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Road to Masters #2 – Mentality: A story of struggle

Our minds are the main reason why we do things and the main reason why we quit them. Recently, I’ve been reading quite a bit about mentality in sports training, learning environments and esports.

Many times, we think of practice as pushing through the rough days and “putting in the hours”. This however, is only partially true.

Having a well-structured practice routine is one thing. Having the right state of mind to approach practice, is its own brand of challenge to tackle.
There are many resources out there than can help reduce anxiety within the game. (I highly recommend watching Maynarde’s video on overcoming ladder anxiety.)

But seldom do we think about how to mitigate the issues generated from outside factors. Sometimes, pushing through is not the right answer. But in order to make wise decisions regarding our mindset, we must first acknowledge that it is indeed a factor that plays a key role in our performance.

It all depends on how we approach the game to begin with.

For some, playing StarCraft can be a way to detach from everyday life troubles; just like most games we play.
But for others, StarCraft can be quite a competitive experience. The stakes are higher and so are the pressures and strains that come with it.

Know What Triggers You

In order to keep disruptive emotions from messing with our performance in the game, we must first learn what they are and what triggers them.

For me, anxiety is probably at the top of the list.

As someone who struggled with anxiety unknowingly for many years, managing it is still challenging. During the last couple of years I’ve learned a lot about the nature of my anxiety, it’s origins and the situations that can spark a significant influx of it. (This is that moment in the article in which I recommend you to seek help and try therapy. We’ve all dealt with some hardcore stuff. There is no shame in asking for help.)

Most of the time, the issues that ail us have nothing to do with StarCraft and more so to do with everything that happens in our lives.

Identifying and naming the emotions that get in the way of achieving your state of flow can be of great help when trying to access it.

What does it look like in-game?

This one is a bit trickier. Watching my stream VODs has definitely helped me identify those moments of distress. If you don’t stream, I suggest recording yourself in the background during a ladder session. But don’t immediately jump to watch it after. Specially during a particularly triggering session. Your judgement is more likely to be clouded. Take a break, unwind and come back to it later.

By speaking to other players and watching other streamers’ content, I’ve learned that, for the most part, these heightened emotional states translate to either:

1. Autopiloting
2. Tunnel vision
3. Micro blunders/over spamming

Autopilot

Have you ever done your daily commuting from work back home and suddenly realized you’re not entirely sure how you got to your destination?

This is what autopiloting feels like. You start the game, queue up a worker, set the rally point, build that barrack and suddenly realize you meant to go gas first. Ultimately, this seemingly minor error makes you lose the timing to get that refinery after the barracks by a few seconds. In the end, you decide to wing it and hope for the best.
It is true that there comes a point of proficiency in StarCraft when you don’t even have to actively think about what you’re doing, but developing a strong understanding of the game along with solid muscle memory, look and feel very different from autopiloting.

For me, autopiloting comes from physical and mental exhaustion. Lack of proper sleep, hydration, feeling of hunger or being preoccupied by other matters can throw me into autopilot.
The proclivity to fall into this state becomes apparent when you ask yourself the following question:

How many times have you started a brand-new ladder session feeling like you’re already defeated?

Your life comes before StarCraft. If you use the game to cope with life’s perils, that’s completely valid. But if that is the case, surrender to the fact that your joy can’t come solely from winning, but rather from experiencing the game itself.
Same rule applies if you’re exhausted and are just looking to have a good time. If StarCraft is not that game for you, -a game of leisure and relaxation-, then go play something that is.

Personally, games like Moonlighter and Stardew Valley have helped me as a way to take a break from StarCraft. But there are plenty of activities besides gaming that can help you achieve this.

Tunnel Vision

This is so frequently mentioned in the StarCraft improvement communities because of how common it is amongst players. This feeling of trying to look away from that battle and to stop queuing up even more marines which you don’t actually need. But you just can’t stop looking at those four hellions that are about to die while your economy is being neglected.

Tunnel vision in my experience, is related to frustration. More specifically, frustration built up over time.

Tunnel vision is not that big of a problem in the first game I lose. But, ask me again on my 5th game of a losing streak and the answer will be very different.
There are many ways in which you can identify and manage these upswings in frustration if you know how frustration manifests in your body.
Shoulders bunched up against your ears, difficulty maintaining a steady breathing pattern (sometimes even breathing through your mouth in irregular patterns), a feeling of general discomfort in the upper body (feels like you want to jump out of your chair but something is holding you from doing it). You may even develop a fixation with jumping into the next game without even taking a breather.

When your mind and body are locked on and engaged in such a state, the best thing to do is to break the lock on. Much like a cyclone, you have one of two options:
1. Perform an action that breaks this state or
2. Slowly distance yourself from the target. In other words, taking a break.

