Features Apr 5, 2016 | 8:02 AMby chess24 staff

Learned helplessness in chess

All chess players know the feeling – one or two bad or unexpected losses suddenly turn into a losing streak where nothing seems to go right. What’s going on, and what can we do to get out of that situation? Two Spanish psychologists suggest the concept of “learned helplessness” applies and suggest ways in which to overcome it, including the straightforward approach of solving simple tactical puzzles before a game.     

Psychologists María Rodrigo and Carlos Martínez recently gave a presentation on “Learned Helplessness in Chess” at the XV National Congress of the Psychology of Physical Activity and Sport in Valencia, Spain. They’ve kindly shared their presentation with us.

In 1970, Seligman coined the term LEARNED HELPLESSNESS (in 1978 it was reformulated to include the theory of attributional style: Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale). It refers to how an animal or human being “learns” to behave passively, having the subjective sensation of being unable to do anything and failing to respond even though there are real opportunities to change an adverse situation. In chess it’s common that the appearance of an “unexpected” loss, two consecutive defeats or even making a bad move during a game can trigger a similar process to LH and lead to a deficit in a player’s motivational level (nothing that he or she does seems likely to be able to reverse the situation), cognitive level (a failure to evaluate the new reality and the chances that arise) and emotional level (the occurrence of anger, sadness etc.) which adversely affects his or her subsequent performance.

It happens to the best of us! Veselin Topalov is renowned for his ability to forget about a defeat the next day, but in the Moscow Candidates he couldn't recover from a bad start and went on to lose five games and win none | photo: World Chess

The current study is based on an experiment with chess players where the possibility of generating learned helplessness through concrete tasks was examined, along with how that could cognitively and emotionally impact the performance of a player. We took as our basis the articles, “Learned helplessness in chess players: The importance of task similarity and the role of skill” (Gobet, 1992) and “Indefensión aprendida y rendimiento en ajedrez” (“Learned helplessness and chess performance,” Fernández Torres, 2007). Those articles give a detailed explanation of how to generate learned helplessness in chess players, while the second also investigates how that can impact performance during competition. 


12 players were selected with a similar strength of play – Elo ratings within a range of + - 100 points. Group A received a series of chess problems that were simple to solve, while Group B, in contrast, received problems that had no concrete solution but instead required taking a long-term decision. The instructions provided to the players were that all the problems were different for each player but the difficulty was the same and there was a concrete solution to obtain a decisive advantage for the player with White or Black.  

They were given a period of 10 minutes in which to solve as many problems as possible. Later a player from Group A played two games against a player from Group B. Those were rapid games – 10 minutes for each player.

Our hypothesis was that the players who were unable to solve the problems (Group B) would have worse results than those who could solve them (Group A). 


The results conformed to the hypothesis:

Table 1: Results of players in Group A

PLAYER A1 100%
PLAYER A3 100%

Table 2: Results of players in Group B


The graphic below illustrates the results and makes it very clear how the players in Group A outperformed their similarly rated opponents:

As you can see, in 4 of the 6 cases the players in Group A had better results than those in Group B. In only one case was the result worse.


In order to mitigate the effects this can have on performance, we consider it essential for players, coaches and parents to work together. 


To alleviate negative feelings that a chess player is experiencing – that nothing he or she does can make any difference – we suggest the following tasks or lines of intervention: 

  • Visualisation: It’s important to help the player to generate positive images when facing difficulties so that he or she is capable of confronting and overcoming those problems. In order to do that visualisation or imagining can be very useful to generate images, working with the player on situations that can later happen in the game and focussing on how to overcome those difficulties.
  • Solving simple problems before games: Solving simple problems – those where a player will score around 90% - seems to us to be highly recommendable for chess players who are on a losing streak. Solving those exercises will help them to gain confidence and go into a game without negative emotions.
  • Audiovisual or printed material in which great sportsmen have found themselves in a negative spiral but managed to get out of it: It’s important to offer players material where they can see that what’s happening to them at that particular moment has also been endured by other great sportsmen. Providing that material and discussing it, asking them for their opinion and the emotions or sensations they have when observing it, will help the player to find new energy and greater motivation to excel.
  • Positive auto-instruction: The player should be aware of the messages he’s sending to himself during the course of the game, since if they’re negative (“I won’t be able to do it”, “why even try”, etc.) that’s going to enhance the feeling of LH. To that end, we need to teach players to be aware of the possible occurrence of such messages and change them for other positive messages which will aid or strengthen his or her abilities.


Coaches should make some adjustments to their approach in order to make sure the player gains in confidence. We suggest the following approach:

  • Reduce the difficulty of tasks: If the player isn’t feeling comfortable and has negative sensations it’s important that the coach can offer new tasks where the student will regain confidence and the motivation to reverse these processes. The idea is to lower the difficulty of the tasks to the point where the student regains the sensation of success and will be more likely to find good moves during a game. Later the difficulty level can gradually be increased again.  
  • Support and enhance effort and the process of playing: When a chess player is struggling with results and has negative feelings it’s imperative that the coach, along with the player, can value new items that relate to the effort put in both in training and competition. Focus on the process and not on the result.
  • Concrete goals which don’t refer to the result: As mentioned in the previous point, we think it’s necessary for the coach to set a series of concrete goals that have nothing to do with the result. Those may, for instance, be playing a certain pawn structure or an opening studied previously. Value and support the effort put into and the achievement of these goals without focussing exclusively on results.
  • Positive messages: Send positive messages, value the experience positively and find, together with the player, his or her strengths. That’s vital during a competition in order to boost confidence and approach a tournament in a better mental condition. 


Various factors come into play:

  • Parental expectation: It’s common to find parents of chess children who have grandiose and unrealistic expectations about the sporting future of their children, particularly when the children are young. These “expectations” are usually transmitted to children through comments, actions and gestures, which put great pressure on the children not to “let down their parents”. It’s therefore important to provide information and a space to communicate.
  • Being able to differentiate the role of coach and parent: The coach is focussed on the technical aspects of chess, while the parent should be aware not to interfere in the work of the coach but instead provide support at all moments. Young players usually look to their parents for empathy and to feel understood.
  • Anna Muzychuk supports her sister Mariya, who went on to win the knockout World Championship | photo: Anastasia Karlovich

    Unconditional support for the player: Value effort and involvement most and don’t put too much focus on results. The parent’s attitude should be the same after both wins and losses. It’s important to maintain an emotional balance - excessive euphoria after favourable results or anger after setbacks are both inadvisable.
  • Verbal and non-verbal communication: Learn to communicate effectively with children, showing empathy before and after a game of chess.

Before: It’s often effective to leave the player in peace beforehand rather than give a thousand last tips.
After: Wait for a child to approach and learn to identify what he or she needs at that moment e.g. to speak, or simply to have emotional support. Never put too much emphasis on moves that were played badly. There will be time to make corrections in future.

In summary: Learn to place importance on the person and not on the expectations. The family should provide unconditional support and be centred around how a person evolves and develops i.e. support the human and personal side of the player.

See also:

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