Concentration for Kids

In coaching Juniors, the hardest task I face is getting my players to completely focus on the task at hand, sitting down to play chess. Because it’s a tournament as opposed to a friendly game with nothing at stake, my team members must be able to fully concentrate on their games. While this is difficult enough for adults, the task becomes doubly difficult when dealing with children or teenagers. Over the years I’ve tried many techniques, some panning out better than others. To help you avoid trying methods that don’t work, I’ll share with you some of the techniques I employ, methods that actually work!

You have to keep in mind that young minds tend to become distracted very easily. In our youth, we’re explorers of the world around us, a world in which everything is seemingly new. It’s “seemingly new” because youngsters are often experiencing things for the first time. Add to this the simple fact that children and teenagers haven’t learned the art of self discipline and you have a recipe for scattered and disjointed thoughts. This translates to a lack of focus and chess is a game that requires absolute focus. We cannot blame youngsters for lacking the ability to totally concentrate on a specific task, especially for long periods of time which is required when playing in chess tournaments. However, we can help them develop concentration skills that will serve them well in chess and more so if life!

The first problem I have to solve is one that most parents overlook which is their child’s diet. Many youngsters with take in high levels of sugar which causes them to become hyperactive. An active mind is crucial to chess. However, a hyperactive mind is a mind that is thinking in a disjointed way, seemingly in seven different directions at once. This means that the ability to focus becomes extremely difficult. Then there’s the simple fact that this high level of artificial energy will wear off quickly, leaving one feeling very tired (usually when the brain is needed most). Then there’s the individual who eats foods like hamburgers and french fries which leave them feeling lethargic which means their brain is struggling to go in even a single direction. Therefore, my students are given strict dietary guidelines for tournaments and I make sure their parents enforce them. The rule is simple: No sugar with the exception of fresh fruit. Meals prior to and during the tournament must be light. You cannot expect to concentrate unless your feed your brain wisely. I carefully explain to my students and their parents that the brain’s reaction with certain substances can lead to dreadful results due to the end product of that sugary biochemical reaction. Since most of my kids love science, they find this of great interest.

The next thing I have my students do to get into the zone of absolute concentration is either Yoga, Tai Chi or some form of physical exercise such as martial arts. Physical activity stimulates the flow of blood throughout your body, carrying much needed oxygen to your brain. Exercise helps to wake you up. Therefore, my students engage in some physical activity prior to their tournaments. I highly recommend Tai Chi because it really helps when it comes to centering yourself. Being centered means being having control of both body and mind. The forms used in this softer martial art require focus and concentration but in a very natural way. If you engage in an activity that requires too much concentration prior to the chess tournament, you may find that you’ve expended some of your ability to concentrate and focus before you really need it (when playing chess). Even simple exercises can be employed as long as you don’t overdo it.

Now for the brain warm up. Of course, my students will play practice games prior to their tournament games. However, I make them do a series of brain games to hone their ability to focus and concentrate. The first thing they do is play a few rounds of Solitaire, that old standby game found on most computers. The reason I have them play Solitaire is because it requires a small amount of focus, specifically in the area of pattern recognition. I build up the level of focus through the series of brain games my students engage in. Next I have my students count cards. That’s right, counting cards as in Black Jack. Of course, I don’t tell them it’s part of being able to successfully play Black Jack. With card counting, you assign three sets of numerical values to the various cards in the deck and keep track of the numerical count. I don’t want to turn this into a card counting lesson so you can look this up online. The point is that my students will have to focus and concentrate a little harder than when they were playing Solitaire. Again, it helps with pattern recognition.

Lastly, I have my students do a series of chess puzzles. The puzzles start off easy and get harder as we go along. The puzzles I use will require the students to look at the entire board. It’s important that they don’t start their games with tunnel vision, looking only at the part of the board where all the action is taking place. They need to see the entire board and do threat assessments, looking for potential threats such as hanging pieces, etc. The puzzles I use cover these issues.

We end our warm up sessions with a talk about good sportsmanship. Being a gracious winner and even more gracious loser is an absolute must with me. Act poorly and you are off the team. I tell my students that if they win they should consider the simple fact that their opponent probably isn’t feeling great about losing and thus ask themselves how they would feel if they lost and the winner was jumping up and down, screaming with joy. Shake hands and say good game! When losing I tell my students that becoming upset and crying only serves to make the victor’s win more sweet (there are a lot of sore winners on the junior chess circuit here). In short be kind no matter what the result.

So this is the basis of how I get my students to concentrate going into their tournaments. It works for adults as well! As for results, my students have owned many local titles for the last three years so I must be doing something right. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).