Coaching junior chess teams, I take a group of young, often free spirited, individuals and mold them into a cohesive unit. I say “unit” because a chess team is just that, a team. Many people don’t think about members of a chess team working together the way in which a soccer or football team works together. After all, if you have three stellar players on a five man chess squad and you’ll probably do well. This is often untrue, at least in my play book! As I say to my team’s best players, “you’re only as good as the weakest member of your team.” In fact, with the chess teams I coach, it’s mandatory that the strongest players tutor the weakest players. Often, the top two team members will work extensively with the the players on the bottom rungs of the ladder of playing strength. This helps improve the game of the weaker player as well as reinforcing the knowledge already acquired by the stronger players.
You might say that I, the chess coach, should be the one doing all the work when it comes to improving the skills of a weaker team member. However, I’ve found that younger players can often provide explanations to their teammates that make more sense to the younger mind because, even as young at heart as I am, I don’t fluently speak teenager! The point here is simple, everyone on the team teaches and everyone, including myself, learns by doing so!
By working together, we act as a team. Too often, with various types of teams, be they soccer or baseball, certain players stand above the others because they’re amazingly talented. The rest of team supports them on the field and they win games. However, if the star player becomes injured and can’t play, how good is the team now? I try to avoid this problem by constantly working to strengthen everyone’s skills. As the old saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and this holds true for my chess teams.
When preparing for competition, we put in a lot of extra work outside of our normal sessions. My students push themselves. It should be noted that I don’t have to push them because I’ve taught them to challenge themselves and that means having to work hard. I recently watched a documentary about children in competitive sports and the lengths their coaches and parents go to force them to perform. In the case of junior football, coaches were making the children they train run until they literally threw up, claiming it was a sound method for teaching the art of facing challenges. I thought it was bordering on child abuse. If a parent forced their child to run until that child became violently ill, the child would be taken from the parent. Yet in youth football, this form of training is commonplace.
I run an intense coaching program and if you see the long hours my teams put in, you’d wonder how the children do it. My coaching program includes physical and mental exercise. I’m slowly introducing Tai Chi into the mix but the primary exercise is basketball. I have my students play for 30-45 minutes before sitting down at the chessboard. I ask every new group I coach if they’d consider doing something physical before the training sessions start. I explain that the brain functions at a higher level if we introduce a greater flow of oxygen into our bodies. This translates, in their minds, as “more oxygen, better chess playing.” My students gladly volunteer for the physical workout. Basketball, also gives teammates a chance to bond with one another, which is important when working together as members of a chess team.
I don’t make my students do anything they don’t want to do (or I wouldn’t do) because kids can be stubborn when they don’t like something (and so can I). Instead, I plant an idea in their minds and help them connect the dots, so to speak. We eat well at practice, avoiding processed foods, sticking with fruit and water. While kids love junk food, my students know that food feeds the brain and if you’re going to play well at chess tournaments, you want to feed your brain with only the healthiest food. Again, I plant the idea in their minds and they come to the correct conclusion.
I noticed while watching the above mentioned documentary, that both coaches and parents (especially parents) were setting a dreadful example for their children. Both the parents and coaches of nearly every team told their children that they were to “win at all costs,” including illegal hits (in the case of junior football). My chess teams can be cold and calculated killers on the chessboard without having to resort to any dirty tricks. Anyone who has watch junior players at a tournament have seen kicking an opponent under the table or taunting an opponent verbally while the arbiter is elsewhere. We don’t do that and doing so is an immediate suspension from the team.
Bad sportsmanship is something children see in youth sports leagues. Children learn how to function in life by watching the actions of adults. When a coach or parent behaves badly, many children think this behavior is acceptable. I have many friends whose children are involved in youth sports and have witness horrible behavior by parents and coaches, including fist fights between parents. As a coach or parent, it is up to you to set a good example for your children. I teach the students on my teams that the best weapon against an opponent’s bad behavior is good behavior no matter what. If you behave badly in response to an opponent behaving badly, things get worse and worse. If you simply ignore the taunt and maintain a level of coolness, the person behaving badly looks foolish. Rule one, regarding an opponent or parent behaving badly at a tournament; call the arbiter over and then your coach. Do not engage in a war of words. Ignore the verbal taunts. Be the better person!
I enjoy football and have learned a lot about tournament preparation from a former San Francisco 49ers coach, John Madden. He was one of the first NFL coaches to scientifically study the games of other teams prior to playing them. I do the same with our chess teams. We compile a database of games played by the opposition’s team members and look for weaknesses. Often, we find that junior players tend to fall into two categories, opening specialist and tactical wizard (both at junior level of course). The opening specialist is very good at gaining an advantage in the opening but often falls short during the middle and endgames (if they even get into an endgame). I teach my students who are not as strong in the opening to simply play to maintain equality. By this, I mean that my students should avoid trying to outplay their opponent, who has better opening skills, and only try to keep central control of the board balanced.
Many of the students who are supposedly good opening technicians have been taught a bunch of opening variations by their coaches and committed those variations to memory. Memorizing openings and knowing the underlying mechanics are two different things completely. While an out of book move might throw these junior opening wizards off completely, my students avoid taking this chance and opt for equalization instead. Sound use of opening principles and their mechanics trumps all.
With junior tacticians, those who excel at tactical play, I advise my students to play openings that lead towards a closed game. Junior level tactical play normally requires an extremely open board and by closing the position, you take away the opposition’s ability to gain the material upper hand via forks, pins and skewers (favorites of the junior set).
Of course, there’s always someone on the other team that attempts the fast checkmate which is why we prepare counter measures for every junior level fast mating attempt. Tricks and traps are popular at a junior level. I don’t teach traps except when demonstrating how to deal with them. My teams don’t employ tricks and traps because when they go wrong they go terribly wrong. We know how to deal with tricksters!
By examining the games of the opposition, we’re preparing ourselves for what lies ahead on the day of the tournament. I have my students do the first round of playing through the opposition’s games on their own. Only after they have spent time trying to discover any weaknesses or opposition advantages do I step in to see if they missed anything. I want them to do the work and learn in the process of doing so.
Kids should be allowed to be kids which means not pushing them too much but rather teaching them to push themselves (within reason). We, the adults, are a direct influence on how they behave so we need to monitor our own behavior. Any team activity should be fun and exciting not comparable to spending time with a military drill instructor. Kids will challenge themselves and do a better job of it when adults aren’t yelling at them in the background. My students have a great track record at tournaments and I don’t have to yell or make them run laps around the building until they’re physically sick. Give a student a good reason for doing something and they’re likely to do it. Employ kindness rather than sternness when coaching and you’ll get better results. Don’t push too hard! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!