By Steve Keating
LOSANGELES (Reuters) – Seth Makowsky may never win an Olympic gold medal but the United States chess team coach may have a hand in getting athletes on the podium at the 2020 Summer Games.
Surfing, skateboarding and climbing will all make their Olympic debuts next year in Japan but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has shown very little interest in mind games and adding chess to the programme.
In one sense, chess, which has tried for decades to convince the IOC to let it in and is renewing its efforts for the 2024 Paris Olympics, might be the ultimate Olympic discipline.
Athletes will tell you it is what goes on between the ears that separates winners from losers and although getting inside an athlete’s brain does not make great television, it does make good sense.
That is why there is a growing queue of Olympians, National Football League quarterbacks and Fortune 500 CEOs forming at the door to Makowsky’s company Poison Pawn, all looking for a competitive edge.
“What I began to realise was that at the most elite levels everyone is super athletic,” Makowsky told Reuters. “Everyone is super physically gifted but what begins to separate the elite top performers is how they process things, their mindset, their mentality, how they can recognise patterns, how they can almost see five moves ahead.
“From there I started a pilot project where I would train top Olympians and top professional athletes and what we saw was profound results, on the field.
“At the beginning I didn’t even know if they would show up but they loved it.”
Makowsky practises what preaches.
The techniques he has learned from chess’s grand masters he now applies to athletes in other sports, many of whom he admits could not tell the difference between a bishop and a pawn.
Understanding the game is not necessary to grasp a process where chess is used as a tool to imprint the foundations of concentrated decision-making.
“Chess is just a vehicle for my training it is equal if they understand it or they don’t,” Makowsky said. “Even better if they don’t because what we are focussed on is not necessarily chess itself.
“How to ascertain moves in a certain order, how to value certain pieces, how to go through a certain decision making process.
“It doesn’t ‘t have to do with the intricacies of the game itself,” he added. “Really it is not about chess, it’s about applying the principles of chess to their sport.”
The brain, Makowsky says, is a muscle that needs to be exercised.
One day while working on a project at a major training facility on another business matter Makowsky took notice of how top-level athletes were being trained.
Along with physical workouts they were also spending time with sport psychologists practising sequential memory and pattern recognition which he described as almost identical to chess training exercises.
“There is a complete protocol that we do like athletic training and it is based on athletic training principles,” explained Makowsky, who was recently named to the LA Sports Council and Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games.
“It is just like a strength coach training the brain as a muscle. As I honed my skill and strategy on the chessboard, I began to notice a remarkable and direct transformation in my life off the board,” he added.
“I made smarter decisions, avoided traps, and compartmentalised setbacks. The more I trained, the better moves I made in every aspect of my life.”
Makowsky is private about who he trains but does count Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson among his clients and he was joined on a panel at the LA Sport Summit by another quarterback, Tanner Mangum.
More and more Olympians are also looking into utilising the unique Concentrated Decision-Making model developed by Makowsky as they amp up training ahead of the Games.
“One component is more of the cognitive behavioural understandings of what comes when something goes wrong, what happens when you make a mistake,” said Makowsky. “How do you compartmentalise setbacks?
“Chess tactics that is part of it. They are able to recognise patterns. Think five moves ahead.”
(Editing by Ed Osmond)