Selecting a Chess Coach
How should you select a chess coach for your child, or for your school group? There are a number of considerations, but let's start by considering a chess coach you might want to avoid:
Permission requested from Saturday Night Live, Season 10, Episode 5, Originally aired: November 10, 1984 - skit "Profiles In Sports"
Types of Chess Coaches
Before selecting a chess coach, it is important to understand what a chess coach is, and what you are looking for in your selection of a coach.
Chess coaches can be many things. They can be somone ...
or who is....
- ....not a strong club organizer
- ... primarily focused on results
- ...an excellent teacher of novices
- ... focused on adult chess
- .... focused only on fun
- ... patient or reserved
- ... very casual
- ... good at running a scholastic chess club
- ... focused on your child enjoying scholastic events
- ... an excellent teacher of strong players
- ... focused on scholastic chess
- ... demanding of results
- ... very formal
When searching for a chess coach, you will see that players of all strengths are able to hang out a chess coach "shingle". There are coaches who have no title, rating, or any other meaningful credential. There are coaches who have a title but have no demonstrable teaching ability. And there are coaches who have some combination of credentials to show that they both have knowledge and teaching ability.
How do you sort through these things to select a chess coach?
The Good Chess Coach
A good chess coach is someone who will:
- Assist you in diagnosing areas of your chess play and provide you tools to improve in those areas
- teach you how to develop your own diagnostic abilities and to gather together your own resources
- help you face some of your own "psychological challenges" at the chessboard.
- have standards and will focus on making you accountable for your chess commitments. HOW they do that will vary from coach to coach.
Generally, a good chess coach will have both good teaching credentials and credentials to show that they are a knowledgeable instructor.
Good Fit - the Key to Selecting a Chess Coach
Not all coaches are good fits for all students. Demeanor and temperment are factors to consider. Some coaches are flexible in their demeanor - and even have different kinds of lessons for different kinds of students.
A good plan is to narrow the selection to a few coaches, and then to try a lesson with each. Many coaches have an initial evaluation lesson to ensure a good fit, so there might not even be a cost for trying this.
This initial lesson gives you a chance to test the fit on a personal level. If you are looking for a coach for your child, attend the lesson, but in the background, off to the side. Make sure that your child is interacting directly with the instructor, not through you to the instructor. A good trick is to tell your child that you have something you have to do or read and then go off to the side, and act focused on that.
A good coach is always open to providing references that you can check, and is primarily interested in your improvement, so that if you feel you need to try another coach, they aren't going to be overly hurt or insulted. Don't be afraid to have open and direct discussions about what you think you need, and what the coach thinks you need. Find someone that will hold you accountable for your work so that your time and effort spent is more likely to lead to actual realized improvement. Remember, FIT with the coach - finding the right combination of demeanor, knowledge, and teaching ability, is more important than price or pure instructor ste
Tips for Selecting a Coach
To find a good chess coach there are several things to keep in mind. This list may help you in determining if a coach is the right fit for you.
- Determine your goal - This will impact your need.
For example, if your goal is to get from 800 to 1200 and that's all, then don't overpay for a Titled coach. Find a solid A player who can tell you how to work on your tactics, basic openings and endings and that's all you need! But if you want to lay a better foundation for even more improvement, then you need someone with a deeper understanding of the game. An example is that many players below master don't adequately understand the importance of the center.
- Need Help With a Goal? - Talk to a highly experienced, strong instructor.
A good instructor doesn't want ALL POSSIBLE business. They will typically be willing to volunteer a half hour to help you determine your goal.
- What age student are you? - Look for an instructor with experience in your age group.
- How experienced are you? - Often, experienced players have more to UNLEARN. Find an instructor experienced with this.
- Are you fine with individual lessons or do you prefer a group? - Be honest with yourself. Group lessons can be much less expensive, but you get what you pay for!
Especially to start individual lessons may be the way to go. Be honest with the instructor if cost is a factor - they'll tell you when to switch to group lessons. Don't just expect to double/triple/etc. up and be as effective.
- Are you looking for a robust foundation, or to address very specific issues? - Some coaches excel at developing a player's foundation. Others can teach you the latest opening variation. Check what your coach does.
- Ask your potential coach what students he/she prefers. Did they describe your student?
- Ask the coach what goals they generally have for their students. - One of a coach's goals should be to move the student along!
