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Team atmosphere – Competition versus Mastery

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I see a lot of misconceptions about talent in eSport. Recently coaches and analysts have been trading athletes away who have reached their “talent cap.” You talk about how older athletes lose out in skill matches to younger ones. During the League of Legends offseason prior to the 2015 season, many managers are nervously assessing promising, raw players and trying to determine what characteristics to look for when signing a new athlete to their roster.

This is not a new thing. Over 60 years ago the USSR began researching how they could identify elite athletes while they were still children. The new communist regime wanted to be sure they performed well on the world stage in order to display superiority. Many sport psychology theories actually owe their birthright to the Russian state’s deep efforts in training athlete mental skills. Eventually this quest spread around the globe, and despite years of searching only one, single factor was found to consistently demonstrate who would become an elite athlete and who would fail or fall off: motivation.

Eventually the quest turned towards groups of already-elite performers. The coaches and politicians demanded to know which athletes they should send to the best training camps and invest the most resources on. One factor, again, came up again and again as the main sign that an elite athlete was going to outstrip his or her peers and become a world champion. You guessed it: motivation.

But you don’t have to take my word for it:

Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen. ~ Michael Jordan

Team unity - When player's don't click
Team motivation - Competition versus Mastery
Team leadership - Coach-athlete relationship
Team infrastructure - Support for athlete development (forthcoming)

Managers, coaches, even fans instinctively know that there is something special about motivation (or effort, I will use the two words interchangeably here). All you have to do is turn to the movies. From Rocky to Any Given Sunday we see how effort constantly trumps all other skills and talents. In eSports you can see organizations putting this principle into practice in two very different ways. First, there are team owners who believe motivation is born into people. That you have it or you do not. Secondly, there are team owners who believe that motivation is bred into people. A mental skill just like any other, it can be grown, and unfortunately it can just as easily be snuffed out.


These two League of Legends teams represent the premier level of performance for North America in eSport. And they are perfect examples of the two different approaches to motivation that play out in elite eSport, and traditional sport, all across the globe.

TSM is clearly a results oriented team. From my observation of Reginald’s coaching style, they use rewards and punishments to craft the motivational atmosphere in the team. The ultimate punishment is, of course, removal from the squad. However, since TSM can pick up fresh and motivated replacements at will, this approach works very well for them. They choose athletes with in-built motivation and discard them when it dies out.

Cloud9 is similar in performance to TSM. Perhaps arguably better. The biggest difference between the two teams is that Cloud9 have been a top performing team without any roster changes. Their players remain motivated to stay at the top of their game. In my opinion, the organization crafted a secure, player-focused environment that breeds motivation, and it has led to their consistency.

As a side note, who is the one member of TSM that put in the effort to stay at the top of their game for years? Dyrus, who is, to my knowledge, the only person on TSM to have professional counseling for his mental toughness. No surprise there.


The first lesson that managers and team leaders need to learn in order to turn their team into motivated champions is that rewards and punishments do. not. work.

Ok I need to clarify that. Actually they do work for simple tasks like “pile these rocks over there!” However, for complex tasks, greater rewards do nothing to improve performance, and a lot of the time they actually worsen performance! They also happen to be motivation killers, since rewards and punishments turn an athlete’s autonomous brain off and force him to obey the rules of the team’s system. This makes the athlete function with external motivation and his internal motivation dies away.

Think of this example of a complex task with a large reward. “Win three games of League of Legends versus Samsung White. If you do I’ll pay you $1,000,000.” It did not work because an athlete can not simply “try harder” and get his reward. To solve this problem involves months of team training, and years of effort to reach an elite level of play. External rewards have a hard time keeping an athlete motivated on a day to day basis.


To start crafting a championship mindset, instead of rewards and punishments the team should focus on making a motivational atmosphere. In my next article I talk a lot about how coaches can instill and breed motivation in their players individually, but here I want to talk about the group approach.

On any given team I can measure the motivational atmosphere and see whether it leans towards a mindset of competition or a mindset of mastery. What is the difference? A competitor seeks to prove himself by beating other people until he is king of the hill. A master seeks to prove himself by constantly conquering… himself.

Most teams are exclusively competitive atmospheres. Athletes are being compared to their idols, being ranked in the region, looking at the team standings every week, etc. Feelings like this can fire a person up, but this motivation is only temporary and worse yet, it is directionless. Here’s an example of a player in a training setting with a competitive atmosphere:

A mid-laner named “Saddy” looks up to Faker. He is training in scrims and his coach says, “Be more like Faker: Punish your opponent, do not trade badly, all-in better.” Saddy sits down and vows to train like Faker. But Faker isn’t there. Saddy looks around for a few mintues. He tries to imagine how Faker would train. Saddy ends up trying a few things, reverts slowly to his standard practice patterns, and feels energetic but slightly lost. His motivation is directionless and fading.

During training, an athlete needs direction, a constant motivation for effort on a daily basis, and a strong self-confident mindset that their training will pay off. Sure, beating idols is the dream, but competing to best somebody only provides an ultimate destination, it does not help along the journey. Every day the athlete has to get up, improve themselves, and be confident that their effort will pay off in the long run. The coach should have encouraged mastery by saying:

Let’s beat Faker! Start with CS-ing. I noticed you punish the opponent only 4-5 times during the first 5 minutes. Today let’s double that number.

The next day Saddy would wake up, and witness his growth, and be more confident in his skills. This leads him to take the next step. His passion to beat Faker is still alive. (Note to coach: Try not to remind him too much that Faker is training as well… that is called demotivating.)


There is a catch to this though. While mastery is a good mindset for developing effort and keeping the team atmosphere motivating, it turns out that the best athletes in the world test very highly for both mastery and competitive motivation. So it is important that the team works to use both of these mindsets in training and in competition. For example, TSM’s coach Locodoco used the competitive mindset to great effect in their attempted upset over Samsung White this past worlds. Likewise he helped craft a mastery focus in their training by banning the team from social media websites, where they would see themselves constantly compared to other athletes. In this case he saw that the team needed to be looking completely at themselves and their own play.

Even soloQ players can use these two mindsets to their advantage. In games, you should focus on being the best player you can be without regard to the opponent. Master yourself every match by measuring yourself against your previous efforts. However, when you feel like you hit a wall and you do not know how to advance, try to arrange a duel competing with somebody better than you. They will trounce you, let you experience humility, and teach you a bucketload of things in the process. Pile that wood back on the fire and keep burning.


Do not rely on outmoded assumptions of how to create motivated athletes using punishments. Recognize that rewards are too simplistic for the task of winning an eSport match or training advanced strategic and athletic skills. Improve your team by looking at what your players need and, if necessary, hire a professional sport psychological consultant to analyze your team atmosphere and help you set it up for success.

Weldon is an American sport psychological consultant based in Finland. He started MindGames, an online magazine exploring eSport psychology. read more »