Disclaimer: I am no doctor, nor do I want to play one on the internet. I am just telling you what has worked for me. If you have serious issues with Stress, then please visit a doctor!
Chess games and tournaments can be extremely stressful.
You have to sit tight and think for hours. Every moment is intense because you could make a mistake that costs you the game.
Especially in an OTB tournament, the stress builds up day by day. This experience can go over 7, 9, or even 11 days straight! Nearly 2 weeks of constant adrenaline, cortisone, fear, and stress. You could argue Chess is an extreme Sport.
If you have no way to relieve that stress, you will be overwhelmed by it by the end of the tournament.
That is why I came up with a simple routine to let go of stress. The steps are:
- Letting go of the previous games
- Relaxation of your body (Sport + Nutrition)
- Relaxation of your mind (free time away from Chess)
Why Do We Build Up Stress?
Stress is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.” Thanks google!
A chess game is definitely mentally and emotionally demanding.
Unless you are a Zen Master and do not care at all about the result, you will feel the effects of stress during a tournament game. After all, you want to do well.
Our body copes with the stress by releasing hormones such as Adrenaline and Cortisol. These hormones have helped us survive in the past, but are not exactly suited for chess games.
Short term we are more alert. So having an adrenaline rush when playing a bullet game might be a good thing. But for a Classical OTB game, it is far from optimal.
I measure my heart frequency and other data for over 10 months now. It is incredible to see how much the stress levels of a tournament influence my:
- Heart rate (also at night)
- Mental AND physical readiness
My resting heart rate is around 50 normally. During tournaments, it can go up to 60 or 65. This shows that the stress hormones are not simply going away by themselves.
Having a higher resting heart rate means worse sleep and thus worse recovery.
My Oura Ring is usually very unhappy with me during tournaments. The sleep score can drop from an average of 85 to 70. So does the Readiness score.
And it is not only my ring telling me this. I do feel stressed and less energetic during longer tournaments.
But there are some things that have helped me relieve stress hormones during the tournament. Here is what I usually do after a tournament game to recover as quickly as possible.
1) Letting Go Of Previous Games
One reason the stress keeps building up is that we are living in the past, present, and future.
This simply means you are thinking about past games (most likely stupid mistakes), your current game, and results that could happen in the future (either imagining great or horrible things).
I have had, and still have, a hard time to stop thinking about past games.
If I find a way to “close” a game, it is much more likely I am not thinking about it in the coming days.
Here is how I do it.
The 10-Minute Rule
I am a very emotional player. So it happens that I am really upset after a stupid blunder. Some time ago I would let the frustration get to me.
There is no way of letting some of it go during the game. And after the game, I would just be extremely upset, but not let it out. This resulted in full evenings where I would barely talk to anybody.
Surprisingly my girlfriend did not leave me despite of many such evenings (thanks Amore).
I would maybe turn on a TV show and watch it until deep into the night when I would finally fall asleep. This method has not brought me much success.
Unless you call saving money for the dinner I regularly skipped a success…
This is why I started the 10 Minute rule with the help of my Sport Psychologist. It was fun to hear that GM Sam Shankland has adopted a very similar rule for himself.
The rule is very easy: for 10 Minutes after any game, I am allowed to be as upset as I want to be.
If this is the case, I usually go somewhere I am alone and start to shout all the frustration out of my body.
I occasionally even cry (yes men also cry and it is totally OK to do so) or throw something on the floor (usually bottles or pens).
The twist of it is that after these 10 Minutes, I have to be “a normal person” again.
My loved ones do know that I need these 10 Minutes after a game and leave me alone. But they also expect me to be OK after the 10 Minutes.
So, instead of being a little upset all the time, I am as upset as possible for a short time and let it go.
Same Rule For Wins
It might surprise some of you, but I have the same rule for wins. If a tournament is still ongoing, big wins can also drain energy. You should not be a machine and not feel good anymore.
But celebrating too much if the tournament is still ongoing is also not good. So you can feel like the King of the World for these 10 Minutes.
You can also brag to any person you want (at your own risk if the relationship is destroyed then…).
Remind yourself that after the 10 Minutes, you are still the same person and tomorrow is another fight ahead.
Analyse The Game Shortly
Now that you are mentally more or less stable, you can shortly analyze your game.
In case the game was normal and you do not need your 10 Minutes, you can directly go to this step.
I will spare you from describing this process once more. If you do not know how to do it yet, then just read this article.
Annotating the game with my own words helps me to close it in a way. Writing down things is generally a good idea to get rid of thoughts.
As I know that I will then continue to analyse my games at home, I have the mental freedom to stop thinking about the game.
2) Relax Your Body
Now that your mind is taken care of for the moment, it is time to cure your body. After a long game, your body needs two things:
- Good nutrition
One of my best tournaments was the Cattolica Open 2020 which I won with 8/9 (I started with 7/7!).
