While it is widespread for professional poker players and athletes to use the services of mental coaches, chess is quite impervious to coaching. Is it because chess players are trying to follow in the footsteps of Bobby Fischer, who famously said: “I don’t believe in psychology, I believe in good moves”? The most famous, and one of the few books written on the subject, Krogius’s Psychology in Chess, was published in 1975 and is unsurprisingly quite outdated.
Despite, or more probably because of, this disregard for coaching, we see players of all levels struggling with issues such as:
- Playing far below their average level in decisive games
- Feeling sick or tired at the beginning of every tournament
- Not winning a single tournament despite having the level
- Not following the intended training routine
In the late 90s, Garry Kasparov described himself as the only real professional in a world of amateurs. He was referring to his extreme training, which included daily intensive physical exercise. This is not too surprising, considering that Kasparov was Botvinnik’s student. Mikhail Moiseyevich was regarded as the first “true professional” who understood the importance of sleep, daily routine and physical exercise. Whereas Kasparov was then one of the very few, nowadays many of the top chess players have incorporated sport into their training. Some even follow a special diet, and all agree on the importance of being in good physical condition.
As far as I know, only a few top chess players attach real importance to mental training, just like many underestimated fitness some 20 years ago. I think that top chess players will soon recognize the edge that mental training can give. I’m therefore eager to bet that having a mental coach and practices like meditation will be the new norm at the high level.
Let me now introduce Bahman Zarghami, who has worked for nearly a decade as a coach for intellectually gifted people, like professional poker players, golf players, entrepreneurs and other people seeking performance in high-stress environments.
I asked him a few practical questions, the answers to which could be useful to you and make you want to know more about mental coaching.
Joachim Iglesias: Hi Bahman! You might first want to share the story of how you became an “intelligence coach”?
Bahman Zarghami: As a young kid growing up in a dysfunctional family, I was always told I had a lot of potential, but I found it hard to live up to their and my own expectations. I struggled with anxiety, lack of discipline, fear of failure and a ton of self-sabotage. This all started to improve once I learned about the challenges connected to having a higher than average intelligence. My day-to-day decisions were not aligned with my intellectual potential, and this created lot of conflict within me.
Eventually, I discovered that, because of my fear of failure, I was going to find my purpose in the things that I resist the most. At that time, I was very selfish, and I choose to get out of my comfort zone and support other people to recognize their challenges in their life and help them to make sense of it all. Intelligent people are easily overlooked and often left to figure things out on their own. But we have to be aware that these people grow up in a system that is not designed for them, with parents who don’t know how to raise them and, on top of it all, they become their own worst enemy.
This inspired me to make this my life’s mission. We shouldn’t assume that intelligence comes packaged with happiness and inner peace. On the contrary, this combination is very rare. But I have learned that once we can see that we are not alone in this and that many proven methods can help us, everything is possible.
Even though they love chess and yearn to improve, most chess players cannot maintain regular training. Typically, once in a while, they feel fully-motivated and make big plans, but they are back to procrastinating after a week. What is your advice to those who don’t train as much as they would like?
Couple of things we need to think about here. On the one hand, we have to watch out for the emotional states in which we plan for change in our lives. Are we drunk off of motivation when we plan to change our lives? Do we feel guilty and ashamed and therefore start our food journal? Do we feel pressured by our competition to implement a new studying routine?
These emotional states are like drugs, the effects wear off after a while, and indeed, after a week, we are back to square one. This is something I like to call the emotional rollercoaster. One example of this rollercoaster is:
Shame/guilt motivates us to change -> set unrealistic goals -> fail -> shame/guilt motivates us to change.
We break this by not acting on these emotional states but taking action from a neutral, more stable emotional state.
On the other hand, when we fail, we should refrain from punishing ourselves but applaud ourselves for the effort. This is where we come to the deeper issue for highly intelligent people. As kids, they grow up getting praised for their intelligence, not for their effort. This instills a deep-rooted fear of failure within them. They don’t know how to ‘fail’ and simply pick themselves back up. It’s all or nothing. Because of this, they also have unrealistic expectations of activities outside of chess, and they hate to be bad at something, which is an essential part of eventually becoming good.
To fight this, we have to set tiny goals, as small as possible. We can’t go from no exercise to 5 days a week – not going to happen. Go to the gym 30 mins, once a week. Start there, embrace your weaknesses, find an accountability buddy and be patient with yourself.
In the introduction, I talked about the importance of both physical and mental training. You have worked with some of the best poker players in the world. Could you tell us what their routines look like?
I always say: You show me a poker player that doesn’t have their life in order and I’ll show you a bad poker player.
Poker players also have their challenges to create structure in a very hectic life. But the ones I have worked with do have a good understanding of a good routine and control what they can control.
For example, professional tournament poker players don’t have any control over their long hours (sometimes up to 12). It’s a part of the game. They do control what they do before and after they start playing, what they do during their breaks, prepping their food during their tournaments, and many more optimizations. I think it’s easy to get lost in the chaos of high-performance and simply give up, but the great poker players who understand the importance of these small ‘life-edges’, are winning consistently over many years.
I know players, including grandmasters, who are never well during tournaments. They feel out of shape, or even really sick, due to stress and somatization. Some of them even quit playing. Do you think a mental coach could help them, and if so, how?
I think, first off, a mental coach can help ANYONE open-minded and willing to learn. A mental coach has studied mental performance, just like the chess player has studied chess. You will most likely never be a master of both, so it’s unfair to expect that from yourself and be disappointed in yourself once you fail at something. Smart people surround themselves with smart people to uplift them. Especially in chess, it is so mentally demanding that it requires constant hyperfocus. A mental coach can help you zoom out, get your head out of the game, and look at other life factors that could affect your performance.
