Commentary

Pressure situations on the court help players prepare for tests off of it

Updated: April 6, 2009, 6:40 PM ET
By Ian R. Rapoport | Special to ESPNRISE.com

Most shooters step to the free-throw line with a pre-shot routine, and Peyton Siva is no different. That ritual doesn't change whether it's early in the first half or the game is on the line.

[+] EnlargePeyton Siva
ESPN RISEPeyton Siva has learned how to stay cool under pressure, no matter the situation.

The point guard from Seattle takes a few deep breaths, says a quick prayer, offers himself words of encouragement and then lets the ball go. The Louisville-bound prospect approaches other facets of his life similarly … in the classroom, particularly.

"It's the same thing with tests," said Siva, the 5-foot-11 180-pounder who is No. 23 on the ESPNU 100. "I take a couple deep breaths and am like, 'I got this, I got this, I can do this.' "

For any student, high-stakes testing such as the SAT Reasoning Test and the ACT can be anxiety-inducing exercises. But for some athletes, a single score can be the difference between qualifying to fulfill their dream or being left with wishes unfulfilled.

It might not be life or death, but it is collegiate athletic life or competition death.

Siva, a leaper who has been able to dunk since seventh grade, shrugs off such woes. With a 4.0 grade point average and a body and mind battle-tested from years of basketball, tests are no big deal.

"Everybody's talking about the SATs and that kind of stuff," Siva said, "but I'm already used to pressure. I'm fine with that."

It's not always that way.

"You'd be surprised how those tests make some of those guys so nervous, apprehensive, almost scared to take it because they know that their future is on the line," said Steve Smith, coach of Oak Hill (Va.) Academy, which was the top-ranked team in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 before suffering a loss to Findlay Prep in the National High School Invitational on Sunday. "A four-hour test is equivalent to 50 percent of their academic work."

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All students are different, and all test-takers are different. But anecdotal evidence from experts and feedback from athletes themselves show that those who build their bona fides in front of hostile crowds with the clock waning in a tie game can apply lessons learned to test-taking.

While the hands begin to shake for some, and the sweat begins to trickle for others, those who thrive on the fire merely zero in.

"Our players seem to be able to handle the pressure [in school]," said Janet Stake, the director of guidance at Bloomington South (Ind.) High, which is the FAB 50's No. 9 team. "They can transfer it from one situation to another. I've definitely seen where kids will put [tests] into perspective. They'll say, 'I've been in much more pressure situations than this. I can do this.' So it helps them have some confidence to do some totally unrelated task."

Stake would know. She counsels athletes and other students at a school that recently won the Indiana Class 4A boys' basketball title. She said at the end-of-the-year banquet, "So many of the athletes are the same ones who are getting the academic awards."

It should be noted that because high school athletes must become academically eligible before playing, a portion of those who struggled in class are eliminated from the outset.

[+] EnlargeDarwin Davis Jr., Jacob Mulinix
AP Photo/Tom StricklandAt Bloomington South (Ind.) High, success in school often equates to athletic success.

But based on what Stake has seen at her school, the traits that make an athlete succeed on the court permeate everything.

"It helps develop their brain to be any part of any athletic team," Stake said. "It helps them be organized and more disciplined, and it definitely translates to their academics. Then, the whole thing about being under pressure. They have that confidence to succeed and a can-do spirit that leads them through."

Smith has often sat in his office with players -- a list that includes future NBA performers like Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo -- and seen faces filled with terror.

Smith has had it all different ways. Some floor generals see the floor but not the maze through a test. Some "A" students can't seem to ever find the right spot on the court.

When a situation grows tense, Smith often uses one word: "Relax." He'll pull a player aside and express confidence.

Smith recalled a game during Brandon Jennings' junior season of 2006-07 when he had two free throws with 0.4 seconds left against American Christian and future Memphis star Tyreke Evans. After telling the team, "He's going to make the free throws," Smith pulled Jennings aside.

"It's a wrap," he told the player. "You've done this a million times in practice, you live for that moment; go knock them down."

Jennings did. When players freak out about tests, Smith will bring up situations such as these "and talk about how they reacted on the floor."

It's a formula that works.

Siva excels now because he has trained himself to deal with the exterior factors that manifest themselves while taking a test.

Michael Snaer, the 6-foot-5 guard who is ESPNU's No. 44 prospect, is at ease while sitting at a desk with a No. 2 pencil in his hand. The kind of player who will help a student with an assignment or ask even a fellow senior if he's finished with his homework, Snaer doesn't get what all the fuss is about.

Stress? He feels that during games. By the time he sits down for some high-stakes testing, Snaer can chill.

"I always have a smile on my face," said Snaer, a Moreno Valley, Calif., native who is bound for Florida State. "I like to have fun. The only time I get nervous is waiting for my grade. That's pressure, right there."

Ian R. Rapoport covers University of Alabama athletics for The Birmingham News. He can be reached at irapoport@bhamnews.com.