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Relaxation and performance in eSport

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Two ends of the spectrum

One of the biggest joys and frustrations in my life is that I coach a special needs team of competitive swimmers. One boy loves to compete; he gets really, super excited about it. In fact every time he dives in for a race he spins his arms like a windmill, and ends up going nowhere fast. I love racing him in longer races because he ‘tires’ himself out and relaxes a little back into his normal, strong stroke. On the other hand, I have another boy who does everything in his life very precisely. When he dives in for his race he calmly and carefully takes every stroke very completely with excellent kick all the way to the end. Not much gets him worked up enough to swim hard.

Since I deal with this every week, I tend to notice it more often when I see it in athletes. Many times less confident athletes are too aroused and can’t maintain control, focus, and concentration so they underperform. On the contrary, many overconfident athletes or those playing against weak opponents will not psyche themselves up enough and suddenly lose to the underdog. For a more thorough explanation of arousal and its affect on performance, please read this article first.

The basic gist of it is that everybody competes on a continuum like the one pictured below, and getting into that optimal state is a key part to consistent winning and success in professional eSports.

Relationship to performance

Most elite athletes are aware of their arousal state, even if it is only at a subconscious level. Competitors can feel when they are too at ease and try to psyche themselves up and raise their energy level so they can give 100% effort. Movie-coaches are famous for those kind of speeches. Likewise, it’s common for people to try to relax themselves from an over-excited state so that they can accomplish a task that requires focus. Imagine the soccer coach yelling “just relax” to the young player about to take the penalty shot. Or one of my favorite scenes from Firefly of Wash asking his crew-mates to relax so he could focus on a escaping the reavers by pulling a Crazy Ivan. Although we know being under- or over-aroused can harm somebody in competition, surprisingly it can also make practice time less efficient! Therefore, being able to control one’s arousal state is important for the development of their skills as well as their success in competition.

Since most people are quite good at psyching themselves up and getting out of a too relaxed state, today I want to talk about techniques for relaxing out of a too psyched up state. This is also a mental skill, called relaxation, but it is an uncommon one that is usually developed only by experienced athletes over time using trial and error. That is a shame since being over-excited is quite common, especially early in the pro career or when playing for important titles like “World Champion.”

The benefits of relaxation

In my previous article I discussed why there is an optimum zone of arousal, so I will not go into that again here, but I do want to talk about some of the benefits of relaxation. These benefits apply both to being in that optimum zone and also relate to the actual relaxation techniques themselves, which have various positive effects on the body and mind. Here are the benefits and their relationship to eSport.

Lower general muscular tension under any condition. Many eSport competitions are held arena style where the environment is uncontrollable. Sometimes it can be too cold, loud, or  bright.

Reduce localized tension. Lots of gamers suffer from lower back pain and headaches resulting from muscle tension. It is easy to relieve these with relaxation and physical activity. (Note: Tension headaches are a subcategory and do not represent all headaches.)

Promote sleep and reduce insomnia. In today’s eSports world, traveling is a way of life. Therefore at many of the biggest competitions teams will struggle with jet lag and disrupted sleep. Relaxation techniques are the most powerful method for sticking to a strong pre-performance routine that includes adequate rest and promotes consistent, focused play.

Regulation of tension so nerve pathways are not overcharged. If your shoulder and arm muscles are tense they respond less easily to nerve impulses. Adrenaline promotes gross motor movement of the largest arm and leg muscles. It is detrimental to fine motor movements, and eSports require some of the most coordinated, complicated and specific finger movements of any sport. How many horror or drama movies does the person drop their keys or fumble for their weapon in the heat of the moment? That is the effect of adrenaline in which is essentially screaming, “stop messin’ with that stuff and fly, you fools.”

More efficient practice time. Research shows that the learning of skills and strategies is enhanced in relaxed states vs aroused states. This is shown for both academic and athletic learning. A relaxation exercise facilitates the concentration and singled-minded focus needed for learning via practice because it helps eliminates distracting thoughts and emotions.

Relaxation techniques

So how does one go about ‘learning’ relaxation? Well the good news is that most people are well on their way. A frequent commenter, Yagamoth, posted

shortly before the match I got nervous and a few minutes into the match I was calm. No big change here, that’s how I usually work – nervous before and at the start, calm through the rest.

Once people start a match their instincts take over and the mind relaxes into a calm, focused state of being in the zone. The more skilled one is the more powerful their instincts are and the faster they relax and concentrate. So simply practicing a lot and getting better at the game helps one to relax while playing.

Earlier on the same article about breathing techniques for relaxation, Kaleopolitus posted, “[…] I will go so far as taking in a few deep breaths, but that’s it. […]” Most people already know that they can breath a few times, deeply, and it will function as nature’s automatic relaxant.

If one wants to take it up a level beyond the these trial and error coping methods, it’s best to learn some specific relaxation techniques. Experiment with several and pick the best fit. There are methods that go from muscle-to-mind like breathing, stretching, yoga, and progressive relaxation. They help most if one is usually tense and has symptoms like nervous tapping. Then there are techniques like meditation and self-talk, which go from mind-to-muscle. They help best if one is usually worried, has negative self-talk or mental confusion. Overall remember to listen to your body and always start with proper breathing.

Where to start?

Practice at least once a week. A common complaint I hear is people who say they do not need these techniques for normal, everyday practice time. However, the point of learning and practicing these methods more often is so they have a powerful effect and are useful when needed. If one never practices a sporting skill, how likely are they to be able to perform it at a high level when necessary in competition? The same is true of mental skills. When a player is lying in a hotel room in Hanover with a world championship match eight hours away and can not sleep, no relaxation routine pulled out of a hat is going to help them nod off unless they practiced it consistently.

To accompany this article I am publishing a series of small posts that contain common relaxation methods. Below are the links; forthcoming ones will be added and will also be found using the relaxation category on the blogroll.

Proper breathing

Progressive relaxation

Meditation and visualization (forthcoming)