Start Where You Are (Laws of Adult Improvement, Part 2)

How to understand your adult brain so you can find Chess advice that will actually work for you.

My uncle is one of the world’s foremost experts on kicking in sports. He’s coached players in the NFL, Rugby, Soccer, and many in the Australian Football League.

He attributes much of his success to a simple idea: Start Where You Are.

Through his years of research and work, he knows the exact perfect way that the human body can kick a ball. He knows timings and movements. He knows how the muscles flex and release, what order things should happen, what makes it perfect.

If he’s teaching a child, someone coming to the game fresh, he teaches them that perfect method.

But it’s not what he teaches the adults.

By the time he starts working with an adult athlete, they’ve already been playing their particular sport for years. Their body knows what it wants to do to kick a ball. And rarely is it anything like the perfect method.

An old-style coach might try to replace the athlete’s natural style with the perfect style. It’s a grueling process to do that, painful. It breaks the athlete’s physical connection to the sport, makes each movement alien. It can have good results eventually, but might take years to work, and the athlete may never return to their previous level of skill. My uncle does something else instead.

He analyzes what the athlete is already doing, and works to optimize that.

“You already kick this way,” he says, “let’s make that as good as it can be.”

He doesn’t care about the perfect method, he starts his clients where they are. And he gets results. Excellent results.

This is the core tenet of my Chess coaching. And as adult improvers, coaching ourselves, we need to adopt this philosophy too.

The First Law of Adult Improvement: Start where you are.

We may not have been playing Chess since we were kids, but we have been thinking since we were kids. Your brain doesn’t see a difference between Chess information and any other complex information. It has developed ways it likes to handle complex things. Ways it likes to think, remember, learn, ideate, and conceptualize.

Your job is to identify what it is your brain wants to do and optimize that.

Build upon the strengths, shore up the weaknesses, fill the gaps.

Once you know how your brain works, you’ll be better equipped to navigate the world of Chess training as an adult. When you hear new advice, you can balance it against what you know about your own brain: “Will this advice work for me?”

Some advice will, some won’t. Some you’ll need to tweak. Some you’ll need to test. Some you can just disregard.

There is no one right way to do anything in Chess, regardless of what anyone says. When an instructor claims they have the “best way” or the “only way”, they are saying that it’s best for their brain. Maybe it’s been good for their students’ brains. It might be the best for your brain too, but it might not.

That is not a failure of the coach, the advice, or of you.

To use a deeply millenial metaphor, it’s like putting a Playstation disc into your Xbox – it ain’t gonna work. The Xbox can’t make sense of it, can’t read it, can’t run it. It doesn’t make the developers evil, or the game bad, or your Xbox less valuable. It’s just incompatible.

If you find some Chess advice to be incompatible, I give you permission to ignore it – even if it’s from a Grandmaster!

When you align your methods to your brain, you will get better results with less effort. This does not mean everything will magically be easy, you’ll still need to work if you want to improve. But it will feel more organic, more fun, less draining. Things will make more sense.

So learn about yourself, then find the advice that resonates. Find the instructors who seem to think like you do. Connect with others in the community and see if their ideas work for you too. Experiment. Try things that feel right, even if they seem strange to others. Trust yourself.

Sometimes starting where you are can lead you to fascinating places. This business is a result of me starting where I was.

I wanted to improve, I’d learned visualization was critical, and I knew that I work best with words and audio. So I made a few audio-based visualization exercises. People I spoke with thought I was nuts to use audio. When I eventually spoke with Masters, they were skeptical too (at least to start). But I jumped 500 ELO in 6 weeks with those exercises. And now, 4 years later, I’m here writing this for you.

Start where you are.

Here are some ways to find how your brain works.

Ask the people around you.

The people we love know us pretty well. They may even have a better idea of how you think and learn than you do. At the very least, they’ll have some useful perspectives. Pick 1-5 of the people closest to you and ask them the following questions:

  • how do I best solve problems?
  • how do I best learn new things?
  • when am I most excited by my learning?
  • when do I get stuck in my learning?

Write down what they say. Make sure to ask each person separately. You don’t want one friend’s response to color another’s.

Journal on the following prompts.

Grab some paper and a pen, or pull up a note on your phone. Write a paragraph or two on each of the prompts below.

  • I used to struggle with [insert non-Chess topic], but it finally clicked when…
  • The fastest I’ve ever improved at something was… And it happened because…
  • I disliked the process of learning [insert non-Chess topic]. It was awful because…
  • A weird thing I learned and have never forgotten is… I remember it because…

Find what type of thinker you are.

Some of us are verbal thinkers, others are visual thinkers, most of us are somewhere in the middle with a mix of both. Knowing your spot on the spectrum can help you understand how your brain engages with Chess.

I explain more about the Visual-Verbal spectrum and what it means for us here. (It’s a lengthy article, especially if you follow all the extra links, but it’s worth it.)

I took Twitch streamer Hannah Sayce through a questionnaire to identify where she falls on the Visual-Verbal spectrum. Follow along and answer the questions for yourself to find your spot on the spectrum too.


When you have completed those exercises, check the data for patterns. Those patterns will give you a great deal of information about your brain. How it likes to do things.

Now reflect on how you currently approach your Chess improvement. Does your training align with the patterns you identified?

What could you do to train in a way that’s more compatible?

Take a second and think that through. How could you approach your Chess in a way that works better for you?

Got an idea? Great. Now you’re thinking like an adult improver! 😎

About the author

Aiden Rayner writes about how to make the adult brain better at Chess. Using science-backed insights, he works to change the narratives around adult improvement, and help adults discover the power of their Chess brains.

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