Don't fight your emotions, let them run and use them.
Perhaps the most decisive element of my game was the way my style on the board was completely in synch with my personality as a child. I was unhindered by internal conflict—a state of being that I have come to see as fundamental to the learning process.
In performance training, first we learn to flow with whatever comes. Then we learn to use whatever comes to our advantage. Finally, we learn to be completely self-sufficient and create our own earthquakes, so our mental process feeds itself explosive inspirations without the need for outside stimulus.
In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre. In competition, the dynamic is often painfully transparent. If one player is serenely present while the other is being ripped apart by internal issues, the outcome is already clear. [...]
Those who excel are those who maximize each moment’s creative potential—for these masters of living, presence to the day-to-day learning process is akin to that purity of focus others dream of achieving in rare climactic moments when everything is on the line.
Instead of denying my emotional reality under fire, I had to learn how to sit with it, use it, channel it into a heightened state of intensity. Like the earthquake and the broken hand, I had to turn my emotions to my advantage.
The former World Chess Champion Tigran Petrosian was known by his rivals to have a peculiar way of handling this issue. When he was playing long matches that lasted over the course of weeks or even months, he would begin each day by waking up and sitting quietly in his room for a period of introspection. His goal was to observe his mood down to the finest nuance. Was he feeling nostalgic, energetic, cautious, dreary, impassioned, inspired, confident, insecure? His next step was to build his game plan around his mood. If he was feeling cautious, quiet, not overwhelmingly confident, he tended to choose an opening that took fewer risks and led to a position that harmonized with his disposition. If feeling energized, aggressive, exceedingly confident, he would pick an opening that allowed him to express himself in a more creative vein. There were countless subtle variations of mood and of opening. Instead of imposing an artificial structure on his match strategy, Petrosian tried to be as true to himself as possible on a moment-to-moment basis. He believed that if his mood and the chess position were in synch, he would be most inclined to play with the greatest inspiration.
Don't fight who you are, let your true personality shine.
There will inevitably be times when we need to try new ideas, release our current knowledge to take in new information—but it is critical to integrate this new information in a manner that does not violate who we are.
I don’t have much of a natural poker face. I’m an outgoing guy and tend to wear my heart on my sleeve. Instead of trying to change my personality, I learned how to use it to my advantage. While some chess players spend a lot of energy maintaining a stony front, I let opponents read my facial expressions as I moved through thought processes. My goal was to use my natural personality to dictate the tone of the struggle. Just how a poker player might hum a tune to put it in the head of an opponent (thereby “getting in his head”), I would control the psychology of the game by unmasking myself. If I sat up high in my chair in a natural display of confidence, my opponent might wonder if I was covering something up. Was this reverse psychology? Maybe reverse reverse psychology. Maybe reverse reverse reverse psychology? In addition to the moves I made on the board, I was posing another set of conundrums for an opponent to ponder.
In the coming months, as I became more attuned to the qualitative fluctuations of my thought processes, I found that if a think of mine went over fourteen minutes, it would often become repetitive and imprecise. After noticing this pattern, I learned to monitor the efficiency of my thinking. If it started to falter, I would release everything for a moment, recover, and then come back with a fresh slate. Now when faced with difficult chess positions, I could think for thirty or forty minutes at a very high level, because my concentration was fueled by little breathers.
Have grit and persevere.
The vast majority of motivated people, young and old, make terrible mistakes in their approach to learning. They fall frustrated by the wayside while those on the road to success keep steady on their paths.
[Another player] would also get up from the board at tournaments and talk about the position in Russian with his coach, a famous Grandmaster. There were complaints, but little was done to stop the cheating. No one could prove what was discussed because of the language barrier, and the truth is that it didn’t even matter. While valuable chess ideas might have been exchanged, the psychological effect was much more critical. Opponents felt helpless and wronged—they took on the mentality of victim and so half the battle was already lost.
Discover who you are and what your body is capable of through measurement
The physical conditioners at LGE taught me to do cardiovascular interval training on a stationary bike that had a heart monitor. I would ride a bike keeping my RPMs over 100, at a resistance level that made my heart rate go to 170 beats per minute after ten minutes of exertion. Then I would lower the resistance level of the bike and go easy for a minute—my heart rate would return to 144 or so. Then I would sprint again, at a very high level of resistance, and my heart rate would reach 170 again after a minute. Next I would go easy for another minute before sprinting again, and so on. My body and mind were undulating between hard work and release. The recovery time of my heart got progressively shorter as I continued to train this way. As I got into better condition, it took more work to raise my heart rate, and less time to lower my heart rate during rest: soon my rest intervals were only forty-five seconds and my sprint times longer. What is fascinating about this method of physical conditioning is that after just a few weeks I noticed a tangible difference in my ability to relax and recover between arduous thought processes in a chess game. [...]
For example, during weight workouts, the LGE guys taught me to precisely monitor how much time I leave between sets, so that my muscles have ample time to recover, but are still pushed to improve their recovery time. When I began this form of interval training, if I was doing 3 sets of 15 repetitions of a bench press, I would leave exactly 45 seconds between sets. If I was doing 3 sets of 12 repetitions with heavier weights, I would need 50 seconds between sets, if my sets were 10 reps I would take 55 seconds, and if I was lifting heavy weights, at 3 sets of 8 reps, I would take one minute between reps. This is a good baseline for an average athlete to work with.
If you are interested in really improving as a performer, I would suggest incorporating the rhythm of stress and recovery into all aspects of your life. Truth be told, this is what my entire approach to learning is based on—breaking down the artificial barriers between our diverse life experiences so all moments become enriched by a sense of interconnectedness. So, if you are reading a book and lose focus, put the book down, take some deep breaths, and pick it up again with a fresh eye.
I had learned from Jack Groppel at LGE to eat five almonds every forty-five minutes during a long chess game, to stay in a steady state of alertness and strength.
Be present during practice and seemingly insignificant moments
Too many of us live without fully engaging our minds, waiting for that moment when our real lives begin. Years pass in boredom, but that is okay because when our true love comes around, or we discover our real calling, we will begin. Of course the sad truth is that if we are not present to the moment, our true love could come and go and we wouldn’t even notice.
Change yourself, not the world
To walk a thorny road, we may cover its every inch with leather or we can make sandals.
I had an issue to work on and Frank [a dirty fighter] would be the ideal training partner. The first step I had to make was to recognize that the problem was mine, not Frank’s. There will always be creeps in the world, and I had to learn how to deal with them with a cool head. Getting pissed off would get me nowhere in life.