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October 29, 2014; game seven of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals.  In the bottom of the fifth inning Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner enters the game with the score tied 2-2.  In the remaining five innings of the game the Giants would only score one more run; the Royals wouldn’t score again.  In a performance for the ages Baumgarner completely shut out the powerful Kansas City offense giving up only two hits in five innings.  Just the night before the potent Royals lineup had blanked the Giants 10-0.   But for the third time in the series Baumgarner shut down the Royals and in doing so got the save giving the Giants the series and earning MVP honors in the process (All due sympathies to good friend Doug Frost). 

Beyond the fact that it was a great series one could easily argue that the Giants didn’t beat Kansas City—Madison Bumgarner did all by himself.  He won both of his starts in the World Series dropping his earned run average for the entire playoffs to an unheard of 0.25 while allowing just one run in five total starts covering 36 innings.  Although those numbers may be Greek to you, Bumgarner’s pitching performance is unmatched in the history of the playoffs/World Series and not likely to be bettered for a long time.

What was especially impressive to watch was Mad Bum’s (as he’s called by teammates) focus and ferocious concentration between pitches and how he was able to completely reset after making each pitch regardless of what had just happened.  At the post-game press conference he told the immense horde of reporters that he was out there just trying to make pitches, hit his locations, and get hitters out.  It sounds simple but remember this was on the biggest sports stage of all—game seven of the World Series–and against the hottest hitting team in the major leagues during the playoffs.

What does Madison Bumgarner’s pitching in the World Series have to do with this blog?  Plenty—it’s huge.  For the last two months I’ve been involved in a new project with a group of Advanced and Master’s level students having to do with testing anxiety.  The purpose of the project is twofold: first, to find the best strategies to deal with test anxiety.  Second, to find best strategies for bringing one’s “A” game in the moment whenever needed.  One of the most crucial aspects of successful testing is to be able to control your mind and emotions.  It goes without saying that nerves will always be part of the exam process.  But nerves during an exam can quickly cause one’s thoughts to start racing faster and faster perhaps even getting out of control. 

The technique outlined below is the most recent of three strategies on which I’ve worked with the students in the project. It’s called “Clearing the Mechanism,” and it’s all about taking back control of your thinking during an exam by quickly clearing your mind whenever needed even to the point of installing a much-needed “reset” button.  
Why is “Clearing the Mechanism” so valuable? Think about Bumgarner’s ability to only focus on making the next pitch even though he was under immense pressure.  I can’t think of a more valuable tool than being able to clear your mind quickly on the go enabling you to refocus intensely in the moment.  Here’s the strategy:

I. The 15 Second Challenge

To begin I have a simple task for you.  It’s called the “15 Second Challenge.” The task is quite simple—but deceptively challenging. First, find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted.  Then choose one of your very favorite life memories.  Pick an experience that was incredible—something that was really fun, enjoyable, even positively life-changing.  Once you have that great memory do the following:

Think about it in detail for 15 seconds. 

That’s right; that’s all.  Hold the memory for 15 seconds.  Time yourself with your phone.  Go for it!

Welcome back.  How did you do?  Odds are you may not have made it for the entire 15 seconds before something else crept in.  I didn’t make it the first several times I tried it.  I wasn’t even close.  But if you did get to 15 seconds, congratulations.  However, if you didn’t get there reset your clock and try again.  Do it now!

How did it go?  If you still didn’t get to 15 seconds before other stuff started creeping into your brain there’s a trick to it.  Try the following:

· Go back to your amazing memory and with your eyes open really get into it. 

· Now freeze the memory and be aware of EXACTLY where your eyes are looking while in the memory.

· Note the exact eye position by pointing precisely to the spot where you’re looking while thinking about the memory.  Really get the exact location—this is important!

· Now clear your head of the memory by looking around and thinking about anything else—what you had for breakfast, for example.

· Then go back to the exact eye position/location for the memory and when you get there bring up the memory as completely as you can.  Do it quickly!