I attribute a good part of my success to my routine AFTER every game. As soon as I finished my short annotation, I put on sports clothes and went for a short run along the beach (15min).
Even though I had superb results, the games were far from clear. This means I felt stressed after every game. These were big fights and could have gone either way.
With every round, I also felt a bit more stressed to “ruin my 100% score”.
It was a lucky coincidence that I had set only one goal for the tournament: to stick to my post-game routine.
So why is running so good for stress relief? Because Sport:
- Lowers stress hormones
- Releases Endorphins (natural good feel hormones)
- Improves your Sleep
Quite a lot of benefits for a 15 min run! You can add the benefits of being outside in the fresh air and the beauty of jogging along the Beach and it should be a real no-brainer!
I know that it is not possible to jog along the beach at every tournament. For that purpose, I always travel with my Yoga Mat. This allows me to do a short workout in my room if I have no alternatives.
Make sure to stick to that routine no matter what (it only takes 7-15 minutes!) and you will already see a big improvement in stress relief.
This is a theme I could research and write about for hours and days. Since I started working with a Nutritionist I have a totally different body feeling and overall well-being.
I will certainly go into more details another time, let me give you just the most important things for now:
- Do not over-eat in the evening:
- If your stomach needs to work at night, your sleep will be impacted.
- Avoid Alcohol:
- Alcohol seriously impacts your sleep quality. It might ease your nerves for a moment, but you will pay with worse sleep and recovery
- Eat as early as possible:
- Give your stomach time to digest before going to sleep. It will thank you by shutting up at night and letting you sleep.
- Be on the safe side:
- The night before an important game is not made for testing out new foods. Stick to what you know.
Great meals in the evening can include:
- Chicken or Fish (preferably no red meat even if it is really tasty…)
- Grilled vegetables
If you are intrigued by it I can not encourage you enough to go talk to a specialist. Nutrition has really changed my life. More detailed advice is only sensible if someone knows your specifics!
3) Relax Your Mind
I imagine this will be the easiest step for most of you. For me, it is actually the contrary! Especially in closed tournaments.
Why? Because I can already start to prepare for the next game as soon as I finish the one before. But this leaves me without relaxation time, which increases the stress during the tournament significantly.
That is why after the Sport and a suitable dinner, you should take some time to relax and get your mind off chess (I also try to do it, I swear!).
Go catch (a nonalcoholic) drink with your friends. Watch your favorite Sport on TV. Or just have a nice conversation with a loved one.
Not only will your stress levels go down, but you will also re-energize through these activities.
Simply do something that makes you feel good without constantly stressing about your next game.
You will have enough time the next morning to stress about what to play. I bet you can find better solutions before and during the game with less stress and more energy!
I don’t want to miss this opportunity to recommend you two activities that have improved the quality of my life tremendously:
- Writing Diary
As a type-A personality, I was never really fond of the idea of just sitting and doing nothing… But meditation not only grounds me every day but also helps me relieve stress and focus better.
The easiest way to start with Meditation is via Headspace. They offer guided Meditations that are very easy to follow. You will learn what meditation is about and how it can help you.
You can also just sit down for 10 Minutes and focus on your breath. But I needed guidance in order to stick to it for 10 Minutes.
Do not expect to be “great” at it from the get-go. Actually, there is no “good” or “bad”. The most important thing is taking the time and being kind to yourself.
I usually do a 10 Minutes Meditation first thing in the morning. This wires my brain right for the day. If I don’t do it for a period I will feel considerably more stressed (even off tournaments) and less happy.
Just give it a shot and thank me later :-).
Writing a diary is a form of meditation for me. Having my thoughts on paper helps me order them.
Many fears and problems can feel overwhelming in your head. If they are down on paper, suddenly they seem so unimportant or easy to solve.
Sadly, I have not yet managed to have a daily routine for writing a diary. But if I am doing it for 1 week straight I already feel a huge difference.
I am much less reactive and stressed.
The great thing about writing a diary is that you only need a pen and a piece of paper. 90% of the things I write down I never look at again. The fact of writing them down already does the job for me.
Chess is a stressful Sport. If we do not do anything special, the stress will build up with every day of a tournament.
That is why it is very important to know what you can do to reduce the stress levels in between two games.
- Let go of previous games – use the 10 Minute rule to get the frustration out, then re-focus on the here and now.
- Relax your body – use the positive effect of Sport to reduce stress hormones; give your body the right fuel
- Relax your mind – before thinking about the next game, give your mind some free space.
I went to the limits before I started to understand the importance of stress reduction. I remember a tournament in 2016 when I had to take medicines in order to calm down and sleep.
Don’t let it get that far. Take care of yourself!
Note that people that use the wrong “Quantity first” approach are more prone to be stressed.
Read my article on Quality, not Quantity if you want to reduce stress in training and get better results.
As always, I am looking forward to your feedback.
I hope this article helps you reduce stress during tournaments. And maybe not only during tournaments but also in daily life.