Imagine you’re on stage at a major competition. Hundreds of eyes on your team as you each try to keep your cool. But you’re in it together. You know that you’ll have each other’s backs, pick up on each other’s mistakes and work as a team despite any sort of setback. And knowing that seems to take off some of the pressure…
But now imagine that exact same moment, on that exact same stage, but now your teammates are gone. No emotional support, no spreading the work-load or having your team cover up your mistakes. Now the pressure is ALL on you! EVERY minor slip up will be punished, every moment of frustration is going to be exploited. And if you lose, there’s nowhere to place that blame, there are no teammates, no RNG, just a strong realization that you’re not good enough, a realization that’s going to be shared with everyone watching.
So now the question comes back to you, are you going to dominate this game and earn the respect and admiration from the spectators, are you going to miserably fail and lose this critical opportunity to advance your gaming career? Well with this level of pressure, how the hell is anyone supposed to keep calm and avoid getting overwhelmed with anxiety? The simple answer is confidence…
With the right level of confidence, you’ll feel relaxed and energized, you’ll be able to perform at the peak of your potential, even under immense pressure. And without confidence you’ll feel uncomfortable and anxious, you’ll avoid risks and fail to seize any sort of opportunity. And this factor of confidence is obvious when you look to pro esports players who seem calm and collected on stage, despite the amount of pressure that’s on them to succeed.
So what’s their secret? Well, I got a chance to ask this to two extremely skilled esports players who play under this kind of pressure all the time. And they shared some of their greatest tips to help you get mentally prepared for ranked games and tournaments so that you can summon your inner confidence, fight off anxiety and play at your best!
So how important is confidence?
Well if you’ve ever felt anxiety before a ranked game or tournament, then you know exactly how uncomfortable it is. As you become more and more uptight it becomes harder and harder to focus, suddenly you’re stuck in your head, thinking about how you’ll likely mess up… And then, as you game goes on, any sort of small set-back just seems to confirm your harshest self-doubts.
And the science seems to illustrate this. In one study, researchers conducted 4 different experiments to analyze the role that stereotype threats and confidence play when it comes to mental performance specifically on the mental rotation tests. And the results speak for themselves, in one of the figures you can see how the difference from lowest levels to highest levels of confidence are correlated with an almost 2x improvement in performance accuracy.
And seeing stats like this makes it obvious how pro players who seem to be able to keep a level head and play with confidence under immense pressure, will usually rise to the top. But how exactly do they summon that level of confidence before say, a major tournament?
Well, recently I got the opportunity to attend the Get On My Level Smash tournament in Toronto, where I got to meet up with Axe who plays for Tempo Storm, and Dabuz who plays for Team Liquid. Now, both players are highly skilled, and have had their fair share of victories on the big stage – recently Axe won his first major tournament at Smash Summit (and if you can find the highlights online, definitely check them out, it was pretty amazing to see), and a few months back Dabuz took home $20,000 for his victory at Thunder Smash.
But whether you play fighting games or not, it’s hard to deny that playing on stage at major tournaments, especially by yourself requires some INSANE mental strength, and most of us still get a bit of anxiety from just playing ranked games from the comfort of our own homes. But both these players shed some light on key tactics that they use in order to prepare for tournaments and summon that inner confidence needed during each match.
#1 – BE PREPARED
Now the term confidence can be described as a belief in one’s ability to succeed… Now break that down for a second. In order to believe in your ability to succeed, you first need to understand what it takes to succeed and then understand where your abilities are in reference to that. In other words, you need to know how good you are compared to the competition, and you need to get yourself to a point where it’s obvious you’re good enough to do well.
To highlight this a bit further. Think back to when you, say, took a test or did a presentation and you weren’t prepared at all – you most likely had feelings of pure dread and anxiety leading up to it. But now think to when you took a test or did a presentation and you felt extremely prepared – this likely made you feel a lot more relaxed and a lot more confident. And this all leads to the first tip – to be confident, you need to be prepared!
– Axe: “You need to know, in general, the matchups, like most of the high-tier matchups to mid-tier matchups at least, because those are the ones you’re going to be running into in tournaments… I don’t think you need to super hardcore on just one matchup though. A commons mistake that I think people make is looking at their tournament bracket, they see one person and they’re just like: “okay, I’m going to practice really hard for this one person… In my opinion, it’s about just your overall gameplay. Can you feel good? Are you moving well? You just gotta feel good the whole day, and don’t focus too much on the one person.”
While Axe addressed this from a Smash perspective, the core of this advice is true for any game. If the match is starting, and you feel your opponent has skills and strategies that you aren’t sure how to counter, then you’ve already lost the match before it has even started.
So you need to know your enemy – the characters they’re likely to use, how to deal with certain abilities, how to counter the common playstyles – and since most people stick to the current meta, study the things that are currently top-tier and commonly used.
