You have the skill, you’ve proven it to yourself over and over again in practice and casual games. But when the opportunity arises to prove yourself in a ranked game or tournament, everything just seems to crumble.
You seem to just get stuck in your head, thinking through moves that are usually automatic, overthinking the possibility of losing and worrying what people will think of you when they see you slip up. You start to make amateur mistakes, one after another, and you quickly snowball towards inevitable loss.
Now, this is what it feels like to choke under pressure. It’s as if your skill is stolen right out of your hands put into a box and locked up. You know its there, you know what it’s like to play with it, and even though it’s so close, it’s inaccessible. So how do you unlock it and get it back when it counts most? How do we get back to a state of mind, a state of flow, where you can unleash your potential and finally stop choking under pressure?
Now the experience of choking is extremely frustrating because you know you have the potential to win and make progress, but for some reason, you just can’t seem to do well when it counts the most. So how can you overcome this?
This is a topic that I brought up when I got to meet Axe and Dabuz, two professional esports players who constantly play at massive tournaments, while thousands of people are watching and judging them. And in their game of choice is one where there are no teammates to rely on, it’s just them. And every major match is a critical opportunity to advance their gaming career or watch it start to slip between their fingers. Yet each of these players is well-known for keeping their cool under this kind of pressure – they’re able to stay calm and calculated, and as a result, they’ve each won major tournaments.
The first key idea is to get into a state of mind where you aren’t thinking too much, a state where your unconscious mind is doing most of the work:
DABUZ: “The goal is when you get good at something is to be able to autopilot like most of your gameplay. 90-80% of your gameplay should be autopilot and the last, let’s say 20% should be actively focusing on the important things as you’re playing. Like I’m fighting a ROB and I’m thinking to myself, what does he do after Gyro, when does he shoot lasers, what are his ledge options, and when does he NAIR? Those are my 4 real thought processes when I’m playing a ROB. And then the rest of it is just autopilot. Like I’m just going to camp this space, use this kind of pressure. I have a gameplan in mind, I’m going to just load it up like it’s a CD and let it just play on its own, making those small adjustments, because otherwise, you think too much, you won’t catch everything that you need to, then you’ll just die. And I think people tend to think too much and then they kind of overload their circuits and then they just start autopiloting making bad mistakes.”
So when you’re in a game you want to get into a state when you’re just relying on the mental dexterity that you’ve built up in training, only making mental notes of a few key behaviors that your enemy is making. This will free most of your brainpower to be used by your unconscious mind, allowing it to make automatic decisions, react without needing to think and ultimately entering a powerful flow-state.
Alright, so we shouldn’t be overthinking things during the game, but a major issue is that it sometimes feels impossible to get out of our own heads once that pressure is on. And when your heart is racing and anxiety is flooding your brain, it’s hard to slip into the optimal auto-pilot or flow state that we require. So how exactly do we overcome this?
When we think of sports players getting ready for a big game we picture things like the pre-game huddle where the coach gives an inspiring speech that gets everyone fired. Similarly, when we think of a professional fighter, we picture them warming up intensely in the locker room, summoning a kind of primal blood-lust that powers them up for the fight. This sort of pre-game ritual of getting hyped up is built into sports culture. So when initially approaching Dabuz and Axe I assumed that their pre-game rituals and mindsets would be on par with professional athletes – I assumed that before a match they would be hyping themself up and playing each match like it’s life or death. But I was wrong…
AXE: “My technique is, it’s easier said than done but sitting at the match like you go there you sit down you look at the screen, and you want to play it just like it’s a friendly you know. You’re just playing with a friend or something. But of course, you’re trying your best to win. But for me when I get into the “I have to win, let’s go, let’s do this”, you know like if I try to amp myself up like that, I end up getting even more nervous and things kind of just crumble. Like if one thing gets to me I’m just like ‘ugh’ it just gets to me, and then I just start falling down, right. But in friendlies, if I get hit by something I’m like oh that’s cool and then I just keep going. So like just sitting down and thinking of the game, like when you go up to the match, thinking of it as not such a big deal helps me a lot. You know, if I win, awesome, sweet. But if I lose, it’s okay, it’s whatever. Having that kind of mindset really helps me a lot with tournament performance.”
Now, this advice goes against my initial preconceptions, and even the advice from Dabuz was similar – leading up to the games he tries to just stay relaxed, chill out and get comfortable. Neither of them seems to have a routine of getting themselves hyped up as if they were playing the game of their life.
