One of the most striking things about tennis professionals is how they talk to themselves. I don’t mean the grunting and shrieking they do when they hit the ball. When they botch a shot, they will scream out loud about what they did wrong. Their heads will roll from side to side as they mutter.
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Andre Agassi offered this justification for the behavior in his autobiography: “The rules forbid a tennis player from even talking to his coach while on the court. People sometimes mention the track-and-field runner as a comparably lonely figure, but I have to laugh. At least the runner can feel and smell his opponents. They’re inches away. In tennis, you’re on an island. Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement.”
Tennis professionals scream at themselves when 10,000,000+ people are watching. Think of that. They look like they escaped from an asylum, but they don’t care. There is real money on the line. Goals they’ve worked toward for a lifetime hang in the balance.
That got me thinking: I’m on an island. When I’m in my office, there is no one judging me or coaching me. I could have invested thousands of hours studying the game, but there is no one holding me accountable. I can easily brush off new concepts for antiquated patterns of play I’ve woefully adopted for years. I can make bad bets and just forget them right after my opponent smacks them away. I’m on my own when it comes to earning my livelihood. There are no Nike contracts for people like me.
A review of 32 separate studies published in the journal “Perspectives on Physiological Science” found ample evidence that instructional self-talk reaps huge dividends. Researchers discovered talking your way through an unfamiliar task allowed you to pay more attention where and when it counted. Your new idea wasn’t as easily lost to muscle memory, the traditions of the group, or your own mind’s background noise.
When I started doing training videos, I had never really described my thought process on a hand. Actually, in discussions with superior poker players, I found I often had no justification for what I did. I just knew that it had worked for a couple of years, and when I did rattle off what I was thinking, it seemed to make some sense.
The payday was what really fueled me, not becoming the best player I could be. I wanted to grind all day long. Who cares about watching training videos or reading through a hand analysis? I needed to get paid. I thought I was already taking care of myself without all that nerd-speak.
As the years wore on, the buzz wore off. Droves of more educated players caught up to me and then passed me. Real downswings kept coming up, each one bewildering me in their growing size. I felt my edge slip away. Smashing around wasn’t making people fold anymore.
Doing live training videos helped me be more patient. During a downswing, it becomes difficult to resolve your reality with what is actually going on. The process of reviewing a session served to break down my phony perceptions and undeserved sense of entitlement.
To record my session and watch it later left me accountable to myself. If I wanted to get paid for the video, I’d have to double check that it was solid, and that meant facing my play.
You learn the most about yourself when you drop the act. I wanted to be seen as good because I didn’t feel it in myself. Eventually, I realized the best players had self-respect because they earned it within themselves. They chastised themselves when they checked back the best hand on the river instead of breathing a sigh of relief that they won the pot. They pursued understanding in difficult situations because they prided themselves on becoming more complete players.
When you’re just playing poker for fun or to beat up on other people, it’s easy to get in the ebb and flow. Gambling in tournaments is fun for me. I enjoy running up stacks and seeing what I can do with them. It sounds ridiculous to say the money is secondary, but I don’t think about it as much as I should. Playing a lot of tables recklessly allows me to enjoy myself, but it doesn’t do much for my bottom line.
In a recent article on PocketFives, I shared that I had a long downswing this year, to the tune of six-figures. Of course, before I got out of that rut, I wanted to get angry about it. Sadly, I knew that would do nothing for me. Instead, I’d have to demand more of myself in some way.
I felt myself being tired in the office, so I began recording my sessions with Camtasia. I’d like to tell you I did this when I was down $100K, but it took more than that to wake me up. When I finally leaned back one evening and watched a session of mine, I saw horrible plays I was making. I was up in my head and being emotional. I wasn’t myself.
Recording further sessions allowed me to be accountable. Marking hands for review allowed me to pinpoint and analyze where I was throwing off a tournament.
I also wanted to take notes on specific hands so when I watched them later, I could analyze my methodology. Instead of trying to write something while PokerStars kept auto-centering tables, I began talking into my microphone.
Playing fewer tables, focusing more, recording my play, and talking out more difficult hands built my confidence up. If I could watch myself play and justify every action, I knew the results would come.
