February 26, 2011

Chess Confidence

Self-confidence is not solely in the hands of fate, you are the person responsible for determining how confident you feel in a chess encounter.

My recent loses in the National Championship motivated me to search deeper the reasons of my poor performance and, at my husband's suggestion, I decided to write about my discoveries. In fact, you don't need to be a genius to realize what  happened to me: lack of self confidence was one of the responsible causes.
A misconception that many players have is that confidence is something which is inborn, or that if you don't have it at an early age, you will never get it. In reality, confidence is a skill, much like technical skills, that can be learned.
Just like with any type of skill, confidence is developed through focus, effort, and repetition.
Of course we all know how important self confidence is, but do we really try to do something about it?! The real problem comes out in a different way: we tend to get lazy and only when we have a terrible tournament we start wondering why do we feel so bad and how can we stop our disruptive thoughts. We know it doesn't comfort us at all but we just can't stop it! We cannot suffer and remain in pains forever, at some point we manage to put it behind in a way or another. But do you know how much unnecessary energy you spend for that?! Can you imagine what could you have done with all that amount of nerves throwed away for nothing?!
Let's see what we can do, to be ready for such painful moments.

What is self-confidence?

"I don’t think it's bragging to say I'm something special." - Muhammad Ali

For many chess players, an explanation of the concept of self-confidence is hardly necessary as they know intuitively what it is. Indeed, self-confidence is so palpable in some players that you can almost reach out and touch it. Their confidence is reflected in everything they say and do, in what they wear and how they look. 

I define confidence as how strongly you believe in your ability to achieve your goals. Confidence is so important because you may have all of the ability in the world to perform well, but if you don't believe you have it, then you won't perform up to that ability. For example, you might be technically capable of playing a very sharp opening, but you won't attempt the skill in a meet if you don't have the confidence that you can successfully execute it!
Too often chess players are their own worst enemy rather than their best ally. When you compete, whose side are you on? Remember that opponents are against you and want to beat you badly. If you're also against you, you don't have a chance of performing your best and finding success.

Vicious Cycle:

To illustrate another influence of confidence, think back to a time when you didn't have confidence in yourself. You probably got caught in a vicious cycle of low confidence and performance in which negative thinking led to poor performance, which led to more negative thinking and even poorer performance until your confidence was so low that you didn't even want to compete.

This vicious cycle usually starts with a period of poor performance. This poor performance leads to negative self-talk: "I'm terrible. I can't do this. I don't have a chance." You are becoming your own worst enemy.

The negative self-talk, anxiety, and emotions then hurt your focus. If you have low confidence, you can't help but focus on all of the negative things rather than on things that will enable you to perform your best. All of this accumulated negativity hurts your motivation. As bad as you feel, you just want to get out of there. If you're thinking negatively, caught in a vicious cycle, feeling nervous, depressed, and frustrated, and can't focus, you're not going to have much fun and you're not going to perform well.

The six sources of self-confidence:

The confidence an individual feels during a particular activity or situation is generally derived from one or more of the following six elements, which are presented in figure 1 in order of their relative importance:

1. Performance accomplishments are the strongest contributor to sport confidence. When you perform any skill successfully, you will generate confidence and be willing to attempt something slightly more difficult. Skill learning should be organised into a series of tasks that progress gradually and allow you to master each step before progressing on to the next. Personal success breeds confidence, while repeated personal failure diminishes it.

2. Being involved with the success of others can also significantly support your confidence, especially if you believe that the chess player you are involved with (e.g. a team-mate) closely matches your own qualities or abilities. In effect, it evokes the reaction: "if they can do it, I can do it".

3. Verbal persuasion is a means of attempting to change the attitudes and behaviour of those around us, and this includes changing their self-confidence. In chess, coaches often try to boost confidence by convincing their pupils that the challenge ahead is within their capabilities: "I know you are a great player so keep your head up and play hard". A chess player might reinforce this by repeating the message over and over to him or herself as a form of self-persuasion. A tip here is to avoid stating what you want in the negative; so, rather than "I really don't want to come off second best" try "I really want to win this one".

4. Imagery experiences have to do with chess players recreating multi-sensory images of successful performance in their mind. Through creating such mental representations, mastery of a particular task or set of circumstances is far more likely. What you see is what you get!

5. Physiological states can reduce feelings of confidence through phenomena such as muscular tension, palpitations and butterflies in the stomach. The bodily sensations associated with competition need to be perceived as being facilitative to performance and this can be achieved through the application of appropriate stress management interventions such as the "five breath technique" and "thought-stopping". (Coming up soon)

6. Emotional states is the final source of self-confidence and relates to how you control the emotions associated with competition, such as excitement and anxiety. Very often, the importance of the occasion creates self-doubt, which is why it is essential to control your thoughts and emotions. Learning imagery and concentration skills such as those described in "the spotlight of excellence" (Exercise 2 below) will help.

Five exercises that will boost your self-confidence

Exercise 1: Confident situations and situations of doubt

To achieve a greater sense of stability in your confidence, it is necessary to know exactly what causes it to fluctuate. Divide a clean page into two columns. Label the first column 'High-confidence situations' and the second 'Low-confidence situations'.

In the first column, list all of the situations or circumstances (in chess) in which you feel completely confident. In the second column, list the situations or circumstances that sometimes cause your confidence to diminish. Clearly identifying the situations that make you feel uneasy is the first step towards building greater self-confidence. I will come back to these lists in some of the remaining exercises, but for now, it should have just served to increase your awareness of areas that can be improved.

