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Attacking the SAT Like A Navy SEAL

Updated on November 7, 2013

SEALs and the SAT

Test anxiety and Navy Seal’s? Initially I saw no connection between the two either. However, the strategies Navy SEALs use to overcome stress are also perfect for high stakes test takers. All test performance is hindered by stress and high stakes tests generate enormous stress and anxiety because of three factors: judgment, unfamiliarity, and uncertainty.

3 Factors That Impair Performance

Judgment magnifies the stress and anxiety in any performance. Researchers have shown that judgment makes competitive ballroom dancing more stressful than a third skydiving jump. A skydiver's stress diminishes over time as they perceive themselves gaining control over the process. Since a judge decides a ballroom dancer's fate there is always a significant portion of the event out of a dancer's control. As a result, a dancer's stress level remains high even after hundreds of competitions. High stakes tests like the SAT, GRE, LSAT, or bar exam are judgment tools. Additionally, peers, friends, relatives, and strangers use scores from these tests as a basis for comparison and judgment. People who cannot remember their Anniversary can tell you their SAT score.

Unfamiliarity also elevates stress and anxiety. Humans naturally tense up and resist the unfamiliar. Our brains are on alert for danger in unfamiliar situations. We hate change because of unfamiliarity. The material covered on high stakes test is not unknown, but it is presented in unfamiliar ways to entices incorrect choices. For example, the math on the SAT is at a level typically covered by tenth grade students. So why are there not more perfect SAT math scores-unfamiliarity. Unfamiliarity affects test performance in two ways. First, it entices incorrect answers and mistakes on specific questions (avoiding perfect scores); second, it elevates stress and anxiety, which hinders overall cognitive performance.

Uncertainty is the third major source of stress and anxiety for test takers. High stakes tests cover a broad swath of material, which means you cannot know everything potentially covered by the test or be certain of what will appear on the test. One source of stress from uncertainty is the fear of impossible questions based on minutiae. Uncertainty also comes from the unfamiliar presentation of material (supra). An unfamiliar presentation creates doubt. On most tests your confidence builds with each correct answer. Even when you lack confidence at the outset your confidence is bolstered with each correct answer. On high stakes tests you are typically left with two potentially correct choices for each question, which means you are rarely certain of your answer. Thus, you receive little if any confidence boost from your perceived performance. Uncertainty invites negative fantasies of failure and the associated consequences, which elevates fear and anxiety and occupies valuable mental resources needed for the test.

Knowledge does not guarantee success on high stakes tests. Judgment, unfamiliarity, and uncertainty elevate fear and anxiety. Fear and anxiety prevent test takers from demonstrating proficiency even where they knew the material; stress and anxiety does not have to debilitating to interfere with knowledge, all levels of stress and anxiety impair test performance. Both mental mettle and knowledge are required for optimum high stakes test performance. After witnessing first hand the debilitating effect of high stakes testing I began researching how to overcome the mental performance hurdle presented by these tests.

SEALs, Olympians, and Test Takers

High stakes tests are similar to Olympic competition, competitors train for years for one performance on one day. Because of the similarity I began researching athletic performance for insight into high stakes test performance strategies. However, athletics and academics are not perfectly transferable. Athletes may have a level of talent that transcends the hindrance of anxiety. Further, athletes practice to remove thought from physical performance, which is the opposite of what test takers need. What I needed was a cognitive athlete.

My research revealed that some US Olympic athletes had applied Navy SEAL training with great success. The 2004 US Olympic gold medal women’s softball team used SEAL training to defeat opponents by a combined score of 51-1 in nine games (four games were ended early by the mercy rule or the margin would have been greater). The training used by these athletes was not physical, but mental. So how does Special Forces training equate to a gold medal mental performance?

SEALs rely on “asymmetrical combat,” exploiting mental and physical training, tactics, and technology to overcome larger forces. This modern warfare model requires higher-level cognitive function under extreme duress, which is also what Olympians and high stakes test takers need. Ironically, the Navy adopted their program from sports psychology research. The Navy found that the same mental mettle required for Olympic gold produced success in SEAL training and in battle.

Four Pillars of Seal Success

The Navy created the four pillars of success to cultivate and sustain the mental mettle necessary for a winning edge: (1) Goal setting, (2) Visualization, (3) Positive Self-Talk, and (4) Relaxation. In the 1990s the Navy was faced with an increasing demand for the SEALs' brand of "asymmetrical combat." Historical SEAL training methods were based on a sink or swim philosophy where only the best survived a physically grueling training process. Unfortunately, a significant number of qualified candidates dropped out of the program because of mental factors. Enter the four pillars of success and increased SEAL mental performance.

