Secrets from a wunderkind

Josh Waitzkin ist ein Wunderkind!

Josh Waitzkin ist ein Wunderkind!

By Anthony O. Alcantara

Josh Waitzkin’s credentials say it all: eight-time National Chess Champion in his youth, subject of the book and movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” published his first book, “Josh Waitzkin’s Attacking Chess,” at 18, and became international chess master.

On top of that, he also held 21 national championship titles and several world championships in a physically-demanding martial art called Tai Chi Chuan as well.

It’s rare to find brains and brawn in one human being. And it’s much rarer to find a person performing these feats at world-class levels.

That certainly makes Josh an authority on optimal performance. The following tips are based on his book, “The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance” (265 pages, Free Press, 2007).

I don’t guarantee they will work, and neither does Josh in his book. But it’s worth a try.

1) Become an incremental theorist.

In the chapter “Two Approaches to Learning,” Josh describes the findings of Dr. Carol Dweck, a leading expert in developmental psychology. Dweck, he said, made a distinction between “entity” and “incremental” theories of intelligence.

Children have been made to think in ways that make them either “entity theorists” or “incremental theorists.” “Entity theorists,” Josh said, “are prone to use language like ‘I am smart at this’ and to attribute their success or failure to an ingrained and unalterable level of ability.”

“They see their overall intelligence or skill level at a certain discipline to be a fixed entity, a thing that cannot evolve,” he added.

“Incremental theorists” or “learning theorists,” however, tend to “sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped—step by step, incrementally, the novice can become master.”

Josh ascribes really successful people to this “incremental” theory of intelligence.

2) Find your “soft zone.”

In the chapter “Soft Zone,” Josh tells about his peak zone, where full concentration and optimal learning takes place. It is where people lose themselves in whatever they are doing and come out refreshed and energized nevertheless.

The trick, he said, is to recreate the moments when you are totally immersed in an activity. Study them and find out how you can duplicate this “soft zone” to improve your performance.

3) Think of “chunking” and “carved neural pathways.”

In the chapter “Slowing Down Time,” Josh tells about intuition. He said he developed his intuition through years of training and he has found that it may have something to do with the theories of “chunking” and “carved neural pathways.”

“Chunking” refers to grouping chunks of information into a single “chunk” for easier recall. In chess, for example, grandmasters don’t memorize distinct and separate moves or positions. They memorize manageable chunks that recreate intricate chess positions and sequence of moves.

As for “carved neural pathways,” this can be developed through conscious, focused and deliberate repetition or practice. If you continuously stretch yourself and deal with complex information, you eventually build “pathways” that will make it easier for you to access this complex information.

4) Develop your focus and concentration.

In the chapter “The Power of Presence,” Josh makes a case for focus and concentration.

“In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre,” said Josh.

“The secret is that everything is always on the line. The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone of showing what we’ve got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing,” he explained.

5) Make it a HIIT.

High Intensity Interval Training or cardiovascular interval training can improve mental performance as well.

In the chapter “Searching for the Zone,” Josh tells us about what he learned from a performance training center that revolutionized his approach to peak performance. It was about “stress and recovery.”

He said the routine use of recovery periods distinguished the dominant performer in virtually every discipline. He mentioned Michael Jordan sitting serenely at the bench for two minutes before coming back to the game, Tiger Woods walking in a relaxed way before making his next shot, Pete Sampras calmly picking up his racket even though he lost some points… they all show this effective use of recovery periods.

Cardiovascular interval training, which involves varying intense physical strain with rest periods, can do wonders for physical as well as mental performance, according to Josh.

6) Build your trigger.

Josh tells about how to dive into the zone in the chapter “Building Your Trigger.” He suggests developing a routine before a pleasurable activity. For example, if a father enjoys playing basketball with his son, he can come up with a routine that can perhaps involve a few minutes of meditation, a few minutes of stretching, eating a light snack, listening to music, etc., before playing basketball.

Doing this routine before playing basketball, and before a challenging task at the office, will help develop this trigger. Of course, as the months pass, the routine is truncated up to a point that you only have to imagine the music or just take a few deep breaths in order to go in your “soft zone.”

“This process is systematic, straightforward, and rooted in the most stable of all principles: incremental growth,” Josh said. He explains the process at length in the book.

In a nutshell, Josh has one overarching message: optimal performance can be learned.

If we want to learn to be the best, then we might as well learn from the best. Josh Waitzkin is one of them.

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