Friday, January 27, 2017

How to Change Your Limiting Beliefs and Improve Your Chess

Unlocking Your Chess Potential

Unlock Your Chess Potential
Photographer: Ej Agumbay. CC0 1.0
I recently had a birthday. One of my acquaintances and I were talking about getting older and chess and he casually said, "Well, probably time to give up on your dreams of becoming a chess master."

I was a little shocked! First, I thought my friend knew my passion for chess a little better and should have realized that this would offend me. Secondly, I think he's absolutely wrong.

His words were probably meant with good intentions. He didn't want me to "waste" my time going after a dream that he felt was unattainable at my age. So I will forgive him for his well-intentioned words. However, it brings up an important topic in chess as well as in life. That is that our beliefs often shape our world.

Our beliefs shape our world in a few ways. If our beliefs are positive and uplifting, they make our world one of possibility and opportunity. If they are negative or limiting, they build walls around us. These walls can protect us from discomfort or fear, but they also prevent us from fulfilling our portential.

Consciously and subconsciously, our mind wants to manifest our perception to fit with our beliefs. If we believe something that limits us, we will act to confirm that belief.

In this article, I will explore how this applies to our chess training, and give you some tips on how to change your limiting beliefs.

Limiting Beliefs Limit Our Chess

Limiting beliefs in chess can take a few forms. They can be beliefs about our ability and capabilities. They can also be beliefs about what it takes to get better in chess. Finally, the beliefs can be about the game of chess itself. Let's take a look at a few examples.
  • I'm too old to get better at chess.
  • I'm just not good at calculating.
  • You need to spend hours a day to get better at chess.
  • You need to be up-to-date on every recent game in opening theory.
  • If you're not a master by your teens, you'll never become a master - I heard this one yesterday!
  • I need to play tactical openings to get better at tactics - this is something I hear beginning players say and I think it's been repeated by chess writers over the years.
The common thread among these beliefs is that they're not necessarily true! However, when we believe it, we act accordingly. The four-minute mile was once believed physiologically impossible to break until Roger Bannister did it in 1954. Interestingly, as soon as Bannister broke the 4-minute mile, several runners did it in quick succession afterward. (For a fascinating account of Bannister's quest to break the 4-minute mile, I recommend Neal Bascomb's The Perfect Mile).

Note: Some of our "limiting" beliefs are actually very helpful to us. For example, "I can't survive a fall from a two story building" may technically be a limiting belief because it might not necessarily be true. However, this belief is not one we necessarily need to change right away.

So what do we need to do to change these limiting beliefs. Here are a few steps.

Identify Your Limiting Beliefs

The first step is to be aware of your limiting beliefs. Sometimes, we are not even aware of our beliefs. Here are a few ideas on how to do this:
  • Brainstorm for a specific period of time - say 20 minutes - and just jot down everything you can think of.
  • Listen to how you talk to yourself. Watch out for phrases like, "I never..." or "I can't." There is often a limiting belief behind these.
  • Keep a journal where you can jot things down because sometimes the realization of a limiting belief might come at a time when you're not expecting.
You can do this about any aspect of your life! Some articles I've read on the topic discuss trying to find the source of the limiting belief. Although this may be helpful, I personally think it's not necessary in order to change your limiting beliefs.

Find Evidence to the Contrary

Once you've identified your limiting beliefs, look for contradictions to this belief. As Anthony Robbins wrote in Awaken the Giant Within, you need to knock the supports out from underneath your limiting beliefs.

When I was early in my business career, I was struggling to attain new clients. I thought to myself that I wasn't very good at what I did. One of my mentors pointed out that I had several clients who trusted and liked me and that I had done very good work for them. 

The key lesson was that my belief that I could not be good at what I was doing was simply wrong - with the evidence of my current good business relationships as proof.

In my chess training, my own limiting beliefs about being too old to excel at chess were shattered by reading Rolf Wetzell's Chess Any Age. Although I didn't agree with a couple of his training ideas (although I did like many), Mr. Wetzell was living proof that I wasn't too old to become at least a national master.

So how do we find this evidence? Here are a few ideas:
  • Check out chess forums and ask questions. For example, to use the age example, you can ask something like, "Have any of your get a rating over 2000 after age 30?" (If you find someone who answers, you can then ask them how they did it).
  • Look for examples within your own games. For example, if you believe you are not good at tactics, look for positions where you found a tactical shot! (This is one reason why I recommend not only finding your mistakes in your games, but also finding the good moves your I recommend in my article about analyzing your games on the Chess Improver.

