Getting Out Of A Slump
Bazilikan: I found a chess article about how to get out of a slump, but it works for Go as well. This version has been slightly modified to fit with Go.
One of the common questions I am asked is, “How do I break out of my slump?”
The first step is diagnosing what is wrong. So, let’s define some “slump” terms in order to get started:
A plateau is a time period where your rating stays constant. If you are struggling to improve and think you should be doing so, and yet are still on a plateau, we can call that a rut. When in a rut, you are performing at a normal level, but are having trouble improving. If you are in a slump, you are not performing as well as normal for an extended period of time.
Because the main purpose of this column is to advise improving players, helping you out of a rut has been the subject of almost all previous Novice Nooks! Among these The Ten Biggest Roadblocks to Improvement may be especially useful.
If you are not sure whether you are in a rut or in a slump then check your “slow” rating over the last 30-50 games. If you’ve dropped less than 50 points , you are most likely only in a rut. However, you may need outside help to diagnose exactly what the problem is.
Further confusion arises between a slump and a drop in your winning percentage. For example, suppose you are accustomed to facing weaker players, but suddenly you begin heeding my advice and start playing against somewhat stronger players to enhance your knowledge. It is possible that you are playing as well as ever, but suffer “culture shock” because of the scarcity of wins against stronger opposition. You might misdiagnose this situation as a slump, when it is just a normal drop in your winning percentage. Again, a look at your rating can be an indicator since it should not drop significantly if you are playing the same as ever. A lower winning percentage against stronger opposition will maintain your rating in a similar range as before.
If you are actually in a slump then the first step to breaking out of a slump is to realize that everyone has them, albeit for different reasons. Everyone has ups and downs! Therefore, occasional slumps are not only normal, but expected. How long it lasts, how deep it goes, and what you can do to break out of it are the major questions. Still, the answers depend on the causes, so let’s list the major causes of slumps, along with some suggested solutions:
1. Playing timidly against stronger opponents
It’s possible your slump is because you’re playing stronger competition. It is a common mistake to overestimate stronger opponents, and playing timidly will cause you to perform worse than expected or to give up draws in better positions.
Solution: One way to overcome this is to realize that opponents rated 100 points higher will only win 64% of the points, those that are 200 points higher will win 76%. That’s not an overwhelming advantage. So you should be able to defeat somewhat higher rated players in a reasonable percentage of the games. If you are improving, you may even win a higher percentage than predicted by the rating difference. Therefore, play aggressively and with the normal amount of “fun” against these players. Play all opponents, weak or strong, with the same respect, confidence, and aggression, and your results should return to normal.
2. Worrying about your rating instead of your playing strength
When people start playing Go seriously they think, “What a fun game! I don’t like it when I lose, but if I can put up with it, it’s just fun, fun, fun!”
Then they discover the rating system… Many players fall for the allure of the rating trap or other “false lures.” Within a few months, it’s no longer, “Can I play a fun game?” But instead harmful thoughts creep in, such as “How many rating points might I lose?” Focusing on the symptom (your rating) rather than the cause (your playing strength) is often a sure way to lose focus and – eventually – fall into a slump.
After all, you are no longer playing for fun or to learn, you are playing to “maximize” your rating. You’re thinking short-term instead of long-term. Therefore, what you should be trying to accomplish is lost and, with the wrong focus, a slump often occurs.
Solution: Forget your rating. Refocus on what you are trying to do: learn and have fun. The only permanent way to gain rating points is to improve your playing strength. Therefore, don’t get upset if you’re not gaining rating points; just try to focus on what is really important.
3. Playing just to play You could be playing at the wrong time: forcing yourself to play when you don’t feel quite well enough, or are too tired, or don’t really have the time, etc.
Solution: Unless you have a commitment to a team, play when you want to and when you can play with enthusiasm and confidence. Don’t force yourself to play just because it is Wednesday night.
4. Playing too often (burned out)
This problem is easy to diagnose. Usually, if you are honest with yourself, you can feel it.
Solution: Take a break and let your Go energy get restored. When you come back you’ll play with enthusiasm and a fresh eagerness.
5. Playing too rarely (not sharp)
Not having enough time for Go is a fairly common malady among adults. The real question becomes whether or not you can – or want to – do something about it.
Solution: There may be no good solution if the restrictions are truly important. But it’s possible that you’re not making enough time for Go because of hidden fears, such as losing or being afraid that your potential is not as great as you thought it was. If you really want to work at a hobby, you will eventually make time for it, unless it’s not as important as you thought it was.
