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The Mental Game of Chess

How to Manage Pressure, Focus and Maximize Your Brain Power

Bill Cole, MS, MA


How's your mental game of chess? I have had the pleasure of being the mental game coach to a number of young competitors in chess. These young people compete at the local, state, regional, national and international level. I've coached kids who have been ranked as high as top ten in the United States. They all have one thing in common. They want to succeed. They also are very bright. But sometimes all that brain power either gets in the way of performing, or is not sufficient to help them know what to do in competition. This is why the mental game of chess is so important.

The depth and length of concentration demands in chess is monumental. Add in the long tournament days, the pressure from parents and coaches, and you have a highly demanding game from a mental perspective. One major problem I have seen in chess competitors is that they allow the stress of an event to build up. They don't know how to break up their high-strung intensity during a long day of chess. They stay on edge and highly intense, and ultimately all that pent up energy starts to break down their ability to analyze and focus to make the correct moves. This sustained intensity causes lapses of concentration, muscle tension and irritability.

Here are some ways to improve your mental game of chess so you can better manage the pressure of a competitive chess event.

  1. Play At Your Normal Effort Levels To Last Longer And To Be Sharper Mentally: A chess player who puts forth good effort in training and practice may believe, erroneously, that this daily, normal level of effort will be insufficient for an actual competition, so they get to the competition and attempt to "increase their effort level" 10-50% higher. They don't know that this extra effort also results in tight muscles, and a tight muscle means they also will have a tight mind. This muscle tension makes it harder to maintain "relaxed concentration" during a chess match, and also between matches. Our mind can remain on an intense "alert level" for so long. After that, fatigue sets in and performance begins to dive. The solution is to relax and compete at your normal effort levels. It's what you know and what you can handle. This is called "playing within yourself". It's trusting that your usual level of effort and focus will work. It's about trusting your training.

  2. Manage Your Parents: On competition day, your parents will probably try to tell you all sorts of things. Some things they say will be helpful, and some things will not be very helpful. They may tell you how to "get up for the day", or how to "get your game face on". They may tell you to be more serious if they see you talking to your friends. They may tell you how to prepare for each game. They may be nervous about the event, and transfer their anxiety to you. This last one can be a problem. They may ask you if you are nervous or worried. They may tell you the opponent you will play is a tough one, and that they think you may lose. Do your best to not allow your parent's anxiety to transfer to you. Otherwise, you'll become nervous and play poorly. You can tell your parents, "Mom, Dad, I need to focus on what I want to do, not on what I want to avoid. I can't control whom I'm playing, or how good they are. All I can do is control myself, and what I can do. I can't even guarantee winning, because I have an opponent who has the same goal. All I can do is try my hardest to do well, be a good sport, and then, no matter what happens, I can hold my head high and look at myself in the mirror, because I will have known that I did everything I could to do well."
  1. Stay Out Of The Past Or Future After You Make An Error: My offices are located in the heart of Silicon Valley, California, just south of San Francisco, and anyone living here who works in high tech has very smart kids, and many of these kids play chess. So I coach many highly intelligent chess competitors, and one of the biggest problems they have with their mind is they attempt to figure out the reasons for their mistakes in the actual chess match. This ruins their focus and causes stress. If you beat yourself up mentally over making a mistake, this keeps your mind stuck in the past. You then worry about making the same mistake, or others, and this makes your mind zoom into the future. Chess is played in the present, with forays into future calculations for smart moves. Good chess players stay out of the past. The past is only valuable once the game is over. Then you can review what you did, for good and bad, with your coach, friend or parent. If you do this when the chess game is in progress, your mind is wandering, and you'll lose focus. When you do this, you are busy thinking and you'll miss the next play, and the next. My advice is to stop thinking about your mistakes. Stop analyzing what went wrong and just keep playing. Don't be a scientist and mentally pause to look at the reasons for your poor play. Just dig in, compete strongly and shrug off any errors as being a normal part of the game. Making a big deal of mistakes is a sure-fire performance killer.

Now you have some new mental insights into the mental game of chess. And now you know more about how to handle your mind, and how to manage your stress and energy and focus. Take these out to your next tournament and put them to good use. Good luck!

Copyright © Bill Cole, MS., MA. 2014 All rights reserved.

This article covers only one small part of the mental game. A complete mental training program includes motivation and goal-setting, pre-event mental preparation, post-event review and analysis, mental strengthening, self-regulation training, breath control training, motor skill training, mental rehearsal, concentration training, pressure-proofing, communication training, confidence-building, breaking through mental barriers, slump prevention, mental toughness training, flow training, relaxation training, momentum training, psych-out proofing and media training.

For a comprehensive overview of your mental abilities you need an assessment instrument that identifies your complete mental strengths and weaknesses. For a free, easy-to-take 65-item sport psychology assessment tool you can score right on the spot, visit This assessment gives you a quick snapshot of your strengths and weaknesses in your mental game. You can use this as a guide in creating your own mental training program, or as the basis for a program you undertake with Bill Cole, MS, MA to improve your mental game. This assessment would be an excellent first step to help you get the big picture about your mental game.

Bill Cole, MS, MA, a leading authority on peak performance, mental toughness and coaching, is founder and President of the International Mental Game Coaching Association, Bill is also founder and CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a consulting firm that helps organizations and professionals achieve more success in business, life and sports. He is a multiple Hall of Fame honoree, an award-winning scholar-athlete, published book author and articles author, and has coached at the highest levels of major-league pro sports, big-time college athletics and corporate America. For a free, extensive article archive, or for questions and comments visit him at

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