What can cage fighting teach us about standardized test taking? Perhaps a great deal. An interesting prospect from Dublin, Ireland, first competed in the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) in 2013. In the years that followed the brash plumber’s apprentice brought something new to mixed martial arts: psychological warfare. While not in a traditional “glamour” division — featherweights (145 lbs.) are generally too small for spectacular knockouts—the verbal taunting and one-liners of Conor McGregor (no relation) quickly made him one of the most famous athletes in the world.
While his physical gifts, per UFC standards, were not extraordinary, his facility with verbal pugilism was a talent not seen since Muhammad Ali. His 2013 defeat of American Marcus Brimage revealed that a granite left hand was a perfect complement to his razor-sharp wit. The ability to “get into an opponent’s head” was McGregor’s key to becoming the first two division champion (featherweight and lightweight) in UFC history. Nowhere was the impact of his psychological mastery more evident than his 13 second knockout of the previously unbeatable Brazilian champion Jose Aldo at UFC 194 (2015).
One of the men who succumbed to McGregor’s mental onslaught was a little regarded prospect from Lafayette, Louisiana, named Dustin Poirier. In their first meeting (UFC 178, September 2014) Poirier did not last two minutes. Poirier describes the experience as being a “deer in the highlights”. He “never disliking an opponent” as much as he hated McGregor. For some of us, standardized tests are like fighting Conor McGregor. There is so much hype, and so much emotion, we end up feeling like a small-town kid from Louisiana (Poirier) who is overwhelmed by the moment. Whether in a mixed martial arts cage or at a computer taking an exam, getting overly emotional — whether too excited, too angry, or too nervous—is not the way to achieve peak performance.
As McGregor’s rise to superstardom continued Poirier did what few others would: he acknowledged the mental challenges the Irishman presented. Poirier waited over six years to get another shot at McGregor. In their rematch Poirier appeared immune to McGregor’s verbal assault. On January 23, 2021, the American (Poirier) destroyed the Irishman (McGregor) and relegated the trash-talking Dubliner to just another schoolyard bully. For good measure Poirier defeated McGregor again on July 10, 2021 (UFC 264). This time the verbal tirades launched by McGregor, in defeat, made the Irishman look foolish rather than intimidating. McGregor’s veil of invincibility (and tibia) was shattered.
The message for test takers is simple: don’t let the exam defeat you psychologically. Even if you have previously struggled with standardized tests the last thing you need is to devote precious energy to fear, nerves, or anger. Just as Dustin Poirier needed to address the “head-games” posed by Conor McGregor, you must address your own “hang-ups” with high stakes exams. There are numerous resources available to help with the psychology of exams. Be Dustin Poirier. Your test taking knockout awaits.
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