What a week! Personally I’m happy it is over and that my favored team remains in the LCS. However as stressful as it was for me, it seems from how the players are talking it was immensely stressful for them. Several comments in particular stood out to my “sport psychologist” trainer side. One was CLG, commenting on why they had choked two weeks previous during their playoff matches, and the second was MRN explaining how they had practiced to win and then subsequently lost.
Doublelift actually talked a bit about his playoff-choking during the relegation post-match interview with Travis. He says that his anxiety level was far, far too high. I already touched on optimal zones of anxiety in a previous article so I’ll just leave that link here.
MRN’s blog post was a little more (depressing) interesting because it set my mind racing and I spent the day brainstorming ways to make practice a more effective training for competitive matches. What do I mean by that? Well there is a mantra that has been floating around since the LCS began to explain why some teams are expected to do better. It goes something like this, “They have more LAN experience,” or, “They have played more high-profile matches.” This is not unique to esports. It is a mantra commonly used to explain losses by newer teams in a plethora of sports.
So I wanted to break down what is going on here a little from my own point of view. First, to understand the phenomenon, one must recognize that mental skills are trainable (and not an inborn talent). That’s an easy step for most to make, since most people recognize that more experienced teams are mentally tough, which is something that is obviously obtained via trial by fire. So if one were to break down a high stakes match, they would find a whole host of mental skills that were necessary to win, and those are the skills being used and practiced in said match. The issue then comes when those skills are not necessary to be used in a practice scrimmage, and so they are not used and therefore not practiced.
For example, CLG competes in a playoff match which upon losing will knock them out of the professional circuit, forcing them to re-qualify. During that match they are practicing how to perform various mechanical skills, communication, all while under a huge amount of anxiety over whether or not they will be employed in three weeks time. When they were preparing for this match, they were playing scrimmages against other teams and practicing mechanical skills, but they were not under the same level of anxiety at the same time. That means technically they were not practicing for the same situation they would be playing in. Put this way it is fairly obvious why most teams who practice normally (for lack of a better word) tend to not do well under pressure until they have had enough actual game time under pressure (which served as practice on how to handle pressure).
There are ways to make it easier on oneself and induce during practices the kind of pressure and anxiety that would be present in a high stakes match. Professional sports teams do it all the time to help them prepare their teams for the game. Some of them are systematic approaches used by sport psychological trainers, but it is fairly easy to brainstorm up ideas that would work as well. Two simple examples: connecting real world rewards or punishments to practice outcomes, or agreeing as a team to role-play a certain tournament situation during a practice match.
If you have your own ideas, opinions and experiences, share them in the comments!