Why Sean Clifford Began 'Grinding Through Chess' This Spring

Mark Wogenrich

Sure, Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford lifted weights and studied his new offense and threw passes to his brother Liam during the spring COVID-19 shutdown. But he also started another project, one several top quarterbacks nationwide have pursued.

Clifford began playing chess.

More specifically, the Penn State quarterback began studying chess as a mind-training complement to football. So far, Clifford said, the benefits have been tangible.

"Overall I think that there's a ton of different ways that athletes can get better during this time," Clifford said on a recent video interview with reporters. "There's really no reason not to, and I think that myself and my teammates have made the most of it."

Clifford consulted with Seth Makowsky, an "elite mindset" trainer who has become a chess guru for some of football's top quarterbacks. Makowsky has worked with DeShaun Watson, Dwayne Haskins and others to help them develop patience, focus and decision-making through chess.

According to his website, Makowsky "trains elite performers chess strategy for optimal decision making and a competitive edge. His method combines chess strategy and tactics with elite coaching to help sports teams, Fortune 500 companies, and world-class performers win and be better at what they do."

The Athletic's Bruce Feldman recently interviewed Makowsky about his fascinating business background (which includes fast-food successes) and how he became absorbed with mastering chess as a life-training technique.

Makowsky has developed a training method that he says can help anyone, not just athletes, succeed. Clifford was among those quarterbacks who was intrigued and sought to learn more.

"I’ve been working really hard grinding through chess," Clifford said. "It's one thing I've found a lot of fun doing, but I find a lot of connections through football. ... [Makowsky is] an elite mindset trainer, so he really teaches you how to go through your reads and have a good formula to attack each play, attack each day and kind of just grow as a person."

Will chess help Clifford generate an edge this season? Penn State coach James Franklin said he saw the quarterback make plays with his arm, legs and mind last season but now needs to sharpen that approach in other areas.

The benefits of mind-training through chess certainly could play a part, especially in the areas where Franklin wants to upgrade.

"Right now, it's just him continuing to grow as a leader," Franklin said during a recent appearance on Fox Sports' Big Noon Kickoff. "... Then it's everything else. It's, can we throw for a little bit higher percentage on normal downs? Can we pick up a few more first downs on third down? Can we convert more touchdowns in the red zone rather than field goals? It's just a little bit in every single area."

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