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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.

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