Esports are at the forefront of optimisation and taking lessons from the world of traditional sports – to the chagrin of some chess purists, who see esports as ‘just video games’ and chess as a noble board game of rich history. It is undeniable that chess is a noble rich game but the video game world has embraced professionalism in a way that chess players have not, with teams dedicating resources to health, fitness psychological preparation, nutrition, etc.
Fast reaction time is prominent in most esports and relevant only for a tiny population of chess players, but overall cognitive ability, decision-making, mental endurance, health and wellness are directly applicable to chess.
When the International Federation Of Esports Coaches announced the 2023 Summit I was extremely interested in watching some of the recordings, to catch a glimpse of the latest high-performance practices in the esports world.
For context: in esports, the players of a team very often live together in a team house and travel to compete in tournaments.
All errors and misunderstandings are mine and I apologise to the speakers in advance, happy to correct anything that I got wrong.
Ismael Pedraza – What does it take to maintain performance and well-being at the highest level of esports?
Ismael is a leading practitioner with vast experience trying to maintain performance and well-being at the highest level of esports. He had a very interesting discussion about the performance approach and the ‘winning at all costs’ mentality. Playing involves a high level of stressors and cognitive demands, and burnout is not uncommon. What to do if a player is in burnout? What are the short-term demands of the player and the organization are in conflict?
Ismael talks about his performance framework and bases it on a few key models, including Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) which is a favourite of mine. He talked about holistic player development: his framework is not focused only on performance enhancement but on wellbeing.
The players are being monitored with the following data measurements:
Twice per year:
- Blood work
- Heart function
- Lung function
- body composition (I assume scale-based and not a weekly DEXA scan)
- Values reflection
Various interventions: Daily exercise (before/after training), mindfulness including a 15-minute slow pace breathing practice, conscious nutrition, and Sleep culture. He is not doing this alone but has key staff.
Brief talk about team spirit and non-negotiables.
Overall, he insists on clarity of process and work staff working as a unit.
My takeaways for the chess world:
Chess teams don’t live together year-round so a lot is not directly applicable. Nevertheless, Ismael has a superb holistic framework of performance and well-being. A daily subjective rating of mood and energy goes a long way to understanding yourself and is valuable data. Once more, mindfulness and physical exercise are non-negotiables.
Lars Robl – How do you prepare players and bring teams together to perform when it matters?
Lars has an interesting background in the military special forces and then studied psychology, worked in traditional sports and now in esports. He talked about creating a winning culture: which are behaviours over time (what you do and what you don’t do). He wants the players to “See themselves as athletes and not as gamers” (chess players are you listening?).
He explained the RPM aka Robl Performance Model: a structure, as structures decrease anxiety.
The RPM starts with the establishment of a big dream.
Then process goals as ‘stepping stones’, which are things needed to reach the goal.
He talked about his psychological approach and things below the table/above the table that happen in a team. He then talks about his book and the importance of meeting the team where it is.
I really like the RPM. Parts of it are similar to the model I use for team values and behaviour that I learned from Donny Stumpel. Overall a very interesting presentation.
Simon Cox: What are the lessons that esports coaches can take from high-performance sports?
Simon starts by defining performance: how to perform at a given time and place? What is needed and what is your ‘why’? We require an alignment of goals for the coach, org, and player.
Lists the ‘nice to have’ vs. the ‘must have’ e.g. physio, biomechanics coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, psych coaches, managers, personalized beds, nutritionists…
Before we start to chase the 0.5% we need to secure the 95% [sic]
Simon talked about the periodisation of volume/intensity/recovery with a colour code green/yellow/red. Of course, this is the bread and butter of traditional sports, and still a research area for esports, how to measure the cognitive load. How to peak, how to recover, training programmes are nothing: it’s about implementation. Having the programme is nothing … Major stressors: travel, social media/results.
What applies to esports here also applies to chess, except the measurement of training intensity and cognitive load at the elite level are in their infancy in the chess world. Of course, before we chase the remaining 0.5% we need to have the bulk of training in place, but practice, both interact: the willingness to pay attention to details will (should!) carry through the ‘bulk’ of the daily work too.
Damien Andrews – How does physical activity enhance cognitive function and improve esports performance?
Damien has a ‘regular’ sports background. He talked about the impact of regular sports on cognitive function. Links between exercise and neurogenesis, and memory improvements.
Most importantly, he presented real data of pro gamers whose reaction time improved from 300 milliseconds to 275 ms doing a 6-week strength and conditioning routine.
On a daily basis, he focuses on lifestyle habits (a lot of players never move). The base is to have them do bodyweight compound exercises at home. They report being happier and more communicative after sports sessions.
The eternal question: how does exercise improve cognitive function and chess performance? I was discussing this with Nate recently. The first level is: that being fit makes you feel better. If you feel better in your body, everything is easier. Exercise helps to improve sleep. Building an ‘athletic’ identity feedback into eating habits. The rest … are ‘links’. Muscle mass is ‘linked’ to cognitive function (brand new interesting paper). I think the most important link is the interplay of endurance performance and mental fatigue, which is a hot research topic (I’ve written about it and link at the end).
Casey Thomas – How can diet improve esports performance?
Casey reviewed a large number of nutrition-related topics and the role of hydration. It was a very nice overall summary and a nice balance between science and practical advice. I really liked this intriguing data from the military that Casey presented: a mild caloric restriction of two weeks improved cognitive function.
I would like to see a lot more data and replication but this is very intriguing in the potential to be a ‘peaking’ strategy for chess players at competition time.
He talked about evidence for the Mediterranean diet for long-term cognitive health (he knows a ‘better diet’ for gamers but kept it secret.), and various topics related to ‘when’ to eat/circadian rhythms.
A very interesting point: from a cognitive performance point of view, there is now definitive evidence that the ‘sugar crash’ is a myth (unlike the belief of many). A lot of people might be conflating a sugar crash with a postprandial dip.
Another presented piece of research: 6 hours after eating a high level of SAFA (Saturated Fatty Acids – think burger and fried) you had a 15% decrease in blood flow which isn’t there with a high level of MUFA (Monounsaturated fatty Acids – think olive oil and avocado). The consequences of eating a high level of the ‘wrong’ kind of fat aren’t pushed far away into old age and possible cardiovascular disease, but felt right there on the day you have the food!
Further discussions on supplements (often tainted) and caffeine (worse than good sleep), and about whether to optimise around performance or health: sometimes contradict each other, especially from the chrono aspect (I don’t think it’s that much of an issue for chess)
Some super interesting pieces of information (the fake sugar crash, the mild calorie restriction, the short-term effects of high SAFAs) that are very relevant. I am happy that my own nutrition game day is still rock-solid scientifically. I am in touch with Casey and would love to collaborate with him further.
Finally, I listened to a short talk by Martina Čubrić talked about performance systems and presented her research on Qualitative analysis of psychological needs in esports professional players
Overall it was very interesting to hear people at the forefront of practice and innovation in the realm of esports. These are leaps and bounds beyond what is done in chess, especially at the team level. Very inspiring and looking forward to applying and tinkering with interested chess professionals.
For further reading on the topic of chess team management:
On process goals:
On the effect of mental endurance and sports: