Bouncebackability – Nurturing the Gift of Resilience

Professor Barry Hymer’s new blog post examines the art of resilience. How can we bounce back after a chess defeat? It doesn’t have to be the Knightmare we often think it is.

Bouncing BackBouncing Back
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Bouncebackability – Nurturing the Gift of Resilience

There is an old Afrikaans saying which has equivalents in many other languages: Wat nie dood maak nie, maak vet – what doesn’t kill, fattens (it’s punchier in the original). It alludes to resilience – a psychological quality that allows someone to bounce back from adversity, failure and trauma, emerging sometimes even stronger than before. Resilience is one of the hottest topics in psychological research nowadays, and the research journals bulge with studies exploring its many facets. And there’s a reason for this surge in attention: it seems to be far more highly correlated with positive life outcomes than those qualities which were once thought to occupy the highest branches of the mental health and achievement tree – things like high self-esteem, for instance.

In this blog post I’d like briefly to describe the role of resilience in achievement generally and chess achievement in particular, and compare it to its seductive but ultimately less impressive cousin, self-esteem – defined by the influential philosopher and proto-psychologist William James (1890/1983), as ‘the degree to which the self is judged to be competent in life domains deemed important’. And I’d like to suggest a few ways in which science suggests we might seek to harness resilience more effectively, in pursuit of our chess goals and a sense of fulfilment. To do this, I invoke a classic comic character, and offer him a psychological diagnosis.

Black KnightBlack Knight
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Disarming the Dangerous Knight

In a famous scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Black Knight ends up limbless and utterly defeated by King Arthur, but optimistic about his prospects to the end (‘’Tis but a scratch’). The humour arises not from the violence, of course, but from the Knight’s display of overweening self-confidence and ridiculous stoicism, exposed as Arthur’s language evolves from chivalrous formality to savage sarcasm (‘What’re you gonna do – bleed on me?’). Lacking as he may have been in such areas as self-awareness, The Black Knight wasn’t short on self-esteem.

There is something endearing, even admirable about The Black Knight’s cheerful positivity whilst in the direst of straits. Surely this self-confidence bodes well for future battles, and insulates against defeatism? I’m not so sure. Whilst every one of us, at every level we play the game, has from time to time had our chess limbs comprehensively lopped, actually recognising that we’ve been defeated is an obvious first and necessary step to bouncing back from it. The Black Knight is a perfect illustration of high self-esteem syndrome – an individual wholly unable to use failure as a catapult to achievement because he’s yet to process its reality and its nature. We see examples of this frequently in our chess circles – players who may have been swindled, cheated, blindsided or outlucked, but certainly never defeated. In its overlap with sexism, we are reminded of Judit Polgar’s arch observation that she never won a game against an entirely healthy man. (And for the avoidance of all doubt and with a nod to recent litigation, can I add that the great Nona Gaprindashvili certainly did win games against healthy men!)

Self EsteemSelf Esteem
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Is Self-esteem Over-esteemed?

High self-esteem started dropping from its 1970s American west coast highwater mark around the turn of this century. For years it was essentially synonymous with mental health, but in 2003 an extensive and highly influential review of the literature undertaken by Roy Baumeister and colleagues found that whilst global self-esteem can be associated with generally positive qualities like adventurousness, willingness to experiment, and persistence – though it’s not clear whether self-esteem is the cause or effect of these states – it “has few additional benefits”. On the contrary, the pursuit of self-esteem can cause people to engage in dysfunctional, anti-social and high-risk behaviours like criminality (including cheating), the rejection of critical feedback as biased or unreliable, and the trivialisation or externalisation of failure. In sum, high self-esteem can lead to individuals failing to take personal responsibility for their actions and consequences, developing false ideas about their capacities, and missing out on opportunities for change and growth. In this state we can witness displays of petulance and other outbursts when ego-threats emerge, the despising of those deemed to be ‘inferior’ (or lower rated!), and narcissism – an insatiable desire for recognition and approval.

