Tim Ream and Jenna Woolven talk exam pressure

May 6, 2023

With exam season fast approaching, young people from the Behind Every Kick programme grabbed the opportunity to talk on Zoom with Fulham's World Cup centre-back Tim Ream and sports psychologist Jenna Woolven - a former England international hockey player - about coping with pressure and performing when it counts.

How did you deal with the pressure of school exams?

Tim Ream (TR): Looking back, I'm not sure I dealt with it as well as I thought I did then! Being a guy, I thought I could figure things out for myself when, in reality, there were lots of times I should have asked for some help from teachers or my parents. 

Tim enjoys a joke with our young people

Did you have any strategies that helped, and do any of them work for you now in professional football?

TR: Two things stand out to me. 

Firstly, I remember being told early on at school: study and revise in an environment like the one where you'll take the exam. I found that to be really helpful. Replicating exam conditions during revision helped me retain the information I needed.

Secondly, there's no point in comparing yourself to other people. It's me against myself. How other people revise might work for them, but I tried to do what worked for me. I drew on my athletic background and thoughts about the things I did that helped me mitigate the pressure in my football and how I could apply that to studying for my exams. Ultimately that involved following a process. What am I doing in the days before a game or an exam that will allow my feelings to be under control on match or exam day? These are the same things I do now: drinking the right amount of fluids, eating nutritious meals and ensuring I have multiple, consecutive nights of good sleep. That way, when it's kick-off time - or the exam starts, I know I've done everything I can to perform. 

It's so interesting looking back now, but at school and university, I used to be ten times more nervous about speaking in front of a class or singing in the choir than walking out onto a pitch for a match in a packed stadium. Now I'm older, I realise I was worrying about what other people thought of me. Whereas now, there are only a handful of people whose opinion of me I care about. I understand now that I want to do well for myself and not because someone else is putting pressure on me.

Jenna Woolven (JW): I also think putting things into perspective can help. Of course, an exam or a big football match is really significant. But if you've prepared as well as you can and give your best effort, you can allow yourself to zoom out if it doesn't go as well as you'd hoped and know you tried. 

It's so easy when you're under pressure to let your mind wander and worry about everything you can't control. Immediately before the exam, just like before a match, techniques like taking some deep breaths or doing a physical warm-up are an excellent way to get you in the best possible head space. 

Jenna on the zoom call

How do you cope with fatigue?

TR:  It's so difficult at the end of the match. You want to start counting down the clock, but when you do that, that's when mistakes happen. It's the same with exams. When you're tired, that's when you read a paragraph eight times and realise nothing is going in. In a match, I maintain focus by communicating with other players and giving instructions - I realise you can't do that in an exam hall!. But finding something that allows you to stay tuned in is my advice. And during revision, when you're tired - take a break. Breaks are just as necessary as those intensive bursts of study.

JW: Recognising when you're tired and understanding what's happening will allow you to then take steps to stay engaged. Writing things down or getting your highlighter pens out might help you maintain focus. But, as Tim says, it's vital to build in breaks. 

How do you keep motivated if things don't go well?

TR: There will be times when things don't go right. That's a part of life. When it happens, I take a step back. Doing that helps me see it isn't the end of the world. There's always tomorrow, the next training session, the next game, or the next exam that gives you another opportunity to show what you can do. You have to recognise you can't change the past and that making mistakes and having down moments help us develop and grow. That's how I've learned to view it and keep moving forward. 

Is pressure a good or bad thing?

TR: It depends on how you choose to see it. I've come to use it as motivation, a fuel that drives me. I go after it now. That wasn't always the case when I was breaking through as a professional. But I've grown to recognise that I need to feel pressure - it means I still care. When I stop feeling the pressure, I'll know football doesn't matter anymore, and then I'll know I need to find something else to do. 

JW: I've heard some athletes describe pressure as a privilege, and that's a fascinating way to look at it. Tim is privileged to play for Fulham and the USA. Millions of people would love to do that. You can apply the same thing to exams. It's your chance to show what you know. Many people in the world don't have that chance and don't have the possibility of an education.  

Any last thoughts?

TR: Celebrate your successes. Whether it's the little wins, the medium wins, or the big ones. Victories - big and small - stack up, and you'll find you get that winning feeling which is really powerful.

JW: If we never stop to appreciate what we've achieved, it's hard to build confidence. We all hope other people will give us that little pat on the back, sometimes though you need to give it to yourself.

This session with Tim and Jenna was hosted by Virtual Soccer Schools. Behind Every Kick are hugely grateful to them for partnering with us to support our young people.