Moskow, 1984: All traffic has been stopped, and thousands of chess fans, with minuscule chessboards in their hands, gather in any intersection, praying to see Garry Kasparov — or his life-time rival, Karpov — at least for a few seconds passing in the tournament’s official cars.
Kasparov was the world chess champion for 15 years. He designed his life as a long chain of tensions, radical decisions, and challenges, and many lessons can be learned from him about how to be mentally stronger.
Key points covered in this article include:
- Why Kasparov thinks that long-term tranquility is not beneficial for us.
- What composes the framework of mental strength.
- The cerebral “push-ups” needed for building resilience.
- Two simple ways to take responsibility.
- How “the Beast from Baku” gained confidence with a song during the most important match of his life.
Garry Kasparov’s tips for mental preparation
We need to strengthen our minds: making tough decisions regularly, reviewing them, and constantly improving our thinking system. In Garry Kasparov’s words:
“Psychological muscles atrophy from disuse just like physical and mental ones…We need a regular diet of change and healthy nervous energy to maintain our defenses.” — Garry Kasparov, How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves, from the Board to the Boardroom.
The word “healthy” makes the difference: he doesn’t recommend that we go crazy just to create tensions around us.
In his book, the famous chess champion explains that it is far more difficult to regain our mental strength after an unexpected period of stress than to prepare and create those tensions in our life.
The problem gets even bigger because, with the unclear purpose of living a serene life, we have the dangerous tendency to avoid responsibilities and to do nothing.
The 4 C’s of mental toughness
Using Kasparov’s stories and the notions elaborated by specialists, let’s discover how we can increase our mental toughness by first dividing this concept into four parts.
Mental Toughness Partners — a network of coaches, HR advisers, and mental toughness practitioners — created and explained the concept of the 4 C’s — the perfect framework for building mental toughness and increasing our ability to return to action after failures; specialists named this capacity resilience.
The 4 C’s are the following ones:
People who remain calm in face of unexpected events — those people who don’t allow a splash of emotions — master this section. Often, they create a great atmosphere for those around them.
Garry Kasparov not only challenged his brain by memorizing Pushkin’s poem before the aforementioned confrontation, but he also hid his emotions with that technique.
We can meet this requirement if we stick to our measurable objectives and work hard to achieve them.
According to the American Psychological Association, we should regularly seek even the smallest progress toward our goals stepping away from unattainable tasks and asking ourselves, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?”
The performers for the Challenge section are those who go out of their comfort zone, embracing changes and taking risks — “the change diet” also recommended by Kasparov.
It’s all about being creative — looking for new experiences and places — and expecting good outcomes.
This trait allows us to boldly answer objections and believe in our abilities. With confidence, we can become influencers and better manage conflicts and challenges.
Allow me to share with you how, surprising us again, Garry Kasparov gained confidence in the most decisive moment of his career — the final against his legendary rival, Anatoly Karpov — by listening to the song Koni Priveredlivye/Fastidious Horses by Vladimir Vysotsky.
This is how he describes his feelings:
“So, in the first three matches against Karpov, (…) before each game, I listened to this song, because it just charged me with energy, and even when I was losing by a lot it gave me some hope. It’s about always being one step away from the abyss, that’s your challenge: if you survive, one day you will prevail.” — BBC Radio 4, Desert Island Discs, Garry Kasparov.
After that final, Garry became the youngest world chess champion in history. Sometimes the world seems to be crushing around us, and we just need to survive and fire that powerful energy that we all carry within.
Three “mental push-ups”
Amy Morin — mental strength trainer and host of the Mentally Strong People Podcast —makes it more simple for us, suggesting three “mental push-ups” with which we can build psychological strength in just five minutes a day:
1). Each day choose three things that you’re grateful for
The gratitude journal suggested by Amy Morin is one of my favorite tools, but I used it mostly in my most difficult periods. By rereading those simple things or events that made me happy, I find inspiration to create happiness around me nowadays.
2). Practice mindfulness
Developing this habit will help us to stay present, increase concentration, and develop a kinder internal dialogue.
The trainer recommends us to concentrate for a minute on what happens around us and identify new sensations through a body scan.
Michael Michalko has a similar approach in his book, Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques, recommending us, before choosing the solutions to our problems, to practice meditation in order to reach that state when our mind is free from any disturbing thoughts: only then will we increase the quality of our ideas.
Going back to Garry Kasparov’s personality, I must say I’ve never seen him angry at the beginning of a chess confrontation because he understood that a clear mind is also powerful.
Only when the situation used to get complicated on the chessboard, he transformed into a spectacular attacker, unleashing that dazzling energy that often stunned his rivals.
That’s why people called him “the Beast from Baku.”
3). Behave like the person you want to become
Changing our behavior will stimulate our emotions and our thoughts to follow the good path.
To illustrate this advice better, I will present the most clear idea I heard related to this action.
Professor and writer, Victor Küppers, suggested us, at the BBVA Talk, to imagine how we would do an unpleasant activity — like washing dishes or taking out the garbage — immediately after coming home with the UEFA Champions League Football trophy.
How would we respond to the greetings of a neighbor encountered on the stairs of our building?
Of course, we would almost hug him, wouldn’t we?
Let’s enjoy together Victor Kuppers’ words:
”When you’re happy, when you’re motivated, when you’re euphoric, when you’re excited — call it whatever you want — but in these moments it’s when you bring out the best you carry inside, because there is that ‘you’; and it is a ‘you’ at its best version, with your best attitudes, with your best feelings. It’s a fantastic ‘you’ that you have, of course, you have it!” — BBVA Aprendemos Juntos, Victor Kupper — El Valor de tu Actitud/ The Value of Your Attitude.
Two ways to take responsibility
The other factor that Kasparov considers decisive for our mental preparation is taking responsibility instead of watching the time pass.
Regarding this subject, Dr. John Izzo, in his book - Stepping Up: How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything, wrote that people “step up” every day, deciding that they have the capacity, the obligation, and the desire to change things.
We can all step up by identifying a need and deciding to act towards it. For this, we have to analyze our behavior. In Dr. John Izzo’s words:
“The moment we look outside instead of inside, we are like Superman around kryptonite: our power disappears.” —Dr. John Izzo, Stepping Up: How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything.
The author identified two simple “ways to step up”:
- Observe yourself blaming someone for an error and correct this attitude by asking yourself, “In what way am I contributing to the problem?” or “What can I do to make things better?”
- Notice the people that are affected by your reaction and influence them with a positive attitude.
Bonus tip: the bounce-back technique
Anticipating failure and having a back-up plan could also be decisive for our state of mind.
To maintain resilience, Dr. Chris Stankovic says we need to set a quick bounce-back technique in mind to help us when we fail or get frustrated.
Case in point: for athletes, this may be a ritual performed during a game just to turn things around in their mind — pinching a few blades of grass and throwing them into the wind are small gestures through which their mind understands that these athletes let that bad play go.
- We have the tendency to relax and to do nothing — an attitude that can make us vulnerable when high tensions arise.
- To become resilient, we should regularly take decisions and responsibilities.
- The four C’s for achieving complete mental strength are: control of our emotions, commitment toward our goals, challenges sought out of our comfort zone, and confidence in our skills.
- A small bouncing-back technique can help us to quickly forget our failures.
- Before going to sleep, find three things you’re thankful for and write them in a journal.
- Practicing mindfulness will help you to be more present, focused, and creative.
- Behave like your ideal “you,” and your behavior will generate productive thoughts and emotions.
- Take responsibility by not blaming others and by influencing people around you with your positive attitude.