I’m just back from Aspen and the first Master’s Exam of the year. It was a great exam with 63 students participating over four days. The results are four newly minted Master Sommeliers, and I want to congratulate them: Dennis Kelly, wine director for the French Laundry in Yountville; Roland Micu of San Francisco; Thomas Price of the Neapolitan Restaurant in Seattle; and Sabato Sagaria, GM of the Little Nell (venue for the exam). Kudos to these four who have completed a remarkable journey that took years of hard work, study, sacrifice, and way too much time away from friends and family. Each followed a unique and very personal path in overcoming multiple challenges before reaching their ultimate goal. They are to be commended and admired for their great accomplishment. Bravo! 

It’s also interesting to realize that for every individual who passes the Master’s exam there are countless others who will never get close. The numbers speak for themselves: for everyone 1,000 students that take our level one Introductory Course, less than one will actually sit the Master’s Examination. The pass rate for that final exam, although it varies from year to year, is less than 10%. Do the math and it’s anything but encouraging. Regardless, I’ve heard both students and Masters say over the years that the journey is everything; that the path of study, tasting, and especially the camaraderie of working with a study/tasting group is the most valuable and meaningful part of the process. Many have also told me that regardless of the outcome, they wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. 

As time goes on, what interests me the most about our exam process is how those of us who pass the Master’s Exam manage to do so. You might assume that talent, hard work, study, being mentored by other Masters, or simple luck would all be factors that play a part–and you would be correct. All of the above definitely lend a hand in a student’s success or lack thereof. However, after being an examiner over the last 15+ years, I’m convinced that everything on the above list, while certainly vital, is only part of what’s needed to be successful. What’s missing is what I’ve come to call “game day skills.” These skills have little or nothing to do with a prodigious memory of wine theory, the polish of a world-class sommelier in wine service, or the pinpoint sensory memory required to be a great taster. Though not often formally taught, these skills ultimately become the arbiter of success or failure, pure and simple. 

What are game day skills? Simply put, they are one’s ability to access powerful internal personal resources precisely when needed. Confidence is the eight hundred pound gorilla of the category by far and it’s the one we’ll deal with in this post. But confidence is only part of the recipe. Other valuable resources include mental clarity and focus, ease of access to memory, elevated sensory acuity, physical grace, and empathy. There’s one more huge internal resource that’s rarely mentioned, but that’s an absolute requirement for a sommelier and anyone else in a service industry. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it caring for or taking care of the guest. The attitude and act of caring is arguably not something that can easily be learned if the student has little previous personal life experience with it. I strongly believe that it makes or breaks any restaurant experience for the consumer, and also that no one can be a good sommelier, much less a Master Sommelier, without an almost compulsive desire to take care of the guest.

Back to confidence and the exams. How one can get to that much-needed inner confidence exactly when needed?  Good question. That leads to this initial installment of what I call “Game Day Skills.” In the not so distant future, I’ll be posting about accessing personal resources with a technique called the “Circle of Excellence.” For now, let’s deal with the, “I’m about to completely meltdown and run screaming from the building,” kind of a scenario. It’s a common one and not just in the domain of our exams; it has many forms and various names including stage fright, performance anxiety, and test anxiety. 

The first thing to realize about stage fright is that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s literally a function of part of your brain (and a very old one at that in terms of human evolution) that’s responsible for protecting you as in the flight, fight, or freeze mechanism. It’s that part of your brain responsible for keeping you alive in circumstances of dire emergency, as in prodding your memory as to where you saw the saber-toothed tiger last night just before you entered the cave with the day’s kill. That would be a useful thing to remember the next morning. While the flight or fight mechanism is a good thing, it can generalize over time across a broad range of experience and end up becoming a liability as far as allowing you to be comfortable, much less to be able to function, in a new or challenging situation. Enter spin dynamics.
What is “Spin Dynamics”?

Everything in the universe spins. In a piece called “How Fast Are You Moving When You’re Standing Still,” by Yvette Cendes, we learn that every second of the day we travel thousands of miles. In fact, in the time it takes to read this sentence you’ve already traveled thousands of miles more. To point, the planet earth is spinning at 1,040 m.p.h. while revolving around the sun at 67,000 m.p.h. Our sun moves through a part of a start cluster at 45,000 m.p.h. on the outer spiral arm of the Milky Way, which is rotating at another 500,000 m.p.h. That local arm of the galaxy is moving through the universe at an estimated 540,000 m.p.h. Dizzy yet? I am. 

Everything in the universe spins all the way down to those cute little sub-atomic particles like quarks and mesons–and that includes our feelings. It’s also worth mentioning that our feelings are evaluative in that they are a response to something we have seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled. That’s a good thing because once we find the physical source of a feeling, we can access it more easily and ultimately have some choice regarding it.

Giving Credit Where Due

At this point I do want to note that the concept of spin and spin dynamics has been written about and utilized for many years by Richard Bandler, co-founder of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming). Bandler refers to it as the reverse spin technique. Tim and Kris Hallbom, two other top NLP specialists, have also developed a technique called “Dynamic Spin Release.” Both have proven to be remarkably effective techniques.

The Process

Prelude: the only thing I ask, as I always do when explaining a process, is that you NOT SCREW AROUND. Sorry about the upper case font, but it’s needed here. When it’s time, really go inside and focus, using as much body awareness as possible to find the source and movement of the feeling in question. You’ll be glad you did. 