Exercise 2: The spotlight of excellence

This visualisation exercise recreates the mental state associated with past performance success and will help you in bridging the gap between your ability and confidence:

Imagine a huge spotlight beaming down on the floor one metre in front of you. The light beam is about a metre in diameter.
Now think back to a time in your chess career when you were performing at the very peak of your ability - perhaps using the first column from Exercise 1 to guide you. Each movement you made brought about a successful outcome and everything just seemed to flow without much conscious effort.
In a dissociated state (i.e. looking at yourself from the outside) examine each of your five senses. See yourself inside the circle and excelling. Imagine exactly what the 'you' inside the circle is seeing, hearing, feeling, and smelling. Notice the 'taste of success' in your mouth.
Now step into the spotlight and become fully associated so that you are experiencing events through your own eyes and in real time. Again, notice what you are seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting.
Notice exactly what this feels like so that you can reproduce it at will whenever your confidence is waning.

You can also check your database and go through your best games. This is working for those who can still look at a chess board after a terrifying loss:)

Exercise 3: Positive self-talk

Positive self-talk will affirm to you that you possess the skills, abilities, positive attitudes and beliefs that are the building blocks of success. The statements you choose need to be vivid, should roll off the tongue, and be practiced well in advance of competition. Most of all, they must be totally believable. You should use these particularly in the low-confidence situations that you identified in the second column of Exercise 1. Here are some examples to help you in composing your own:

'I am a very good player.'
'I have nerves of steel.'
'What doesn't defeat me, makes me stronger.'

Never ever say or think anything negative about your performance or ability. Some people may think that this actually can be a driver to trigger better performance. It may be possible, but it's best not to take that chance.

Whenever you send a message to your brain, whether it's good or bad, the brain will focus on it and assess whether it is true. If you tell yourself "I totally suck, I can't make a normal move!", the brain will start digging up memories of times when you missed good moves. In addition to getting you to focus on acts of failures which are disempowering, doing so will make your brain come to the conclusion that you indeed suck.

After concluding that you suck, you will subconsciously perform badly in order to keep the consistency of the conclusion (the brain is addicted to being consistent). Any negative self talk is inadvertently directing yourself to perform badly.

Practice positive self talk all the time to gain self confidence in your chess. Make your own list of four or five positive self-statements and read them to yourself every night before you go to bed and every morning as you wake up. Through repeated use, they will become embedded in your subconscious and have a profound influence on your chess performance.

Exercise 4: Exploiting weaknesses in your opponent

Your opponent will harbour doubts and fears that they will try hard to hide from you. Like any human being, they are susceptible to anxiety, fatigue and indecision. If you spend time thinking about your opponents, focus upon which weaknesses and frailties you might most easily exploit. Here are some specific guidelines to help you:

Study their openings and carefully spot out where they face more problems or in which phase of the game/in which type of pawn structure they don't feel comfortable. Some players are extremely annoyed if you look at them, some are intimidated if you shake a bit harder their hand at the beginning of the game, while others will give you unfriendly looks in case you are chewing, eating or shaking your feet.
NB - you will notice that some of these techniques are entirely ethical and 'sportsmanlike' while others push the boundaries of fair play.

Exercise 5: Using the power of sound

Music has unique properties, among which is its ability to inspire, motivate and boost one's confidence. There are many tunes with inspirational lyrics or strong extra-musical associations that you can use to increase your confidence before competition. You may like to try playing some tracks on your mp3 player as part of a pre-event routine. I suggest that if you want to feel confident and keep your physiological arousal low, select tracks with a slow tempo. Conversely, if you want to psych-up, go for a higher tempo, and build-up to a tempo of over 150 BPM just before competing.

Tempo affects the mood of a piece—a fast tempo makes music feel exciting or energetic, while a slow tempo feels more relaxed.
One way tempo can be measured is in "beats per minute," or BPM. Most dance music ranges between 110 and 140 BPM. A mellower track would have a lower BPM, while a high-energy sound would have a higher BPM. 
I remember I was listening sometimes a few rock songs, just to get me in the mood before the game:)

Final thoughts

This article should have convinced you that self-confidence is not solely in the hands of fate. Even when Lady Luck is not shining, you are the person responsible for determining how confident you feel in a sporting encounter.
Believing in your abilities should not, however, cause you to expect success; this belief can lead to arrogance and overconfidence. It can also cause you to become too focused on winning rather than on performing your best. This perception can lead to self-imposed pressure and a fear of failure (see my article on Motivated by fear of failure ).

The best and easiest to gain self confidence in chess is simply to play for the love of the game. This is the best cure. Play with a smile on your face. Do it for the enjoyment of the sport, and for the challenge from the competition. Because ultimately, that is why you choose to take up chess in the first place. Forget about meeting expectations, forget about beating everyone, forget about impressing everybody, forget about winning every time.

Putting positive pressure on yourself is good to drive yourself to improve and perform better, but ultimately you must still remember the reason you are doing this in the first place. For the love and passion of the sport. When you do that, your self confidence in chess will soar.

The legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi once said:

"Confidence is contagious .. .but so is a lack of confidence."


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Article Reference:
The information presented on this page is adapted from an article which was first published in Peak Performance issue 243.


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  3. Nice article, Alina. I am in a slump right now and this helps. I am the point of just trying to survive every game - I've even contemplated starting 1.a3 with white, hoping for a useful black opening, and just surviving, hanging on. Not a healthy mindset! The best part was at the end: "to play for the love of the game. This is the best cure. Play with a smile on your face. Do it for the enjoyment of the sport, and for the challenge from the competition."