Mental Preparation: Look for What Sparkles

As a coaching psychologist I’m often asked for tips on mental preparation for interviews, exams or presentations. Recently I was asked for help on something that didn’t really fit any of those categories and so I used a technique that I used in coaching, called ‘looking for what sparkles’.

Personal Resourcefulness

At the beginning of the first coaching session I spend a little time finding about about how you like to spend your time. It’s not idle chit-chat. What I’m looking for is a topic where you come alive more. So that might be flower arranging, baking, horse-riding or what ever else ‘floats your boat’. It doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it’s somewhere or doing something where you lose sense of yourself and feel more resourceful. Once you have discovered what sparkles in your life, you can transfer it to another less resourceful area or task.

Learning by Association

We learn by making associations between concepts, ideas, thoughts and events (classical conditioning). Think about Pavlov’s somewhat cruel experiments with dogs at feeding time. The dogs learned to associate the sound of a bell with food and eventually would salivate over the mere sounding of the bell. One of the most evocative aromas in British culture is the small of fish and chips. We can’t help pass a chip shop and have positive memories flooding back of family holidays and so on. We can use this innate ability to make associations to prepare for new challenges.

The Luxury of Learning

Having taken a fair few exams one of the importance of the context of learning was perhaps the most important thing I learned. In academic coaching I work with students who haven’t yet made the connection between attitude and knowledge retention. They resent the time spent revising for exams when they could be out enjoying life’s many luxuries. I suggest that learning is a luxury. Everything above basic survival is a luxury.  We then discuss ways to make studying more enjoyable. Now for me that was getting in some great coffee and biscuits and creating a really comfortable place to learn. Resentment acts as a barrier to learning. If you let go of the resentment and realize that learning is a luxury and will lead to further luxuries, this positive mental attitude makes learning easier. If you remove the block to learning then ironically you don’t have to spend so much time and working so hard to force the new information in. Context is a vital component of learning. The positive attitude and the positive environment become encoding with the information.

Preparing for New Challenges

One of the main techniques I use for exam preparation  is active rehearsal of the material. I don’t just sit down with the books and try to cram the knowledge in. Not only is it more passive it’s usually quite boring. Instead, I give lectures or presentations to an empty room! I pretend I have an audience and with just a handful of flash-cards or a few brief notes, I stand up and talk to my imaginary group for 20 minutes. If I struggle I can look at my notes but I can’t stop until the 20 minutes is up. What this does is put me under a mild amount of stress and forces me ‘think on my feet’. As new connections occur spontaneously they are added to existing information. Understanding deepens and it becomes more memorable.

Another way it which we can prepare mentally, is to learn the material while we are doing something we love doing. So if you’re preparing for an interview and you love baking, then combine the two. If you’ve got a presentation, rehearse it on horseback. Or it may be something as simple as going for a walk in nature. This is a great way to generate new ideas, connections and associations. Research has shown that a humble walk in the park can help to boost self-esteem (and confidence). You achieve the same by combining learning with something that you love doing.

The new information takes on a positive association with what sparkles in your life and so is easier to recall. Then once you have worked everything out in your head, you can take a more formal approach of dressing up as you would for the presentation, interview or exam and use the ‘lecture to an empty room approach’ and talk for 20 minutes.

Finally, when studying or preparing for anything, never underestimate the effects of a relaxation.

The Importance of Relaxation

When we are stressed we switch to survival mode which tends to narrow our range of thoughts and behaviours. When we are relaxed, that range is broadened. The effects of working with what sparkles in your life is that you are more likely to be in a relaxed state and are able to tap into a broader range of emotions and cognitions. In short, you are more resourceful. So never underestimate the benefits of taking two minutes out of your busy schedule to take a few, long, slow deep breaths. It will give you a physical, emotional and mental boost.

So there you have it. Mental preparation is about exploiting a few key, innate learning abilities. Relax, adopt a positive mental attitude and use the associations of what sparkles in your life to create positive context for new learning.