1 May 2012 Last updated at 08:25 GMT
Should people accept that pressure is a fact of life?
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For thousands of youngsters, crucial exams are nigh. Many say the pressure on students should be minimised, but should people just accept it as a fact of life, asks Matthew Syed.
Is it any wonder that many students fail to perform, not because they lack ability, but because of the unique pressure of the exam room - the ticking clock on the wall, invigilators pacing up and down, and the surreal sense that one's very future is in the balance?
We are competitive animals and, however we decide to evaluate each other - whether at exams, job interviews or even on romantic dates - we are occasionally going to get nervous. Removing pressure altogether from life is, in many ways, an impossible dream.
A new test about the psychology of pressure, devised by the BBC's Lab UK, will offer a new look at why some people are particularly prone to pressure, while others cope rather well. The scientists want to find out why some people lose control of their emotions, while others stay in control.
- BBC Lab UK's test takes 20 minutes
- Complete a test against the clock and an opponent
- Get psychological training from Olympic gold medallist Michael Johnson
It is not just students who face a psychological ordeal this summer. Olympic athletes, too, are about to come face to face with a life-defining moment - and many will struggle to cope.
When I played at the Olympic Games in Sydney as Britain's top table tennis player I was in the form of my life. But when I walked out into the mega-watt light of the competition arena, I could hardly hit the ball. To put it simply, I choked.
Almost all of us know what it is like to choke. Perhaps we froze during finals, or perhaps we got tongue-tied during a hot date, or maybe we just couldn't remember our lines during a big job interview.
Why does it happen? The neuroscience of choking is rather intriguing, and it can best be understood by considering what happens when you are walking along the street.
None of us actually think about the mechanics of how we walk as we are ambling along - we are thinking about what we are going to have for dinner, or what we are going to say at our next meeting, etc.
At one competition, I remember hearing an opponent muttering under his breath - "It is only bloody ping pong!" - he defeated me by three games to one”But now imagine that you are walking along a narrow path with a 10,000 foot precipice on either side. Now, we might think about how we are moving our feet, the angle of our tread, the precise footfall on the path. And this, of course, is when we are most likely to fall.
Walking is, when you think about it, quite a complex set of movements and if we think too much about them we are far more likely to get confused. This, incidentally, is why walking feels so weird when we are in front of a lot of people, like at graduation.
The same thing happens when we get tongue-tied. We are so anxious about saying precisely the right words that, instead of just saying them, we try to say them. We are, in effect, striving too hard.
Instead of using the subconscious part of the brain, which is the most efficient way to deliver a familiar skill (like talking, walking or remembering a maths formula during an A-level), we use the conscious part. And this is when it all goes wrong.