It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to transfer theory to its manifestation in the chess community. The fact that a full-information game like chess offers so few hiding-places for individuals seeking a refuge from failure can lead to some quite shocking displays of high-self-esteem-gone-bad – none of which are best remembered on a public blog, but all of which go down well over a drink in the bar at a tournament or after a league match.

So if the pursuit of high self-esteem (via praise, plaudits and flattering acolytes) seems to take us down some dodgy paths, is it possible to chase after more auspicious qualities like resilience in our chess lives? In large part, and despite some evidence of resilience having both genetic and early-experience antecedents, the answer seems to be ‘yes’. Here are a few suggestions.

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See Resilience Not as Something You Are, but as Something You Do

A common theme in my writing is the relative value of process over product – staying focused on the act of learning rather than its results. So too with the concept of resilience: it’s best not seen as a fixed trait (“She’s a very resilient player”), but as what happens when you engage in a series of effective coping strategies, some of which are outlined below (“She showed great resilience in defending that disastrous endgame/coming back from that unexpected loss”). For one thing, seeing resilience as a process allows us to attend to the things that are changeable in our circumstances, rather than fixating on the immutables of genetic blueprints or past traumas. This fosters a sense of agency and self-efficacy, allowing us to process, respond and adapt productively to negative experiences (like losses, blunders, etc), rather than to react impulsively and negatively with such emotions as anger, recrimination, fear or hopelessness. So do resilience, rather than be it.

Change the Self-talk Record

It’s not hard to see why both deliberate and intrusive rumination (brooding) are positively correlated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, whereas hope, resilience and unit support are negatively correlated with it. Rumination is a metacognitive strategy – a tool for thinking about one’s thinking – and expertise in metacognition is known to be a feature of expert-level performance in all skill-based areas of human achievement, including chess. But not all metacognitive strategies are helpful, and rumination – filling your thoughts with negative self-talk and judgements – is one of the least helpful. Positive (yet realistic) self-talk, however, is something else entirely. GM Michael Adams provided a striking example of the latter in his account of bouncing back from a disastrous loss (having been on the verge of victory) against GM Luke McShane in the 2018 British Championship play-off.: “During the brief break, I reflected that as I was ahead on the clock and the board for most of the first two games, there was still all to play for”. Thanks in part to this, far from the usual sporting cliché of ‘the momentum now being with the opponent’, Mickey went on to recover from his loss and to win the remaining blitz battles, taking the title. Positive self-talk is easier said than done in the aftermath of a devastating defeat of course, but it’s a skill that can be practised and grown incrementally – like all skills.

Find a Role Model

All top level chessplayers are able to draw on reservoirs of resilience. They’ve needed these in order to attain excellence. But even at the top levels it is possible to distinguish between those who seem to be devastated by if-only moments in their careers, and those who bounce back with renewed vigour. We go so far as to name players in each category in our book on chess improvement, but I was recently interested to see the fruits of some fascinating smallscale research that my Chessable colleague Nate Solon did for a recent blogpost (cf. Zwischenzug –his post from June 2021 – The Comeback King – Is Magnus Carlsen really stronger after a loss?). Compared to his foremost rivals, like Caruana, Giri and Nepomniachtchi, Carlsen really does bounce back better from defeats. Magnus scored 66% after a win, 60% after a draw, and a staggering 73% after a loss (compared to Caruana’s 47% – despite Fabiano’s reputation as an unflappable professional whose veins run with iced water). Magnus went and ruined things shortly after publication though, by suffering a near-unprecedented three defeats in a row, but Nate’s broad conclusion remains true: “As strong as he is under normal circumstances, the data support the idea that he has the ability to tap into an even higher gear following a loss. That’s a scary thought for anyone looking to dethrone him.”