But think of preparing for the tournament or ranked game, kind of like preparing for a test, it doesn’t make sense to focus only on one or two topics, because, sure you’ll end up acing that part of the test, but you’ll lose points on every other area and as a result you’ll fail overall.
So cast your net over a wide range of skills and matchups that you feel you need to work on. And honestly, this might feel a little counter-intuitive to most players – by nature, we often want to master a few specific skills and rely on them like a crutch. Hence why a lot of FPS players often tunnel vision on aim-training without practicing their positioning or map strategies enough.
So make a preparation plan – a written list with the specific things you’ll need to practice. This will include things like practicing a little against each of the top tier matchups, creating general strategies for each map, addressing mechanical weaknesses, and studying the meta. The goal is to basically prepare for anything that your opponents can throw at you – so be sure to write it all down and stick to that plan as you get closer to the event.
#2 – PRACTICING EVERYDAY VS. CRAMMING (Make it a habit Vs. Long Auto-pilot sessions/overtraining)
So your first tip is to make the preparation plan and then, of course, put it into action, but of course, the putting into action part takes a lot of time:
Dabuz: “I think for me, before an event like this, I was probably practicing – like looking at videos, studying matchups and just playing – 5 hours a day. So that’s a good chunk of time, but it’s doable, you know. Ideally, if I can, I get like 12 hours a day – And before an event like EVO I probably like shut off everything, like stream, social media, and only just practice because it’s so big.”
Now the most important aspect of this is how you manage your time. Not unlike properly studying for a test, these players will start this sort of intense preparation way in advance and then, of course, they’ll practice at least a little bit every single day.
Now, those at an amateur level often treat it like amateur students who sort of cram their learning into short periods of time, maybe on the weekends and then only start preparing a couple of days before a tournament, and this can be a huge issue because cramming really doesn’t work…
Axe: “Cramming all your practice into one, like you would sort of like a final on a test, it just doesn’t work really. You have to be feeling good, playing good, and already know your stuff coming into the tournament. So last-minute practice usually doesn’t affect all that much.”
This comparison to cramming before a test is relatable for most of us – and we all know that it really doesn’t work as well as we’d like it to. In fact, when we try to cram information or train specific skill for hours on end we are just likely making our brains tired without providing enough time for the information to sink in.
You can almost think of it like building a house, where you lay down some brick, put some mortar on top, then lay down some more brick. And if you keep going without letting that mortar dry, then things aren’t going to work out so well.
So what’s the ideal solution for this?
Axe: “My advice is to just play every day, even if it’s just five minutes. Like just do- just do a little something every day so you get the feel of like, ok this is like normal to me now, and when you go to a tournament it’s like normal for you to be playing. So even just turning on the game and playing for 5 like minutes, and that’s it, that will still make you really good by just being in it every single day.”
And this advice is actually quite interesting because while the idea of playing for even a few minutes each day seems a little extreme, there is some power to it…
You see, our brains make better connections and overall remember things more effectively when we space out our learning over time. The reason for this is because of something called the forgetting curve. When you develop a chunk of game knowledge or practice a specific skill, your brain will begin to prune away most of that new learning over the course of a few days.
But when you recall that information or practice that skill again a day or two later, you interrupt that forgetting curve, signaling to your brain that the information is worth keeping. And the more times you interrupt this forgetting curve the more the information is going to stick.
So spacing out your practice at least a little bit every day is actually very powerful, and on days where you can’t get much practice in, at least do at least a little bit of training to tell your brain that skill is worth keeping.
Now of course, for most days where you have more free time, you’ll want to spend more than just a few minutes practicing, but how much is enough? Dabuz shared his perspective on this and provided some realistic advice for serious competitors.
Dabuz: “Ideally you want to get, for me, it’s ideally I want to ger 4 hours of some sort of practice a day, whether it’s watching videos, playing. I know that its’ also unreasonable for most people, so I try to tell them, try to get 10-14 hours a week if you really really care. I think that’s, even someone working and doing like school, you should be able to get at least 10 hours a week. “
And this seems like a good rule of thumb – get at least 13-14 hours of practice over the course of the week. Now most players do this already, but they tend to cram 6-7 hours of practice in on Saturday and Sunday and then barley play during the week. A much better alternative is to spread it out more evenly, allowing 2-4 hours of practice each day.
And for extremely busy days, at least try to get in a small amount of focused practice – even if it’s just 15-20 minutes of specific drills it’s going to be enough to maintain your improvement and turn those skills into muscle memory.
#3 – TAPERING
So let’s say it is now only a few days before your tournament, or its only hours before an important match – what should you be practicing now in order to ensure that you’re confident and prepared during the game?
