Guest interview #1:  PhD in Psychology and chess player WFM María Rodrigo Yanguas

This week is the first ever interview on this blog, I am talking to Dr María Rodrigo Yanguas. María has a PhD in psychology and is a titled chess player. She was very gracious to spend time answering my questions on chess and psychology. Enjoy the interview and follow María for more of her great content. 

Hello María and thank you so much for accepting to do this Q&A. You have an incredible background being a high-level chess player, a psychology PhD, promoting chess and women’s chess in particular. As a start, could you tell us how did you learn to play chess?

I started playing chess when I was 5 years old. I was a child who moved a lot, who did not stop still and was very distracted. That’s why my parents decided to sign me up for chess classes because of the benefits this sport could have for me. I always say that you could say that my parents were pioneers in using chess as a cognitive and emotional tool for life.

What brought you to study psychology and what is your professional life now? Do you work with chess players?

Actually, I always wanted to be a teacher, but at the last moment I switched to psychology, and I think I made the best decision. I love psychology, being able to understand the workings of the mind and our behaviour and having a tool to change people’s lives for the better is wonderful.I finished my PhD in September 2021 and now I am dedicating myself to the promotion of chess. Just as chess has helped me to stop my hyperactivity, my purpose is to make more people aware of chess and be able to benefit from its practice. My doctoral thesis was based on creating a therapeutic video game based on chess to work with ADHD patients and also on the use of therapeutic chess in these patients.

What is the most important part of sports psychology that chess players should work on?

Most people, if not all, should work with a psychologist, you don’t have to be sick to see one. In sports, it is a crucial factor and more and more athletes, and in our case, chess players, are hiring us to work on their minds when competing and training.The sport of chess has a high mental component where you need to have clarity of thought to find the best move. Psychologists work among other things, the self-talk we say to ourselves, emotions, routines, among others.

In many sports, players have a personal pre-game routine that helps them just before performing. I find that chess players are very unprepared in this area. Do you have any specific pre-game routine that you like for yourself?

As I said, the figure of the psychologist is gradually entering the technical staff of chess players and clubs. Chess players, compared to other sports, have a “bad habit” of arriving at the tournament room and playing directly without establishing a routine that warns the mind “Hey, we’re going to start now!”So, I try to always arrive with a little bit of time, write the schedule always in the same order and place all the pieces well in a predefined position that I have chosen. This allows me to start connecting with my emotions and my mind to start the chess battle.

A very important psychological part of chess is to be able to let go of defeat. Do you have any key advice for the readers who are overly affected by a loss, how can they overcome it?

Defeat is the worst thing in chess and it is not easy to manage it. When I competed and lost a game that was important to me, I felt a stabbing pain in my heart and a great feeling of “failure”, in addition, my head did not stop ruminating for several days about that position I lost. But this feeling made me train much harder when I returned home to overcome the situation.I always tell my students that they have to try to learn from every defeat, because, learning after learning, we grow a lot as chess players. There is no point in erasing and pretending that the defeat did not exist.

I’m a big advocate of meditation for chess players (readers can get my course of guided meditations for chess tournament playing). I think it’s helpful for many things most prominently awareness of thoughts and emotions. Do you have a meditation practice yourself? How helpful do you think meditation is?

Yes, I love to meditate, especially before going to sleep to end the day. Also, sometimes when I wake up with some time I meditate for a few minutes in the morning. And what I do most days is Yoga or Pilates at a centre. It helps me a lot to connect with myself, to find my balance between body and mind and to be with myself for 45 minutes. When I was competing, whenever I could I would do a little 5-minute meditation before going to the start and this helped me a lot to connect with myself and calm my emotions.

Some approaches (like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) try to override the unhelpful thoughts and feelings while others (like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) are welcoming all thoughts and feeling and letting them go. Do you have any personal bias towards one approach or the other in terms of effectiveness?

From my professional experience, all therapies have to be adjusted to the patient we are dealing with. There will be people who are better off using Cognitive-Behavioral tools and others with Acceptance Of Thoughts. The important thing is to individualize it and make the patient feel confident and improve little by little.

You are the president of the commissions for women’s chess for the Spanish Chess Federation. Would you like to talk about some initiatives you are taking for Women’s chess in Spain? Do you have any advice for the readers to make chess clubs more welcoming and inclusive?

Yes, I am the president of the Women and Chess Commission of the Spanish Chess Federation and I am very pleased with the working group that we form the commission. From the commission we are focused on working in three main areas:-The promotion of chess, “taking chess to the streets” to create referents and to encourage more women to play chess. -The training of arbiters and chess monitors, so that when a woman goes to a chess club or to a chess tournament, she can see a woman exercising a profession and create again a referent.- We are supporting the best players in Spain and the junior players, giving them visibility and help to continue competing.

Chess players are very often book lovers, if you have any book recommendations on sports psychology or chess or anything fiction or non-fiction, we are all ears!

I can recommend my book “No Te Enroques” from HarperCollins where I talk about my experience as a psychologist, trainer and chess player. It is not a book to learn chess, but to understand how to work the mind and work with our students. The only thing is that it is currently in Spanish.Soon my second book will be published, this time together with another psychologist of the Spanish Chess Federation, Carlos Martinez. The book is a guide for mothers and fathers of young chess players. On the other hand, one of my favourite chess books is “Chess for Zebras” and “The Seven Deadly Chess Sins” by Jonathan Rowson, two great books to learn the psychology of chess!

Any last messages for the readers – please let us know where people can follow you on social media.

Now I’m doing live on Twitch most days: can follow me on all social networks, Instagram, twitter, tik-tok with the name “Merybliya”.-Instagram: María Rodrigo Yanguas.
May we continue to share the Magic of Chess!

Thank you so much María!

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