When it comes to chess specifically I think mental training, emotional development, and an exercise/diet routine are very much secondary to competing and studying, but if you never prioritize it you will never experience the benefits.
Their experience of feeling out of shape and becoming sick sounds psychosomatic, which makes a lot of sense because highly intelligent people have physiological overexcitabilities as they say, which basically means higher IQ = high sensitivity = more stress = more prone to illness. (Read more about the hyper brain hyper body theory)
Some players are famous for overperforming when it matters the most, while some consistently underperform during decisive games. How long would it take for one of the latter to become one of the former?
It’s hard to say how much time it will take, but just like everything in life, it needs to be a priority to achieve a mastery level. You have to recognize it, prioritize it and accept help where you can get it.
Part of being a true professional is understanding that you can’t do everything on your own, that greatness requires a team and it’s your responsibility to build that team and help them empower you. Diet coach, fitness coach, mental coach, and chess coach. The more you invest in it, the faster your growth. That’s why they say; when you buy coaching, you’re actually buying time.
Because they point you in the right direction or give you certain answers to save you precious time that’s wasted finding it yourself.
Many chess players suffer from insomnia, especially during tournaments, because of the stress and the so-called Tetris-effect: you close your eyes, hoping to fall asleep soon. You would love not to think about chess, but the board is all you can see, and the pieces keep moving by themselves. Do you have any sleep advice?
Practical and easy advice is no screentime 90 minutes before bed, meditation exercises, don’t eat or drink sugary drinks before bed, don’t work in your bedroom, and make sure your room is cool and as dark as possible.
Now on a deeper level, we need to look at your life and the obsessive personality of intelligent high-performers. If I ask a professional chess player if they do anything besides chess, they’ll most likely say: nothing really. Again, it’s all or nothing. A lot of stress is involved. This can put your brain into overdrive and it doesn’t know how to turn it off anymore because, in a way, you’ve convinced yourself it’s a life or death situation. We need to develop other areas of life as well to lessen our dependence on chess.
All of our confidence, self-belief, self-love and perception of ourself is based around this game. Obviously, that’s unhealthy, but you’re also missing out on many other opportunities to not only become better at those areas in life but also a better chess player. Developing yourself in other areas doesn’t take away from your chess performance, it actually improves it! Your multiple ventures can feed each other and you can gain confidence from more sources than just one. Slowly transitioning into a less obsessive and more enjoyable relationship with your performance.
Tilt is one enemy both poker and chess players have in common. A bad move can make the player tilt and lead to another blunder. Tilt can even last a few games, especially during rapid and blitz tournaments, where games quickly follow one another. One tilt factor I find widespread is the feeling of injustice: “I should have won the game. My opponent does not deserve the victory.” How can a player cope with this feeling in particular and tilt in general?
Ah tilt, I love this topic. We indeed have many types of tilt, entitlement tilt or injustice tilt is one of them. Tilt is interesting because the emotional aspect of a high-performance activity is ruthlessly honest to everyone. It’s the ultimate equalizer, we all face it but not all of us have to struggle with it.
The tricky thing about tilt is that we often don’t recognize many (micro) behaviors as tilt. This is why it’s so important to do consistent performance reviews; biting nails, tapping feet, hunched posture, short breathing, am I deciding too fast or overthinking a simple move, am I hyper-focusing and losing touch with my physical state, these are all questions we can ask ourselves, during or after a match.
Coaching can help tremendously with this because it helps you recognize your triggers (micro behaviors) and stop the emotional snowballing before it turns into an avalanche.
Besides that, we can also look at a tilt as a way of exposing our inner conflicts. It says something about something inside of us that is unresolved. If we look deep within, we can most likely trace this behavior back to our childhood. We can often evaluate our tilt and find other moments in our life where we showed similar behavior. We need to understand the disease before we deal with the symptoms.
“Just one last game” is a lie often heard around 11 pm, before the online chess player who said it realizes it’s already 2 in the morning! While poker players can be chasing lost dollars, chess players can be desperate to win back rating points, unable to stop even though they know they will regret it. How can one learn to accept losing?
As the mindset coach of Raise Your Edge, one of poker’s leading educational platforms led by Bencb, I deal with this question a lot. I live by the phrase; every loss is an opportunity to make your comeback. Having a stop-loss comes from good preparation and a good physical and mental state. Preparation is not only studying and having a warm-up routine but also having a non-negotiable start and end time of the session.
A good physical state is practicing self-care, not sitting in your underpants and clicking buttons all day but actually treating yourself with some respect, behaving like a professional. The mental state is being mindful of ’emotional bleeding,’ not letting outside factors affect your chess performance and vice versa.
Examples are; a bad day at work, an argument with a family member, or something that triggered you on social media. This is completely normal and common among high-performance people because we are all sensitive to these things. This also means being open-minded to the possibility that today might not be a good day to play.
To conclude, is there anything else you want to tell our readers?
I understand mental health and mental performance might not be a popular topic among chess players but self-improvement and chess have many things in common. It’s about having a solid strategy, making the right decisions regardless of emotional states, adjusting your strategy when necessary, being highly aware and learning as much as you can along the way.
Do you feel like you have a lot of untapped potential? Do you have difficulty setting goals and achieving them? Find it hard to structure your life? Want to feel more confident in and outside of the chess world? Besides experiencing these questions and finding the answers for myself, I have also made it my life’s purpose to help other people with these topics. You don’t have to do it alone.
I would personally love to help you achieve your full potential. If you are interested or going between slightly interested and skeptic, please reach out to me. I offer 30 mins free sessions to everyone who is interested in these topics and looking to improve the quality of their performance and life. No strings attached. Hope to talk to you soon.