Ranked Anxiety

No other community seems to be more focussed on their rating (elo) than the chess community. And when you hit a certain rating right then everyone 200 points below is a patzer, 200 points above it a wicked sorcerer tricking you with piece play magic. It might happen that you start focussing on your elo to measure your strength. Some even become obsessed with it. The point here is in the details. You want more rating – that’s fine, nobody wants to get worse. You will play games and most likely you are going to get the rating points you deserve. Chess is very just in the sense that seriously working on your game will result in higher strength. No problem here, right?

But some people develop something called ranked anxiety and/or elo obsession. And this is a completely different beast than just wanting more rating points and it may become a serious problem (a problem to progress): You are avoiding to play ranked games (or even games at all) because you are afraid of losing those precious points you already accumulated. Like any other anxiety even just thinking about playing a ranked game can make you feel highly stressed, overwhelmed or even nauseous.

While a rating is an ok indicator of playing strength it is a very bad measurement to focus on for improvement – especially short term. Like in other areas where you try to influence behavior concentrating on negating a thought is hard. Replacing your unhealthy thoughts with positives ones is much easier and way more effective. Here are some thoughts on different aspects when you are starting to care too much about your rating.

Find the fun again

Play an interesting game. Remember what makes a game of chess interesting or beautiful to you. If it’s fun for you go sac something (even if slightly unsound) and go for the attack. Or try to squeeze an endgame where you play out your slightly better position into a zugzwang win. Remember what you like about the game and concentrate on getting exactly this out of your next games.

Play incognito

Sometimes the anxiety is connected to experienced peer pressure. Will someone make fun of you if you drop 100 or 200 points? You wanted to show everyone that you would gain points! Online: Go to a different account and/or platform and you can play without your friend and/or clubmate reviewing the other day (or without you thinking they might do so). You even stay elo-neutral on your platform you like best. Nobody cares while you are incognito, it’s just you and the board.
Offline: Maybe hit a different club than usual (maybe even a different town) for a small blitz or rapid tourney on their club night. Nobody is going to track your result.

Losing streaks

You had a bad game. Maybe even a bad streak. And you want to preserve what is left of the rating (“If I play more, I will drop more.”) Maybe this is a good time to endure the pain of those games again and check them thoroughly. Why did you lose? Forgot theory? Review lines. Blundered? Do tactics. No clue what to do in the position? Review master games. Mistakes in a standard endgame? Replay the winning position against the ultimate beast stockfish until you feel you are familiar with all its dirty tricks. Don’t let yourself get away with playing down your mistakes. Do some actual work on the flaw(s). And then you come back to the board – harder, better, faster, stronger.

You are not your rating

You reached rating Y. It’s your best ever. Finally, you are in the group of people with rating Y. You are not rating X anymore. Congrats! And you never want to be rating X again. If you stop now, you can’t be X again. True. But also true: With that strategy you will never be rating Z, ever. And anyhow, you are not your rating number. Think about how little you care about other people’s rating numbers and how they fluctuate. And here is another thought: The rating is always the sum of the past. You are here in the present. And the future is ahead. Look forward, not backwards!

Take a break

If playing in such a way (with focus on rating mostly) is no longer enjoyable, if it stresses you out or impacting you negatively in any other way – stay away for a while. Play some unranked. Watch a video. Do some puzzles. Review games. Give a chess lesson. Do something completely different and hike in the mountains. Have a coffee in the new hip café downtown, read a book, watch a movie. When you are ready to come back hopefully you care a little less about that number and more on the enjoyable parts of the game.

Play with a goal

Set a goal for yourself that has nothing to do with the rating or the outcome (points) directly. Remember, a goal should be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely. Here is how this could look like:
In my next tournament (7 games) I will only play attacking games. I will try and give material in any opportune moment to receive the initiative. I will look for the best but also sharpest moves. When given a choice between what I think its equally good moves I will go for the agressive line. I will not back down from complications.
After the games try to focus very hard on whether you followed your own outline. This is your only measurement of success, nothing else.

Meditation and Reflection

Like for anything else anxiety related, meditation can be a great tool. It also might help reflecting on past feelings and their nuances. Were you anxious or exited? Or both, a bit of that, a little more of the other? Physically, they are somewhat alike, but the state of the mind is very different. Search your feelings, recognize them, but be in control instead of letting them controlling you. What’s behind those feelings? Do you agree with the reasoning you find? If you don’t, feel free to disagree and start taking control of yourself in those situations. It’s a process, not an instant switch.

After all, we are human beings; we do what we do to either to get pleasure or to avoid pain. Sometimes, our brain needs a bit of rewiring to work for us in the long run and not get stuck in patterns that promise a solution but actually work against us. And as you are in charge of yourself it is your job to make decisions that are helpful, healthy and rewarding. If playing is currently not enjoyable try to get to the cause(s) and take appropiate action(s).