How about that Super Bowl LI? Even if you’re not a football fan or managed to avoid the most-watched television program of the year, you might have heard how the New England Patriots stormed back from a 25-point deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons. How did this organization, infamous for egregious amounts of excellence, engineer the biggest comeback win in Super Bowl history? Without getting into the Xs and Os, the Patriots’ first step towards changing the course of the game came from a simple realization: “If we play the same way in the second half as we played in the first, we are going to lose.”
“The thing about football–the important thing about football–is that it is not just about football.” Terry Pratchett’s observation rings true, especially when analyzing pivotal moments in competition and performance. Most sports include breaks during halftime or other notable intervals. Whether athletes go into those rest periods flush with success or stung by failure, they sometimes lose track of how quickly the tide can turn. Another half to play represents another opportunity to seize momentum and return to form.
This same phenomenon occurs when students take big tests like the SAT and ACT. If you look at all the exams you take as one big game rather than a series of little ones, you can see how test takers can become victims of the wrong kind of momentum. Once you underperform on your first exam, you can fall prey to doubts and self-recrimination. Failing to live up to expectations on the next test fulfills your worst thoughts about yourself. No matter how many tests follow, the game is probably over and you didn’t win.
But you can flip that script too. All you have to do is resolve not to do exactly what you did before and do a reality check:
1. Consider the quality of your preparation: if you’ve prepped well, you can score well.
2. Consider the quality of your practice tests: if you’ve earned your target scores in practice, you should be able to achieve those scores on test day.
3. Consider what went wrong last time: if you make the same mistakes, you’ll earn the same results.
4. Either find a coach or be one for yourself: every competitor relies on coaches for strategic analysis and psychological support… who supports you?
LL Cool J begins what is arguably his finest work with the words, “Don’t call it a comeback, I been here for years.” How, he asserts, can a superior work from a superior artist be considered a comeback even if previous efforts fell short? Perhaps the Patriots’ win shouldn’t be considered a comeback either, but simply a reversion to an extremely high mean. The level of confidence that comes from extended periods of excellence ensures that momentary setbacks need not lead to permanent failure.
So put in the work. When you establish a high level of performance, trust that evidence. One bad test means little; there’s a reason you are allowed to take the SAT and ACT multiple times. Look at your college admissions tests more like a World Series than a Super Bowl. Great teams can lose a few games but ultimately win the championship. You can too. Don’t call it a comeback when it’s just you living up to your potential.