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Locodoco's brilliance vs Samsung

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Today I wanted to talk about a brief interview that coach Locodoco gave the broadcasting team during Team SoloMid’s matches versus Samsung White in the quarter-finals of the League of Legends World Championships. In case you are unable to watch the video, here is the statement:

“Going into the games our prep was, ok we win one game and then we’ll go from there. We didn’t think of it as a best of five, we took it as we have three chances to take off one game and then we’ll take it from there. We basically spent all our prep for this.”

I am going to discuss this statement in the context of sport psychology and what Locodoco’s mindset entails for their preparation prior to the match. Obviously from a strategic or analyst perspective, preparing solely by planning for the first win is not ideal. Although from the Korean point of view this is probably a reasonable plan versus a team as strong as Samsung White. However, Locodoco did talk a bit early on in the interview about their strategizing, so what follows is more a clarification on what he did as a coach to ensure his player’s mental fortitude.

As a sport psychological trainer, I have a good guess at what sort of messages Locodoco gave to the team based on this comment he gave as well as my own experiences coaching and observing coaches, and I would like to explain why it was a brilliant way to keep TSM from choking and ensure a top-level performance.

Underdog mindset

Imagine Locodoco’s statements to his team based on the strategy he outlined above. My guess from both coaching and observing coaches is they probably went something like: “Samsung White is really good.” “They’re going to be really hard to beat.” “We are good enough to beat them on our best day.” “They have a weakness, unstable emotions.” “Consistency is TSM’s strong point.” “You have to prove to the world you are this good; you believe in yourselves even if others do not, that is all that is important!”

These kinds of beliefs lead to a strong underdog mentality in a team. In competitive sports the underdog is often more focused than the popular team, especially if the supposed stronger team also assumes they will win. There is then a lot of pressure to win on the favored team, and that pressure is a negative influence which leads to choking. Therefore it is best for a coach to try to engender an underdog, prove to everybody how good you are, mentality whenever possible.

Freedom to risk everything

Since Locodoco ignited his team’s desire to win at all costs using the underdog mentality, he also gave them the freedom to risk everything. Athletes on favored teams are more likely to play safe and not take risks due to the danger of throwing away momentum and getting blamed for a loss. On the flip side, teams with nothing to lose are more likely to take big risks which carry a big reward. For a team as consistent and fundamentally strong as TSM, these “risks” are actually not as extravagant one would expect from, say, a lower caliber team. In actuality the risks that showed up in the quarterfinals simply look like the kind of strong play one would expect from a TSM if they had both the game momentum and confidence in their skills.

There is a subtle brilliance of Locodoco’s advice to a team like TSM. He knew that their play was too solid to make stupid mistakes; so the in-game mindset ended up improving their performance rather than causing crazy risks that would have resulted in a throw. The players were free from consequences and so were willing to innovate in ways they knew would make a difference. It would not have necessarily worked with a less skilled team, where players might innovate by dying in a turret dive.

Freedom from the future

One of the biggest mistakes an athlete can make is to get distracted by the future. A tennis player feels herself losing momentum and she thinks, “If I lose this game I have to break her serve to take the set. Since I’m already up 2-0 in sets I’d have to play a whole other set to win. But what if she takes another set. It could all come down to a tiebreaker.” In sport psychology one of the most powerful kinds of training an athlete can do with her consultant is mindfulness training. That is, how to be, how to live, in the moment. It turns out that the championship mindset is one that focuses completely on the competition at hand and does not let worries about the future distract from performing.

Locodoco freed his team from that worry. He assured them that the most important thing was to win a single game. After that, the rest would easily fall into place. (Ideally, Samsung White would choke, and TSM would win the world championships!) Therefore TSM did not need to get stressed going down 0-1 or even 0-2. As far as they were concerned it did not matter how many games they were down in the match. After they won a game the rest would follow. Strong teams rely often on their momentum to carry them through games. TSM had a momentum killer mentality. It is impossible to intimidate or keep a team down via momentum when that team has a mindset where they only focus on the exact moment of performance without worrying about the past or the future.

Count on the choke

Ultimately Locodoco’s stated plan for winning came down to relying on the enemy team’s choke, specifically their bot lane. Counting on and working towards causing the opponent to choke is actually a decent strategy in my professional opinion. That may be because I have worked with tilting athletes, so I know how common it is. Regardless, if a coach

  • understands how momentum works,
  • can put their team in a winning position with an underdog mindset
  • against a favored and overconfident team,

then it is almost certain that the favored team’s performance will suffer.

In athletics this is sometimes referred to as tightening up although in eSports that phrase has been adapted to freezing or tilting. What happens in the mind during a choke is that automated motions become conscious motions in an attempt to wrest control of the situation. The problem is, intentionally controlling one’s movements can not produce as fluid and good a reaction as an automatic movement. There is a reason they were automated in the first place! For an elite athlete choking is a dire situation since all the training they endured in order to automate their reactions are what delivers their elite performance. When he or she chokes, it is as if years of training were suddenly erased and the athlete plays at a much lower level.

So why didn’t it work?

To put it simply, the Samsung White players were too mentally strong to tilt off of the pressure TSM was able to apply. Or rather, their performance did clearly degrade, but they still performed despite their worse mental state. Mental fortitude is the ability to perform at a high level despite the wrong mindset. Consistent athletes have the mental fortitude to perform great on their best days, and nearly-great on their worst days.

In traditional sport, and in eSport I believe, it is clearly partly the coaches job to develop mental strength in their athletes. The coaches in Korean squads have much more experience and tools to work with in this regard and their teams are more consistent as a result. A championship mindset does not happen by mistake, and an athlete simply training and competing while hoping for mental fortitude to magically develop is in for a long, brutal road. If more coaches pop up in the West like Locodoco who instinctively understand basic principles of sport psychology, Western athletes will quickly develop their mental toughness.