How to deal with stress during the game?

By | 16 novembre 2017

Whatever its origins, stress is part of the chess game and clearly inevitable in our everyday lives. When it becomes chronic, anxiety can slow down your memory functions, weaken your game and make you underperform.

Releasing the pressure is a real but necessary challenge to overcome in order to finally play at your optimal level. Don’t worry anymore! I invite you to discover how stress and chess can peacefully co-exist during a game.

How does stress affect performance?

Numerous studies have demonstrated the negative effects of stress on our brains. From memory difficulties to its paralyzing effects, ongoing tension prevents you from thinking clearly and thus negatively affects your chess.

Some people will argue positive and moderate pressure can be beneficial on the short term, which I also agree with to some extent, because giving myself time constraints helps me focus and meet my deadlines every day. But let’s be clear on that point, it only works in small doses and under surveillance.

Unfortunately, our way of living imposes on us a multitude of stressful situations from which it is sometimes very difficult to escape and that cannot be controlled.

Lowering your stress in everyday life

Before any attempt to fight your stress over the board, it is important to understand that the process needs to be done in everyday life as well. If you feel overwhelmed by your work for instance, chances are negatives thoughts will more than often come into play.

To prevent you from being disturbed, many solutions exist. The only problem is that people don’t use them. Let me explain.

According to the American Psychological Association, the least effective stress-relief strategies are: gambling, shopping, smoking, drinking, eating, playing videos games, surfing the internet and watching TV or movies for more than two hours.[i]

Yet, that’s exactly what most of us generally do to destress, which leads to high levels of stress that do not decrease. (I personally have a huge soft spot for the Internet, what about you?)

Contrary to the above methods, here under are some of the most powerful ideas to release pressure in your everyday life:

  • Laughing: find your laughing buddy and let go of the stress. It works!
  • Get a massage: Who doesn’t like massages? I think there is nothing more to say here…
  • Practice some Yoga: Yoga being a form of stretching combined to breathing techniques, it’s a good solution after a stressful day. I have summarized its main benefits chess in a previous article if you are interested.
  • Sleep and nap: No need to insist on the importance of sleep. If you have any trouble with it, I invite you to have a look at my article on the subject.
  • Read: A good book is also a great way to escape.
  • Listen to music: everyone remembers at least one time when a good new song made you feel relaxed and at peace. Some melodies are greater than others as shown by a study that pointed out what the 10 best songs would be for that purpose. Enjoy!
  • Exercising: it doesn’t matter how much and what, just a few minutes here and there are already helpful. But if you want sport to sustain your chess development as best, you can find more info right here.

The good news is that you know what to do to feel more relaxed. Bad news is you can’t really use these techniques while playing.

I will come back to that point later on.

Origins of stress while playing

If you manage to evacuate stress from every day life, the second step is to identify what makes you worry when you are maneuvering your pieces. There are different reasons but I summarized 4 of the most common ones.

  • The clock: The clock is certainly the main trigger of stress when it comes to chess. I just wrote on the subject I hope it will help some of you!
  • Stronger opponent: Psychologically, most of us end up feeling uncomfortable while facing a better opponent. Don’t judge yourself as this is normal behavior.
  • Stakes are high: The significance and role of stress are even greater in competition. If you compete for a prize or are looking for a norm, tensions will probably appear.
  • Your position deteriorates: When you feel you lose control of the position. Unfortunately, we don’t all have the chance to be as resilient as Sergey Karjakin.

4 techniques to deal with stress during the game

Some of you may wonder why I listed the sources of stress during a game? Simply because identifying the origins of your stress while playing will actually help you deal with it more efficiently.

I suggest you use your next game to detect what blocks you the most and use one of these methods to stay as cool as possible. By doing one at a time, you can keep most of your focus for your chess game instead of thinking about all the tools you have to destress.

Take some real breaks

In a previous article, I pointed out how powerful it is to take some breaks during your game. To recap, here are the three efficient breaking options you can use:

  • Take a walk: exercise would actually be perfect, but I guess you won’t work out in the middle of the game so walking will fit perfectly. Physical activity reorganizes the brain so that its response to stress is reduced and anxiety is less likely to interfere with normal brain function.
  • Meditate: I have explained all the benefits in this article. Meditation is one of the best ways to reload.
  • Chat with a friend: if it is allowed in another room of course, provided you don’t talk about chess.

Handle the clock

The chess clock doesn’t necessarily need to be an enemy. I recently posted these 7 tips to efficiently deal with time trouble. Good luck!

Practice deep breathing

A few seconds of deep breathing can help alleviate your stress. The benefits are surprisingly numerous even though the technique might seem very simple.

Here is how to proceed quickly:

  • Breathe in slowly through the nose and slowly count to 5.
  • Hold that breath gently and count to 3.
  • Breathe out slowly through the mouth and slowly count to 5.

Repeat this as many times as necessary to start feeling calm and more present.

It’s tea time!

As explained in my article about effects of drinks while playing, tea can be a good booster while playing and it seems it can also lower your stress.

This scientific experiment demonstrated that black tea can reduce cortisol by 47%.

To give you an overview of the experiment, 2 groups of 75 volunteers were exposed to stressful tasks. Beforehand, one group was given 4 cups of black tea every day over a period of six weeks while the other group was drinking a placebo.

One last trick

I hope you have a more complete view of how you can handle stress; either for personal purposes or to stay stress-free during your chess game. If despite all of these suggestions, you are not reassured, I give you this one last trick I found and which seems to be a life changer according to this article.

It’s called the “10 years test.” All you have to do is ask these 3 simple questions:

Will this matter in 10 days?

Will this matter in 10 months?

Will this matter in 10 years?

Every time the author does this, he finds that the answer to the last question is almost always “no.” And that changes everything. If the “this” is your chess game, you will put it in context and see that most of the time; the result is at worse a defeat, but also a good way to learn more with the post-analysis.

Now that you have all the tools you need, don’t forget to stay cool next time you play.



[i] Mc Gonigal, K. (2012) . The Willpower Instinct. New York, The United States of America. Penguin Group.