Performance Lessons From The Wild World of Elite Chess


ESPN recently published a story exploring how chess masters often lose 10-15 pounds during a week-long tournament. According to scientists, this is related to the human stress response. During tournaments—which can last 5 to 10 days—it is not uncommon for competitors to experience elevated heart-rates, high-blood pressure, obsessive thinking, emotional and physiological anxiety, loss of appetite, crippling doubt, and insomnia.  

As a result, elite chess players are starting to train their bodies as if they were elite athletes. Chess players are adopting these intense fitness regimens, the story explains, so that they can tire themselves out in order to fall asleep at night despite obsessive thinking and doubt; and also to gain the stamina required to stay alert during the ongoing distress of a tournament. 

As I was reading the story I couldn’t help but think it encapsulates so many of the themes that Steve and I touch on in our books and that we’ve been discussing in the peak performance community. 

Less silos; more integration: performance is performanceWhether you are using your body or your brain, the core tenets of playing well—things like getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, developing specific fitness for your environment, priming for success, nutrition, and recovery—are the same. It’s no accident that in Peak Performance we tell the story of chessmaster Josh Waitzkin to show how stress + rest = growth. It’s crystal clear that this stuff applies far beyond the athletic playing field. The time-tested principles of lasting performance are fairly universal—in the academic literature, in practice, and throughout history.

Toughness has nothing to do with pushups or your max bench-press. Rather, it is the ability to experience distress, lean in and pay close attention, and then take an action that aligns with your core values. Yes, football and basketball require this. But so does playing chess or running a company.

Training to be a champion isn’t good or bad: it just isThe chessmasters described in the ESPN story are all super passionate. Without their intense drive and singular focus, they wouldn’t be the best in the world. But this doesn’t come without costs. The level of stress, anxiety, and obsessiveness associated with chess, per the article at least, might be deemed pathological if it wasn’t pointed at something that society celebrates as productive. Of course, this isn’t unique to chess. As we write in The Passion Paradox, doing just about anything at a truly elite level is, by definition, abnormal. If it were normal everyone would be doing it and it wouldn’t be elite. This is true whether you are training to make an Olympic team or founding a company.

This isn’t good or bad: it just is. Yet too many people celebrate this kind of heroic drive without ever considering its pitfalls and traps. Anyone who is wired to really go for something—and who perhaps has a tendency to obsess over it—would be wise to at least consider cognitive behavioral therapy. There is a dark side to unrelenting drive that we don’t like to talk about precisely because it is dark. And yet not talking about it does a disservice to everyone.

Not mind-body connection; mind-body system“Physical fitness and brain performance are tied together, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that grandmasters are out there trying to look like soccer players,” grandmaster Maurice Ashley tells ESPN. The brain is the body and the body is the brain. More and more people are coming to realize that it is impossible and conceptually dishonest to separate the two. If you want to train what people think of as the mind you need to train the body. If you want to train what people think of as the body you need to train the mind. Rather than separate these two, it’d be wise to shift the paradigm for elite performance—in anything, really—to one that recognizes an entire mind-body system. Since I’ve been writing as a pro I’ve always prioritized a part of my job that sometimes seems awkward to others: exercise. 

The ESPN story on the new generation of chessmasters, written by Aishwarya Kumar, is here. I highly recommend you check it out, especially against the backdrop of the themes discussed above. 

— Brad

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