Axe: “For like the week or two leading up to an event, I do like to just play a lot… It’s not necessarily about studying specific matchups, it’s just about feeling good and getting in the right zone where you just feel good. And doing that leading up to an event is just really nice… My confidence just comes from practice, just knowing that I’m able to do things in friendlies. You know, like if you’re playing friendlies throughout the week leading up to an event you’re like this is fun, you know. I like to just go in and just play games, I’m feeling good, the next day I’m feeling good, the next day you’re still feeling good. You go to a tournament, guess what, you’re still feeling good. And that means you’re going to do well in bracket.”
As Axe explains, leading up to a tournament he stops focusing on specific matchups and just tries to just get to a place where he feels good.
Now the first time you see that clip, it might not seem like much of a tip at all. What exactly does he mean by feeling good? And why does he just play a lot of friendly and casual games before a tournament rather than getting in more purposeful and intense practice sessions? Well, let’s step back for a moment and try to understand the psychology behind why this works.
This philosophy of studying less and just playing more casually, while leading up to a tournament actually relates in many ways to how athletes approach upcoming competitions.
When it comes to training for athletic performance, athletes need to work out intensely every day, constantly pushing their body to the point of exhaustion which forces it to adapt. And between each workout, there is a refractory period in which they need to rest and let their muscles recover. But due to the intensity of this training, their muscles rarely get a chance to completely recover. That being said, before an upcoming event, they’ll need to kind of taper down their workouts so that their muscles actually do fully recover so that can be ready to perform at their absolute best when the event comes.
Now when it comes to mental training we don’t necessarily need to let our brain rebuild itself like a muscle, but we do need to give the brain a certain amount of time to turn conscious learning into muscle memory. When you learn something new, you need to think about it a lot. But over the course of a few weeks that mental training will slowly be transitioned into an unconscious process.
So if you’re to train hard right before a tournament and learn a ton of new information, once you’re in the game you’ll likely going to get stuck in your own head, thinking about all those new lessons.
And Axe seems to avoid this with a sort of mental taper – by switching gears from active learning to just playing a lot of friendly matches that bring all of his previous training together into a nonpressured environment.
This allows him to rely less on conscious thinking leading up to the tournament. Then once he’s at the event he’s able to just rely on muscle memory without getting stuck in his own head.
Now if you’re applying this before a tournament, this means you’re going to practice hard and intensely for say, the weeks leading up to the tournament. But then within say 5-6 days before it, you can start to slowly taper down.
But of course, you can also apply this to ranked games as well. Instead of trying to actively summon all your game knowledge and skill right before the match, just completely let go. Play some fun warm-up games against friends or bots and allow yourself to just kind of chill out and get into the flow of just playing, and feeling good doing it.
When it comes to maintaining your mental fortitude during the match, your level of preparation is huge. But of course, preparation is only half the battle, because once you’re actually in the game or at the tournament you’ll need a second set of tactics to help you adopt the right mindset and keep your cool. But these are tips we’ll be exploring in the next video. For now, focus on the tips for preparation…
Begin by creating a gameplan for at least 3 weeks leading up to a tournament. Spend the first few weeks practicing at least a few hours each day, and ideally spend the last week or so, focused on just playing the game, combining all the things you worked on and getting to a point where it all just flows together.
Now if you haven’t played in tournaments yet, then I recommend taking these lessons with you and applying them on your first tournament whether it’s local or online! As you develop and execute your preparation plan, you’ll find the nervous anticipation of that upcoming tournament slowly diminish as you become more and more confident.
But for ranked games, of course, you’ll want to condense these tips. Perhaps every week or so, create a new gameplan to develop a general level of game knowledge, with a major focus on patching up your areas of weakness or adapting to a new meta. And of course, be sure to also practice at least a little bit each day – ideally a few hours, but on busy days, at least 15-20 minutes of specific, focused drills. And leading up to the ranked game, spend at least an hour tapering off from any specific learning, spend time warming up in a fun, being relaxed and getting to a place where you feel good and confident.
When you’re sitting in front of the screen, and the time has come to face the competition, things can spiral out of control real fast.
You notice that the enemy is using a certain character, or strategy or play style that you just aren’t prepared to face, you quickly begin to feel like things are more and more hopeless. Perhaps you had a gameplan in your mind, you had it all mapped out, but this was unexpected… You try to focus, to relax, to get out of your head and into the zone, but the more you try the harder it seems. You’re vulnerable, stuck in a downward spiral, and even though the match has just started, you’ve already lost it.
But with a few simple adjustments leading up to the game, everything can change. You can enter that same match, as though you’re prepared for anything, flexible in your gameplan. And now as the match begins you feel relaxed and everything just seems to flow. You’re feeling good and that gives you a level of resilience that the enemy just doesn’t have.
Now they’re the ones stuck in their own head, trying to make sense of your playstyle, trying to think their way through the match. Your confidence is shaking them and giving you am upper hand. And even though the match has just started, you’ve already won…