Replace Your Limiting Belief with an Empowering Belief

The next step would be to replace your limiting belief with a positive and empowering belief. I have found that an essential aspect of this is that it has to be a challenging but not a delusional belief. For example, I believe that I can reach the national master level - around a rating of USCF 2200-2300. However, I do not believe that I can become world champion! You're off the hook, Magnus. 

Becoming a national master will not necessarily be easy for me, but I believe with consistent training I can attain it. And although this may be a limiting belief, thinking that I can become the chess world champion I think would be detrimental to my training - e.g. as it might lead me to neglect other responsibilities - as well as the fact that my subconscious mind would not accept such a notion!

Here are a few examples based on our limiting beliefs I listed above:
  • Replace "I'm too old to get better with chess" with "With consistent training and competitive play I can get better than I am."
  • Replace "I'm just not good at calculating" with "I can get better at calculating."
  • Replace "You need hours a day to get better at chess" with "Consistent training over time will lead to improvement!"
  • Replace "You need to be up-to-date on every recent game in opening theory." with "I can update my opening repertoire when I face new moves in my games, and this will help me be prepared for future games in this line."
  • Replace "If you're not a master by your teens, you'll never become a master" with "There are chess masters at many different ages, and I better keep training because I can be one of them too!"
  • Replace "I need to play tactical openings to get better at tactics" with "I will play openings I feel I'm suited to and I can get better at tactics along the way!"

Take Action to Confirm Your New Empowering Belief

Sports psychologist Bob Rotella asks his clients how they would train differently if they thought they knew they could become champions. So I ask you, if you believe your knew empowering beliefs, how would you act differently then you do now? Would you be more organized in your training? Would you be more focused? 

It is important to take immediate action because your old beliefs may be deeply embedded in your subconscious mind. This action will both help confirm and strengthen your new empowering beliefs as well as give you confidence.

Here are some articles I have written that may help with some of the new actions you might be thinking of taking:
  • Measuring your progress in any activity is important if you want to improve it. Check out how I do it in Measure and Improve Your Chess.
  • Understanding what stage of development you are in can be helpful in choosing appropriate training activities. My first article in the series is about the imitation of the masters.
  • One of the most important aspects of chess is analyzing your chess. I wrote a detailed method for analyzing your games that should give you a starting point.
Although this is the last step in the process for changing your limiting beliefs, it is perhaps the most important. Changing your beliefs can be a very fast or a very gradual process. However, in either case, taking action based on your new empowering beliefs is the common ingredient to making lasting change.

Believe and Achieve

There are many aspects of improving chess or any other aspect of your life. One of the most foundational of these aspects if your belief in what is possible. We are often not aware of these beliefs and how they affect us. I hope this article has helped make you aware of how your mind and beliefs may be either limiting and empowering you to better chess.

Your Turn

What limiting beliefs are hindering your progress?

What empowering beliefs have helped your progress?

If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Developing Mental Toughness for Chess

Winning Twice

I played a game recently in which I won a piece very in the game. Later in the game, I decided to give back the piece as I had what I thought was a winning endgame with two extra pawns (one of them a passed pawn). To my horror, in a moment of inattention, I blundered those two extra pawns as well as losing another! 

I found myself in a position where I was now down a pawn! I quickly got out of my chair and took a little walk - it was an internet game, so I basically paced around the house. When I returned to the board, I realized that although I was down a pawn, I had a much better placed king as well as two connected passed pawns on the opposite side of the board of the opposing king. The last complication was the presence of a knight for each side. After giving away a winning position, I had to win the game again!

It is situations like this one that test our resilience and mental toughness. Our games do not often resemble the positional masterpieces given to us by masters such as Capablanca or Rubinstein. They often resemble street fights, with both players often stumbling through each phase of the game, sometimes throwing wild haymakers and tripping over ourselves. 

In a street fight, the player who can keep his wits about him and stay focused despite mistakes will often emerge as the victor. 

What is Mental Toughness

Mental toughness is the ability to cope with set backs, obstacles, and difficult situations in general. It often involves resilience as well as confidence. People with mental toughness can often endure more effectively when adversity strikes.

In chess, this can manifest itself in many ways:

  • The ability to strive to play the best moves even when discovering oneself in a losing position.
  • Playing your next game with confidence and a clear mind after a tough loss in a tournament.
  • Analyzing your losses and seeking to learn from them (instead of trying to ignore them).
Over time, hopefully you can see how mental toughness can be a competitive advantage.

The first World Champion, Emanuel Lasker, was known as a great fighter. His ability to come back from losing positions against the best opposition in the world at the time demonstrates his incredible mental toughness.

Here is a wonderful example of Lasker's resilience with some light notes. For a more complete analysis and commentary, I recommend Zenon Franco's Counterattack!

