Interestingly, the history of sport psychology as an organized discipline dates all the way back to the 1920’s, meaning that both Freud and Jung were still active at the time. What may surprise even more people is that the “psychology” part extends well beyond things like motivation and dealing with anxiety.
Even from the beginning, the field was about much more than having athletes lie on the couch, incorporating biomechanics and social aspects such as competitiveness and teamwork. In more recent times, sport psychology has become mainstream – instead of being seen as mostly applicable to Olympians and professional athletes, everybody seems to be trying to boost their performance. The same principles, it seems, can also translate to becoming more effective at work and in other contexts.
With this increase in popularity, a whole slew of books has been published with titles like “The Inner Game of X” and “The Tao of Y”. Some of them, it has to be said, are better than others. Still, the subject is important enough, particularly to anyone who wants to take their chess game to the next level, that we can take a quick look at what the experts recommend in various kinds of competition.
You might be forgiven for thinking that a person’s state of mind has little effect on their ability to roll a heavy ball at some targets. Certainly, if you visit a website such as Feel Like Strike, the matter isn’t mentioned at all.
There’s an enormous difference, though, between amateurs who bowl for fun and those who do so competitively. In the latter case, stress and distraction can easily make the difference between victory and defeat. A bowler who starts to have trouble loses confidence and focus and tends to only get worse if they can’t keep their emotions in check. Perhaps the best advice to avoid this spiral is to make every attempt without even thinking about the previous one, regardless of whether it was brilliant or terrible. This also applies to sports such as squash and tennis.
Poker is, at its heart, a numbers game. If two computers were to play thousands of hands, their ability to each accurately predict the probability of any particular draw favoring themselves will be equal. Barring programming errors, the ability of each to balance risk and gain will make the outcome of each hand merely a matter of luck, and in the long run they will always draw even.
People, however, are not computers. One of the most important skills a poker player has to learn to compete at high levels is to understand and subdue their emotions, not only to prevent themselves from giving away information about their cards through “tells”, but also to make dispassionate decisions. To this end, many practice yoga or meditation as part of their training.
Chess, too, is certainly not without its psychological element. If the only difference between players were their skill level, we’d never refer to anyone as “aggressive” or “conservative” when it comes to playing style.
Of course, the moves are all deterministic and logical. Beyond the tactical level, though, the permutations quickly become too complex to think of one by one. Most players will fall back on verbal maxims and experience when deciding whether to place a rook in an exposed position, or whether a particular gambit benefits their opponent or themselves.
Then there are black hat tactics some players use to rattle their opponents, such as staring fixedly at them, wearing outlandish sunglasses and so forth. The most famous example of these is probably when an error in Deep Blue’s programming caused the computer to make a highly counterintuitive move, bewildering Kasparov and causing him to accuse IBM of cheating.