Last Monday, a tennis player named Rafael Nadal won the U.S. Open, the last Grand Slam of the year, after missing the tournament last year due to injury and then defeating the number one player in the world. Now, it’s not difficult to draw comparisons between sports and LSAT preparation, but Nadal’s backstory of ups and downs and never-say-die mentality sounds awfully familiar– because I’ve heard it from and taught it to so many students. In a tennis match, you are the only person you can rely on; all your coaches, family, and friends have to stay in the stands, just like on LSAT Test Day. So what can we, LSAT-mountain-climbers, learn from Rafael Nadal? Let’s look at some words from the man himself.
1. “I tried to find a solution to the problem that I had, tried to find a way to start playing better… The only way of finding a solution is to fight back, to move, to run, and to control that pressure.” When you run into a problem in LSAT preparation, how do you handle it? One of the biggest challenges is managing feelings of frustration or irritation, and moving forward constructively. Like Nadal on the tennis court, you need to keep moving to find solutions. Seek out a different way to look at the question, passage, or game. Focus on the things that you are good at, and keep your confidence up. Above all, don’t let momentary frustration spread to the rest of the test and what you’re working on; keep your focus tight and controlled on the aspect of the LSAT you are working on right now.
2. “Losing is not my enemy..fear of losing is my enemy.” Making mistakes in LSAT preparation is inevitable, unless you are that one gal or guy out of a million that just automatically understands all things LSAT-related. Even when you’re very good at the test, you can trip up; that’s okay and even expected. In any tennis game, or set, or match, or tournament, a player will hit a ball out, or into the net, or lose a big point. The biggest difference between the best players and the merely good players is how they handle them in the key moments. Instead of getting caught up in the feeling of anxiety that accompanies taking risks, a player like Nadal is able to recover after a misstep and win the match. Often, LSAT students get so focused on not making mistakes that they proceed too cautiously in practice. Take risks, so you will be comfortable taking them on test day.
3. “To improve you have to have mistakes. That is the problem with improving. You have to accept that problem.” Mistakes are actually the engine of improvement. Nadal’s attitude is exactly how every LSAT prepper needs to think. Any mistake you make during practice is a mistake you don’t have to make on test day– it’s an opportunity to learn about what went wrong and how to prevent it in the future, especially on the day it really counts. Use anything that goes wrong in practice (a bad answer, a low-scoring practice test, a section you couldn’t finish) as the jumping off point for the next, better phase in the way you LSAT. All you have to do, like Nadal, is learn from it.
4. “Maybe on the outside I look fearless, but on the inside, I’m scared. There’s not one player in the world who isn’t nervous before matches. Especially important matches.” Many, many LSAT students spend too much time focused on how everyone else around them is progressing: friends taking the test, people from LSAT class, siblings who took the test before, strangers on test day. That kind of comparison is fruitless, and let’s face it: it’s really easy to look around and assume that everyone else is better off. Realize that all of those people are probably looking at you the same way. Focus on yourself; remember that nerves are normal when you are in a high stress situation, and everyone is feeling them. Nadal admits that inside he gets scared before the big moments, but he is able to steel himself against negative feelings and focus on the task at hand. Use your nerves to keep you alert and focused, but never let them hurt your LSAT performance; rely on your experience, and get out there and fight.
5. “Endurance – That’s a big word. Keep going physically, never letting up and putting up with everything that comes your way, not allowing the good or the bad , the ups and downs, good luck or bad luck – to put you off track.” Endurance is a huge word in LSAT preparation as well, because the test you have signed up for is not a sprint, but a marathon. That means there is room for things to go wrong, but it also means there are a lot of opportunities to take advantage of your LSAT strengths across all scored sections of the test. It’s super easy to get distracted by every movement in your practice (things going right, things going wrong, etc.), but no one thing is going to take you down on test day. Maintaining a good perspective on the test, as Nadal does on the tennis court, is the only way to be successful. It’s just you out there, so stay focused.
BONUS: “You have to be centered, no distractions, do what you have to do in each moment. Be alert, be patient and don’t be rash.” This might be the single best distillation of the successful LSAT frame of mind I have ever seen. Staying in the moment (not focused on what has gone on in the section before, the question before, etc.) is a huge piece of ultimate LSAT success. Make good choices, and keep moving, but don’t allow yourself to panic and forget the methods, strategies, and strengths you brought with you. Go in fully prepared, and you’ll succeed. Just ask Rafael Nadal.