Phase I: You’ve Got That Nervous Feeling

First, we need one of your nervous memories. You know, maybe the one where you had to speak in front of your class in grade school. That’s always a juicy one for most people. Once you have your memory, “step” into it completely, seeing what you saw and hearing what you heard at the time and breathing in just the same way. Really get into it. Excellent. Now we’re ready.

a. Find the starting point: once you have the feeling of being nervous, pinpoint exactly where it starts in your body. Your head? Stomach? Chest? Hands? Really focus and find out exactly where it starts. You’ll be surprised at just how easy it is to find.

b. Movement: pay attention to how the feeling moves. Does it move up into your head or down into your feet? Again, it’s pretty easy to discover. 

c. Spin: finally, the good part. Once you’ve discovered the direction your feeling of nervousness moves, find out which way it spins. There really are only four possibilities or slight variations: forward, backward, clockwise, and counterclockwise. 

The easiest way to find the direction of spin is to take a free hand and move it in a spinning motion in front of you while focusing on the memory and the feeling of being nervous. Spin your hand and the feeling forward, backward, clockwise, and finally counterclockwise. One of the directions is going to make the feeling stronger. Eureka! That’s exactly what you need to know. 

d. Take control: now for a bit of experimentation that will give you some much needed control over feeling nervous. First, spin it faster in the SAME direction. That’s right, for the next several moments spin it fast, faster, really fast and note how the intensity of the feeling increases. Then slow it back down. Remember to breathe while you’re doing this. Breathing is always a good thing.  

e. Spin it slower: now spin the feeling in super slow motion. Imagine hearing a water wheel at an old mill creeeeeking as it turns. You get the picture. Note how the feeling of being nervous really decreases once you slow the spin down to a crawl. 

f. Practice: now speed up and slow down the feeling of being nervous several times until you can do it quickly and easily. I think you’ll find it interesting to note just how quickly you can have some control over the feeling of being nervous. Now for the fun part.

g. Reverse the spin: now that you’ve got some control over the feeling of being nervous and how it spins, it’s time to have some fun. Take the feeling of being nervous and start to spin it in the opposite direction. Spin it slowly at first then speed it up gradually until it’s really fast. As you’re speeding up the reverse spin, expand it so you can feel it in your head and toes at the same time. Feels good, que no? Finally, dissolve the spin completely.

Phase II: Confidence

Once again, I must request that you NOT mess around. Pick an amazing memory from your life when you were unstoppable; where you were Superman or Wonder Woman; where, for lack of a better term, you kicked the world’s ass. That’s right, pick an outrageous memory. Don’t worry as no one around you will have a clue as to what’s playing in your internal iMax theater. When you have your superman memory really step into it as before, but this time make the image/movie huge, the colors brighter, and the sounds louder. In short, make it an even more amazing experience. 

Once again with Feeling

a. Find out where the feeling of confidence starts in your body. Stomach? Chest? Head? Hands?

b. Find out which direction the feeling moves. Up? Down?

c. Which way does it spin? As before, find out which way the feeling of confidence moves: forward, backward, etc. 

d. Play! Now you know which way it spins and can really crank it up. Try to double the feeling each time.  Whoa. 

e. Don’t be surprised if the feeling of confidence spins in the same direction as the nervous feeling. It’s all contextual and every feeling has its own movement and direction of spin.  

Phase III: Finishing Touches

Now for the icing on the cake:

a. As you crank up the speed of your confidence spin, expand it in size until you can feel it in your head and your toes at the same time. 

b. Breathe deeply into the spin and make it one of your favorite colors. 

c. You might also play one of your favorite songs in your head—LOUD–while spinning the feeling of uber-confidence at light speed. 

d. Finally, clench your right hand once the feeling of being confident is cranked up to 11. 

e. You can now also use the color, the song, the sound, and clenching your fist to access the confidence resource as well as the spin. Being able to access a powerful resource state like confidence through more than one channel is a remarkable tool that can be used literally at any time. And that’s a good thing. 

f. Practice, practice, practice! Repetition is a good thing here especially using all the finishing touches above.


The utilization part is pretty simple as in whenever you need it. The spin technique can be used not just for an MS exam or other kind of exam, but for any number of things such as a big job interview, a public speaking gig, or the ever popular first date. To use it, simply do the following:

a. At the first sign of nerves, bring awareness to the starting point and slow the nervous spin down and finally stop it all together.

b. Start spinning it backwards faster and faster, then dissolve it completely.

c. Take a step forward, backwards, or sideways from where you’re now standing so you’re in a completely different space. This is important. Do it, now. 

d. Start the confidence spin and spin the feeling faster and faster feeling the spin throughout your entire body.

e. Add that favorite color and favorite music/song. Discreetly clench your right hand. Et voilà!

Future Pace

One last handy thing to do with the spin technique is to get into your confidence spin and visualize future events where it could be useful. See yourself stepping up to that first table in the service exam being confident and doing a great job. Or see yourself in the confident zone during that job interview or especially during that first date. While you’re at it, start your confidence spin and send those amped up feelings into the future as far as you can see it. I think you’ll be delightfully surprised with the results. 

Amen, amino amigos.