Dealing with losses: avoid the second arrow

“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterwards, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.

“Now, the well-instructed disciple, when touched with a feeling of pain, does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. So he feels one pain: physical, but not mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterwards, did not shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pain of only one arrow. In the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, He feels one pain: physical, but not mental.

Siddhattha Gotama’s teaching in the Sallatha Sutta: The Arrow
Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu and lightly edited by myself

In this very instructive parable from the suttas, the mental (or physical) pain is enough to bear on its own. There is extra pain from the despair of having been hit, and that is completely avoidable. 

We all have to deal with pain and losses. The goal is not to feel nothing, but to avoid that second arrow. Let’s focus here on the pain of losing a chess game, that’s probably what brought you here in the first place. 

A very public failure

The pain of losing has several origins. First of all it is public: the game goes in the database, people will see your mistakes on the board, and see you as a weakened player to be taken advantage of in future rounds. Then there is the loss of rating. Nate just wrote a good post on ratings – as we identify to that number we become overly attached to it.

At the highest levels, above 2700, every Elo point is incredibly important for tournament invitations or a spot on a national team. People will go to great length to ‘protect’ their rating, usually by stopping competing at the game they love so much. 

A loss of rating can also be seen as a threat to our very being: so much time invested in the game, and we lose a perceived standing and respect in the playing community. When we lived in small tribes, being shunned could be a death sentence (harder to provide food etc). We might still carry over this fear of being cast aside from a community.

Losing a game is such a straightforward reflexion of out shortcomings. Our decision making on the board got refuted. The opponent proved us wrong. To add insult to injury, the engine from our mobile phone has the illusory power to make the moves ‘obvious’ in insight. 

Don’t believe everything you see on twitter

Jose Raul Capablanca

Social media exacerbate the problem. Most people only post brilliant wins and tactics they used in their game. Almost never do we see: ‘Check out this amazing tactic that my opponent crushed me with! My positional understanding was really inadequate in that game combined incredible with tactical blindness!’. It is a human trait to present our good side to ‘the tribe’ and to hide the losses, or to present them in a humorous, self-deprecating fashion. 

At professional level, people will face criticism by journalists and amateurs. Unlike what many think, a skilled and successful professional can still be deeply hurt by ‘anonymous’ social media criticism. 

Being appropriately upset

Being upset by a loss has a good side: It can be a powerful drive to make us improve. There is a ‘goldilocks’ territory: If you don’t care about losing, then you won’t be driven to further improvement. If you are left completely broken after a loss, you will stop competing. In the early 2000s, Vladislav Tkachiev was knocking at the door of the world top 25. From his own account, he had trouble dealing with losses, whereas his friend Sasha Grischuk could sleep off a loss and put it behind him relatively easily – refreshed and ready for a fight the next day. It might be quite instructive to realise that being appropriately upset by losses is a very good character trait, and probably a lot of champions innately have it. They hate losing, will go to great lengths and be very competitive, but a loss isn’t so bad that they can’t put it aside and get back into the ring. 

Historically, there are many examples of people left completely broken by defeat, unable to gather the strength to take a second chance at climbing to the top. For instance, David Bronstein, after narrowly losing to Botvinnik, was a broken man for many years as recounted in the excellent book by Genna Sosonko: ‘The Rise and Fall of David Bronstein’.

Growth mindset: the role of losses

Risk-taking and taking on a challenge is extremely desirable. This is part of a healthy growth mindset, where opponents are viewed not as enemies but as stepping stones, and losses are lessons one can learn from. 

In chess, analysing one’s own games is a cornerstone of improvement according to many coaches. Losses are to be welcomed as learning opportunities. Say, you are in an unclear endgame, and you’re uncomfortable playing the position, unsure how to proceed. If you offer a draw and it is accepted, it’s unlikely that you would look into it in great detail. If you keep on playing and misplay it, the pain of the loss coupled with the careful analysis of the game might prove a very good memory booster.

Being comfortable with playing ‘up’ against stronger than usual opposition is a fantastic improvement tool and this means being comfortable dealing with the expected losses. 

“Losses belong to Monday morning”

Eddie Jones, international rugby coach

Teams and organisations have a special dedicated time to process and deal with losses. Whether video analysis and debrief, lessons have to be learned. It is usually done a day or two after a game, to let the emotions cool off and look at the game from some distance.

Wins also have to be carefully analysed so as not to fall into complacency.

Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional.

Suffering = Pain x Resistance

Shinzen Young

We still need a practical way to deal with losses. In Swiss Tournament or Round Robin, there is always an upcoming game. We need a practical solution to refocus so that we can calm down, let go of strong emotions, prepare for the next game with a cool head, and get a good night of sleep.

Okay, so let’s say you had a bad loss. You got hit by the first arrow, and it hurts. Good! If it didn’t hurt, you might not have the drive and desire to be an elite competitor. Now your mind starts spinning, twitter is making fun of your mistake (or you think it does), your rating dipped and a good tournament result is unlikely. It is time to dodge this second arrow, focus and reconnect to play the next round to the best of your ability. 

I suggest the following practice (total duration: 10 minutes)

  1. Sit in a quiet room. Make sure you back is upright, your spine is straight. You can close your eyes or keep them slightly open
  2. Take three breaths with very long exhales. This will instantly calm you down.
  3. For the next three minutes, focus on your breath at the tip of the nose. When distracted by the strong emotion, go back to the breath at the tip of the nose. This step just brings a little mental clarity. 
  4. Now, focus on the physical sensation that the emotion brings. Whatever this sensation is. Is it redness in your face? Tingling around the eyes? A knot in your stomach? Fully embrace and mentally describe the sensation. Do this for three minutes.
  5. Now, mentally play the ‘story’ that comes with the emotion. There is always a small story that is associated with these (‘I’m an idiot’, ‘Why do I spend so much time on chess to play like this’, ‘This great opportunity is gone now’). Just mentally take stock of that ‘story’ for three minutes.
  6. Now that you have separated the physical sensation from the made-up story, and realised that this story is just a set of words in your head, let them go. Where do they come from anyway? Anything that arises in your mind can go away. Like clouds in the sky, they’re just thoughts appearing in the background of your mind and you have the power to let them go. Imagine you write the ‘story’ on a piece of paper that you burn. Or you attach them to a balloon that flies off. Only the clear blue sky is left afterwards. Stay with this. 

Conclusions and take-aways

  • Being upset at a loss is okay! It drives us to get better. Be grateful that your opponent is showing you the way to grow.  
  • Losing is like being hit by an arrow. Don’t be so upset by it that the pain hits you like a second arrow. Losses have to be managed, and whichever internal story spins in your head, can be let go. 
  • I have given an example 10-minute practice to let go of a strong emotion so you can refocus after a game. Practice it well and it will help you. 

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