Sports Psychology and "The Mental Edge"

Lately I've taken an interest in sports psychology. I believe that this is a subject that is overlooked by too many chess players. I feel that several of my students could instantly become a few hundred rating points stronger if they change some psychological weaknesses, such as their confidence level. Many chess players might ignore sports psychology with the attitude that it only relates to baseball, tennis, and golf. Others might think that sports psychology is not a serious field at all and it deserves respect from no one. I believe that methods used by sports psychologists are very useful, and completely related to chess. Any serious chess player and coach should become familiar with sports psychology and try to read as much material about it as possible.

To begin my self-education in the field, I read the book "The Mental Edge" by Kenneth Baum. According to the reviews on Amazon.com, this book seems to be one of the most popular. I found it so interesting that I read it in less than a day. The author discusses many techniques that world class athletes use to improve their performance. I am very impressed by how many sports teams and athletes use these methods. It seems that any credible sports team or organization invests a lot of time and money into sports psychology. I also find it interesting that so much neuroscience research supports the techniques that sports psychologists use. Credible universities such as Harvard have conducted significant amounts of research in this field.

This book teaches the reader several specific methods to improve their athletic performance. One of the methods is visualization. I learned from this book that by visualizing yourself participating in an activity, you are creating physical activity in the nerves involved in that activity. So if you visualize yourself serving a tennis ball, there will be physical activity in the muscles of your serving arm. This might not apply to chess 100%, but I still find it to be very interesting. This book also lists many methods to develop confidence in one's own ability (this is probably the most useful area to chess players). One very good method that I like is what the author describes as a "History Search". This involves recalling a specfic successful memory in the sport you are performing in, and visualizing it in great detail to build confidence. A chess player can employ this method by visualizing in detail a time where he beat someone much higher rated to win a prize. It is key that the the visualization be done in great detail. You must recall as many details as possible. Things such as what the tournament hall looked like, smelled like, how cold it was, how you felt after you won, who congratulated you, and anything else that makes the memory as real as possible is very important for this excercise to work.I like the idea of using this method, and also quickly reviewing the game before you play your tournament round. If you have a laptop, you can play through this game very quickly with a program like Chessbase or Chessmaster.

I am writing this blog entry mainly to encourage the readers to have an open-mind and give sports psychology a chance. I know that many readers might think of sports psychology as a "quasi-science" that is not worth paying attention to. I at one point had a similar attitude.
By reading books like "The Mental Edge", I think chess players will develop techniques to play to their full potential, and I think this should be the goal of any serious chess player. Almost all of the techniques used by athletes can somehow be applied to chess.

From studying sports psychology I am getting ideas that will make me a more versatile coach, but I also look forward to using the methods to improve my own chess playing. After reading this book I plan on reading a few more sports psychology books. I will be a very unique chess master in that I will be more knowledgable in this field than most other chess players. I think studying these books will help many chess players, including myself, a lot more than learning more openings, endgames, and tactics. Sports psychology is the factor that could take many chess players to the next level.