Thursday at IEM Kiev the League of Legends caster Phreak interviewed D4rker from team White Lotus after their loss versus Curse Gaming. During the interview D4rker gave some fantastic advice about training a pro gaming team. My favorite part of the interview was when he talked about keeping motivated and focusing on learning through your mistakes:
You just need to be patient, you need to motivate yourself more and more, even if you lose a lot of games. If you lose ten games, a hundred games, a million games you need to keep in mind that you can only progress from loses; you can only learn your mistakes from lose to better enemy than you. There is no lesson in victory, there’s just weak opponent. It’s not practice if you are playing against 100 elo; it’s not real training. But if you are playing against good teams, one week you will suck a lot, second week, third week, but after one month of training you will be strong enough and you can fight them.
Full transcript available here.
I think that one thing pro players excel at is learning from their mistakes. Despite any blustering you may hear on a live-stream of practice games, the fact is elite players reach the top by recognizing their weaknesses and working to improve them. A lot of players go into games thinking about how to win and how to capitalize on their strengths, but if they handily defeat the other team then the only thing they learned is what that opponents’ weakness is. They won’t learn anything about themselves. The fastest way to improvement is to work on your own weaknesses. That means, don’t go into practice games with a mentality of trying to win them, instead go out trying not to lose. That means throwing yourself into challenging situations and trying to overcome them. Maybe picking disadvantageous match ups, taking more risks, or even playing a different position.
If an athlete plays every game focused completely on the outcome, they will miss so many opportunities for challenge and growth that present themselves. It’s a good idea to take those risks, even if it means losing, because it stretches the boundaries of your experience, the knowledge of your skills and limitations, and improves your ability to handle the same situation when it comes up in a tournament. This is the exact opposite mentality that you want to have in a live competition! Practice time is for pursuing mastery of your play; but when you are competing, the goal is to win by exploiting the weaknesses of your opponents and playing on your strengths.
Let me make a sports analogy. If I hesitate to take Kassadin solo mid against a Brand for fear of a bad matchup, it’s similar to shooting only layups in basketball practice for fear of missing a three-point shot. By the time you get the ball in a game with a wide open angle, you certainly don’t want this to be the only time you’ve shot from the three-point line all season. A player relying on their strengths is doomed to have a very narrow skill set. Competitive success relies on consistency in winning (or rather, not losing), which demands a broad skill set.
Staying motivated through the losses
D4rker manged to say this much more succinctly than I have. He also mentioned another difficult point though. If one is training to improve they are bound to lose much more from either playing against stronger players or from taking more risks and exposing their weaknesses. Keeping up motivation in that scenario can be challenging. In my opinion, goal setting is the best way to handle motivating yourself to train. Check out my recent article on goal setting here, or read about how focusing on a strong goal helps Giavanni Ruffin stay motivated.
Properly using goal setting means that somebody could learn even from lower level games, albeit maybe slower than playing against strong opponents. If you go into a game with the desire to compete more with yourself than against your opponents, you can improve in any environment. In fact, the perspective of competing against yourself instead of your opponents can also help you stay motivated if you take D4rker’s advice and lose a million games. In sport psychology this is called task versus ego orientation.
The pursuit of mastery
In sport psychology there is a theory related to motivation that says the goals you focus on help to craft your reality and your experience in sport. The first orientation is called task orientation, when you compare you to yourself and ask the question, “Am I better than I was yesterday?” The opposite orientation is called ego orientation, when you compare yourself to others and ask the question, “Am I better than him/her?” There are many successful athletes that lean towards either one of these orientations, but there is a much higher dropout rate for athletes who maintain an “ego orientation.”
Think of D4rker’s example of losing a hundred games in order to improve his skill. For somebody who defines themselves by their succes over other people (ego orientation), their perception of their ability will drop with each consecutive loss. It is hard to maintain motivation in the face of such concrete proof of your failure as an athlete. However, for somebody who defines themselves by their own mastery or personal growth (task orientation), they can see constant improvement as they play each successive game regardless of the outcome. Research has shown the mastery/task perspective to be related to not dropping out of sport, belief that hard work pays off, and continued improvement. Conversely it has been shown that a competitive/ego perspective is related to dropping out of sport, not believing that hard work pays off, and lower effort.
Transferring to eSport psychology
I think that the same holds true in competitive eSports as well as in life. If you constantly compare yourself to others, you’ll always be either not on the level or you’ll be better than somebody and D4rker’s prediction about never improving versus a weak opponent will come true. However, if you constantly compare you to yourself, you will notice the steady improvement that comes as a result of hard work, effort, and disciplined training, and you will continue that path as far towards the top as you are willing to go. So if you are preparing for a competition, I encourage you to examine your own motivations and determine what is driving you so hard to succeed. To reference a famous book, building your motivations on your ability to best others is like setting your foundation upon the sand. It is liable to come crashing down when the first squall hits it.
There’s a small caveat you should be aware of though. The most successful athletes display both a high ego and a high task orientation. That’s because when they are competing, there is nothing but the opponent and the only important objective is to win. That drive for victory is best achieved in a competitive state of mind, so throw everything I just said out the window if you are playing a tournament game right now.
For a recording of the interview check out this video from time 1:03:42. For a full transcript of the interview click here.