After hearing this advice I decided to do a bit of research to understand why it works so well for them, as opposed to getting hyped up like some sort of professional MMA fighter. I quickly learned a few things – despite us associating professional fighters with that pump up mentality, many actually adopt a very relaxed mental state before a performance:
Josh Waitzkin: “If you look at the greatest competitors in the world, the greatest physical athletes like, Marcelo Garcia, who I trained with for many years, who I own a jiu-jitsu school with in the city, he’s probably the greatest grappler to ever live. If you watch Marcelo in a world championship, he would be sleeping literally minutes before a Mundials semi-final or final, sleeping. But you’ve never seen anyone turn on more intensely.”
Tim Ferriss: “Just having observed you, observed Marcelo, certainly heard stories about say, Floyd Mayweather before gigantic fights, I heard a friend of mine who knows him said he walked into his dressing room after Floyd. He was like, “Yeah, sure, come on.” He’s like, “I don’t want to interrupt you. You must be prepping.” He’s like, “No, I’m either ready or I’m not.” He was just sitting down watching some TV.”
This is profound to think about – the fierce fighter or athlete who performs with immense intensity, is likely spending the moments leading up to the game in a state of complete relaxation – in some cases going from sleep to peak performance in minutes.
So what does this mean for esports players? Should we be getting ourselves fired up before a big game, or should we be calm and casual? Well it depends.. your activation level is different than other players, and more importantly is different for each type of performance. Now, what do I mean by activation levels?
Activation level is a psychology term that describes the ideal balance of anxiety or arousal. This is shown in research on athletes, and demonstrates that performance is best at a moderate level of arousal, but will worsen if too high or too low – on a graph showing quality of performance and level of arousal, this looks like an upside-down U-shape that moves from a level of tiredness and boredom, up to the optimal activation level and then back down towards anxiety and panic.
A key to understanding the activation level is to think of how it applies differently to different performances. When it comes to something like an endurance sport like triathlons, many like to get into a calm mental state before the race. But for something like a hundred-meter sprint, athletes may want to get themselves completely amped with music, or motivational speeches.
But when it comes to competitive gaming, you don’t need to be physically hyped up, in fact too much physical energy will just make you jittery and throw off your fine-motor-skills. So in most cases getting yourself hyped up will push you past your optimal activation level into a state of anxiety. And so in most cases, you’ll want to focus on reducing the pre-game tension as much as possible. This is why Axe and Dabuz have both adopted pre-game mindsets and rituals of just chilling out and even treating the important tournament matches themselves like casual games.
From their advice we can extract 3 key lessons:
The first tip is to have a gameplan of what to look for during the match. Dabuz mentioned that against a particular enemy he’s looking for when exactly they use certain abilities so that he can start to predict them. He also looks for what they might do immediately after they use a particular move, perhaps looking for opportunities to attack when they are vulnerable and he focuses on their ledge options so he can create the right kind of pressure when they’re off-stage. Depending on your game, this may mean paying attention to when your enemy uses particular moves, noticing what they do when they are vulnerable, and searching for patterns that make them predictable. By having a few things in mind before the match it will focus your conscious mind on those few key things so you don’t get distracted with unnecessary over-thinking (So before the match consider – what 2-4 aspects will you make mental notes of?).
The second tip is your mindset for the game. While it may be tempting to think of what’s at stake and fall into the trap of over-thinking the potential results of the game, it’s actually much more effective to approach important matches as if they’re casual games. Of course, you still want to win, but with this mindset, there’s nothing special on the line that’s causing you to over-extend your abilities.
The final tip is to have a calming pre-game ritual – You’ll get plenty amped up once the game is started so try to get comfortable and relaxed beforehand. My greatest piece of advice for this would be to do a quick breathing practice such as box breathing before each game. This tactic is one used by the U.S. Navy Seals due to how easy and effective it is – the practice consists of breathing in slowly for 4 seconds, holding that breathe for 4 seconds, breathing out for 4 seconds, holding for 4 seconds and repeating 4 times. Easy to remember and very potent at chilling your nerves before a game.
In the last video, we talked about your preparation leading up to an important ranked game or tournament and how to use certain tactics to build your confidence. And of course, having that confidence is a critical factor for playing at your best – so if you haven’t seen that video then be sure to watch it after this. But once you’re actually in the match, you need to be able to maintain your mental resilience when faced with high stakes tension. If you’re overwhelmed with worry and anxiety, or just stuck in your own head, overthinking the game, then you won’t be able to dedicate all your mental resources to just playing – you’ll feel like your brain is all fogged up. But the tips in this video will help to counter all those concerns in the back of your mind that bubble up and fight for mental space. And when you approach the game with a relaxing pre-game ritual and mindset you’ll be able to enter the optimal activation level, allowing those anxious thoughts to melt away. Suddenly you’ll be able to enter a sort of flow state, pull off clutch plays, and play at your peak potential.