This post was originally published on my lichess blog on 2022-09-19. Here it is on the website for sake of housekeeping. Enjoy!
How to think about performance and organise teams and individual environments.
How high-performance environments are built in traditional sports
Damien Comolli is the Director of Football at Toulouse FC. Before this, he helped reorganise and build many football clubs, including Liverpool FC. He was interviewed on the Training Ground Guru Podcast, and his interview is fantastic TGG Podcast #40 – Damien Comolli: From Tou-lose to Tou-win. He’s describing the two pillars upon which he built successful football clubs: Data and Culture.
In the context of football, data means the heavy use of analytics at several levels, the most well-known being moneyball-style identification of undervalued players.
What are the identity and values of the club/the city/the individual? Comolli went to many people around Toulouse asking what style of play people were expecting. Getting your values in order is critical, and often misunderstood. Many books have been written about the highly successful New Zealand Rugby team (the ‘All Blacks’), with the promise of using their cultural template will bring success to your team or start-up. The All-Black values are amazing, but trying to copy them is beside the point: every team and country has its own set of values and culture. You cannot copy and paste the cultural values of another team or country to another one. A good book about culture is Belonging by Owen Eastwood. Eastwood gives ideas and examples of various cultures and strategies for players to get a sense of belonging.
The series ‘All or Nothing: Arsenal’ has coach Mikel Arteta draw a heart and a brain in the dressing room before a big game.
Big heart and big brain
Arsenal (and many others) follow the culture and belonging aspects very well. When they arrive at their training ground, there is a mural of their legendary coach Arsene Wenger, that they can ‘high-five’ – a very smart way to acknowledge the past, yet keep evolving.
A superb reminder of using your individual discipline to serve the collective.
Okay, this is great but we’re not here to read about traditional sports. This is about chess. How about we explore the framework of ‘data and culture’ – both for chess teams and individuals.
Data in chess
Data is both the use of traditional sports science (healthy lifestyle, optimisation of sleep, nutrition, exercise, mental toughness, emotional control) and analytics, which in chess are still in their infancy.
I work on all these aspects with individuals, and I love to develop interesting new metrics and ways to look at chess data; for example, my endurance-performance plots, to analyse people’s performance as a function of total elapsed time:
Generally, time stamps are underutilised in chess. Among others, I’ve analysed the outcome of long thinking times and found valuable and actionable information to help players.
Culture in chess
What is culture in chess? National teams have a culture, some club teams also do have a culture. The Russian school of chess, the Indian school of chess, the ‘French school of suffering’ … Importantly for players, it is their own approach to the game and their personal framework and culture. Players are not robots and the way you prepare, the way you handle losses and reflect on your path is part of your personal culture. I’ve written about the infinite game before. What is the meaning of winning and losing for you? This is an important lens through which you must view your own chess career. If you want to explore a healthy relationship with winning and losing, I recommend Fear Less by Pippa Grange.
We all have a chess culture and are part of a community, even if it’s just an online community like the #chesspunks.
Chess is an individual game but sometimes played as a team, be it in your local league or at the highest level, with national teams at the Olympiad. There is a clear advantage to having a cohesive team whose members will support each other versus a mere collection of individuals – as the Olympiad in Chennai was a great illustration of this. A chess team is different from a sports team (duh!) – in that sports players will spend hundreds of hours playing together and rehearsing, sharing meals and practising time. Chess more closely resembles esports. In esports coaches have to assemble teams of players that have not played together before, play inter-dependently and instil a sense of belonging and shared values. As the performance coach for England Women’s team at the Olympiad, I used the tool kit of Donny Stumpel for creating team values. The players decided on a set of four core values for the teams, derived from their own personal values. The team values are passion, teamwork, ambition and hard work. This is great, but this can read like a motivational poster on the wall, nice words but what about practice? It is critical to make these values into a living system. How do these values translate to real-life behaviours and how does it come to life? The players defined this for themselves:
Now the set of abstract values is a living system. Living according to the group values helps tremendously: if I am on my own, how should I behave following the group values? It helps to have this explicitly spelt out.
It may seem like a detail but I see coordinated outfits as quite important. For the player, they are a reminder of their belonging and bring a sense of pride (sports players often talk about their National Jersey with reverence as a symbol of the hopes and aspirations of their countries).
England team in their blazers (Jones, Haria, the author, Adams, captain Pein, Howell)
Team India 2 (Gukesh and coach Ramesh) and their coordinated suits and shirts. Photo Lennart Ootes /FIDE
Board presence and demeanour are important. For instance, Jon Speelman is quite tall and he used his whole body in a ‘stance’ to counter Kasparov’s board presence when they played together. You do not need to be a giant though, as ‘board presence’ can be achieved through body language and clothing. Of course, the chess moves speak for themselves no matter how you are dressed, but I believe this is a useful marginal gain.
England’s board 1 Jovanka Houska with her National team blazer. Photo Lennart Ootes /FIDE
Is mindset overrated?
Mindset is crucial because it’s the only thing you control (you never control your results or even your performance level). For improvers a growth mindset is critical, and for the elite players, a growth mindset with a dash of fixed mindset is welcome. Social media has reached ‘peak mindset’. There are countless ‘boretry‘ threads about the ‘mindset of elite performers, entrepreneurs and Navy seals’ (The mention of Navy seals seems necessary to make your tweet go viral). I just want to push back on the notion that mindset is everything, especially in the context of high-performance environment. Because: You know what’s critical, especially to special forces Navy seals? Yep, the environment.
tidy military barracks
Do the armed forces attract people that wake up exceptionally early and are very organised? Of course not exclusively. But once joined, recruits are made to be extremely disciplined, just by the design of the military environment. The constraints of our environment make us behave.
