exams. GCSE’s and A levels. The problem I have always had is that I never really liked school because being good at it does not win you friends. What got me through was sport. I played football and found my niche in goal so I was never picked last. Good for the ego. That was in primary school but secondary I didn’t have anything like that. For my GCSEs I was in all the top groups but didn’t really know anyone in them. In so many ways I was pushed to do things I didn’t want to do simply because I was good.

The teachers wanted to push me but I felt they were not giving the opportunities to the other kids who really needed them. You see I didn’t really learn so much at school. It was the stuff I did in my own time that really taught me. I read magazines like Focus which really expanded my mind and knowledge in science. These magazines were my real teachers. The teachers at school just filled in the gaps for the exam. At school I didn’t like being pushed to do things I didn’t want to do so I rebelled by not trying at all in my GCSEs. I did no revision and just turned up. I did fine, some A’s plenty of B’s but that is because my home life was full of reading, building stuff and whatever so when I turned up at school I already knew most of what I was being taught.

So, why is this relevant? In sport we know that the top guys can win without really trying. In academics I have always had that ability and I have known why. My background prepared me for it. It didn’t give me a leg up in sports but it did in academics. I am just lucky that it is what gets you a job so education values it and parents value education. Success in sports always seems irrelevant for getting ahead to most people.

During my A levels I got to choose the subjects I wanted and I decided I wanted to get something out of these two years. I didn’t like that my GCSEs didn’t reflect what I can really do. I started to notice that exams are identical to the tournaments I wished I could compete in. They are really hard work and you put yourself on the line but the result you get is with you for life. Andy Murray shows this with his Wimbledon success. Most people will have no real idea of the hard choices he has made to get there and the work that was put in. It also doesn’t really matter what he does for the rest of his career. He has won Wimbledon and the Olympics the two sporting events the British public and the world understand. One being tennis specific the other being truly global. For the rest of his career he will be celebrated. His achievement is now set in stone.

In the end I got 5 A Levels. A’s in Psychology and Sociology and B’s in Biology and Physical Education (PE). The C was for general studies which the top universities don’t actually accept, so I I did no preparation at all for the exam. I used it as practice for my other a levels. It turned out that my A levels gave me enough general knowledge to get the C in the first place. This taught me a lot about getting more with little effort. Something I have always focused on but my A levels were the time I really proved it to myself.

I do not share my results to brag. In the grand scheme of things they are nothing special. They are only the equivalent of winning a regional competition or something. Nothing near reaching the top of a sport. The relevance is that they are something that anyone can achieve and I did so well precisely because I learnt how to do so from sport. Not just by watching mind you. It is much deeper than that. I had set my sights on doing Sports Science at university. With no sporting background to speak of I was up against it. The truth is I thought I had no chance because I assumed sporting success would be a pre-requisite. In the time old tradition of chasing your dreams no matter what I just thought I would do my best and see what happens.

So I rode my luck. My 6th form had just started teaching PE at A level, they also had a policy of every student doing 4 A levels in the first year. Dropping one in the second year. The rest of the country just takes 3 A levels as standard. This meant I could complement PE with even more A levels that were relevant. Biology, Psychology and Sociology were added.

At the time entry to university was based on points. Each A level grade having a points value. Add them up for the total. Each university gave a minimum points grade they would accept automatically. Your school would predict your results, the university would decide whether to take you and give you a number to aim for. Get this in your exams and you’re in. Get less and you have to negotiate. I went for all the top sports universites (including 2 courses at Loughborough and 2 courses at Birmingham against advice but I was bucking the trend anyway so why not set my sights on the impossible!!!). Some courses had 10 applicants for every spot so the chance of negotiation was low.

Thanks to my school I could pick out of 4 A levels not 3. So I did the maths. My target was 24 points. An A is worth 10 points, a B 8 and a C 6 so the target if I had 3 A levels is one A and two B’s. Kinda tough. In sport you would see that you can drop two grades, nothing more. Because I was taking 4 A levels the maths favoured me. It was just 4 C’s. It sounds tough to most people but as a seasoned academic I knew that grades are actually kind of exponential. It is effectively 3-5- times harder to get a B than a C, the same difficulty increase again to get an A.

