The Life of an MW Student – Forty One

This month I was lucky enough to be invited along to a workshop based on ‘performance under stress’. This was organised as part of an educational support award I received from Curious Vines, an organisation which focuses on addressing gender inequality in the wine industry.

The session was led by Dr. Josephine Perry, a psychologist who works with elite athletes, opera singers and, most importantly for me, wine students.

It’s difficult to describe the sort of pressure that attacks you as you attempt a wine tasting exam. Until I attempted the MW practical exams, I used to pride myself on being a real exam person. I never got nervous. I liked the adrenaline that I felt, and relished what I saw as a chance to exercise my skills and to perform at the best of my ability.

However, when I made my first attempt at the MW tasting exams, something happened to me that had never happened before. I froze. Panicked, you might even say. I felt an overwhelming pressure to ‘get the right answer’, and in the face of that, I crumbled. This has happened, to varying extents, two years in a row.

At this point in my wine education, I would like to add, I have made every mistake it is possible to make. I often joke that I am ‘unembarrassable’, since no matter how wrong the blind tasting call I make, I will always have made a worse mistake in the past and, crucially, survived. I could call a red wine white and chalk it up to a learning opportunity.

When you walk into that exam, though, the stakes are much higher than simply looking foolish. You have one shot at them per year, and because you have to pass all three exams in one go, there is very little margin for error.

Perhaps this explains why somebody who considers herself to be ‘good at exams’ needs a workshop on managing the pressure.

The session was great. We learned breathing and grounding techniques for when the stress threatens to overwhelm you. We learned about our brain chemistry and how the fight, flight or freeze response is just our brains trying to keep us safe. Crucially, we also learned some techniques to help us override this knee-jerk response and keep going.

I came away feeling calm and empowered and ready for a third stab at the most difficult exam I have ever attempted.

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