Accountability to coaches is an important part of it. You pay your coach, so you have to prep and work hard. You join an online academy like my friends at the Chess dojo or my friend Ramesh or any other like the killer chess training or chessmood …. If a coach is not an option for you, just form a study group with your friends on WhatsApp and go through a puzzle book (may I recommend the excellent Universal Chess Training by Wojicek Moranda). Set up a special group chat with your friend. Send each other one position in the morning. Study it (writing down your analysis of all candidate moves). Share the solution every evening. Et voila, you have a study group.
If you’re reading this you’re likely interested in becoming better at chess (by the way, nothing wrong with not wanting to get better) or helping others become better. The amount of improvement advice online is truly staggering. Yet, a lot of it boils down to a very simple truth: work hard. If it was all about knowledge, chess improvement would be simple. Get that great tactics book and that great opening course and solve these great endgame studies. More knowledge alone is not the answer, we need to close the bridge between knowing and doing. The key principle is to get into action and the mood will follow. If you just wait to be “in the mood for endgame studies” this might not happen very often. Just start, and after 15 minutes check that not only your mood had changed but you’ve been doing 15 minutes of endgames!
Craft your personal environment
How can we apply these principles without transforming our house into military barracks? Let’s imagine the following two environments
Player A has a busy desk. When they sit down, they’re in front of the computer, and Lichess (what else) is their browser home page. What’s going to happen? Player A clicks “3+0” and before you know it they have played for two hours.
I want to stress that playing blitz and bullet for entertainment is perfectly fine if that’s what you want to do. If you want to study chess and find yourself wasting time on the Internet, install a browser extension that will help you. Spending too much time on your phone? Use the forest app and grow virtual trees while you study.
Player B has a neat desk and a physical board and pieces set up. Their chess book is not high on the shelf but readily at hand. They can analyse a game with a pen and notebook, read a physical book, or do anything they choose. As Jocko Willink says, discipline equals freedom. The discipline of the tidy environment allows the freedom to work on whatever you like for that day.
The OODA loop
I would like to continue this post by talking about a decision-making framework called the OODA loop for Observe Orient Decide Act (I’ve heard it pronounced ‘wudda’). It was invented by fighter pilot and military strategist John Boyd.
It has four stages. I will present it in the context of chess training as I’m assuming you’re not a fighter pilot.
You need to collect data. You need to play OTB if your goal is to improve OTB rating. If you want to improve your bullet chess it’s a lot easier because you can play hundreds of games in each session, and get quick feedback.
Playing too little
I think most people and especially amateurs play way too little. I appreciate that life gets in the way, but you must make sure that you don’t draw incorrect conclusions from a small sample size. I ran the numbers in the following scenario: let’s say a dedicated improver has increased his true chess strength by about 50 Elo with diligent hard work. They go to their local weekend tournament where they face opposition with similar published ratings. With a 50 points advantage in true strength, we expect a 50 points Elo rise, but the probability of not winning any Elo through variance alone is 45% over one million simulations. For a 9-round tournament, the probability drops to 37% which is still significant. Needless to say, this can feel very demoralising to work hard, increase in strength and play good chess but have a poor tournament. Very tempting to drop a successful training programme with no basis because of bad variance.
Getting a lot of data
How do the most improving people in the world do it? By playing … a lot. For several top juniors, I have scraped the FIDE website to collect rating and playing data. Here is the number of rated games played over a 12-month period, from August 2021 to the July 2022 rating lists.
I had to double-check that this was correct, and yes, people do play much more than 200 FIDE-rated classical games per year. If you’re in Western Europe with a standard job, you’re likely working about 230 days per year. Imagine playing a rated game almost every working day! Of course, these juniors have had tremendous three-digit rating gains over these 12 months. But this is not my point here, let’s have a look at the rating gains per game.
These young players gather an enormous amount of data. This is incredibly useful – the Observe part of the OODA loop.
The gains per game are of the order of 0.5 Elo per game and we are talking about the most on-fire improving players of the day. This should put into perspective the expectations of improvers, who think they will/can gain hundreds of points with a few weekend tournaments.
This step is where you make sense of the observations through the lens of the Data and Culture framework. What do your data mean? Transform and prepare. If your data is inadequate (e.g. low sample size), the rest of the decision-making loop will be garbage.
A very important step in professional sports is the processing of failures. Post mortem and analysis of big failure should happen there, once the emotions of the match/game have cooled off.
At this point, you might want to either self-reflect and decide or take in the help of a coach or mentor. Should you adjust your training programme? Change the way you approach competition? At this stage also consciously craft your environment to shape the behaviours that you are targeting.
Don’t flip-flop between training plans or books you are reading. Just follow through. This is also time now to close the knowing-doing time. And play a lot of OTB chess.
Here is a summary chart of your chess OODA loop
Acting Inside your opponent’s loop
One of the important lessons that people extract from the OODA loop is the possibility to operate ‘inside’ your competitor’s loop, meaning performing a whole cycle of OODA while others are still stuck at one of the steps (typically Observe).
This is once more why playing a lot is important. As you gather feedback, if you have a lot more data than your opponents, you can turbocharge your whole improvement loop.