Many times matches are lost after a failure to maintain clarity of mind after making a serious error. This error is rarely disastrous, but the downward spiral culminating in a whole series of mistakes brought on by a loss in focus and attention may be. In competition, negative momentum is real.
Imagine a chess player that has been slowly building an advantage over the course of a few hours. He makes a small mistake, after which his opponent is able to equalize. From here, it is difficult for the first player to keep his clarity and regroup. He has formed expectations about the game that are no longer real. He is tempted (he has conditioned himself) to press an advantage that no longer exists and is frustrated when what “should” be is not. The key to avoiding a downward spiral and regaining composure is to break from the tide of thoughts and emotions that preceded the mistake and accept what is as what is in the moment. It’s a new game from there out with new forms and new possibilities.
Waitzkin shares the following andecdote:
“It was my habit to walk the two miles to PS116 every Wednesday, planning my class and enjoying the city. One fall afternoon I was strolling east along 33rd Street, lost in thought and headed toward the school … There I stood, within the maelstrom of the midtown rush, waiting for the light and thinking about the ideas that I would soon be discussing with my students. A pretty young woman stood a few feet away from me, wearing headphones and moving to the music. I noticed her because I could hear the drumbeat … Suddenly she stepped right into the oncoming traffic. I guess she was confused by the chaotic one-way street, because I remember her looking the wrong way down Broadway. Immediately, as she stepped forward, looking right, a bicycle bore down on her from the left. The biker lurched away at the last second and have her a solid but harmless bump. In my memory, time stops right here. This was the critical moment in the woman’s life. She could have walked away unscathed if she had just stepped back onto the pavement, but instead she turned and cursed the fast-pedaling bicyclist.This is a powerful illustration, no?
I can see her now, standing with her back to the traffic on 33rd and Broadway, screaming at the now-distant biker who had just performed a miracle to avoid smashing into her. The image is frozen in my mind. A taxicap was the next to speed around the corner. The woman was struck from behind and sent reeling ten feet into the air. She smashed into a lamppost and was knocked out bleeding badly. The ambulance and police came and eventually I moved on to PS 116 hoping that she would survive …
I felt compelled to share a version of the story with my students. I left out the gravity of her injuries but I linked life and chess in a way that appeared to move them—this tragedy needn’t have happened. I explained how the woman’s first mistake was looking the wrong way and stepping into the street in front of traffic. Maybe wearing headphones put her in her own world, a little removed from the immediacy of the moment. Then the biker should have been a wake-up call. She wasn’t hurt, but instead of reacting with alertness, she was spooked into anger, irritated that her quiet had been shattered. Her reaction was a perfect parallel to a chess player’s downward spiral—after making an error it is so easy to cling to the emotional comfort zone of what was, but there is also that unsettling sense that things have changed for the worse. The clear thinker is suddenly at war with himself and flow is lost… And then comes the taxicab.”