If I had told any of my friends and family that I was seeking the advice of a sports psychology expert, I think I would have been laughed at way into 2010. I am about as far removed from an athlete as it gets and I need a sports....anything about as much as I need a talent agent, a body guard or a stunt double.
But poker is different, it's a great leveller, it's an arena where those of us who can't kick balls can sometimes compete with the best with a realistic shot at beating them. Whether you can call poker a sport or not, I think it is pretty clear where a sports psychologist can be of great benefit. Although essentially a mathematical game, the elements of gambling, money, aggression, ego and competition are enough to make it a game where you can often 'choke'. Where you can let your emotions control your actions and watch your bankroll diminish in front of your very eyes because you let the red mist move your chips for you.
The last 12 months had been pretty grim for me as a player, I felt like I was snake bitten and the unluckiest player on the planet. I had been running pretty bad for a long time, constantly running big hands into bigger hands and getting outdrawn more than my fair share. It got to the point that I was expecting bad luck whenever I got my money in the middle, which in turn was affecting the way I played. I became much more risk averse, I would elect to pot control more, look for cheap showdowns with monsters or overbet them to get the hand done with as quickly as possible. I was also getting very lazy as a player, not putting much or any work in away from the table to improve.
"Well you know all of what you have just told me is a croc of shit right?" replied mental game coach Jared Tendler during our first meeting. It certainly wasn't what I was expecting, I guess I was preparing a bit more for one of those 'visualise yourself winning' moments that I associated with sports psychology that I had seen on TV, where all a sportsman has to do is imagine himself scoring a goal/making a putt/knocking out his opponent and it magically happens.
But that's not what Tendler is about, he is actually a qualified councillor and he informs me that who you are, is what you do at the poker table and every other area of life. Human beings are destined to repeat the same mistakes over and over again and it was Jared's job to get to the route of why I was doing what I was doing, as well as teaching me how to change it.
We summed up three problems that I was facing, all of which were interlinked. First of all I had a victim mentality; I genuinely believed that I was unluckier than everyone else and that I was in some way cursed. The second problem was that suddenly, I was very scared to take risks at the table, opting for whatever the safer and lower variance route in any given situation. Finally I was not putting any time in away from the tables to learn anymore and really saw learning as a chore. It's pretty clear to see that my victim mentality was linked to my risk aversion, but I was surprised when Jared told me that they were both also creating this lazyness away from the table. Jared eventually managed to make me realise that I was using my fixation on bad luck as an excuse to stop learning, that I was telling myself there was no point trying to teach myself to be a better player when I would just get outdrawn anyway.
He was right, a light bulb just appeared above my head, and after a bit of scepticism all of a sudden I was a convert.
Rather than going on some major rollercoaster of mental journey with a pot of gold at the end of it, the journey Jared put me on is a much slower, stop-start sort of affair, like being stuck in traffic and progressing a little bit at a time but steadily. It was all about making small incremental changes every time I played, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.
For example, to cure me of the risk aversion I would have imagined I would have been perhaps throwing myself in the deep end jumping into the scariest poker situation I could imagine (Playing vs durrrr without looking at my hole cards springs to mind) but in fact it was much more a case of making a note every time I found myself in a situation where I was afraid to take a risk and ask myself exactly why, after the session, I felt that way, to better understand why I was afraid to gamble all of a sudden.
Another example of a small change, regarding my loathing of studying away from the table was actually, I discovered, that I wasn't picking the correct situations to work on. Normally I would pick out the biggest winning or losing hands for analysis, or the ones where I got outdrawn, but Jared quickly pointed out the error in this, as most of these hands were super standard and little can be gained from it. Instead of studying, by picking out these hands I was just reinforcing existing dispositions, deluding myself that I was better, worse or unluckier than I actually was by merely picking out one hand and reliving it.
Much better to make a note of any hand that stopped me in my tracks, any hand that made me pause or perhaps I couldn't think with a clear head about, any hand where I felt my heart beat faster or was just plain confused. These were the hands where I clearly had something to learn; even if they were not necessarily the hands were all the money goes in the middle. Rather than change the way I play poker, I was changing the way I learn, building my capacity to take more away from a session.
So that was how I could dig myself out of a rut, now it was just putting it into practice...
Join us next week for part 2