Nepo, by the way, generated statistics strikingly similar after victories, defeats and draws, despite his reputation for flighty inconsistency. So if Magnus were to lose to Nepo in November, in the immortal words of Paul Simon, when you’re soft in the middle, who will be your role model now that your role model is gone, gone? And what’ll you call him?

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Have a Laugh About it

It’s now fairly well established that having positive emotions (like optimism, perspective-keeping, and a sense of humour) during and after adverse events may have adaptive advantages for that individual’s coping mechanisms and resilience. These advantages can be seen even at the level of physiology. Looking at oneself with compassion is, like resilience itself, another quality that seems to trump self-esteem in the psychological literature – it predicting more stable feelings of self-worth, and being less contingent on particular outcomes. And self-compassion has a more negative correlation than self-esteem with anger, self-recrimination, self-consciousness, rumination and need for cognitive closure.

I have a chess friend who has been in pursuit of a richly-deserved Fide title for some time. He is still awaiting his first victory over a GM, but he has accumulated countless draws against GMs. In most cases these draws have arisen after he’d squandered overwhelmingly ‘won’ positions – and these moments have been the source of profound distress and self-flagellation over the years. These missed opportunities aren’t attributable to deficient technique or a lack of will – he has these in spades. Clearly there is something psychological going on here, some chimp on his shoulder that refuses to budge. Knowing that he’d recently seen yet another decisive advantage against a GM fizzle out into a draw, I was a little nervous about raising the subject, but when I did, I was delighted to see his response: he laughed and told me he’d recently decided to stop lashing himself. He was enjoying his chess, still working at it but less fixated on those elusive products of rating gains or GM scalps. If they come, they come. I don’t want to jinx him or to raise the stakes, and will keep this post from his sight, but I’m confident that with this new attitude, they are far more likely to. I’ll keep you posted.

Keep Good Habits

Sleep well. Eat nuts and plants. Take exercise. Build and sustain relationships. Avoid drinking to excess. Do your Chessable reviews. All the usual stuff. In essence, admire Tal’s chess, not his lifestyle. And you’ll probably live longer too.

Resigning the GameResigning the Game
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Accept the Hurt

In pursuit of Carlsenlike levels of bouncebackability it’s important that we don’t try to minimise the pain of disappointment, or pretend that we don’t really care about the outcome. Resilience isn’t about dulling our emotions, applying a mask and denying the pain. Blunders, losses, poor performances and a loss of form hurt, and should continue to do so. What is crucial is how we respond to these unlovely events. Here too, there’s a difference between adapting – a combination of acceptance, analysis, problem-solving and forward-planning, and simply putting a brave face on things. As another famous Python sketch should teach us, remaining positive and resilient is a world removed from always looking on the bright side of life. However jaunty the tune. Or dismembered the Knight.

As ever, I’d welcome feedback in the form of thoughts, questions, challenges, personal reflections etc, as well as theme-suggestion for future science posts. Email me directly via [email protected]

1 James, W. (1983, original 1890). The principles of psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
2 Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., & Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 435–468.
3 Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4, 1–44.
4 Blackburn, L.E. (2015). The effects of hope, rumination, resilience and unit support on post-traumatic stress disorder symptom severity in veterans. TRACE: Tennessee Research and Creative Exchange. Retrieved 24 September 2021.
5 Hymer, B.J. & Wells, P.K. (2020). Chess Improvement – It’s all in the mindset. Carmarthenshire: Crown House
6 Adams, M. (2018). A long journey. Chess, 83(6), 18-25.
7 Tugade, M.M.; Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 86 (2), 320–333.
8 Mahony, D.L.; Burroughs, W.J.; Lippman, L.G. (2002). Perceived attributes of health-promoting laughter: A cross-generational comparison. The Journal of Psychology. 136 (2), 171–81.
9 Neff, K.D. & Vonk, R. (2008); Self-compassion versus global self-esteem: Two different ways of relating to oneself. Journal of Personality, 77(1), pp.23-50.

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