How to Be Ready for the Big Test


Life is made up of tests: the championship game, the final exam, the crucial presentation, the big recital. In those moments, we naturally tend to focus on the externals of our performance. Were we successful or not?

However, I think it might be more revealing to focus on the foundation: the days of preparation leading up to the performance. Specifically on this question: how do you know when you’re ready for a big test? How do you tell that you’re fully prepared?

While doing research for The Little Book of Talent I was fortunate enough to spend time at a Navy SEALs training base. The SEALs are rightly famous for their toughness, but I was more impressed with their brains — especially when it came to their methods for preparing for big tests. Case in point: last year’s mission to take out Osama Bin Laden, featured in the new book No Easy Day.

So how did the SEALs prepare for this test? They built a precise, full-scale mockup of Bin Laden’s compound in North Carolina, and they rehearsed. And rehearsed. And rehearsed. For several weeks, they ran endless variations of possible situations, from best-case scenarios on down to total disaster. The story is told in No Easy Day, the new book by fellow Alaskan Mark Bissonnette.

“Every single contingency was practiced to the point where we were tired of it,” Bissonnette writes.

I love that line, not just because it resonates with what I observed with the SEALs, but also because it gives us some insight into what real preparation for big tests truly is. You do something over and over — every single contingency — until you are tired of it.

This is not normally how we think about preparation. In normal life, we think that practice ends when we get it right a couple times in a row. But in truth, that’s when practice truly begins. The goal is not to do it right once. The goal is to do it often enough, in realistic conditions and under pressure, so that you can’t do it wrong.

So how do you know when you’re there? Here are a few tells.

  • 1) You can perform the action while paying attention to other, extraneous things. For instance, if it’s a speech or a song, you can perform it while retaining a bit of brain space for noticing things. Call it automaticity, call it autopilot — the point is that you’ve built a reflex.
  • 2) You are genuinely, deeply tired of it. You know every molecule of the material so well that if you ran through it one more time you might explode. This relationship — call it a healthy exasperation — is a good sign that you’ve mastered it.
  • 3) You can vividly and accurately pre-create the Big Moment in your imagination — the sights, the sounds, the smells, the sensations. You don’t get surprised or knocked off balance by the big test because in a profound way, you’ve already experienced it.

All of which adds up to a basic truth known to the SEALs and others whose job is built on mastery: the trick of succeeding in the biggest moments is to use practice to transform them into a series of small, controllable moments.

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11 Responses to “How to Be Ready for the Big Test”

  1. Akbar says:

    Another example of this approach to mastery is CNTTT(Chinese national Table Tennis Team). There use of multiball training has been mentioned before but check out there Olympic warm up matches.

    Notice the Olympic logos on the table and net. Most importantly the color of the floor. This is noteworthy because most of the time the floor color is red, which it was during the last Olympics(08). Also the crowd and the match format. The only thing missing was the actual lower table design.

  2. TIm Clark says:

    Dan, Loved this post! ” In normal life we think practice ends when we get it right a couple times in a row. But, in truth that’s when practice truly begins.” YES! A couple of years ago our son was preparing for a music competition in Paris. He was beginning to have doubts about his readiness. He happened to take a lesson from Oystein Baadsvik who was teaching a master class at his University and preforming in town. Baadsvik gave him advice that made a huge impact. He told him he practices with 10 pennies on his music stand and each time he plays the piece just the way he wants it he takes a penny off. The hitch is you have to do it 10 times in a row. Miss one and the pennies go back on the stand. Some days practice is 45 minutes , some days 2 hours. If you start 20 weeks before your performance and you do that 5 days a week, by the time you reach the performance you have played it perfectly 1000 times and it’s no longer hard. Thanks for bringing this stuff forward.
    Tim C.