It became addicting. I was talking through many decisions I once thought were basic. If I just saw A-5 suited, for example, I wasn’t opening automatically. When I made myself say out loud, “Opening because stacks X and Y will do this, and this player won’t 3bet me, but will call and let me see a flop,” I found my opening game become more robust.
Sometimes, I’d try to justify opening a decent hand and found that everybody was coming after me and I didn’t have a defense. Other times, I’d see that I was a fool for not opening any two cards earlier. I’d talk out loud, “In this tournament, open anything from the hijack.” In other tournaments, I’d go, “Open up your value range, but forget bluffing.”
Actively thinking and analyzing myself verbally allowed me to coach myself. I took the same approach when I would continuation bet: “I am betting for (value or bluff) because these (worse or better) hands are (calling or folding).” Then, I would list out the hands I desired to pick up value from or fold out.
More times than you could imagine, I would start talking to myself and stop halfway through because what I was about to do made no sense. I couldn’t list one hand off that I was folding out when I was bluffing, or I wasn’t getting value from anything when I bet.
I expanded. I started listing out their Fold to Continuation Bet percentages along with their Fold to Turn Continuation Bet percentages: “I’m not getting value from anything, but his Fold to Continuation Bet is very honest at 65% and I want to cash in my equity now. It will be very hard versus him to get to showdown when my hand is so vulnerable.”
Sometimes, I’d want to continuation bet, but his Fold to Continuation Bet was very low at 27%. However, on the turn, he became honest at 70%. I’d note to myself on the flop, “I am betting here to set up a double-barrel because I will be able to rep these cards on the turn…”
If I just continuation bet and found he always called on the flop and never folded on the turn, I’d make a note that I’d forgotten to check both statistics. Recording my error helped me wise up to it. If I watched a recording and had 10+ “made this error” announcements, I knew it was time to get hard on myself.
In addition, I’d make myself announce the sample size of the statistics I was analyzing. If I said, “I’m going to 4bet bluff because his 3bet is 30% from this position,” my play sounded justifiable. If I said, “I’m going to 4bet because he has 3bet three times out of ten from this position,” it sounds more dubious. How do I know he didn’t just pick up some decent value hands in a great position? “I’m going to 4bet here because his 3bet is 22% in every position, and three out of ten here.”
Just keeping adding more things you could possibly notice. Soon, it almost seems like an open book.
There were other times I’d want to continuation bet, but found the guy was never folding to traditional bets on the flop or turn. I’d then come to a decision to just check and give up or try something more creative. Either way, I wasn’t needlessly continuation betting my chips away when there was clear evidence it wasn’t going to work.
The feeling of exacting all of your chip investments is incredible. I didn’t care to go back to mass multi-tabling. I was having way more fun setting up plays and focusing during my deep runs.
When I’d watch myself play and found there was one area that wasn’t going so well, I’d find a statistic or training video that could help me out. I’d mark every hand where I tried to apply the new concepts I learned and talk it out in my recording. Watching the replay later and analyzing the hand history with Flopzilla gave me a theoretical and mathematical context for my self-analysis. I also got to see how it worked in-game, live table flow and all.
The best players I know have learned more in two years than I did in seven. Their system of learning was similar to this: They would gather knowledge through a private coach or training video. They would make a goal for themselves that they wished to pursue that session or week. They would focus on the new area by marking those specific hands for review. They’d then evaluate their attempts and realign their strategies appropriately.
Actively analyzing through self-administered verbal guidance works well to steady a player and make them focus more. I’ve taught this strategy to many of my students and, so far, none of them has come back with a complaint. It’s fun to shoot from the hip, but for pinpoint accuracy, I find a more labored approach helps. Good luck to all of you.
Alex AssassinatoFitzgerald has amassed $3,000,000+ in tournament earnings alone. Alex is an instructor at PocketFives Trainingand can be reached for private lessons at Assassinatocoaching@gmail.com. You can also reach him on Twitter @TheAssassinato and on Facebook at Facebook.com/Assassinato. He currently resides in his suburban home in Costa Rica with his fiancÃ© and poodle.