SEALs are high achievers, prone to setting unrealistic or overambitious goals, which ultimately undermine success and decrease self-image. Creating a cycle of disappointment and diminished confidence. The Navy taught SEALs to set manageable goals, focusing on completing small steps perfectly and avoiding thoughts of the final objective until the end is near.

SEALs visualize themselves overcoming obstacles and succeeding in spite of these challenges. An image of a positive outcome, which acknowledges obstacles, allows the mind to believe in the probability of success, even in the face of adversity. Visualizing a task being completed with great ease impairs the probability of success. Easy tasks are not worthy of maximum effort or consistent preparation.

SEALs are taught to use self-talk to their advantage. We all hold a running dialogue of thought within our minds, but the vast majority of these thoughts are negative self-assessments (negative self-talk). We have 70,000 thoughts per day so it is impossible to stop the stream of self-evaluation. Instead of eliminating thought SEALs focus on the positive, seeing opportunity rather than threat, replacing negative with positive.

Finally, SEALs are taught to manage mental stress and anxiety through physical measures. The Navy devised a breathing technique, 4x4x4 breathing, for SEALs as a portable stress reducer. This technique, involves focusing on the breath, inhaling for a count of four seconds, holding the air for four seconds, and exhaling for four seconds. Repeating the complete breath sequence a minimum of four times significantly reduces stress levels.

Attacking the SAT

The judgment, unfamiliarity, and uncertainty, associated with high-stakes tests make the SEAL pillars ideal for test takers.

Focusing on outcome fuels the fire of uncertainty associated with high stakes tests, increasing stress and anxiety. Every difficulty increases stress when we focus on the big picture. Setting small manageable goals (Micro-goals), which lead to an ultimate performance goal (the big picture), minimizes the anxiety associated with small setbacks. Attacking a problem in measurable steps minimizes the stress associated with uncertainty. In much the same way that gradual exposure helps people overcome phobias. Attending to small things with great detail produces amazing results.

Seeing the right picture improves performance (supra), helping to minimize the anxiety produced by the unfamiliar. Visualizing your self achieving a goal with ease impedes effort and commitment, but seeing yourself overcoming obstacles increases resolve and performance. Overcoming difficulty, real or imagined, increases your belief in possible solutions, which weakens the power of unfamiliarity. People are less anxious and more likely to persevere where they believe a solution exists. Even if the actual problem differs from the imagined one, contemplating solutions increases the information available to fashion a solution to a unique situation. In addition, to reacting to test day problems, visualizing your self taking the steps to overcome study obstacles and properly prepare enhances discipline and commitment to preparation.

Thoughts of performance judgment before and during the test affect your score. Negative thoughts, which are associated with judgment, decrease test scores. The SEALs have a mantra they use when facing a difficult task, "I got this." Test takers need to adopt this attitude. Test takers cannot stop their thoughts, but they can direct them positively. It is all about interpretation. Usually we rush to interpret things negatively, magnifying the negative affects of every performance and circumstance. You cannot change focus by will. What we resist persists. Doubt me? Do not think about polar bears! I bet the first thing that popped in your mind was a polar bear. Peak performers acknowledge events without attaching judgment. Changing a negative outlook requires abandoning a rush to judgment and embracing a "we shall see" mind set.

Lastly, the 4x4x4 breathing technique can be used as band-aid to stem the tide of stress and anxiety before it escalates. It is well settled that our mental state affects our physiology and that we can communicate our mental state through body language. However, few are aware that our body language can also affect our mental state. When we are afraid or anxious we breathe more rapid and shallow; when we are calm and assured we breath slowly and deeply. 4x4x4 breathing sends a message of calm, confidence to the brain, which triggers a congruent emotional response. As a result, 4x4x4 breathing has a calming effect, preventing anxiety from spiraling into performance crushing fear. It can also be used as a pretest measure to calm and focus the mind.

Peak test performance requires mental mettle resulting in self-confidence that is immune to judgment, uncertainty and unfamiliarity. Unfortunately, traditional test preparation materials are knowledge focused, which leaves you vulnerable to judgment, uncertainty, and unfamiliarity. Preparing like a SEAL in addition to traditional knowledge preparation puts you in a better mental position to achieve your desired test score.


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    • kschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel 

      5 years ago from North Carolina, USA

      A unique approach to test taking, with concrete steps students can take to maximize performance!


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