TILT—Why your brain jumps in to mess with your performance, & how to fix it!



“They were so bad. I saw all their mistakes. But I played down to their level.”

“I can do this 9 times out of 10. Why do I fail when it’s actually important?”

PROBLEM: We learn skills like this:

unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence

…and then our brain gets in the way and moves us back a stage.

You literally step back in time to when the skill was less coordinated, less automatic, less “skillful.”

Why does it happen?

  • Self-doubt and nervousness that you can pull it out.
  • Obsessive self-focus on executing the skill–remember it was unconscious, and you are conscious of it again.
  • Suddenly having an audience, and trying to not fail.

Here are my best tips on how to conquer each of these quickly.


The best method to get over being watched: desensitize yourself.

Here’s the normal track for pro players. It’s familiar to you as a fan.

  1. Super good online, get on stage for first time and choke
  2. Get accustomed to being on stage, play in high-stakes match on stage and choke
  3. Get accustomed to high stakes matches, play at worlds and choke
  4. Get used to playing at worlds (win worlds?!?!)

I trained this myself in soloQ by creating simple rule.

RULE: Play only ranked games.

NOTE: This was only until I accustomed myself to the pressure.

When every game is ranked, none of them are.

When you have to perform under pressure, your body automatically learns different coping techniques. I’ll list here the correct ones so that you can guide your self-teaching.

When you feel pressure facing your opponent…

  • DO lean into it and try for the outplay, accept the failure, and improve.
  • DON’T use an excuse to release the pressure and cope by escaping the situation mentally, physically, or emotionally.

When you are scared or have anxiety about queueing up for a game…

  • DO visualize your end-goal and how this next game fits into your ambitions for yourself, and your future.
  • DON’T just blindly mash the queue button as a way to cope with your frustration with the last game in hopes you’ll luck out and get a good game.

When the game is loading, and your mind is racing with all the stuff you are stressing to remember…

  • DO take deep breaths, focus on stilling your body (not your mind) and focus on the present. Expand your focus to every thought and every thing you can see in the here and now.
  • DON’T alt-tab out to an internet forum or social media network.

Get the general idea?

Obsessive self-focus

This will naturally go away as you use do the things I listed in the previous section. But that doesn’t help you right now, in the game you are playing.

“Hey don’t worry. You’ll be able to relax and perform once you try and fail a few times on stage.”
“um.. ok. But my team said they’d fire me if we lose, so can you help me out NOW?”

So, what is the neurological hurdle?

You are focusing on only a small number of parts that are involved in the successful execution of a complex skill.

What you self-focus on when you are panicking:

clicking your button

What your brain needs to focus on to execute a simple in-game skill:

judging damage, activating your shoulder and back, upper, arm, wrist, and finger muscles in response to visual stimuli in order to place the cursor in the exact correct position while simultaneously timing the button click to match the cursor overlaying that pixel, predicting opponent reaction to your movement, taking account for other tactical variables like npcs, secondary targets you have to deal with, teammate location and communication, activation and coordination of your keyboard hand, confirmation of button clicks and adjustment if timing is off, planning for after the event, adjustment and adaptation to opponent reaction in real time. Also breathing, blinking, communicating with teammates, adjusting posture to anchor your arm movement, and some bad stuff like tapping your feet in nervousness, worrying about the future, worrying about failure, thinking of scenarios of what will happen if you fail, imagining the glory of pulling off this sick move, judging your teammates reactions to your play and coming up with pre-excuses and emotional barriers if they accusing you of sucking and trying to make a stupid play, worry if you are good enough to pull it off.

Self-focus drags too much of your attention away from the complexity of your learned motor reflex, and you step back a stage and play like you are consciously competent or worse, consciously incompetent.

You can also see there are some bad things mixed in there. Those just take mental focus away from your muscle control and reaction.

Find a way to rehearse your skill, and try to broaden your focus to include as large a present-state awareness as you can.

Focus on your senses, and as much of your sensations as your senses can track. Overwhelm your mind with the present.

You accomplish 2 things when you try to focus on the here and now. You train

  1. ignoring all the worries about the past and present.
  2. to feel what it is like to automatically execute a skill.

Try to execute it unconsciously, but you watch and feel yourself doing it. Then when you take over conscious control in a pressure situation, you are more able to replicate the whole suite of necessary actions.


Step 1: Accept it.

I’m not going to teach you to be confident, nor ask you to be confident.

Confidence is over-rated.

Plenty of confident athletes screw up and lose matches every day. And lots of nervous and unsure underdogs outperform their own doubt.

I want you to be able to have self-doubt, be nervous that you can’t pull it off, and just do it. Use your nervous energy as fuel for focusing on what you can control:

  • your growth, and
  • maximizing your skill in the here and now.

Technically you can’t really ignore things. The signals still get to your brain, you just don’t pay any attention to them.

I want to to train your focus so hard that you don’t notice your self-doubt, or don’t care about it.

You do that by tying it to your ambitions and values. You do that by leaning into self-doubt instead of away from it. You do that by recognizing that your nervousness provides a kind of sharpness that brings you your best performances.

Don’t waste your time trying to learn and bluster your way to confidence.

What happens when you screw up? Are you just going to lie and tell yourself “Oh dang I had that. Such an unlucky day.”

(Meanwhile all those luckers who are consistently better than you are grinding away at their weaknesses because they hate feeling that self-doubt and also being in-capable, so they do something about it!)


Find your competence.

Can you improve? Are you competent at that? Now you don’t need confidence.

Can you outplay a player higher rank than you consistently? Are you competent at that? Great, now you don’t need confidence.

Confidence a useless metric that makes you relaxed when you should be nervous and sharp, or it makes you choke when it goes away if you train yourself to rely on it.

Here’s a few steps to help re-define your nervousness and self-doubt as a performance enhancing emotion.

  1. Notice when you become nervous. Train yourself to start paying attention.
  2. Watch your performance afterwards. Push your limits.
  3. You’ll see a lot of success and a lot of failure.
  4. Notice your progression as you pay attention to those moments.

Nervousness promotes attention and memory!

You will learn more when you play under those conditions. You’ll get better, faster.

You want to use coping mechanisms like deep breathing and focus control to harness your nervousness, and not train yourself to try to be false-confident or eliminate your nervousness.

Learn more!

I go more into depth on tilt in my podcast.

Episode 1: Tilt — Why your brain jumps in to mess with your performance, & how to fix it!

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