Olympic gold medal techniques to ace your next exam or presentation
How did Jamaica, an island of just under 3 million people, come to dominate track across the past two decades? According to Usain Bolt’s coach, Glen Mills it was due to the lessons of Bud Winter.
Bud Winter (1909-1986) was one of the best sprint coaches ever. Across 30 years at San Jose State University, he produced 27 track and field Olympians and three Olympic gold medallists. At one time, his runners held every world record for sprinting events.
But, what’s that got to do with taking tests?
Bud Winter’s credo was relaxed effort.
Winter taught his athletes to stay calm and relaxed before and during races. Unnecessary tension was the enemy.
It worked for his athletes, and for others, like Usain Bolt.
I’m all relaxed, I show up on the line and people look at me and say, why is he so relaxed? One of the biggest races of his life, and he’s just chill.Usain Bolt
What’s not as well known, is that Winter’s training methods first worked for people taking tests.
Winter developed many of his ideas during World War II training Navy pilot cadets.
Early in the war, the Navy had a big problem. America was losing. Despite recruiting the best and brightest, and despite spending a fortune on training and technology, their new pilots were cracking under combat conditions. They suffered from fatigue. They froze under pressure. They shot at the wrong airplanes. On top of that, training was too slow — they needed new pilots sooner.
The Navy tasked Winter with using sports psychology to improve results at the school. He created two equal groups of cadets: a control group and an experimental group. He then took the experimental group and trained them in progressive relaxation techniques.
The technique helped pilots sleep under all conditions, which solved the fatigue problem, but it did something else too. The relaxation group beat the control group at just about everything else, often by a lot. They did better at sports. They could identify Japanese vs. US planes much faster and more accurately. They got higher marks in examinations. They were also happier and less stressed.
Unfortunately, despite early success, the program was scrapped. Winter claims it was stopped for political reasons, so he brought the learning back to the track.
What’s interesting here is the big improvement in test taking under pressure. (The relaxation cadets did no better in the dull, easy, Military History tests). For challenging exams, under time constraints, the relaxation group absolutely trounced the control group.
Unfortunately, despite early success, the program was scrapped. Winter claims it was stopped for political reasons, so he brought the learning back to the track. The potential for using these techniques to improve test-taking wasn’t explored further.
But we can pick up where the program left off.
Keys to Test Success
The three main things to concentrate on, according to Winter are:
Based on Winter’s observation of champions across sports and in the Navy, the most productive attitude is one of “cool confidence.”
This does not mean indifference. This does not mean you don’t care.
You have to have energy, but you have to keep it under control. It’s a balancing act.
To maintain your cool confidence you must not let anything faze you or distract you. If the test room is too hot, you love taking tests in the heat. If the questions are hard, you love hard questions. If there is a noisy distraction, you love noise. You get the idea.
It’s important to prevent yourself from being psyched out. Above all, don’t talk about the test before the test. Especially avoid that guy who asks you whether you’ve studied that one thing you’ve never heard of. You know that guy. If you must talk with others pick a different topic, joke around, stay loose.
Don’t let anything distract your calm just before the test.
When I get to the line I try to think random things, or random stuff about my life, what I’ll do after the race, what food I want, video games, movies. Stuff like that. Just random things just to not think about the race. As soon as you start overthinking the race then you start getting a little bit nervous.Usain Bolt
2. Physical Relaxation
To help his cadets learn to sleep in any situation Winter taught them a progressive relaxation technique.
- Sit on a chair, right back in the seat, legs uncrossed, feet flat and hands inside thighs.
- Eyes closed, breathe slowly, exhaling tensions
- Relax the forehead, relax the eyes
- Relax the jaw, let the mouth hang open, relax the tongue and lips
- Drop the shoulders, relax each arm, one segment at a time
- Relax the chest and rib cage, let the midriff out
- Feel the state of relaxation and associate it with the word ‘calm’
- Check face and upper body for tensions that have reformed
- Relax each leg, one segment at a time
(This technique can be taken further and produce sleep in 2 minutes — see here for the full technique).
Relaxation is a skill like anything else, so you have to practice it. 10 minutes a day for 5 weeks was enough for Navy cadets to learn how to do it.
Winter’s athletes would do their relaxation routine either the night before a race, or just before, depending on the athlete’s preference. Experiment to see what works best for you. If the technique gets you too relaxed just before the exam, do it the night before. If you need a study break, add the sitting micro nap to revive you. Just don’t lie down in bed if you still have more study to do.
During training and racing Winter taught his athletes to make sure that tension wasn’t creeping back into their bodies. He would cue the athletes with “loose hands, loose jaw” as he found that these (and the forehead) were the first places tension developed. You can do the same throughout the test—check your forehead, jaw, and hands periodically and tell yourself to release them. Your jaw might hang open, and that is a good thing.
In the old days, coaches thought that the beetled brow, the clenched fist, and the set jaw characterized a champion in action. Then came World War II and coaches found that it was the fellows with the brook trout look on their faces — the sleepy-looking guys with the loose jaws and limp hands — who were not only turning in the best athletic performances, but were also shooting down the most planes.Bud Winter*
Along with the relaxation routine, Winter encouraged his athletes to ‘imprint’ positive messages while in the relaxed state. If they were running a race — they would repeat “I am going to run fast and loose”. If they were asking someone on a date they would say “I am going to be happy, interesting, poised, and thoughtful.” He lay great stock in these auto-suggestions, for his athletes and for other parts of life too.
For a test situation create your own positive messages—something that you can remind yourself of to keep loose and confident. For example, “I easily remember what I have learned.”
The whole game is to stay loose and positive, and to avoid any tension or doubt that will freeze you up mentally.
The last thing to keep in mind is that Winter found people ran faster when they put in 90% effort, rather than 100%. It doesn’t seem logical, and he had to prove it to each athlete. 100% just tensed them up and made them run slower. When you sit for a test try to take the same attitude — don’t give it your all — give it just 90% and you will do better.
Overall, concentrate on keeping your cool and staying loose. If you are well-prepared, it will show. Check that jaw, and relax your forehead.
Watch Usain Bolt in his first semi-final at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 to see relaxation and cool confidence in action. He jogs the last few meters and still almost beats the Olympic record.
I just try to be as chill as possible until the starter says take your mark then you pretty much just take a deep breath and just clear your mind, and get ready to go.Usain Bolt
If you are interested in finding out more about the technique, Bud Winter wrote a book called Relax and Win you can pick up a copy here