Some of the best tips young chess players can receive have nothing to do with the rules or strategies of chess; they deal with handling the emotions of chess. As educators and parents, helping children develop these skills is a critical part of chess (and life) development. In this article, we discuss some of the knowledge and tips we’ve acquired over many years playing and teaching chess, to help you and the children you teach or parent have more fun and less stress.
First, a caveat. We’re not professional counselors. If you think the level of negative emotions a child is experiencing goes beyond normal stress or age-appropriate concerns, please reach out to a professional. We all deal with stress, success, and defeat differently and as caregivers we sometimes aren’t the best counselors – there is no shame in bringing in an expert.
With that caveat in mind, in this article we’ll cover some possible sources of chess-related emotions for children and how parents, caregivers, coaches, and educators can provide support.
Take an age-appropriate perspective
If a child is at an introductory level or only playing informally there will be fewer things to talk about in this area. For those students, the most important things to learn are ways to win and lose graciously, and good sportsmanship in general.
But for elementary-aged children playing competitively, chess-related emotions can be a very big issue. I know this through personal experience, both teaching and playing. This is great news though, because it means playing chess is an excellent way for children to develop skills that will help them deal with feelings and situations they’ll experience throughout their lives.
Chess can be emotion-laden and personal
It’s very easy to think of chess as game based on logic and strategy, devoid of emotion. In reality, it is anything but, especially when played competitively. I have many chess tournament-related memories from my youth. Many are very good; some are kind of painful. Some happened to me directly, some I experienced as an observer, watching other children and their parents or coaches dealing with stress (or, unfortunately, sometimes inflicting it). Speaking from experience as both a player and teacher, tears can come almost as easily as celebrations at an elementary-age chess tournament.
In contrast to many team sports, the emotions of chess can be very direct and personal. Chess is one player against another, with each person solely responsible for every good or bad decision they make. It sounds weighty, and it is, but this is why chess can be a great vehicle for helping children learn to successfully handle a whole host of emotions.
Types of chess-related emotions
For simplicity of discussion, let’s identify and name a few types of chess related emotions that children may experience. Again, these are most relevant for competitive situations, but some may also be relevant to lessons or friendly-play situations as well. All of these have both ‘up’ and ‘down’ versions. That is, children may find them hard to deal with due to either an overload of positive or negative emotions that they may introduce.
- Situational – Stress due to being in a new environment that is full of unknowns and unfamiliar things. This can be any combination of both excitement and trepidation.
- In-game – Mental exertion can cause stress during a long, hard fought game. In-game emotions can also resulting from being in a very bad or very good situation time-wise or piece-wise.
- Post-game – Emotions based on the outcome of the game. Sometimes these emotions can be complicated by downstream things like the impact on a player’s tournament ranking or rating, also when the opponent is a friend.
- Authoritarian-induced – Overly positive or negative emotions caused by, or thrust-upon children by their parents or coaches.
Strategies for dealing with the emotions of chess
Let’s preface this discussion by saying one of the best ways to help children handle their emotions is to talk about them with the child. Just listen and have them explain what they’re thinking. Anyone – coach, parent, or friend – can do this. This obviously doesn’t work in certain situations, such as when the child is in the middle of a game, but it is generally a good rule to follow. With that general guideline in mind, here are some suggestions related to specific situations and cases.
Sometimes just doing…familiar, non-chess activities can take kids to their calm, happy place.
- If a child is overly excited by the newness and energy of a tournament setting, see if you can find a quiet spot to hangout. A lot of tournaments are held in schools or libraries. These places generally have quieter rooms not far away from the action that work well for this.
- For children who are feeling uptight and stressed a quiet place may help, but another alternative is to encourage them to find a group of kids they know (or can meet) that are just doing something fun and unrelated to chess. At every tournament there is at least one area where kids are throwing a football, playing tag, reading, or something similar. Sometimes just doing these familiar, non-chess activities can take kids to their calm, happy place.
One of the best pieces of advice I received from a chess coach as a child was to literally sit on my hands when I felt myself getting too excited or stressed about a game.
- Chess is mentally taxing. A challenging game can manifest itself physically through tight muscles and stressed breathing. Encourage children to come up with a few simple (and non-distracting) arm or leg stretches they can do as they play. Teach them simple deep breathing techniques they can use at the board to fight stressed breathing.
- Help children learn to identify when they’re getting stressed or overly excited in-game and to understand the importance of managing those emotions. A natural response to strong emotions is to kick everything into overdrive, but this will most likely have a negative effect on a player’s abilities. An obvious scenario in which this occurs is when a player is down in time, pieces, or position, but it’s just as likely when a player is up in those things. Excitement about a great move or likely checkmate can cloud a player’s vision just as easily as being stressed. Teach children that managing in-game emotions is one of the best things they can do to improve their play. One of the best pieces of advice I received from a chess coach as a child was to literally sit on my hands when I felt myself getting too excited or stressed about a game. And although I don’t have to actually sit on my hands anymore, that bit of advice generalized well to decision-making as an adolescent and adult. (Thanks, Mrs. McDaniels!)
Teaching children to identify these emotions is somewhat child specific, but there are some obvious indicators that most kids will recognize. Encourage them to do periodic check-ins where they mentally ask themselves whether their muscles tight or they are breathing quickly. Teach them to expect and proactively respond to really good or bad in-game developments using the techniques above.
Help your child see the bigger picture and context – there will be other tournaments and other games. And although it feels good to be on top, it also feels good to just have fun playing.
Post-game emotions are the ones that are most likely already on your radar, but a useful insight is that some of them may be heightened by other factors.
- When helping a child handle the highs of winning, emphasize good sportsmanship and empathy for the other player, as well as praise for a job well done.
- When dealing with a loss, again emphasize good sportsmanship and respect for the other player. Provide encouragement and support. Do a debrief if the child wants to, but don’t force it.
- When a child either defeats or loses to a friend in an important game it may cause either additional resentment or guilt. Understand the possibility and be ready to discuss it with your child.
- If a child loses an important game that has a significant impact on tournament rankings or their individual rating, it may seem worse than a normal loss. Help your child see the bigger picture and context – there will be other tournaments and other games. And although it feels good to be on top and bad to lose, it also feels good to just have fun playing.
Monitor yourself. Do your best not to be the cause or source of any of these emotions…When you make a mistake and *do* take something too far, own up to it.
Overbearing chess moms and dads can be just as bad as overbearing parents in any other sport. Sometimes they forget the things they are trying to teach their children about sportsmanship and the real value of a game like chess. To help children avoid these issues:
- Monitor yourself. Do your best not to be the cause or source of any of these emotions.
- Don’t be afraid to talk with other parents or coaches if you see them losing their cool with a child.
- When you make a mistake and *do* take something too far, own up to it. Talk with your kid about how you lost control, what you could have done better, and what you are going to do to handle it better next time. In other words, set a good example that shows your child how to be responsible for their mistakes.
This article has discussed several types of emotions, good and bad, that chess may elicit. You may also find it useful to explore some non-chess specific resources for helping children deal with stress.
Coaches and parents can pass these basic strategies on to their children to help them deal with the negative impacts of these emotions. These tips have mostly focused on elementary age players, but they are good reminders for anyone experiencing a stressful chess environment and are natural extensions of the sportsmanship and respect we all generally want to exhibit.
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