Imagine. You are playing an intense match. The game has reached a late stage. A single mistake by either team will spell defeat. As you sit on razor’s edge, fingers hovering over an all-important key, the moment comes. Mayhem ensues, and a victor emerges.
The scene I just described could have come from numerous recent eSport bouts. It could have come from your soloQ or ladder play. If we look at only the mental aspects of this moment, there are even more similarities to traditional sport.
Reaction speed. The ability to make swift, accurate decisions. Visual acuity and reading information from body language or, in the case of eSport, avatar-language.
Across all competition there are these seconds of supreme importance and tension which can decide a match. What goes in to that split second reaction?
Certainly training is a big part of it. When an elite athlete spends 10,000 hours rehearsing a skill, they expect the brain to take over automatically. And it does, for the most part (in fact the un-automation of such a maneuver is what most people call ’tilting’).
But we see athletes who train relatively equally, and something still determines a winner in that encounter. Broadcasters and announcers like to chalk it up to generic terms like talent or choking. But as sport psychologists, we prefer to dig down and separate out the causes on the neurological level. Reduce them to elements that can be accounted for, and then trained for.
Recently a pair of researchers out of the Department of Sport Psychology in the University of Heidelberg, Germany took a closer look at these situations. They set out to see if a person’s reaction speed was lowered by forcing them to undergo an intense thinking activity just prior.
A Finite Amount of Focus Per Day
Let me take a step back for a moment and introduce you a key element in elite performance and training. The story goes like this,
Researchers at a laboratory bought a bunch of presents for their students. They came back and split them into two groups. They offered presents to both groups, but the first group had to first go through a huge amount of mundane decisions like “black or red,” “big or small,” and “clothing or electronics.” Meanwhile the second group just took their pick. Then at the end, the researchers conducted a classic willpower test. Hold your hand in a bucket of ice water until you just have to take it out.
The result? Students from the first group lasted on average 28 seconds. A full 30+ seconds less than the second group, who averaged over a minute.
Lets put this idea into practice. Take your average aspiring eSport athlete. They go to school or work during the day, and return home in the evening to train. However, because of their full day of decisions, their ability to learn is drastically reduced. You see, the mind’s protection against decision fatigue is to protect itself from using more energy. It either makes a decision recklessly without thought, or strives to do nothing.
Your decisions, or focus, essentially have a set of hit-points. Throughout the day you use up those valuable hit-points until you hit zero. Your brain is in hyper-protective mode until you sleep and replenish your HP.
There are numbers attached to this HP by research, but it’s a rather complicated problem to unravel since some people are able to apply themselves strongly and burn through their HP rapidly, whereas other, less focused people, can preserve their HP for a while by being more or less ineffective most of the time. Suffice to say that you should consider the morning your strongest point, and your evening the weakest.
In my own work training elite athletes, decision fatigue is a core part of how we strive to improve performance. I work to reduce their decisions throughout the day that are wasted on unimportant pursuits, and strive to increase their ability to apply them all-at-once in specific training scenarios, when they need to attain the highest amount of learning.
The Shield Add-On
In Hiedleberg, the researchers of this particular study, Chris and Alex, were examing a slightly different aspect of this “mental energy” issue. If ego-depletion (the name for a decision or other action that uses up your HP) affects your daily total, does it also temporarily affect your immediate performance? In other words, directly after taking a hit to your HP, are you mentally weaker or less reactive than a few minutes later, when you recover?
To test the concept they had sprinters undergo an ego-depleting activity directly before a start. The results were conclusive.
Athletes who have just gone through an ego-depleting activity react slower afterwards.
My first question was, “How long afterwards?” But unfortunately this was outside the scope of their study. Suffice to say there was some time between the activity and the start.
The more interesting point was that, unlike decision fatigue at the end of the day, the momentary drop in reaction speed was not noticeable by the athlete. They felt fine, strong, fast, and well focused. It was simply their brain could not react as needed.
You could see the phenomenon as a regenerating “fitness” bar, ala the Halo health-bar shield. Unlike in Halo it doesn’t protect you from losing HP, but rather when it is full you are at full speed, and when it is low you are at slow speed with your decisions and reactions.
Research has shown you can train to make this shield stronger.
With my athletes I do mindfulness training to improve their capacity. For individuals, this type of training is covered in my advanced course, and I’ll also be covering it more in-depth in an upcoming article, where I will give concrete tools to tackle this on your own. You can also check out my tools page.
You can also speed up the regeneration by doing active resting. Mindfulness works for this as well, since it is usable both in-between games and even within matches, as a way to focus the brain and enter a more relaxing state.
If you just want to get going on this right away, you can consider active resting as a kind of forced non-decision state. So walking a predetermined route while just letting your mind wander, or listening to some sort of music that you enjoy.
Do you experience decision fatigue after a time of intense concentration? Do you think you’ve also experienced this momentary loss of decision speed after an activity which would deplete your self-control? What will you do to recover your mental energy? I would love to hear about it in the comments below!