One of Yogi Berra’s most famous Yogi-isms is his line that “baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical.” While this usually gets a laugh, most athletes concede that the mental game plays an important role in their overall performance. If I asked you how important the mental game is to poker, what would you say?
The next question I would pose to you is how much time do you spend training your mental game? The vast majority of players admit that this number is zero or very close to it. There are several reasons why this is a bad idea, but luckily there are some simple ways to correct this issue.
Poker is interesting because at its core it is a psychological battle. Most humans are hardwired to prefer certainty but being a good poker player requires taking financial risks with imperfect information which can result in potentially negative monetary consequences (especially if you play outside of your bankroll). When we do things that are contrary to our brain's preferred way of doing things, the results are often suboptimal. Loss aversion, fear of failure, self-doubt, and loss of confidence are likely responses. Compounding this is the fact that things like your emotions, mood, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, level of attention, energy level, past performances, hormones, and habits all play a role in the decisions you make at the table.
Add to this the fact that the games have gotten much more competitive in the last few years and with increased competition comes increased pressures and even more potential stressors. To play well, more is required than ever before. Yes, you must have strong fundamentals and play using a sound strategy, but you also need to develop a resilient mindset.
Developing a Resilient Mindset
A resilient mindset is one that allows you to take good spots while managing the stresses of poker. When you are resilient, you are able to manage your thoughts and emotions in order to make the most profitable decisions with the information that is available to you. You’ll also be able to resist the urge to act on impulse and you’ll be able to maintain your focus especially during long sessions. All this adds up to a strong psychological approach to the game which will enhance your performance and your win-rate over time.
Hopefully, I’ve sold you on the idea of working towards developing a strong mindset. Now I’d like to give you some strategies that will teach you how to do it.
One of the fastest growing areas of psychology is research into the discipline called mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading mindfulness researcher, defines mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Sounds simple enough, yes? But simple is not always easy and it takes some effort to build the skill.
Being mindful is a way of consciously deploying your attention and it takes some effort to do so. Most of us run on autopilot most of the time. That is, we do things without consciously paying attention and in a habitual manner while our mind wanders off (either to the future in the form of anxieties and worries or to the past in the form of regrets).
Training your brain to be more mindful has been shown to improve attention and concentration, enhance emotional regulation, and lower levels of impulsivity. There are several practices that you can incorporate into your pregame warmup (or really at any time of the day) that will help you reap these benefits.
Let’s start with an easy one. In this exercise you’re going to use your breath as your point of focus. The goal is to sit comfortably and put all of your attention onto your breathing. Sit in a comfortable position with your feet flat on the floor. Breathe in for a slow count of 6, hold for a count of 2 and then exhale for a slow count of 7. Repeat this pattern several times. As you are breathing in and out, solely focus on your breath. You could pay attention to the speed of your breathing, the feeling of your chest rising or the flow of air around your nostrils. It’s only important that you pick one aspect to focus on. You’ll probably notice that your mind wanders while you’re doing this exercise. That’s ok! Your mind was designed to wander. Simply notice and return back to your breathing. There is no need to judge yourself or worry that you’re doing it wrong. Recognizing that your mind has wandered is an important part of mindfulness training.
Notice that as you continue breathing, you are starting to feel calmer and more relaxed. Training yourself to notice this fact helps you increase your emotional awareness and this skill is very helpful at the table.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a great way to refocus and rebalance and it is useful prior to sessions and on breaks. I encourage my clients to start with 3-5 minutes a day and most work up to 10-20 minutes over time.
After you have finished your breathing session, take a couple of minutes to reflect on how it went.
● What was it like to do diaphragmatic breathing?
● How did you let your thoughts go and refocus your attention back on your breathing?
● How might this type of breath work benefit you at the tables?
Mindful walking is another common mindfulness training technique. It has the benefit of being easy to do and most of us could do with more movement, so it is win, win.
To get started, simply start walking. As you are walking, pay special attention to the physical sensations of walking. Notice the feel of your feet as your soles hit the ground. Feel the transfer of your weight from one leg to the other. Notice the flex and tension in your legs, too. As you are walking it is likely that you’ll notice that your mind has wandered. That’s perfectly fine! It’s a fantastic opportunity to notice and refocus on the physical sensations of walking. Giving your mind only one thing to focus on at a time has been shown to improve concentration.
Walking in and of itself is a great stress reducer but when you add in the aspect of full present attention, you get a wide range of mental health benefits.
The S.T.O.P. method is a useful mindfulness technique that you can use whenever you get into a sticky spot at the table. First, you stop, then you take a few diaphragmatic breaths. Observe what is happening in a nonjudgmental way and then proceed. Slowing down in this manner gives you some time to check in with yourself which will give you the chance to respond instead of just reacting. Try using the S.T.O.P. method away from the table, too. It’s a great way to teach yourself to stop autopiloting because it forces you to really experience what’s going on around you.
Mindfulness training is a fantastic way to train your mind to be more resilient. More research is coming out all of the time that shows that practicing mindfulness improves attention and increases patience. It also decreases overreacting. While it’s easy to do, it does take effort and practice over the long haul to really reap all of the benefits. The good news is that you don’t have to become a Buddist monk; a few minutes a day each and every day is more than enough to make a huge difference!