Laura chessboard_oncourt October 2014

Are Sports and Chess Mutually Exclusive?

By Laura Doman

Decisions, decisions. Does my child play in the upcoming scholastic chess tournament or with the rest of the softball team in the next scheduled game? Kids wonder how they can successfully compete in both sports and chess without missing critical games, letting down their teammates, or sacrificing the opportunity to improve their skills. Parents wonder how they can fit everything into their schedules—and get the kids where they need to be on time.

Are sports activities and chess tournaments mutually exclusive? Both are all too often scheduled for the same day and usually at locations at a fair distance from one another. Kids are challenged, as they move into older age brackets and more competitive leagues, to spend more and more time practicing a particular skill and less time with other interests. How does one balance these demands between chess and sports, not to mention family, school, community, and other interests?

Many kids will discover that they have to let go, one by one, of other sports or pastimes as they grow more proficient or more interested in a particular activity. Athletic coaches schedule additional practices during the week, chess coaches recommend daily practice and/or game review, and parents – well, parents say (loudly), “Enough already!” It’s one thing for a young child to play at different activities every day. Kids under eight years old can – and are encouraged – to explore many areas of interest at once, because each has only a light or small time commitment. Not so for the more serious chess player, athlete, musician, or artist.

So does that mean that a child has to choose between chess and another favorite activity? Not necessarily. Chess is portable and can be practiced or played anytime and anyplace. Unlike a sport, it does not require a fixed schedule or location, especially where practice is involved. It can fit around other schedules and, unlike athletic competitions, allows for players to take an excused absence called a “bye” for a specified length of time during a tournament. Unlike  athletic competitions, chess tournaments do not dominate a particular season, in which most weekends and/or weeknights are totally devoted to the sport. Scholastic tournaments are well-spaced during the school year, with perhaps five major competitions scheduled over an eight month period. Furthermore, there is no requirement for a chess kid to play at every possible tournament.  While the more serious players will compete as often as possible, most kids choose to play whenever a tournament best fits into their overall family schedule.

Chess, in fact, can complement and boost the skills used in a sport or artistic pursuit. Chess kids learn perseverance, self-discipline, patience, and strategic thinking, all of which translate beautifully to school and outside activities. It provides mental exercise, which is a key component of success in other areas, too. For one example, read FM Alisa Melekhina’s story, which appears in the September 2014 issue of Chess Life, the national magazine of the US Chess Federation (USCF). In addition to being a chess champion, Alisa is also an accomplished, classically-trained ballerina. In her article, Alisa writes how she has pursued both chess and ballet since she was six years old. She sees each as an art form, with chess as a discipline of the mind and ballet as a discipline of the body. If you have a USCF membership, you can access her article online at Chess Life magazine is also mailed directly to its members.

It’s been said that “chess is the art of sitting on the edge of your seat for hours on end and staying perfectly calm.” Chess indeed takes some measure of physical exertion, especially in moments of tension. While it’s an excellent training ground for students taking long exams (like the SAT or ACT), chess can also teach an athlete to understand the razor edge between prepared readiness to action and the quick but decisive physical move itself. The athlete learns from chess experience that the move doesn’t spring from itself without a concrete, intentional result in mind. Before the decisive physical movement, the athlete (in an ideal situation) has decided on a strategy and maneuvered his opponent into place such that he has set himself up to succeed. He watches for his opponent to make a mistake or move into a weak position, and then he strikes to capitalize on his strategy.

Other chess disciplines, including mental toughness, translate readily into athletics. Allow me to use my 17 year old son Josh as an example. A fervent chess player in elementary school, Josh segued into competitive tennis in middle school. Now a high school varsity singles player who also competes regionally and nationally, Josh has brought the skills he developed from chess competitions into his tennis tournaments. As with most sports, mental discipline in tennis is as critical to a player’s success as sheer physical talent. As a parent in the stands, I’ve seen tennis players, even in high school, crumble in visible frustration when they lose a game point. Verbally berating themselves, losing their “game face,” and even sometimes throwing their racquets to the ground, they telegraph to their opponents and all who are watching that they are defeating themselves before the match is over. As a result, their opponents gain confidence and often the upper hand in the game, as well.

In contrast to those with a weak mental game, the chess-trained player knows to keep his emotions in check and his focus on the game at hand, and seeks to recover quickly from his mistakes while seeing the possibility of victory with every stroke. He projects a “poker face” throughout the competition and continually encourages himself to stay strong. To his advantage, he appears to the onlooker to be the more confident (and thus more intimidating) player.

The chess-trained athlete also knows to think strategically. He continually evaluates his opponent, observing the other’s game as he concentrates on his own. He thinks ahead to develop a plan of attack while also ensuring that his defensive position and moves are solid. Throughout the match, he assesses his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and crafts a strategy to use them to his own advantage. The chess player inside the athlete also knows how to adjust his strategy while in play. He will not always win, but at least he will know that he played a smart game to the best of his ability.

The athlete with a chess mind also realizes that the aftermath of a sports competition should be the same as with a chess match. He knows the importance of reviewing his last game and  analyzing his weaknesses, with the intentions of turning them into strengths. He also notes his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, with a plan on how to improve his play against him when they meet again in the future.

One of my proudest moments as both a chess and a tennis mom came several years ago when Josh was playing tennis doubles with another boy who was an equally strong chess player. I was standing on the sidelines near where their coaches were watching, so that I could hear their comments. It was apparent that the boys were playing well, deliberately running their opponents around and hitting some terrific winning shots. It was a smartly played match and I had to smile when I saw one coach shake his head and say to the other, “Unbelievable.  I feel like I’m watching a chess match out there!” Now that’s not something you hear every day in tennis.

To the original questions:  Are chess and sports mutually exclusive? Decidedly not! If anything, they complement one another and together help to develop a child into a well-rounded individual mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Laura Chess and Tennis October 2014

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