  3. Hi Dan

    Another great blog. Wrapped up in the sentence:

    “Every single contingency was practiced to the point where we were tired of it”

    contains all the great things of:

    Growth Mindset
    An attitude of excellence

    all the good things required in sport

  4. Doc says:

    Back in the 90’s I went to a Disney educational workshop. The presenter demonstrated how to teach a class and did a wonderful job. Another teacher stood and told her that it was the best teaching job she had ever seen, knowledge, enthusiasm, etc. She then said “but let me see you do that 180 days in a row.” It really changes the perspective and illustrates how difficult it is to be great.

  5. djcoyle says:

    I could watch them play all day long. So great.

  6. ny191 says:

    A couple of things…

    1.”A winner practices until he gets it right. A champion practices until he can’t get it wrong.”

    2. I believe Charles Duhigg addresses another important element of the tendency of individuals to focus on the externals in a big competition. Duhigg believes (and I agree with) that too often people allow the external factors effect them leading up to a big competition. No matter what these external factors are, they should not effect your carved-out routine. In order to illustrate his points, Duhigg references Michael Phelps’ routine on race day. “When the race arrives, he’s more than halfway through his plan and he’s been victorious at every step. The actual race is just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and has been nothing but victories. Winning is a natural extension.”

  7. djcoyle says:

    Great points, NY191 — and not just because you mention Duhigg, one of my favorite thinkers on this topic.

    You know that moment after somebody succeeds in a big event when the reporter asks, “How does it feel?” and the successful person struggles to come up with answer? I think a large part of that is because the only honest answer is this: “You know, it felt exactly like it did in practice.”

  8. bill dorenkott says:


    Such a good blog that I copied it and posted it outside of the locker room, highlighted the best stuff (ok, my favorite points) and attached a practical/specific example for our athletes to utilize over the course of a season. Here is the content of the attachment…

    Example of Skill Mastery in Realistic Conditions and Under Pressure
    We will use the 100 scy back in our example
    • Fast swimmers are excellent kickers
    • Become a proficient dolphin kicker
    • Dolphin kick underwater for speed
    • Dolphin kick underwater faster than you can swim on top
    • Dolphin kick underwater at speed for max distance
    • Dolphin kick underwater with speed, to max distance and with a high heartrate
    • Dolphin kick underwater with speed, to distance, with a high heartrate and lactate burn
    • Dolphin kick underwater with speed, dist, high heartrate, lactate burn off of last wall
    • Dolphin kick underwater with speed, high heartrate, lactate burn, on last wall, in a race
    • Dolphin kick underwater with speed, high hr, lactate, last wall, in a race, at the biggest meet of your career

    Of the ten qualities to become a great 100 scy backstroke kicker, the first 8 happen in practice. The last 2 do not happen if the first 8 are not in place- Simply put, these are RACE REQUIREMENTS. It begs the question- “What are the requirements of your race and how will you utilize your practice time to master them.”

    Thank you for your willingness to share via books, blog and your research as it makes a difference in many peoples lives.


  9. djcoyle says:

    Hey Coach Dorenkott, I love it! Let me know what kind of impact it has. Seems like “practice” and “the big race” get separated in peoples’ minds so easily — that’s a nice way to connect them again.

  10. Bnail1 says:

    Hi Daniel,

    In our youth soccer soccer club we work with the players on technique and the ability to apply it in the games (their test). Basically we have started this year to tell the parents that the players are ready to be judged when they do a skill showing unconscious competence. Basically if the players can not do the skill under pressure without thinking about it then it is still developing and we as coaches are still working to clean things up on their technique. We pulled this from the 4 stages of competence model,

    This really helps the coaches show the parents where kids are on the scale and when they should be tested and ultimately judged on their technique and tactics.

  11. John W says:

    Daniel, I’m a little late to the party, but this post really chimed with me. I recently wrote a similar blog for my company (big consultancy thingy) but also reposted a modified form to an organisation that I’m the volunteer chair of – BaseballSoftballUK (

    I actually got switched on to your blog by a work colleague who read what I’d written and thought I should check you out.

    In essence, an average athelete (or employee!) uses a practice/training event to go over the things they’ve already mastered. An Olympian (or Paralympian) will train on the things they’ve yet to master – in your post the SEALs training over and over until they master and perfect what they want to achieve.

    Best regards

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