Before she arrived at the Edge School in Calgary at the age of 11, Zoë Brennan didn't consider herself much of a student. In the classroom she felt easily discouraged, and she focused her energy instead on hockey, her true passion.
At Edge, however, a private school built on the philosophy that passion for sport drives a passion for learning, things started to change. Zoë's teachers helped her see the parallels between academics and sports, where failure is part of the equation. She learned to use some of the confidence-building techniques from hockey, like self-talk, to override the negative thoughts she sometimes had inside the classroom. Her grades soared into the high 80s and 90s, and by her final year of high school she had been scouted by the likes of Dartmouth, Princeton and Brown.
"Once I got here everything kind of clicked," she said. "I just kind of started treating school more like hockey, exams like playoffs."
Organized sports and academics have long had an uneasy relationship, even though studies have shown that being involved in sports can improve school attendance and boost grades. More than that, by integrating sports coaching techniques into the classroom, educators can build a better student, one who embraces challenges and who knows how to handle failure.
It's too early to say conclusively whether the mental techniques espoused by sport psychologists work as well in the classroom as they do on the field, but the idea is catching on.
In addition to Edge and other sport-focused private schools, public school districts including the Toronto District School Board have begun offering similar sport-specific alternative programs. Programs such as First Tee – an international non-profit with two sites in Canada that teaches life skills through golf – have also been growing.
Matt Brown, a counsellor at Edge with a PhD in psychology, teaches students to treat exams like championship games, training them to use techniques such as self-talk to build their confidence. "How often in high school do you hear someone walk into a classroom and say, 'I suck at math'?"
Self-talk is a way of eliminating the negative mental chatter that can undermine performance. Dr. Brown believes that in the same way it can help an athlete make a bold play, or push for a personal best, it can help a student on a multiple-choice test.
That's what Luc Boutin, an 18-year-old Grade 12 student at Edge, does. He applies coping techniques he learned in golf to academic setbacks.
Even after failure, especially after failure, "you have to reset yourself to the same standard every time," he said.
Barbi Law, a professor of education at Nipissing University, is investigating the potential of these techniques. A former competitive figure skater, Dr. Law is adapting some of the mental tools – self-talk, imagery, goal setting – for students in Grade 4 through 6 in Ontario.
In the fall she'll start introducing imagery – a technique where athletes picture themselves achieving their desired outcome – in gym class. She hopes to experiment with sport psychology techniques throughout the curriculum.
"It makes sense to bring those two worlds [sports and academics] together," she said. "There's a new emphasis on positive psychology, not just excelling in one area."
It's a fine line. Jean Côté, a professor of sport psychology at Queen's University, says that while techniques like imagery and self-talk might be helpful to students in the classroom and on the field, they may undermine some of spontaneity that makes sport fun.
"Just let the kids play," he said.
Now 17, Ms. Brennan will attend Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in the fall.
Her academic record alone makes her a candidate for the Ivy League, but she believes it's hockey that sets her apart.
"I think it's the work ethic you learn training in your sport really hard," she said. "It teaches you determination."