Consider this article the little blue pill for your game. You can use these techniques to stay focused, and stay stronger so you can last longer.
I'm going to walk you through the pre and post-session routines that help me prep, perform and unwind. Finally, I'm going to give you some tips you can use during the session to maximize your retention levels. Many of them are going to seem pretty basic, but it's easy to lose sight of the basics when we're caught up in the game.
MTTs vs. Cash Games
I believe multi-table tournaments (MTTs) put more stress on your system than cash games due to the mounting pressure to get deep. Players worry that they won't see anything for their effort if they don't cash, and the longer they play before reaching the bubble, the more intense the pressure becomes, and it manifests itself in tensing of the muscles and tension build up in the body. I speak to this specifically in my article on tilt - and how to stop it - which you can read here.
Now, the negative effects compound further when we look at the top prizes and get into our heads that anything less than those big prizes is a failure. And no one wants to feel like a failure.
Then you’ve got our natural fight or flight response: we have to perform or we're putting ourselves at risk. The best way to avoid this panic mode is to set an intention before you begin. Focus on one part of your game: something you want to do during the session so that win or lose, as long as you're focussing on that one piece of your game, your session can be a productive one. This shifts your focus to something you can control, not something that's highly dependent on luck, so you're not going to encounter that flight or flight response any more. You're cool, calm and collected, which is a boon in tournament play where there is so much going on and it’s easy for players to get mentally and physically drained.
The Warm Up
This is really important for me, since how I perform in my warm up effects how I'll play in my session. I have three things I do prior to any game.
Namely, cardio. Doing this before a session releases tension and relaxes your body, thereby allowing you to take on more stress and deal with that stress better during the game.
After cardio, throw in a little free movement and stretching. Once the body is warm we have a chance to release long held places of tension. Free movement also ensures that our body is in balance; just doing the same repetitive movement over and over can actually take our bodies further out of balance (we can get addicted to a singular form of exercise, just like anything else.
Exercise time is about bringing the body BACK into balance, not pushing it further out of whack, so don't get married to your scheduled 'set of activities'. Be willing to mix it up based on how you are feeling that day. Honour how you are feeling in each particular moment, and don’t get stuck on a workout you put on the piece of paper in the past. What may have been ideal for you before is not guaranteed to be ideal for you now: we are always changing.
I also have to get my head on straight, so I meditate with brain wave technology. Now, even if you don't mediate, the brain wave technology can help because it will allow you to get to a very specific state - whatever your desired state is (sleep, creative, happy, focussed, etc...).
I use a program called Peak Performance Poker by iAWAKE Technologies which takes me through four states before I play the game. First, I go through a stage where I free myself from performance anxiety. Next, I create the vision. Step three: enter the zone and finally number four, flow. BAM: in a few simple steps, I’m prepped for the challenges ahead. You can also use binaural beats for a similar advantage.
3. Fuel Up.
You want as much brain power as possible before you sit down, and you don't want to be eating during the event. I've written a pretty comprehensive article on nutrition for poker here, so check it out.
Ideally, you want to leave half an hour to an hour for digestion before you start. Also bear in mind that during the session you want to stay hydrated and keep your glycogen stores - your brain energy - steady. Nuts and berries are great to restore glycogen supplies, especially after a hard hit or stressful situation.
Don't eat a super heavy meal, which would require a lot of blood and oxygen to digest. You need to keep your blood in your brain.
Also, be sure to eat before the warm up. If you are stressed or anxious when eating you won’t absorb the nutrition very well. Poker mode and nourishing mode are different, so allot the time for both to get maximum benefits from both.
4. Mood Lighting.
Don't stress your eyes. Make sure your room has adequate lighting. Use day light as much as possible, and then switch over to dimmers.
I’d also highly recommend utilizing eye-friendly apps for the screen, or using GUNNAR gaming glasses to help lessen the effect of computer strain on the eyes.
5. Your Beats.
Music can have a huge impact on your game. Makes sense. Think about how you feel listening to fast music, and how you feel listening to more chill tunes. Of course, music may not be your thing at all. It may distract you. If this is the case, those binaural beats I mentioned are a great, subtle option, which is actually my preference for background noise.
iAWAKE also has something called Audio Oxygen, which is invigorating without being distracting. You can even use these binaurals underneath your own music. It still works!
6. Make Use of Your Breaks.
You only get five minutes every hour and you're grinding the rest of the time. That's four to 12 hours of sitting. This isn't natural. Your body is going to crave movement. So move. Yes, you should also use the bathroom, but other than that, walk around the house, do some push ups, stretch, jump around – just move so your body doesn't get pissed and force you to throw your event due to sheer agitation. I promise, a little movement can release a shit load of tension, and that hand that bothered you, or that dude who's been riding you all day, won't matter.
The Cool Down
To wind down, I go back to my Peak Performance Poker, which helps me restore order in my mind and body. If you're interested in a free version, look up 428hz, which will get you to a very calm, very chill, very relaxed state. This is important because you want to get out of the gambling and performance part of your brain and get into a rest state. You want to step out of the sympathetic nervous system and into the parasympathetic nervous system where you can relax.
If you've been taking notes during your play (which you should be), don't look at them now. Leave them for another day where you have some perspective. You need to allow yourself this time to rejuvenate so you can play at peak the next session.
Mental endurance and strength is like any muscle: you've got to exercise it.
If you don't play tournaments very often, they will seem like a pretty heavy load. Tournament play is akin to running marathons, and when you're training for a marathon, you don't run infinite marathons. You pound out short runs - hills, intervals, pace drills - and you strengthen the important muscles, and before the day of the marathon, you fuel up and rest. It’s not the time to test yourself.
Same goes for MTTs. The more you know the spots, the more you study them, the less mental energy you'll need to push through and the more brain muscle you'll have to get you through the homestretch. If you want an easy way to train those mental skills, I found Luminosity was great.
This said, don’t overdo it. You won’t catch Kobe trying to max out on his leg press on game day, so alternate your training days and your performance days.
Remember, you want to be a warrior, not a hero. The hero is hard-headed and is always going full throttle. The wise warrior, on the other hand, knows when it's time to rest and recharge because he knows the battle is fought over the months and years and that each individual game is not as important as the sum of performance over them all.
Would you sign up for a get rich quick scheme? I didn’t think so, but when you just go-go-go and push-push-push at poker, that's exactly what you're doing. Rest, my friends, is absolutely critical for your success.
Have any questions or tips you want to share? Toss ‘em in the comments and I’ll get back to you!
Here are some links to the products I mentioned earlier:
- Peak Performance Poker
- iAWAKE (use promo code GRIPSED for a discount)
- BiNaural Beats
- Beginners Guide to Meditation