Being an elite student I already knew how hard it was to get an A or B. What most people don’t realise is that you have to achieve the given grade at all aspects. Not just one. To achieve a B you have to be much more thorough than for a C. This means a lot more work on your part. Reading around a bit more and thinking for yourself more. This means developing a higher set of skills and then learning how to apply them. You have to do this for each area of a subject. Doing this for each A level becomes a lot of work. Often tedious if it isn’t your passion. To get an A there is much more work to be done at a much higher standard. Again it must be done in all aspects. You effectively have a whole new set of targets which must be applied to everything you do.

That is why it is exponentially more difficult and more work. It isn’t double because to get a C you just have a few targets. To get a B the number of targets and the level they are set at trebles at a minimum, for an A it trebles again. So, in theory getting a C could be a 3 on the level of effort, a B a 6 and an A is a 9. Then add this for each A level and you really see the work load. For 3 A levels I would have a workload of a 9 (A) and two 6’s (B). 6 x 2 = 12 + 9 = 21. So my workload would be 21. For 4 a levels my workload was 4 x 3 (C) = 12. You can now see how much easier getting into university was because I was doing 4 A levels.

Not only did I have much less work to do to reach the desired grade but I could also drop two grades in each A level and still get in because that go me a C in each. Even better is that if I did better in one A level then I could afford to do worse in another. You can now see how the pressure I felt during my exams was far less than every one else. I may have been going for an incredibly competitive area at top universities but once I got my offer it was a binding contract. I could drop 8 grades and still get in. With just 3 A levels I could only drop 2.

This is not an exact analogy the idea is to simply explain my experience of the workload I found throughout my education to achieve each grade. I simply found the workload easier to achieve than others because my passions helped me cover much of the workload. Reading my favourite magazines and watching my favourite TV often taught me things I needed for education. You can clearly see the thinking I learnt from sport. All the elite athletes I ever see do this math.

For example I am pretty certain that Andre Agassi achieved what he did because he grew up in Las Vegas. I feel he learnt how to gamble properly. That means an understanding of maths and probabilities. He may not be able to write much of this down or explain it technically but I would expect a Las Vegan to understand how to use probability to gain an advantage over an opponent. That is precisely what I was doing. I had no sport background but I was used to academic competition and so I set the odds in my favour.

I have given you this background so you can understand why I have strong opinions about education and how it should be done. I haven’t gone into depth but I do know in depth how to succeed in education and pass exams. What is most obvious given the breadth of study I completed was that the amount I was tested and the quality of those tests pretty much predicted my result. My explanation is simple. Some teachers really understood that there is no perfect test. The best they can do is set up some tough and thorough challenges for you to pass. It is up to you to overcome those challenges as they are presented. In education this is generally a written answer to a question. It could be a multiple choice exam or an essay.

The point is always that you can only answer the questions you are given. It is irrelevant how good you are in the areas you are not tested on. That is what the good teachers taught me. That is why they put us through multiple mock exams before the real one and that is why their pupils got the best grades they could. That is also why elite sports guys get their results. The know that it is about how well you answer your opponents questions on the day that matters. There are no second chances.

In psychology and sociology I had well organised preparation for the exams. Particularly several mock exams. The lesson was clear. Exams are a particular skill. It is not how well you know your subject but how well you can express it under exam conditions that counts. Just like sport. How many athletes have dominated their event but under the spotlight of the Olympics or a world cup they are wilted. That is life and that is an exam. I understood this because I see it in sport every time I watch but also because I studied sport in PE and later at Loughborough in Sport Science. I knew I had to be rigorous in my preparation for my exams. The dates and times are set in stone and the topics and questions can be unpredictable. At the same time I can hedge my bets and most importantly I can always practice the skill of expressing my knowledge and skills under pressure.

