Psychological preparation


Year 11 learning manager, Matt Dale, explains how he employs the principles of sports psychology with his school's year 11 students to help them prepare for their GCSEs.

Every head of year wants to support their students to do the best that they can on their journey through school. As a PE teacher, with a background in sports science, and with a close friend working as a sports psychologist, I wanted to create a winning environment; a vision that became more important as students progressed towards year 11.

I took on my cohort at Fallibroome Academy in Cheshire when they were in year 8; it was at this point that I started to think about how I could best support them. Initially, that involved getting to know the students and their parents, earning their trust and respect, and that of the tutor team who would work with me.

Throughout my time with these students, and as they approached their GCSEs, I began to see similarities between them and athletes.

British speed-skaters may not appear to have much in common with key stage 4 students – although one similarity particularly struck me; speed-skaters experience a four year cycle, punctuated by participation in European and World Championships and culminating in the Olympic Games. 

My charges and I also spent four years together, punctuated by controlled assessments and modular exams, culminating in this summer’s GCSEs. What I wondered could sports psychology offer the GCSE student?

So, with help from Metaphorics Performance Consultants, I planned my strategy. 

Students at Fallibroome start key stage 4 by setting their own targets (rather than working on externally imposed targets such as those generated by Fischer Family Trust data). This is vital to them having ownership of their own performance. 

Targets are periodically reviewed with tutors and reported to parents, and students regularly reflect on how they are doing and where they need to improve. Athletes train under pressure, constantly trying to better their last performance and my belief is that students need to learn from their mistakes in order to progress.

Working in this environment, I wanted to encourage students to “be the best that they can be” and to own their performance and their achievements. I also wanted to encourage honesty – students needed to be open about whether they were giving their all, especially if they had underperformed. 

Students at Fallibroome experience a culture of support and challenge. The school uses Dr Spencer Kagan’s ideas on “co-operative learning” to build teams where classmates are expected to support each other’s learning and are challenged to take an active part in all lessons. 

One of the benefits of co-operative learning is the development of a “can-do” attitude and student accountability for their individual contribution.

Athletes visualise success; they picture themselves standing on the podium receiving the gold medal. I encouraged students to picture success; to think about what it would personally mean to work hard and to use images of the rewards it would bring to keep them motivated.

I played motivational clips of athletes overcoming setbacks during assemblies and stressed it was important that students learnt to deal with disappointment to move on.

Reflecting that the athlete has a network of data analysts, nutritionists, dieticians, strength and conditioning coaches, I realised that I could build a similar support structure for students, using their tutors, teaching staff, pastoral support team, mentors and parents. Drawing on coaching strategies used in sports science I adapted my message to suit my audiences of tutors, parents and students.

Getting parents engaged is clearly a key to success, particularly when you have 240 students. Many parents want to help, not all know how. In February (of year 11) we ran a parents’ study evening – designed to give generic guidance on exams, how to prepare their children, and also explain some of the methods Fallibroome employs to get the best from our students.

Challenging parents, I asked them some key questions:

  • How tolerant are you of mistakes?

  • Do you judge by ability or effort?

  • What is the environment like at home?

The evening was timed to take place 50 days before year 11 went on study leave. Having asked successful former year 11 students how much time they spent revising (20 hours per subject), I was able to show how much there was still to do, but how, by breaking this down, it could be achieved.

It was important to show students how to plan their time right now, and not to leave it until Easter (or later); this mirrors how an athlete preparing for a major event builds up to that event gradually, reaching their peak at the right time.

Through an explanation of our teaching and learning strategies, the discussion of aspirational targets and intervention within the classroom, I was able to demonstrate the school’s positive ethos and how we pose questions to challenge students’ perceptions of themselves. 

Talking about Professor Carol Dweck’s work on fixed versus growth mindsets, and the implications of this on promoting learning or otherwise, I explained how we give praise to encourage students to move forward. This is designed to promote the growth mindset by focusing students on the process they have generated, their effort, their strategies, their concentration, their perseverance or their improvement – rather than just the grade they have achieved. I also suggested that parents and students could follow us on Twitter and have since tweeted questions, reflections and information.

Students, like athletes, need to identify and work on their weaknesses. Our support team helped provide the tools to do this – tracking of data-enabled targeted and personalised intervention such as after-school and Saturday revision sessions for those who needed somewhere to work; stretch and challenge activities for those needing extra stimulus, and techniques such as “Heartmath” for students who needed to manage anxiety and calm exam nerves.

By treating each student as an individual, by giving them ownership of their own “training regime”, I hope that I have given them the belief to be the best that they can be, not just for GCSEs but for life.

In summary the key strategies we deployed were: 

  • Student ownership of target-setting: Students setting their own goals, which need to be reviewed regularly; they need to own them to ensure that they are willing to work hard to achieve them.

  • Developing a support network: Involving year 11 tutors, mentors and parents. Sharing your vision – these are the people who are going to reinforce that message.

  • Visualising Success: Athletes imagine what it will be like to succeed – we should encourage students to do the same by recording what they hope to achieve. This will help them control exam nerves, by mentally rehearsing how they will feel, so that they enter the exam knowing how to control their emotions.

  • Motivational tools: Video clips of motivational speeches to keep students focused on the end goal. We established a Twitter feed and encouraged students and parents to follow it. Tweets included a mixture of encouragement and information.

  • The growth mindset: We encouraged students to think in terms of the effort they are making rather than the grades they are achieving and encouraged parents to reward effort. Viewing set-backs as opportunities to learn what to do better next time became an expectation.  

  • Personalised learning: Knowing your students and addressing their individual needs is the key challenge for every learning manager and teacher.

Preparation determines outcomes for athletes and students. As we look forward to a summer of sporting results we will also know if our strategies for supporting students have been effective. Each cohort has our very best wishes for success.

  • Matt Dale is learning manager for year 11 at Fallibroome Academy in Macclesfield, Cheshire. 


The results

Since publishing this article, Mr Dale has responded to numerous requests asking about the results Fallibroome Academy achieved this year. Mr Dale told SecEd: "As a school we are still awaiting confirmation of our final results following the uncertainty over this years English results. Our expectation is that results that will improve further which will relfect the hard work and committment made by the students, staff and parents. Please see website for our headlines.

"Our whole school results where the best they have been for a number of years showing an improvement from this years cohort. More pleasing for me was the record indivdual GCSE points score per student which suggests, as I wanted, that a large number of students achieved their personal bests, something we spoke to students about! They strived to be the best they could, which was my key message over the four years. On top of this was the winning environment and culture we created within the group. This was based upon trust, respect and the challenge to be the best they can be. This allowed an effective, honest, productive work ethic employed across the year group. An example of this is that students attended Easter and Saturday morning study sessions towards the exam period. 

"We have indivdual cases of success. This was built around allowing students to make mistakes, learn from them and adopt the 'can do' attitude, similar to athletes. This attitude allowed students to adapt to and cope with the pressure of exams, similar to coping with the pressure of performing. This is something which I am sure all teachers and coaches can relate to!"

See the Fallibroome Academy results here:

CAPTION: Psychology of learning: Fallibroome Academy’s year 11 learning manager Matt Dale works with one of his students, using sports psychology techniques to help with GCSE preparation


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