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«Psychological Preparation for Children Playing in Chess Tournaments David MacEnulty When I first thought of this ...»

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Psychological Preparation for Children Playing in Chess


David MacEnulty


When I first thought of this topic, I was only thinking about preparing

children to play in chess tournaments. However, the more I got into the

matter, the more I realized that it isn’t just the children who need some

psychological preparation. The adults in the room—the parents, coaches

and tournament directors—also need to give a lot of thought to their own

emotional states, influences on and investments in the proceedings. So before I get to the children, I’d like to address some adult issues.

Before I became a professional chess teacher and coach, I was a volunteer parent coach at my children’s school. There was a third grade student on the team who wanted to play the exchange variation of the Spanish. It was clear that he didn’t understand a lot of the ideas of the variation, so I offered to give him a couple of private sessions. When showing the pin variation, where Black offers up a bishop sacrifice in exchange for a devastating attack, we got to the key position and I asked if he could safely take the bishop. He patiently studied the position and, after about five minutes proudly announced that the bishop should not be taken. He then proceeded to give me a verbal rundown of the moves leading to mate. Two weeks later at the national tournament in Nashville, that position arose in his very first game. He was all keyed up and excited, and instantly snapped off the bishop, going down to an ignominious defeat several moves later.

He was of course the first one back to the team room. He had tears in his eyes, and was trembling—as I soon realized—with fear. His father, a 1500 player himself, ripped the score sheet from his son’s hand, saw what had happened, and in a frightening display of temporary insanity, grabbed his son, lifted him in the air and snarled in his face, “How could you be so #$@# stupid!” The rest of us stood in stupefied shock.

Second story, again at a national tournament. Last round. My team was in contention for a top five place. On two boards we were clearly winning. One was a total slaughter, the other was an easy victory.

Suddenly both players, as if they timed it together, stood up and starting blitzing out moves. Their pieces started falling like raindrops in a storm and they both lost miserably. We fell from third to ninth. It was three days before I could overcome my inner fury to say anything to either of them.

Third story. Another national tournament. A coach from another team was at the table giving last minute encouragement to his player. He asked my student if he could look at his scoresheets from the previous rounds. Rather ingenuously, my boy complied. After a quick perusal, the coach derisively threw the book down on the table and told his player,in a loud voice, “He’s a fish. You can beat him easily.” My boy then played the most craven game of his career and quickly lost.

The fourth story is from the New York City Chess Championships. A girl on my team was winning her final game. Victory makes her City Champion. Her opponent started acting sick, and asked her for a draw.

She said no. He persisted, saying he didn’t feel well. She said no again.

He raised his hand for a TD. One came over and the boy said he was sick and wanted a draw. The TD told her she should be a good sport and give him the draw. She said no again. He said she wasn’t being fair, and she should take the draw. Finally she succumbed to the pressure and said OK. She came in third on tie breaks, and our team placed second on tie breaks. Had she won, she would have been the individual city champion and our team would have been clear first. Ten minutes later the allegedly sick child was running all over the place, laughing and playing tag with his friends in the hotel hallway.

Story number five. One of my students lost a game, and the checkmate was quite interesting. The TD overseeing that section called his friends over to look at the position, and they all had a good time laughing about all the horrors that had befallen my student’s beleaguered king. They completely ignored the fact that they were laughing at something that was painful to a seven year old still sitting in front of them.

What was going on in all these stories/situations? The father in the first story had invested too much of himself in his son’s achievements.

Rather than allow his son the freedom to make his own mistakes and learn from them, he gave in to his rich fantasy life of imagining his son as the perfect embodiment of all he thought he would have been, given his son’s opportunities. When reality clashed with that fantasy, he came completely unglued.

In the second story, I had visions of breaking into the elite ranks of the top five for the first time, and when that vision was dashed by what I regarded as the totally ridiculous actions of my students, I lost it.

Although I knew enough not to berate them—which is what I wanted to do—I am sure my silence was seen as almost equally rough on them.

The third story, of the intimidating coach, is a clear case of destructive behavior. If a child is your enemy, there is something seriously wrong with your approach to your job. Yes, we all want to win, but the person across from your student is a child. We, the adults, are supposed to be nurturers, not destroyers. If victory is that important, stay away from children.

As for the TD, I have nothing good to say about him. Learn the rules and apply them appropriately. The young girl he deprived of a welldeserved victory in the third story was angry and distraught for days.

Her parents, one of whom could charitably be called a tiger mom, were equally upset at the obvious dereliction of justice. This was one of several such incidents that eventually drove this phenomenally talented girl from the game.

The TDs in the last story could be forgiven as chess players for being so engrossed in a fascinating position, but a little more awareness (what’s that?) would be good.

Frankly, I think we should have special training sessions in ethical behavior for coaches, parents and tournament directors, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. So before I turn to the questions and issues regarding preparing children, let me just lay the framework for what I think will solve many of the problems I alluded to above.

A friend and fellow coach who gives private lessons to some of the students at a school that is a perennial rival to Dalton told me the parents at that school, which shall be nameless, are rabidly focused on beating Dalton. We are the enemy. He asked if I had a similar idea in my preparation to play them. I told him, “Absolutely not.” He asked what my approach was. It is really very simple. I want my students to love chess. We have many opponents, but no enemies. They may not like us, they may even dislike or revile us, but I will not return the favor, nor will I tolerate it in any of the students or parents at my school. It takes two (or more) to make a fight, and this is one I do not want to engage in.