Eventually the student should either be out on their own, with another instructor for additional perspectives, or with an instructor who targets higher level players. You shouldn't anticipate having one "coach for life".
- Don't underestimate the need for a stronger coach. - Just because the student is low rated doesn't mean that the coach can be less strong.
Lower rated students may feel they can settle for a coach who is less strong and perhaps less experienced. The problem with this is that the coach may not fully understand key fundamental concepts and so may underemphasize, or perhaps even mis-teach, key ideas. Always check a teacher's credentials and work with prior students to ensure the quality of work.
- Ask for references from prior students. - It's always good to get references from other students.
We hope these tips help you find a coach that is a good fit for you!
How to Be a Good Chess Parent
I wrote this piece 20 years ago, and it's still relevant today. (Others may freely quote or link, with attribution.)
If your child is just embarking into the world of competitive chess, if she or he is thinking about playing in that first Saturday tournament, then you, as a parent or a coach, need to prepare yourself as well. For most children, especially those in K-3, a chess tournament will be different than any other sporting event in which they have participated.
Alone. During the game, they are alone. Just them, the opponent, 64 squares, and 32 pieces. No talking. No friends. No physical way to relieve stress. Parents and coaches frequently aren't even allowed in the room. This can be very tough. It can also be very rewarding. As a parent, as a coach, you need to be prepared to offer support and encouragement. Keep the focus on improvement. Don't focus too much on winning, and don't focus on just "survival.” The kids are smart. If you downplay winning, they will know they aren't doing well. Instead, manage their expectations before, during, and after the tournament. Teach them a process of improvement from tournament to tournament, not just from game to game.
A good approach is to have an honest discussion before the tournament about how well the child can do. If they are just learning, focus on keeping accurate chess notation. Explain that there are many good players and a goal of winning one or two games would be VERY good for a first tournament. Create little goals that they can control. Did they get all of their men out in every game? Did they ask themselves before every move what captures or checks there were in the position?
Find, measure, reinforce, and celebrate SMALL, MEASURABLE, and REACHABLE goals for them to work on. Repeat messages consistently: "Our goal (not just their goal!!) is to get better in every tournament. After a while, the winning will come by itself."
Watch the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer with your child. Certainly, some things are exaggerated to help tell a multi-year story in two hours. But remember key points, and, when things get tough in a tournament you can say -- "Hey, remember when Josh had that problem?” Kids get this stuff -- they identify with it, and the examples help them a great deal.
DO NOT tell them what not to do, especially as the last reminder before a game. There isn't a more certain way to make them mess up. Let me illustrate: Don't think about pink elephants. What's the first thing that came to mind? You see, the human brain is wired to think about things, not to avoid thinking about things. So leave them with a positive message. Wrong: "Don't bring your Queen out early.” Right: “Remember, bring all of your men out early, and bring your Queen out last, after all the other pieces are out."
Stress is a big factor. I've had kids that love tournaments that still literally toss their cookies before every game. Find stress relievers. For some kids, a gentle stroke on the back is re-assurance. For others, this lets them know that their parents are nervous about them being nervous -- so it just makes it worse. Learn to re-focus their brain. For one youngster I would make a funny face before every game in the tournament room when no one was looking. It would crack him up, be our secret, and get his mind off the big game.
Reinforce how to correct errors, but believe me, the kids will kick themselves about their mistakes, so you usually don't have to do anything to make this a big point. Tears are o.k. In fact, there are times when, under the right circumstance, I've even encouraged this. Let them know that feeling bad is o.k., and to avoid it next time, here is a positive step that we can take to improve our game. Many kids do very well with this dose of reality so long as you are supportive and they understand that you are there to help them, not to criticize them. Remember, they have no teammates, no bad refs, no weather, nothing else to blame this on. When they lose, they will know it's because they were outplayed, and a realistic approach to improvement offers hope and encouragement for the next game.
Distinguish between stupid moves and the fact that you are not calling the child stupid. We all make mistakes, we all started out as beginners, and it takes time to get better. I will often share a story that as an 11 year old I lost 100 games at Rook odds to a high school friend before I won a single game -- and I became a Master. They can too, but improvement takes time and persistence. Moves can be bad, dumb, stupid, stinky, etc. Children are not.
Most important of all -- have fun. Rejoice and celebrate in your improvements, savor the victories, and have a good time.