On one extreme there is being too soft on yourself, and on the other there is being too harsh. Neglecting discipline allows your bad mental game habits and a lack of professionalism to run riot. Meanwhile, being an unforgiving self-dictator causes a drop in confidence and a negative association with making mistakes, which are, after all, completely natural and unavoidable. Our purpose here is to describe the pitfalls awaiting the novice, on either side of this line. In the middle, we shall find the sweet spot, where good cop and bad cop combine to form the right level of self-criticism, necessary for the fastest progression.
Being too soft on yourself as a poker player is usually not a conscious decision to give yourself a break. In fact, this is a practice that the overly harsh player might want to consider adopting. Rather, being too soft is normally caused by one of two subconscious culprits: ego and neglect.
The egotistical player already thinks he knows it all. If he never makes a mistake then how could he possibly expect to improve? Back in 2008, as an immature kid, I once told my friend after a few too many beers that I was ‘clearly the best poker player in the world’. I was outraged when he disagreed with me by citing the names of many professionals with proven track records. I, myself, was yet to book a consistent winning stretch. As I write this in 2017, I am a long-term winning poker professional who plays, writes and teaches players for a living. What has changed? My ego. The old me would argue on poker forums, without actually considering my opponent’s point of view. A well-respected professional would assure me that my play was horrible and even hint at why. Instead of thanking him for going out of his way to help, I would waste no time in arguing back defiantly. My cracking ego rested on this unjustified pedestal for quite some time before I eventually saw sense. I eventually arrived at the liberating conclusion that, in fact, I was not a very good player and had a lot to fix in my game.
Delusional ego-driven players will never make it until they change their ways. When the mind becomes open to the multitude of mistakes that it makes all day, everyday, it suddenly sees the glimmering opportunity in fixing them. I could have saved myself a few years by being tougher on my out of control poker ego and putting myself into place. If you cannot reign yourself in, then there is no chance that anyone else can. Overconfidence is really nothing but a symptom of insecurity. I learned that lesson so that hopefully you don’t have to.
The other way in which the aspiring poker player can be too soft on himself is by neglecting his mental game completely. A professional, in any sport or game cannot be so without a great deal of self-accountability. The successful athlete trains, eats and sleeps to a regimented pattern, proven to breed success. The world-class chess player studies theory and works on tactical awareness while being sure to get enough exercise.
In my coaching career, I have had my fair share of irresponsible, overly relaxed students with a hazy dream of success. The trouble is that there is no link between this dream and how it is to be obtained in the harsh real world. This student gets drunk while playing, plays six-hour sessions without a break, and makes the same mistakes over and over again. Unlike the 2008 version of the author, this player does not have any delusions about where he is. Rather, he is delusional about how he expects to get to where he wants to be. This player isolates himself at home and plays for two days straight over the weekend, with poor results. He doesn’t bother to do homework and assumes that by tossing money at a coach his dreams will magically become reality.
If this sounds familiar, even to a small extent, then take a step back, and ask yourself: “Am I treating poker like a professional mental-athlete?” Poker is not easy. It cannot be improved at without vigorous dedication and constant learning. Mistakes are there to be scrutinised and improved upon, but only if you first take accountability and stop being sloppy while trying to succeed in one of the toughest tasks you could undertake.
Ego can also cause problems on this end of the spectrum. If a player has too much of a burning desire to succeed and is insecure about failure, it can quickly turn into self-massacre. Every mistake becomes a direct offence to the ego, and is deemed an unacceptable occurrence. Needless to say, such an approach is completely unrealistic and entirely misses the point of mistakes. They will always happen at any level of play. The difference between the successful player and the one who goes nowhere is how each reacts to making mistakes. Just as punishing a dog for chewing up your shoes does nothing to prevent repeat offences, punishing the subconscious for failing to apply a poker concept is equally useless.
In scolding yourself every time you make a mistake, you create anxious associations with errors. This leads to reacting emotionally rather than logically when things go wrong. We often refer to such a tendency as ‘mistake tilt’. A student will often assure me: “I don’t tilt when I get unlucky, only when I make mistakes.” He seems to expect me to be fine with this, when in fact; he is missing the most valuable opportunity for improving his game. Being too harsh on yourself can be even more destructive than being too soft.
Sometimes, finding the correct path is nothing more than avoiding the wrong ones. We can summarise by saying that the correct disciplinary cocktail contains a healthy combination of firm self-awareness and humble modesty. Only by tempering the ego can the aspiring player start to flourish, but this must not happen to the point that he becomes too relaxed. Set aside time to study where there is a zero percent chance of opening up any poker tables. Take regular breaks, keep a mental-game diary, and pretend that poker is a career you are highly motivated to succeed in, even if it is currently just a hobby.
At the same time, the student must not tear himself to shreds upon making mistakes. Expectations must start out reasonable. The student should be able to meet his goals should he perform to the best of his ability. Unattainable goals help no one and quickly set the bar so high that the player is doomed to fail and then feel bad about it. Make a list of the main mistakes you make on a regular basis and be sure to eliminate them gradually over time. When everything has been checked off the list, make a new list. You will make infinite mistakes for as long as you play the game. That is a lot of chances to improve yourself as a player. Be firm, be fair and be optimistic. Failure is a chance to succeed next time, but only if you learn from it.
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