· Once you’re in the memory soften the focus of your eyes and DON’T move them; focus on your breathing and the memory in as much detail as possible, seeing what you saw at the time, hearing what you heard, feeling what you felt. Hold your eye position.

· AVOID holding your eyes in a hard stare.  It will probably put you in a trance and might result in your head hurting.  Soft focus!

· Et voila! You’ll find you can really stay with the memory for a long time—even beyond 30 seconds–by finding the eye position for it and not moving your eyes. 

II. Practice!

The goal here is to get where you can—on command and at any time—hold a memory/thought for at least 15 seconds. Then increase it to 30 seconds; this is where your eyes—as in not moving them—will really come into play.

Next expand your repertoire to different kinds of memories.  As before, choose a great memory having to do with the following:

· Confidence: pick a time when you were unstoppable; when—for lack of a better way to put it—you kicked the world’s ass.  Don’t screw around!

· Focus: a time when you noticed everything in high definition clarity—even peripherally.

· Calm and peace: find that memory when you were really centered, calm, and quiet inside. This one’s especially important.

· Determination: when the going was tough but you got something done—and felt really good about accomplishing it.  Note that when you focus on the two physical points just below your eyes the feeling of determination gets even stronger.

· Fun: a zany, kid-like memory with lots of laughter involved.  FUN!

***Remember to find the exact eye position for each one.  Work with these and get so you can hold any and all of them for at least 30 seconds, if not longer. 

III. Getting to No Mind

Once you can hold a memory for 15-30 seconds there are two more steps: the first one is being able to quickly clear your head when you need to.  For lack of a better term I’m calling it “no mind” as in being able to clear and silence everything going on inside.  How? Go back to your calm and peace memory.  Practice getting there as quickly as possible.  Practice until you can get there in 1-5 seconds.  Again, knowing the eye position is huge for being able to do this.  Do this dozens—if not hundreds—of times until it’s easy and you can do it whenever you want. 

IV. Installing a “Reset Button”

The final step: picture a big button in front of you between chest and eye level.  Make it red or blue or whatever color you fancy.  Then in bold letters write the word “RESET” or “EASY” on it.  Then mentally reach out and PUNCH the button and when you do so immediately go to your “no mind” state and clear your head completely while taking a deep, relaxed breath.  Do it now!  See how fast you can get there after pushing the easy/reset button.  The goal is to get there within five seconds.  Practice!

V. Using “Clearing the Mechanism”

You may think the above strategies are strange and not worth the trouble.  But stop for a moment and think of how many different ways you can use them.  Here are some potential uses just for MS exams:

Theory:

· In a written exam you can stop and reset your brain before tackling a hard question.

· In an oral exam like the Master’s Exam you can quickly reset your brain every time you’re asked a question allowing you to bring a fresh focus to the next question—and the entire exam.  Resetting is especially important after tough questions you can’t answer so you don’t lose your confidence for the next question.

Tasting:

· Reset after finishing up with each wine: clear the mechanism!  Start each wine fresh and intensely focused REGARDLESS of what just happened with the previous wine.

· In the middle of a wine: reset after each section in terms of the sight, nose, and palate.  I think it’s especially valuable to reset and re-taste when you go to assess the structure.  Rushing the structural call on a wine is usually disastrous. 

· Before the conclusion: reset your brain and take 5-10 seconds to go over all the makers.  In particular, pay attention to the non-fruit and structure. 

Service:

· Before each table: especially valuable if something has just gone wrong at the previous table.  The more egregious the mistake the more you need to clear your head for the next task or next table.

· Before you set up your mise-en-place: take a moment, take a deep breath, clear your mind, and then set up the gueridon for decanting or whatever equipment you need for the required task. 

· Interrupts: reset quickly if there is a service interruption during your time at a table. 

· With a difficult guest: reset brain, soft eyes, and focused listening to the guest.

I hope you can see the value of these simple strategies.  I will tell you that personally as I get older my thinking can easily go into set patterns which I find incredibly frustrating.  Clearing the mechanism is an amazing tool and hugely beneficial for just that—and much, much more.

Cheers! 
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