Build Endurance for Your A-game

It’s easy to perform badly for a long time. Anyone can do that. Your A-game, however, is taxing. You’re utilizing recently learned skills and that requires more effort. 

Even though performing at an A-game level feels, at times, natural and easy, I can assure you that experience doesn’t reflect the fact that your A-game uses a lot of mental energy and requires endurance to sustain.

While improving your mental endurance can be helpful in a variety of ways, with the World Series of Poker (WSOP) coming up, I want the poker players out there to pay special attention to this blog. Poker tournaments are intense and you need a reservoir of energy to be able to access the knowledge and skills you’ve worked on more recently, including progress in your mental game. This is especially true in the late stages of a tournament where the big money is on the line. The last thing you want is to falter down the stretch because you’re tired.

Of course, mental endurance is key in other fields. For many traders, endurance is a concept that isn’t discussed much but is still significant. This is especially true for newer traders who have yet to condition themselves to the intensity of the live market, which is very different from a typical 9-5 job. More experienced traders tend to underestimate the impact of burnout and don’t realize that strengthening endurance is key to minimizing or avoiding burnout altogether. 

Mental endurance is also relevant for golfers, including me, who are trying to improve their games. But the WSOP only comes once a year and I’m going to focus my examples and advice here on tournament poker.

 

A-game is Earned

One of the reasons mental endurance is key is because, for all of us, the only thing guaranteed every day is the C-game.

C-game relies mainly on your unconscious. Decisions come automatically and there is no deep thinking involved. Thinking is your mind working and if it’s working, it’s burning energy. If you have to think a lot and think deeply to perform well, it’s an indication of the lack of mastery or automation of knowledge and skills. I’m not saying that’s bad, I’m simply outlining the facts.

Your A-game, on the other hand, requires effort, preparation, and the right conditions. A-game is earned, not expected. Understanding the demands of what is actually required to be able to sustain your A-game for longer periods of time can help you unlock that performance more often. 

To be at your best more often, you want to expand the amount of time where you are operating in that optimal state. You need endurance. You want to be capable of making high-level decisions when you need to or, at a minimum, solid ones that are part of your B-game and don’t fall into C-game.

 

Thinking Burns Energy

Decisions that require thinking burn more energy than standard decisions made automatically. Training knowledge to a deep level, on the other hand, not only builds capacity but preserves energy.

Habits and routines are energy-efficient. With a limit to how much you can think about at any one point in time, the more of your skills that are automated, or mastered to the level of Unconscious Competence, the better able you are to make quick, and accurate, decisions while burning less mental energy. 

When your knowledge is part of your Unconscious Competence, performance becomes more instinctual. To be clear, I’m not saying to automate your decisions, I’m saying that by automating more of the knowledge that feeds into your decisions you preserve mental energy.

With that in mind, when preparing for the WSOP it’s important to know when to stop learning new things. There is often a tendency to want to do everything and check all the boxes, but you have to work/study with an eye towards the big moments. If you cram too much information in your head right before the series starts, you risk not having access to that knowledge readily available because of pressure, and you’ll burn more energy trying to get to it. 

Cramming puts you in a compromised position from both an execution and endurance standpoint. While it can be hard to selectively choose to not try to improve areas of your game that you “theoretically” could, your ability to access that info is not guaranteed. So figure out when you’re going to stop actively learning new things, and hold yourself to it.

Of course, after that point and during the series, you can make small adjustments, because they can be easily integrated into your game. But you will play far better going in with a knowledge base that you know is solid and reliable vs. cramming for the WSOP like it’s a test in school. And let’s get real, you never took a test in school where the exam lasted 12 hours a day, and sometimes for several days in a row! So why would you approach the biggest tournament series of the year that way?

 

Training Your Capacity 

Now is the perfect opportunity to build mental endurance for the WSOP and the process is similar to the process of increasing physical endurance. As an example, if you want to run a marathon, you are not going to just show up to the race without having built a capacity to run long distances. And you likely aren’t going to start your first training run at 20 miles and build from there. 

While the analogy isn’t perfect, we can use the general framework of steadily ramping up your endurance to give us ideas on how to do it in poker. Here are a few ideas that have helped clients:

  • Make a realistic assessment of where you are today. For example, look at your average volume in a series like the WSOP or in years past, the prevalence and severity of mental game problems, and what your ideal WSOP schedule looks like.
  • Between now and a week or two before your WSOP starts, create a training plan where you look to steadily increase your volume or duration of play, either online or live. The idea is to understand where your limit is and then push it a little more.
  • To help you build endurance while playing well, use injecting logic statements and strategic reminders to help ensure you retain emotional stability and quality decision making as you push. 
  • Increase steadily over time. While it’s hard to be exact about how much to increase your play, I think a reasonable goal is 10% at a time. Be wary of pushing too hard and burning out instead of increasing capacity.
  • We still have some time before WSOP and it’s a good opportunity to treat smaller poker events in the lead-up as a good tune-up for what’s been working tactically and an opportunity to build some mental endurance.

At the end of the day, if you want to perform at a high level, you have to fight for it. If it was easy, everyone would do it and there would be no reward. 

I hope you final table a big event and that when you get there you have more energy than normal, and you can see how your opponents are tired and more vulnerable to tilt and mistakes from fatigue. This, of course, doesn’t mean you’re going to take down the title, but in a game like poker, you’ll take every advantage you can find.

 

If you want more content like this to help you prepare for the WSOP, including improving focus, reducing tilt, and getting in the zone more often, check out The Mental Game of Poker 2 and my video series The Mental Game Tune Up for Tournament Poker.

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Written by Jared Tendler

April 8, 2024

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