Our battle is on the board and only on the board. No child is my enemy.

Of course I want to win, but only by having my students make better moves on the board, not by vilifying another school or the children who happen to go to a different school. I teach my students to appreciate good moves, no matter who makes them. If your opponent makes a good move, that means you have to find a good response; good moves by our opponent bring out the best in us. I want mental toughness, not a vitriolic name-calling contest. Bear in mind we are still talking about children, ages five to ten or eleven. We’re not talking about a college football rivalry here.

Parents and coaches need to understand and accept, not just intellectually but deep in their visceral being, that it is normal for young children to do foolish things, to make huge mistakes, to make incomprehensible errors. The parent’s job is to give the child a reassuring hug and say you love them. The coach’s job is to analyze the mistake and, more importantly, assess the level of disturbance the child feels at his or her error, and either work on it then and there if the child is up to it, or give the child a little space, tell him to go wash his face, relax, and we’ll talk about it later.

Above all, lay no blame. The children are under tremendous pressure at these tournaments, and we need to lighten that pressure as much as possible. We also need to protect the children in our care. When getting your child situated to play, I now tell the parents not to leave the playing area as long as the parent or coach of the opposing player is there. And above all, be a good role model for both your child and the other player.

The human mind is a complex entity, to say the least. In the long evolution of our brains and our coping mechanisms, we needed something that could sense danger immediately and give us an instantaneous response to possible life-terminating threats. The part of the brain that does this is a little thing called the amygdala, which we share with pythons. When danger of any sort enters our domain, the thalamus gets the sensory information and immediately routes it over to the amygdala. The amygdala puts the body on red alert if it senses danger of any sort. The thalamus also sends its sensory news to the hippocampus, which is where we have our various memory stations.

This is where we classify information to see where it will go next. So what if the information coming in has no reference point for classification? Or if the reference point is recognized as potentially damaging? The amygdala rules.

The emotions of anxiety and fear take over. The frontal lobe of the brain, the last to develop both evolutionarily and in the maturation of individual humans, where rationality and reason rule, has no chance to step in and calm things down. In brief, this is why teachers give an upset student a ‘time out.’ When a child at a chess tournament is in emotional turmoil, it is pointless to expect rational responses. I recently came across a great quote: “What was arrived at through emotion cannot be dispelled by reason.” Wash the little face, give a drink of water, a hug, and some reassuring words and deal with things later. Quite frankly, there are times that coaches and parents should also take a time out.

So now let us look at some of the child-induced triggers to these emotional states. I should make it clear that I am here addressing issues that apply primarily to children at the elementary school level. By the time the students are playing in the Junior High and High School tournaments, they are often seasoned warriors of the mind, their brains have matured a bit more, and the issues I am addressing here have fallen largely by the wayside.

We all know that there are tens of thousands of patterns in chess. We spend countless hours in helping our students learn these patterns as they apply to openings, middle games, and endings. We work on tactical patterns, pawn structure patterns, checkmate patterns and others till we are blue in the face.

What many of us in the coaching field either ignore or give short shrift to are the all-important patterns of behavior that young children can and will engage in as the pressures of tournament play loom. Some of these patterns are good for the children, some are neutral, and some are just flat-out inappropriate and damaging.

Identifying and dealing with these inappropriate and damaging patterns is as important in preparing children for tournament play as the more technical and creative chess ideas we all strive to impart. Letting them know ahead of time about these patterns (also a pattern) can help tremendously.

These patterns are as knowable as the patterns on the chessboard, and for the sake of our children’s wellbeing, we should learn them and find ways to help the children in our care deal with them in healthy and appropriate ways. Children are infinitely creative in finding specific nuances to these patterns, but in spite of all their creative interpretations, the basic forms are still recognizable.

What are some of the patterns that are likely to cause stress and discomfort in the young children? There are two broad categories: what children do to each other and what they do to themselves. Let me just quickly enumerate some that I have seen over the years, and then we will cover how to deal with them.

Intimidating or obnoxious behavior prior to the game.

I once had a nice gentle little boy sit across from his opponent with the usual butterflies in the stomach before the first game at a national tournament. His opponent—these are second graders— immediately started firing out math questions. “I bet you don’t know the square root of 144. You probably don’t even know what 25 times 50 is.” He kept peppering my poor bewildered little one with this line of mathspeak until tears came into his eyes. These were not really questions. They were intimidating accusations of deplorable stupidity on the part of my poor boy. It worked. He refused to even play the game.

I’m the state champion. You don’t have a chance in this game. I beat everybody and I’m going to beat you too.

My rating is 300 points higher than yours. I hope you don’t cry when you lose.

Intimidating, obnoxious behavior during the game.

Standing up and smashing pieces down on every move.

Kicking the opponent under the table.

Obnoxious noises during the game.

Constantly asking for a draw from a losing position.

Telling the opponent to hurry up on every move (or any move).

–  –  –

Once one of my little third grade girls was playing a very large seventh grade boy at a tournament. The boy didn’t just talk to her, he was whispering outrageously vulgar things to her.

Breaking the rules.

One of the most difficult to deal with, which I will cover in detail in a moment, is the violation of the touch move rule. A child touches a piece, or even worse, actually picks it up, then denies ever having contact with it. Naturally the offender gets away with this more often than not. The injustice of this can completely unravel an unprepared student.

Claiming a checkmate when it is only check.

Claiming stalemate when there are other pieces that can move.

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