Fortunately, mental toughness can be developed. Let's see how.

How to Develop Mental Toughness

Mental toughness can be developed over time in many ways. Here are just a few simple ways to get started.
  1. Take care of your body. The ability to stay tough during adversity is partially connected to our physical condition. Fatigue or tiredness makes it extremely difficult to perservere. As Vince Lombardi has said: "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." So make sure you get proper sleep, some physical activity, and good nutrition.
  2. Monitor your self-talk. Be mindful of how you talk to yourself when you make a mistake. I remember a story about a professional golfer (although I forget who it was specifically) who cursed at himself after hitting a ball into the woods. His father came up to him and asked him, "Is that how you would speak to your best friend?" After you make a bad move, think about how you think and talk to yourself. Try encouraging phrases like, "Well, time to demonstrate that endgame technique we've been working on" or "the game's not over yet!" In the middle of a game, you are your own best coach.
  3. Develop a schedule for training and study (and stick to it). Part of mental toughness is consistency. This needs to be practiced through your daily and weekly chess training. Sticking to a schedule both positively effects your chess skills, but also psychologically you build confidence in your discipline. 
  4. Stay present in the moment. One of the things that the mentally "weak" do is dwell on the move they should have made after they blunder. Learn to focus on the now or as performance psychologist Michael Gervais says, "in the middle of present." One way to do this is to practice mindfulness meditation. A great place to start is Headspace.
For more on mental toughness and resilience, I recommend The New Toughness Training for Sports by James Loehr and Grit: The Power of Passion and Perserverence by Angela Duckworth.

My Moment of Toughness

I mentioned a recent game above where I made a couple big mistakes after gaining a big advantage. I wanted to end this article by presenting it to you here. Enjoy!

Your Turn

I hope you enjoyed this article and found it helpful. Please share it with others.

Have you had any comebacks that required mental toughness? 

Do you have any challenges regarding mental toughness? 

Share your experiences in the comments below.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Reduce Your Chess Stress with Workflows

Obviously, the highest type of efficiency is that which can utilize existing material to the best advantage. -Jawaharlal Nehru
Chess is a complex game. Getting better at chess can be complex as well (although I've made efforts at trying to simplify it for myself and hopefully, my readers). Besides the actual "nuts and bolts" of chess knowledge - e.g. openings, pawn structures, endgames, tactical motifs, etc., we also have the training methods we use to study these. I know I've shared a few of these here on Better Chess Training as well as on the Chess Improver site. It can all be a bit overwhelming and I apologize for any contribution I may have made to that.

In this article, I want to help you process all of this chess "stuff" that you do to improve and enjoy chess. Today, we're going to discuss how to use workflows to help you automate and systematize your chess training activities.

What is a Workflow

A workflow is a process or series of processes to accomplish a task from beginning to end. You might call it a system or a routine if you wish- the name doesn't really matter for our purposes. 

A workflow should give you the following information:
  • Who should do that task - e.g. unless you're a professional player or have hired a coach, for the most part this will be you.
  • What needs to be done
  • Where the information/output will be stored - e.g. notebook, chess database, etc.
  • When it should be done

Benefits of Workflows

I just wrote earlier about the complexity of chess training and feeling overwhelmed and now I'm telling you to create workflows. Why would you want to consider using them? Here are a few reasons:
  • Workflows keeps things from falling through the cracks. For example, we all know that analyzing and studying our games is beneficial and important. However, I know I have dozens of games that I've played an haven't analyzed. Creating a workflow to handle this will eliminate this problem. 
  • Workflows reduce "decision fatigue." By deciding in advance how you will process aspects of your training, you reduce the stress and strain of having to decide later. In a game where we spend a lot of energy making decisions - oh, and "real life" decisions we have to make as well - reducing decision fatigue seems important.
  • Workflows build confidence. When you have a process in place to handle all of the incoming chess "stuff" in your life - e.g. your games, chess books you read, articles, etc., it feels good. I know when I started instituting a few simple workflows (which I'll describe later), my belief in my own ability to learn and improve at chess increased. 
  • Workflows save time. Because you do not have to "decide" on a moment by moment basis what to do with certain aspects of your chess training, you save that time (and as mentioned above, mental energy). In the long-term, worksflows will help you save time because it will help you learn faster and more effectively.

What Should I Create a Workflow For

Since part of the premise of this article is to help you overcome the complexity of chess improvement, I'll provide a few questions to get you started:
  • Are there specific training methods that you want to try but don't feel you can fit them into your time allotment for chess?
  • Are there repetitive training or study methods that you use - but perhaps not as consistently or systematically as you want to?
  • Do you have a method for deciding which chess articles and sites to review? Would creating a routine help you capture all of the articles for future review?
  • When you play a game, do you have a process for studying the game? Do you fall behind?
The idea is to find an aspect of your training that is inefficient or non-optimal, and find ways to improve them.