This is a very sport specific way of thinking but it is why I think sport has lessons for life. There is no substitute for match fitness and exposure to competition. The same is true for exam pressure. Not only did I do best in the exams which let me prepare for expressing my skills and knowledge of the subject in a realistic exam situation. I also had what I considered two practice exams just before because General studies was thankfully my first exam.

With A level exams being 3 hours in length I already had 6 hours of solid competition behind me before I took my first important exam. Other people just went straight in. No preparation at all. I was already ahead because I had 6 hours of A level standard question answering behind me. So I had a major advantage in my final preparation for my exams. I now knew the style and depth and other aspects that I would face. This is the same reason why the winners of Wimbledon are so often the winners of the grass court events that occur just before like Halle and Eastbourne. Winners of these events arrive at Wimbledon ready for what will come. They have an edge. This normally helps in the long run.

What I am trying to share is that through my study of human excellence which is what sports science and physical education really are I have been searching for those patterns that lead to results. It has always struck me that the answers are in plain sight. One critical aspect is often the most ignored or certainly the most contentious right now. Pressure. Exams add huge pressure. That is unfortunately their point. We don’t like pressure these days particularly on children. That is a very complex issue but then I also see that pressure is fundamental to life.

When you compete for a girlfriend or boyfriend, for a job or a house you feel the pressure but we wouldn’t stop this happening would we. For each you have your exam, the date, the interview or the mortgage application. Shouldn’t your education prepare you for the pressure of these situations. Teach you how to be at your best and get the result you want? Of course it should but it is a very complex challenge for education to address.

What I see in sport is that the match is an exam. Every competitive match I play as a tennis player I have the same nerves I used to have for exams. I have done the preparation I feel I know the topic of tennis well enough but I find in the match that sometimes my opponent asks me questions I can answer well and I win, other times I don’t know the answer. Either I couldn’t remember it in that situation or I hadn’t revised it in my preparation. I lose. The point is simply that I compete because I like to test myself. As an academic I use my success and experience in exams to help me get the result. So I see that the reverse should be true as well.

Competing in sport, for those who love sport, gives an opportunity to learn how to deal with the challenges of exams through playing matches and putting yourself on the line. You learn that it isn’t all about what you know, it is how well you apply it. Listening to the question you are being asked and answering it properly is more important than giving a standard answer without any thought. To reach the highest level in a match or a sport you always have to take the whole challenge into account to get the best results. This means considering the conditions, the situation, the opponent and yourself. You need to prepare for various potential scenarios being ill, handling questions you haven’t prepared for, ambiguous questions.

In summary I feel that we need to accept the pressure is part of life and teach children how to do well in it. That turns pressure from something you fear into something that feeds you and makes you stronger. You build up a mental list of challenges you have overcome and grow as an individual. You learn to understand the educational value of a challenge and the pressure it creates. You realise that you either win or you learn. You will always learn more from your failures than your successes.

Competing in sport prepares you for exams because it makes you practical. You learn that pressure is part of life, something to be understood and prepared for like anything else. You see others succeeding under pressure and learn from it. This is what I saw at Loughborough. Consistently I found that those good at sport could apply this experience and skill to passing their exams. They often didn’t quite realise how sport helped them. That I feel is the problem. I didn’t intend this post to become so long but I see I have a lot of pent up thoughts to express. I will need to re organise this post in time so it makes more sense. For now I hope it reads well and gives you some insight into why I feel sport and education are both missing out on an incredible symbiosis.

What is very clear to me is that handling pressure and exams is a skill that is learnt not something you are born with. So it should be inherent in education. Anything that prepares you for pressure and has exams in should be made available for that very reason. Sport, and of course for me, Tennis, should thus be a pre requisite in the curriculum.

What is the point of teaching a topic really well if a student is not also taught how to express and use what they have learnt to answer challenges in the real world.

Sport as an exam first appeared on my original blog. The Competitive Urge is my new focus for sport posts so I’m re posting relevant articles here.

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