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!


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.