November 24, 2010

A critical mental skill: CONCENTRATION

Unfortunately, the field of "psychology" still carries a negative stigma because many people perceive sports psychology as dealing with abnormal individuals. thus, I am gonna use the term: "mental training"; I think that chess players can relate to this title better than "sports psychology".
Unlike a psychotherapist or psychologist, here you will not see couches, pills prescriptions or work with your daily life problems. This is about sports performance enhancement and not personal challenges (such as divorce, grief counseling) or different problematic fields from your life.
This have been said, I hope my future posts will be helpful to your chess career. For a  more personal approach, go and ask professional advices; don't worry about others labeling you as a "head case", they are not mature enough.
One more thing: start practicing today, don't use the strategies I'll present you only as the last resort, after you have tried several other methods.
My goal is to develop a mindset for success, so that you can get the most out of your abilities everytime you sit down on your board. 
Many of my examples are depicted from my own experiences, but if you have a personal mental barrier or any other question on how to improve your mental skills, don't hesitate to contact me. I want to bring you the most effective mental game strategies possible, so write me if you want a specific topic to be discussed.


Psychology is extremely pertinent in sports! This is made clear when seeing a footballer, for example, lose his concentration and lose or concede a match unnecessarily. How could he miss that shot?! He is an extremely good sportsman, how could this happen?!
Let's come back to chess: he is so much stronger than his opponent and he had such a winning position! He didn't make even a draw, incredible!!
Without mental toughness and the ability to concentrate on the task, you can become distracted in no time, which can lead to making serious errors in your game.


So, how well can you concentrate?


Kasparov in a tipical posture,
extremely focused.
Start by assesing your current ability to focus; think back over your most recent games and ask yourself:
1. Did you start the game in a focused state of mind or did it take you a while to get dialed in?
2. Were you thinking ahead to things that might go wrong and worrying about them?
3. Were you thinking about how important the game was to you, or wondering how well your opponent had prepared?
4. Did your mind wander to completely unrelated things, for example, remembering to buy some chocolate, on the way back to your hotel room?


You must be aware of your own distractions, otherwise you run the risk of letting them turn into repeated mental errors.


Handling external distractions during a game: 


Recall your last  competition and, specifically, how you dealt with distractions. This type of distractions can come from outside, from the environment - such as: the airco blows exactly in your head's direction, it's too cold/too hot in the playing hall and so on - , or from other people - your opponent or spectators: they speak too loud, they stare at you etc.


What distractions broke your concentration? Most likely, you have your own specific distractions, which differ from another person. Some chess players have a low tolerance for noise, others are highly sensitive to physical factors, such as the room temperature: I can successfully subscribe here, I hate to be cold:)


Advice: Make a list of the top external distractions that affect you most and rate them on a scale from 1 to 10, how distracting each of these interruptions are. Know your enemy!
Remember Botvinnik: he is known to have worked in chess with the radio on, so that he won't be distracted during a game by some unusual and annoying noise. - he was simulating the possible distractions that might appear during his game, so that his brain will learn an efficient way to respond.
Advice: simulate the situation by scheduling your practice to coincide with the starting time of your game. Do that especially if your game is being played at an odd hour: early morning or late at night.
During the game: Unplug for a while, go to toilet or take a walk around the other boards. Than calmly come back, sit down and calculate your lines with a refreshed mind.


Handling the distractions that come from inside you:


You can also be distracted by your own thoughts that flow freely into your mind, unbidden, when you least need them! Be present here and now, any self-judgements you make like: My elo is much higher than this patzer, or much lower than the genius I am facing... or: Damn it! I should have checked this line more! - are certainly not helpful during the game!


Advice: Make a list of the internal distractions that you think have interrupted your focus over the past few months. Again rate them from 1 to 10. Combat the negative thoughts with positive responses to each of them! When a negative thought will appear next time, you'll have a weapon against it.


Very important: your ability to re-focus!


Finally, assess how well you are able to regain control of your concentration when it breaks down. If something disturbs you, does this continue to affect you for the rest of the game? Or only for a few minutes? Top Grandmasters are able to re-focus within seconds! You too can learn how to do this!


People are different, so of course we have different strategies to achieve a focus zone:
1. Some players find that music is a great way to get into the right frame of mind, so they are humming their favourite song. Others find this extremely annoying and they prefer:
2. Pre-game and during the game routines: go over the lines you have prepared; if they don't appear on the board don't panick, many times it happens that you will find the right moves because your brain subcounsciounsly remembers them! Take your time and drink a coffee or a cup of tea: it will help your mind relax and slowly get ready for the game.
3. Mental images: some players might recall from memory a particular game they won, thus creating the premises of this situation to appear again in today's game.
4. Sit back and relax...remember a game when you were completely and totally focused. Try to remember the images, thoughts, sensations that you had back then. Work with them at home, so that your body and brain will know how to respond when distraction's stimuli will appear.


OK, you learned how to deal with your internal distractions...but what can you do with the external ones, the ones which you cannot control? Yes, true, you cannot control the external distractions, but what you CAN do is your reaction to them! Recognize the distraction and regain your focus quickly and efficiently!


How to do this? It is an interactive process of "observing" your own mind. Simply being aware of your own internal desire to be focused, rather than taking it for granted, will help you to develop the habit of recognizing when your mind has gone off track.


Once you are able to recognize you have lost focus, you can learn how to regain it.


The three "R"-s for Refocusing:


1. Recognize: the first and vital step!
2. Regroup: you now need to break free from the distraction
3. Refocus: the ability to make a mental adjustment and get back to your game.


How do you react when you get distracted and how fast you are back on track?  Example: you were completely winning before, but now the position has changed, but still....you are playing for a win! - Wrong! Stay objective!


A simple strategy is to have a verbal trigger that you can use to tell yourself to let go of the distraction:
1. "STOP - Get your mind in the present!"
2. "Let it GO!"
3. "Delete that thought!" - you can visualize a delete button on a keyboard as you say it. 


As you have probably realized, your mind works better when you attach some images to your words. Your all senses will cooperate in your goal of staying focused and play a good game. SUCCESS!


Keep in mind that changing your mental game skills takes time and does not happen overnight. Stay patient with the process of change, you will be rewarded later on!



Reference:
A. Schmid & E. Peper: "Training Strategies for Concentration." From J.M. Williams (Ed.), Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance. Mountain View, CA: Mayview. 1993, Dr.Cohn, from peaksports.com.

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