Here are some workflows you might want to consider creating (with a couple examples below):
  • Post-mortem game analysis and review.
  • Storing and reviewing interesting positions and games you see in articles and books.
  • Learning and remembering openings.
  • Studying and reviewing tactical problems you got wrong on Chess Tempo or Chessity.

How Do I Create a Workflow

Creating a workflow can be as complicated or as simple as you have time, energy, and skill for. Let's start with a few simple steps and I'll provide resources for those of you who are interested in this topic. For this, I will share my workflow for processing games I play.
  1. Start with your beginning condition or cue. In this case, it is playing a game.
  2. Decide what the next step in the process is. Also determine if there are any conditionals or questions that need to be asked as well as when the step should be completed. In our example, the next step is to enter the games into my "My Games" database. In the case of online games, it is fairly easy to have the moves e-mailed to me or to move the games from one database to the "My Games" database. 
  3. Basically, you continue to do step two, while focusing on asking whether or not there is a choice to make. For example, in this workflow, the next step would normally be to analyze the game. However, I realized that I often don't have time to do the full analysis process I outlined in 4-Steps to Analyzing Your Game for Improvement. So I had to include a step where I determine how much time I can or should spend on a game. These included three separate steps (I'll show you below) depending on what the answer to this question was.
  4. Continue adding steps until the task is complete. For our example, additional steps include the actual analysis of the game and addition of review materials in their appropriate places - such as Chess Position Trainer for review positions and opening variations.
If you're interested in digging further into this topic, you can check out this video and article by PNMSoft for a general overview of what a workflow is. I don't have any affiliation with this company, but found the video very easy to understand. 

Game Analysis Workflow Example

Here is a visual representation of the example we discussed above. Note: I'm not a process engineer or workflow expert, so my uses of the various icons seemed logical to me - I'm not sure if they're technically "proper."
Game Analysis Workflow
My Game Analysis Workflow

A couple things to note from the above diagram and the process in general.
  • The amount of time I spend on a game is determined by a few factors. First, how much time I have that particular week or so. Second, how instructive the game was - I tend to spend more time on losses than wins. Third, whether the opening was a major one in my repertoire - I tend to spend more time on the most frequent openings rather than offbeat or sidelines I see seldom. Also, I tend to spend more time on tournament games rather than blitz or casual games.
  • I found that putting a deadline on when this has to get done is helpful - hence the step to schedule it on the calendar. I usually give games about a month. After that, I start to lose the emotional connection and thought process I had during the game, which to me, is just as important as the moves played.
  • In terms of the distribution of games that fall into each category, I probably only do the full analysis on about 10-20% of games - usually games that I will publish in a post or that I found particularly instructive. About half of my games I use the process I outline in Seven Questions to Ask Yourself After Each Game. The rest of the games, I do a quick analysis.
  • I haven't systematized the quick analysis yet (although perhaps I can write more about this in a future post). Basically, I look up the opening in my database and perhaps browse a master game or two that I find in the line. I also have the chess engine running to point out any "surprises" that I may have had. Finally, I might comment on a position or two that I found interesting or confusing during the game. I usually set a timer for 20-30 minutes and try to mine for as much gold as possible in that time. By doing things this way, I know I at least gained some insight from the game and can move on without feeling that I neglected something.
  • CPT stands for Chess Position Trainer, which I find very useful for reviewing my openings and specific positions. (I am also a fan of Chessable for studying and learning openings and I wrote a review detailing some of its features).

Practical Advice

We've covered quite a bit in this article and even though my initial intention was to help simplify your life, you may find this whole concept overwhelming in itself. I encourage you to give it a try. Here are a couple final tips that might help you get started.
  • Try to create just one workflow in your chess program. 
  • Try to diligently follow that workflow for 90 days.
  • Measure the impact it has in terms of efficiency, stress, chess improvement.
  • Keep it simple at first and build on core processes.
Finally, remember a workflow is a tool. If you find that it doesn't serve you, then let it go. I don't have workflows for every single activity I do in chess. The ones I use work very well for me and I continually tweak and try to improve them. Sometimes, I just want to play through a Bobby Fischer game or watch a chess video on Youtube. Chess is a game to enjoy after all. When used properly, workflows can help you enjoy chess even more!

Your Turn

I hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, please share it with your chess friends.

What workflows are you going to create?

What workflows in your life do you already have?