I once watched a documentary about a Brooklyn high school with an astounding and impressive record for having the most wins in chess competitions in the state and in the country.
While watching the documentary I did see a trend that concerned me significantly. That is, time and time again the children competing in these chess tournaments seemed to be under a great deal of stress, almost as if their lives hung in the balance on whether they won or lost. As a matter of fact, most of the clips of happy children and teens during interviews was after they had just won a game or a major tournament.
However, most of the clips where of kids looking anxious or crying. There was one of a young ten girl throwing a tantrum in the cafeteria, I think it was over her fear of losing a scholarship.
As a father and avid chess player, I wouldn’t put any of my children in that position. Sure I would encourage them to participate in chess clubs and compete in tournaments, however regardless of my financial situation, I would see to it that they never get the impression that their future hung on any game.
The idea that we only step up to the plate to do our best during times of duress is mostly a myth. I say mostly because I am aware of stories where people did unbelievable things during emergencies. For example, the ubiquitous example of the mother who lifts a small car under which her child is pinned. Yes, these feats do happen, but they are not the norm.
What is the norm is that during emergencies, people surrender all cognitive control to their reptilian brains. This is a knee jerk reaction for either putting up the fight of your life or fleeing from a mighty opponent. There is nothing wrong with the fight or flight response system we were born with (it is actually a good thing) however most of what we consider to be emergencies in today’s world are really complex and non life threatening challenges that get even more challenging the more successful we are. For example, a student who enters a chess tournament is only going to face more challenging opponents the more matches he or she is victorious in.
In a true life and death situation, the fight or flight response is designed to be short lived, this is because most life and death scenarios, regardless of outcome are short lived. In the modern world we live in, most challenges are long term, and they require a different set of skills in thriving through the challenges. Some challenges exist for years in duration that it becomes a process needed to be embraced and accepted, rather than one to be overcome in the short term.
An example would be a child with a learning disability looking forward to twelve years of schooling and possibly more. It would be irrational if he or she only came with his or her “A” game during major exams. Instead what would be needed for success would a repertoire of skill sets and habits that would lead to consistent success. Such a feat would only be possible from a place of calm, acceptance and belief in self.
I believe that if those children at the high school embraced such an attitude, their margin of success would be even greater, plus they learn how to compete in the world from a place of calm and acceptance, instead of all or nothing.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.