I sometimes see this affliction in my students. Since they are taking lessons, they want to jump ahead, expecting some sort of instructional magic dust. However, in Go, as in any other complex activity, real progress takes time and practice. Therefore, even when taking lessons, any improvement usually takes time to implement. A second cause of overexpectation is that players don’t realize that improvement doesn’t happen in a straight line; expect to take one step back for every two steps forward. Overexpectation, or trying to do more than you can, usually leads to frustration, disappointment, and anxiety. The result could be a slump.
Solution: If you are doing the right things: balancing theory and practice, and adding positives and subtracting negatives, then you should be steadily improving. However, that does not mean that you will soon be invincible. So buckle up and get ready for the long ride. Having reasonable expectations will make your improvement more noticeable and enjoyable.
7. Not adjusting to the “next level”
There is an adjustment period where you have to get used to the better competition. In Go, this may mean playing “Real Go” more consistently or you may have to realize that you’re opponents are no longer going to give the game away to an easy tactic. At the “next level” everyone’s tactics are noticeably better and so are their strategic decisions.
Solution: Adjusting to the next level usually takes some time. The more you improve, the more resistance you should expect from your opposition. Playing at higher levels also demands consistent concentration as any minor mistake is quickly punished. If you love Go, as you learn more and the game becomes less “random,” you will enjoy competing against better players.
8. Loss of confidence
Loss of confidence is an attribute often associated with a slump. This can occur in combination with the other factors, or might just result as a snowball effect from a short-term bad streak.
Solution: Do you know more than you did before? Are you just as careful? Not senile? If so, you are probably just as good as ever, but it is not reflected in your play. Restore your enjoyment of the game. Take chances. Don’t be afraid of losing and make sure to learn from your losses. But, in any case, always strive to play with fresh enthusiasm and confidence. Overconfidence is another problem, but not the subject of this Novice Nook.
9. Acclimating to new methods
Go improvement often requires one to revamp their thought processes and eradicate bad habits from one’s play. But before good thinking habits become automatic and subconscious, players may find themselves “thinking about what they should be thinking.” Usually an adjustment period is necessary, and occasionally the result may be a slump.
Solution: Over time the consistent application of your new method should yield positive results. If the change is truly beneficial, then a little perseverance and tolerance may work wonders. If not, make sure the change is consistent with your character, desires, and goals.
10. Trying too hard
This is a common problem. Many weaker players make Go “harder than it is” with premature attacks and over-elaborate plans. They think that intense desire is consistent with good play, but this is obviously not always the case. In skittles games, happy-go-lucky players usually play quickly and with confidence, while intense players are often slow and overcautious. Assuming the ratings are similar, the happy-go-lucky player is likely to get “lucky” as the other loses the forest for the trees.
Solution: You always want to try your best, but this is measured in enthusiasm, care, and time management; not intensity and eagerness. No matter what the goal or your means to achieve it, pushing too hard won’t necessarily make it more likely nor quicker. In the world of Go, the persistent tortoise often beats the overeager hare.
11. Loss of enjoyment
This is probably the biggest single cause of slumps, and players often perceive the lack of enjoyment as a result of the slump and not the cause. The overwhelming majority of players are amateurs; for them Go should be played for the enjoyment and challenge. In some cases the loss of enjoyment can be so severe that it can cause a player, who might otherwise play competitive Go forever, to give up the game instead!
Solution: If you play to improve, then have fun and don’t worry about all the other baggage that may accumulate. Ask yourself, “What is important, the challenge of playing the game, or gaining rating points?” If you lose, is that the end of the world? Keep it fun, win or lose.
This involves not doing your work during the game (pacing yourself to take almost all your time; looking for checks, captures, and threats in reply to each candidate move when tactics are possible; when you see a good move look for a better one) as well as in-between games (doing tactical puzzles; playing over annotated master games; looking up the opening for each game so you don’t make the same mistake twice; reviewing your games with strong players). It also involves subtler matters. For instance, if, instead of seeking out stronger opposition, you play against weaker opponents – you risk rekindling bad habits such as taking your opponent lightly and playing fast, not expecting the best replies, or making bad moves and expecting your opponent to make worse ones. Or perhaps you play against the computer too often and can’t handle the pressure when playing tough human competition.
Solution: Hey! Get with it! If you want to get better at Go then listening to occasional tips from a good player or reading a good Go book is just not sufficient. Players who consistently work at the game improve noticeably more than those who don’t. In Go, as in many complex activities, you only get out what you put in. As I tell all my students when they start, “I’m just your guide. You are the one who will be doing the work.” Final advice from Professor Harley: “Key advice for avoiding slumps: try to stick to a routine, whatever the cost.” Next time you think you’re in a slump, try to identify one or more of the above causes and see if the suggested solutions help you break out of it.