Tough by Nature

“What does not kill me”, said Nietzsche, “makes me stronger”.

How we react to bad experiences is an important part of our personality.

Of course we all want to protect children from high-level bad experiences, but the issue I have with many parents and schools is that they are over-zealous in protecting children from low-level bad experiences rather than teaching children how to deal with them. This makes it hard for children to develop qualities such as resilience and independence.

There is an increasing understanding that non-cognitive skills such as these are more important than cognitive skills in predicting future success. I referred in an earlier post to a new book by the aptly named Paul Tough, How Children Succeed, which includes a chapter about the famous IS318 school in New York.

Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t be saying “Chess makes you smarter” but instead “Chess makes you tougher”. It’s important that schools promote competitive activities in order to develop mental toughness. While many children will enjoy competing on the football field or the tennis court, there will be others who will prefer more cerebral competition. Both within and outside school, we do a lot more to promote competitive physical activities than we do to promote competitive mental activities. Twenty years or so ago, many primary schools were opposed to any sort of competition because children might do badly and that would make them unhappy. When I asked one school, which promoted chess strongly and taught all its pupils to play, why they were only entering one team in our schools tournament they told me they couldn’t possibly enter any more teams because they might score less than 50%. Most schools, fortunately, have moved away from this, but there’s still much more they can do.

If you’re playing competitive chess you will have many good experiences. But you’ll also have bad experiences: games where you play badly, blundering in a winning position, poor tournament performances, events where your opponents all seem to play well against you, opponents who are distracting, unsporting or otherwise difficult. Developing the mental toughness and resilience to cope with this is part of growing up. If you play a bad game you can say “I’m no good at chess” and give up. Or you can work out why you lost and try to improve. Perhaps you didn’t know enough about the opening. Perhaps you miscalculated the tactics or didn’t find the right plan in the middle game. Maybe you need to improve your knowledge of rook and pawn endings. Losing a game of chess might kill your king but it doesn’t kill you. If you learn from your mistakes and improve your play as a result then it makes you both a stronger player and a stronger person. If you decide you’re no good at chess, lose confidence and play badly for the rest of the tournament then it makes you weaker. Of course, if you love chess but find it hard to cope emotionally with tournaments you can always do what I did and become involved with other aspects of the game instead, but this is not a decision for young children.

Up to a point, we can, and do, teach this sort of mindset within school and junior chess clubs. We tell children not to give up if they’re behind but to keep fighting. We encourage them not to be disheartened if they’re facing an opponent they think is stronger than them, and not to be over-confident if they have a winning position or are playing a weaker opponent.

But developing mental toughness goes beyond that, beyond their approach to an individual game into how they view chess as a whole.. Young children who lose their games will decide chess isn’t for them and give up. Older learners, who may have greater emotional maturity, and will be old enough to teach themselves, will work out what they need to do to improve.

If we encourage children to start young they may benefit more in terms of cognitive development, but starting children older may well be more beneficial in terms of developing non-cognitive skills.

My new course is called Chess for Heroes. There are several reasons for this, but one reason is that the course, in between the chess content, will teach children the advanced cognitive skills they need to become good players, along with the non-cognitive skills they need to be successful competitors. This means developing mental toughness: the quality of a hero.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.