You can train a specific skill for hundreds of hours in drills, different game modes or in an unranked match, but then completely fail to execute those same skills in an actual ranked game.
Failing to execute skills that you’ve spent time developing is a problem that I imagine all of you have experienced. And there is nothing more frustrating than knowing what your skill level truly is but failing to live up to it when it matters the most.
Fortunately, research might give us insight as to why this happens and how to fix it.
Working Memory Overload
First, we need to understand a little bit about the brain and what’s happening in your mind during an intense game. Let’s say you’re mid-way through a ranked match. A lot has happened, forcing you to keep it all in mind; the patterns you noticed from the enemy, their playstyle and aggression and your predictions of what they might do next. You also need to pay close attention to what is happening now, focusing on your skill execution and making quick decisions on what to do next. At this time, your mind is processing a lot of information.
One way to think of it is like a ball pit filled with a lot of balls. The more you’re thinking about, the more that ball-pit gets filled. And eventually, that ball-pit might begin to overflow, causing you to miss information, make mistakes and even mess up basic mechanical skills.
What’s happening here is that your limited working memory becomes filled with information and tries to make room by giving less energy to various tasks like watching the mini-map, predicting the enemy or timing your skills.
Now, let’s say you’re training a specific skill like your aim or last hitting. In a drill environment, you have far fewer variables to keep track of, meaning that the mental ball pit is nearly empty. This gives you the ability to successfully focus on your skill execution and perform it to the best of your ability.
As you enter a regular match, this completely changes; you’re suddenly flooded with tons of information, causing a hit to your basic skills. And this is even worse when under pressure. The extra stress of a ranked game or pinnacle round can add an even heavier burden to your working memory.
So what can we do to avoid this issue?
Decision Making During Review
Well, there are two key methods that we can use to overcome this and maintain our skills.
Going back to the ball-pit analogy, we can essentially condense each ball’s size, allowing us to hold more information at a time without getting overwhelmed. How do we do this? Well, as you improve at a game, you quickly rack up more and more experience and familiarity in different situations, whether that’s trying to clutch the round or predict when to use your resources. The more you experience particular moments of a game, the more those specifics get stored in your long-term memory. And the more information you have stored in your long-term memory, the less you have to process in your working memory during the game.
So, out of pure experience and learning, you will slowly create more room in your working memory, allowing you to play more consistently, even under higher amounts of pressure and complexity. A quick tip for developing this a lot faster is to review your matches and, while doing so, proactively make decisions. Actively notice the specific details of the situation, what happened, and what you would do differently in the future. That way, when you come across a similar scenario again, you’ll have already outsourced much of your thinking, meaning you can pull that plan from your long-term memory and waste less processing power in the moment.
The Problem with Mechanical Skills
But when it comes to your mechanical skills, there is a bit of an issue. Of course, the more you practice an individual skill, the more automatic it becomes, even in real games. But this is still limited by the way you practice.
When learning a motor skill, the brain often uses a specific system called the Working Memory Motor Learning Circuit. This 3-step process starts by using your working memory to process instructions of what to do and how to do it. It then sends the instructions to your brain’s coordination center, called your cerebellum, which then sends a signal to your motor cortex, where it commands your muscles to move in coordination with the instructions.
The problem with this circuit is that it becomes faulty when the working memory is under high amounts of strain. This is why you might completely dominate with a specific skill in low-intensity games or while doing a drill but then fail when it’s game-time.
So what’s the solution here? Well, one study on golf might give us a clue.
– In the study, participants were split into two groups to learn how to putt. One group received very detailed instructions on how to putt, based on leading coaching techniques. This group had to use the working memory motor learning circuit to remember the instructions and apply them during practice.
– The second group received no instruction. Instead, the group had to randomly generate letters every time they heard a tone from a metronome. Doing this actively distracted their working memory so it wouldn’t be involved in their learning process.
– After five days of training, the participants were all tested with some added pressure. Participants were told a professional golfer would judge their performance, and if they performed well, they would earn money.
– Although both groups experienced performance anxiety, only the group that had learned the set of instructions using the working memory motor learning circuit showed a decline in their performance.
– In contrast, the group that didn’t use their working memory to learn to putt didn’t do any worse when under pressure because their working memory was free to manage their stress.
(Maxwell, J., Masters, R., Eves, F. 2003. “The Role of Working Memory in Motor Learning and Performance.”)
This study suggests that working memory is only necessary for motor performance when we have become reliant on it for use. So while most of us struggle with basic skills under the strains of an intense game, this doesn’t need to happen. But to avoid this, we need to bypass the working memory during practice. And a similar study on basketball players might teach us exactly how…
How to Bypass Working Memory While Training
The study compared a low-pressure approach to practicing free throws with a high-pressure approach to see if the latter would help athletes improve their ability to shoot accurately under pressure.
One group of athletes practiced their free throws with no pressure, while the other group practiced while competing against each other for prize money, being videotaped for analysis by an expert coach, and being observed by their coach and teammates.
Before going through this training, both teams performed worse under pressure. And after the 5-week study, the group that practiced in low-pressure conditions continued to perform worse. But the team that practiced their free throws in anxiety-provoking states not only avoided choking under pressure but shot better when anxious (71.3 points while calm; 78 points with anxiety).
So when it comes to practicing our mechanics, we need to distract our working memories, and one way to do this is practicing under pressure. For you, this kind of pressure might come from drilling your skills in a 1v1 environment, with the added stress of streaming to your friends or even putting money on the line if you don’t hit a specific score.
If these aren’t enough, other research suggests that training while fatigued can have similar benefits. Physical fatigue from working out, mixed with mental fatigue from a long day of ranked games or work, can help knock out your working memory for more efficient practice.
So whether you decide to train under more stressful conditions or when you are feeling brain-fried after a long day, your mechanical skills will likely transfer much better into real games.
And when you combine this with analyzing your games with a decision-making focus, you will quickly be able to overcome the frustrating experience of not living up to your skills. You’ll finally be able to perform at your best when it matters most and reap the benefits that come with peak performance.