Understanding Plateaus-and How to Beat Them

By Renate Otterbach

It happens to all of us. We are going along well, and suddenly we get stuck; it does not matter if our rating  is 1000 or 2000, or even higher. Suddenly, nothing seems to work. We try and try again and get nowhere. We have reached our tableau. It is frustrating because we feel helpless and do not see any way out of it. Often our methods of studying no longer work, and even our coaches do not seem able to help us. What do we do now?

At this point, many chess players either quit or settle for their rating, accepting that that’s the way it is. Breaking a plateau can be challenging because it often requires us to step back before going forward. Frequently that means allowing ourselves to lose many of our hard-earned rating points to progress to a higher level. Yet, if we are willing to trust the process and put in the work, plateaus can be broken.

It’s a problem of plateaus. It’s not unique to chess; it happens in all disciplines. Research indicates that the key to breaking a plateau is deliberate practice. But what is deliberate practice?

Deliberate practice differs from regular practice in the following ways:

  • It is designed to address a specific, clearly defined problem
  • It is customized to the student’s needs
  • It is challenging but within the Zone of Proximal Development (ZDP)
  • Detailed feedback is provided, starting an improvement loop

Most frequently, deliberate practice is designed by a coach based on specific areas of weaknesses in a student’s performance. To be effective, it necessitates a clear understanding of what is required for improved performance, what particular skills the student is lacking, and what steps the student must take to acquire these skills. It also requires understanding how the student learns and processes the information so that appropriate activities can be designed.

There are some indications that highly analytic people and some grandmasters may have the necessary skills to develop their framework for deliberate practice. These individuals are able to provide their own scaffolding and develop their own deliberate practice, contradicting the mainline theory of expertise studies. This phenomen and some possible explanations may be explored in another blog.

B The coach designs the activity and provides specific feedback for improvement to the student. It also requires the student’s willingness to exert the necessary effort to master the activity to be effective.

I added the importance that the activity is within the student’s ZDP. I think this is especially important in chess because chess advice and instruction are frequently outside of a student’s ZDP. I will provide a specific example. But first,  what is the ZDP, and why is it essential that both coaches and learners understand ZDP? Understanding the ZDP and working within it will avoid unnecessary frustrations and maximize learning time.

Vygotsky developed the theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZDP). Although a complex concept, it can easily be understood through the diagram below,

Let’s look at some specific examples to illustrate this concept in chess. Often beginning chess players are told to consider three candidate moves. Excellent advice, but problematic for beginning chess players who still try to figure out the moves and how the pieces relate to each other. Why is this excellent advice unsuitable for beginners? Because it makes assumptions that beginners cannot meet, namely a basic understanding of a critical position. If you don’t understand the critical position, any legal move on the chess board is a candidate move. The advice is above the ZDP of the beginning player.

If the student tries to follow that advice, one of the following scenarios will likely result. The student gets frustrated because of cognitive overload[1] or suggests moves irrelevant to the position and frustrates the coach because of a lack of understanding.

Yes, there are exceptions. Some students may have an intuitive understanding of what constitutes a critical position; for these students, the request to identify three candidate moves may be a gratifying activity because it falls within their ZDP.These students are extremly rare, however, most likely with a genius level IQ.

Generally, any learning activity that falls within our ZDP is enjoyable, and often we enter the stage of flow or the Zone because while it is challenging, we feel we can master it if we put out the effort.

This post is the fifth part of Renate’s Develop learning to learn strategies through chess series.


[1] Cognitive overload occurs when your brain receives more information than it can process. Like a computer, it freezes.





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