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How International Master Tania Sachdev keeps her mind on the game

Chess is as much a game of focus and attention as skill. In the first of a new series about the mental health of sportspersons, Sachdev tells Lounge how she stays cool under pressure

Sachdev does not meditate or follow any other conventional techniques to calm her mind (Source: Red Bull)
Sachdev does not meditate or follow any other conventional techniques to calm her mind (Source: Red Bull)

Tania Sachdev does not meditate or follow any other conventional techniques to calm her mind. What works best for the 34-year-old is playing as much chess as she can before a tournament. She needs to supplement that with stamina, with physical training, gym sessions or a run for 45 minutes to an hour every day, especially leading up to a big event.

“It’s easy to be focussed for the first one-two hours (of a match). Eventually, it (attention) starts wearing off, but I can’t afford to do that,” says the Woman Grandmaster (WGM).

Though there are team events, chess is predominantly a solitary sport. The game itself is difficult, draining and involves controlled emotions while working out hundreds of thousands of possible moves. While Sachdev used to miss family more when she was younger—she has been playing since age six and was the under-12 national champion in 1998—travel is part of the deal when playing for the country.

During travels for competitions, she stays connected, in a limited way, with her trainer and parents, but excludes all other distractions of hometown Delhi. After a game, whether she has won or lost, she connects with her trainer so they can analyse. It may not be an in-depth study, but even a superficial discussion helps her relax and move on. “Whatever your results are, you don’t want to carry it forward,” she says over the phone.

Pressure is part of the territory for an international sportsperson, which she says is a good sign when performing at a level that’s expected of her or is per her own expectation. Pressure keeps her motivated and focussed but there are times when it’s not positive, especially if you let external factors get to you, she says.

“If something’s affecting me—and that’s just a human element, no matter how strong you are—I consciously try and tell myself to take it easy and think about what I want to play next rather than the outcome (of the contest). Especially if I am feeling it strongly, if its stressful,” adds Sachdev, who is the fourth highest rated Indian female player as of September 2020 and was in the top 50 of FIDE (International Chess Federation) world rankings in 2014.

From time to time, she has been to a sports psychologist, spoken to different people in the field of mental health. But it’s not a regular thing, she adds. In India, Sachdev says, sportspeople don’t do it as regular part of training, which is unfortunate because the benefits are immense. “Professional help can assist in dealing with something as simple as struggles with concentration or confidence or personal matters that may be affecting you career,” says the bronze medal winner at the 2012 Women’s Chess Olympiad.

Chess can be a mentally exhausting sport, especially during long events. It’s not just the third or fifth hour of the game, but the latter part of event, when a player’s energy can get low. Building core strength goes a long way in chess, she says, since the sport requires long hours of sitting. “For the first few days (of competition), you will have energy, but you will soon start feeling tired. The brain is a muscle and it needs energy, though it’s not as tangible as body muscle. In each game, you burn 600-800 calories within two hours of play.”

In a game and during long training sessions, she would get up every 20 minutes or so, walk, sip on Red Bull and hydrate constantly. After the game, she likes to go for a stroll, get fresh air to calm her mind down and then get on the call with her trainer before dinner and gathering herself for next day.

While it’s easy to deal with successes, with positive results and tournament wins coming in, “the challenging and beautiful part is not in good phases”. Sachdev has realised that the test is to identify the specific problem, which could be an opening repertoire or certain endgames she is losing. That takes months to improve, but post that she has seen a “butterfly effect”—leading to results.

“Everything is not in our control. It’s much easier if you can identify a game problem. When going through a slump, you need a good support system, people who believe in you. If you can be strong in those moments and grow from there, you see tangible results. Sometimes it takes a year. But that one bad year plays a role in the next great year,” says the International Master (IM).

No matter how much you want to learn from losses, it’s heart breaking, she adds. “I still get sleepless nights after a bad game. The concern is not about one loss. It’s a deep and intense thing. Looking back, when you are older, you should not feel that you didn’t give it your best. You have this big opportunity, to be part of something.

“I am not sure if I have a fear of failure,” Sachdev adds. “Losses are difficult to deal with. That’s my idea of success—to feel that I had a great time doing it (playing).”

'Mindgames' is a new series on the mental health of sportspersons and how they perform under intense pressure

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