Breathing helps us refocus on the present moment, what some would call a mindful state. Stretching will help your body disengage. This is not only about your arms, your entire body could be affected by this tension without you even knowing. Look to stretch your entire body before you continue. You can accompany this by trying to find a rhythm to regain a consistent and calm breathing pattern.

This might seem simple to do, but often times players will stubbornly queue up more and more games to realize an hour and a half later of losing or winning by the breadth of a hair, that they’ve driven themselves to such a state of frustration that makes everything seem like a waste of time and where the most likely outcome is uninstalling the game all together.

Over spamming and micro blunders

This is a big one for me. Back in early 2020, I would still feel exhausted after just an hour of playing StarCraft. The reason? I was hitting those keys like my life depended on it. I wasn’t really warming up, but rather anxiously tapping my keyboard in the hope that this would make my anxiety go away.

Much like with biting your nails or other objects like pen caps, over spamming your keyboard can be a way in which your body projects that feeling of restlessness onto the game. And it is exhausting.

The biggest problem with this habit is that it over saturates your capacity to perform effective actions in the game. It forces you to try to squeeze making the right units, cycling through your structures and controlling a large army in between anxiety bursts.

Having an inner dialogue is something that has worked a lot for me during the game. Talk to yourself about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and what is its purpose. This dialogue can be silent or recited out loud. The idea is to bring your mind back to the present moment and reduce the level of uncertainty within your own head.

You can’t control what your opponent does, but you can most certainly regain control of what you are doing.

Does all of this even matter?

Yes and no. It matters to the extent to which you have made StarCraft a prominent part of your daily life. At the end of the day, it is us who decide how important this game is to us and how much we’re invested in getting better at it.

It’s only fair that we don’t compromise our physical and mental health in the process. We’ve all witnessed time and time again how pro-players and amateurs alike will drive themselves to a breakdown point by playing StarCraft. I, for one have found myself binding my own sense of self-worth to my success in the game. Specially at times of great emotional distress, which for the most part, have little or nothing to do with the game itself.

The most important questions to answer are what do you want in your life and what role does StarCraft play in the bigger picture.
If these things are clear to you, giving the game its proper weight and measure in your life will make balancing out your emotions towards it, much easier.




What are your personal struggles in the game? Share it on the comments below!

Road to Masters #1 – The Road Ahead

It’s been five years since I started playing StarCraft seriously. I’ve been to tournaments (on and offline), met awesome friends and have made my way all the way up to Diamond.

Behind the scenes, I’ve faced several challenges along the way that have nothing to do with StarCraft. Changing cities, moving to my own place, managing jobs, freelancing, along with a dream of creating content about the games that I love; specially, StarCraft.

If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably been here for most of it.

Recently, I’ve started working on going back to the good habits that brought me here. I felt at some point, that I was neglecting the continuation of my improvement in StarCraft because sometimes, practicing the same thing over and over again for hours can be quite dull.

I’ve tried different approaches to getting better at the game throughout the years. I’ve been given advice by many different people. Some of it has been extremely helpful. Some of it has been, well, not.

I feel at this point that I’ve learned not as much about the game as I’ve learned about myself and the way I learn.
As some of you might know already, I’ve been a teacher for the last five years. The process of acquiring knowledge has become of great interest to me. It had been in the past, but now, it has seeped deeper into other aspects of my life.

This has got me thinking a lot about the way I learn StarCraft and what could be better strategies to go about improving at the game.

A quick disclaimer, the following strategies are things that have worked for me. These are in no way ultimate truths or secret recipes that will work for everyone, but maybe the process I’ve gone through might be useful to you.

Deliberate Practice

One of the things that has helped me in the past, is to isolate the issues in my play.

Now, identifying and isolating them is only a small part of the process. What made this the most helpful was scaffolding these issues from the most basic to the most complex, and also, from the most fundamental to the most peripheral skills to perform at the game.

Based on this scale, I allocated time to focus on each skill. In my case, for example, practicing macro and multitasking is a priority over micro. So micro for me, gets less time when it comes to deliberate practice.
At the moment, out of the 100% of the time I’ve been devoting to pratice, 40% goes to skills related to micro (stutter stepping, splitting, focus-firing, spellcaster control, etc.) and 60% to macro mechanics (macro cycle, multitasking, continuous production).

Practice Partners

This is a very important aspect of practice that I just started implementing. Having people around you to exchange ideas is one of the most effective ways of building knowledge.
There are many ways in which we can gather information and accumulate it. But socialization gives us unique opportunities to process and build upon this knowledge.

Up to now, I have been practicing with protoss players. My current most challenging match up.
StarCraft is, quite literally, too dangerous to go alone. Even the best players in the world have sparring partners, teams and friends to exchange intel with and practice. They don’t have to be extremely knowledgeable or even at a higher level than you. They just have to want to commit as much as you do.

Create a Routine

One of the most important aspects of improving is to create a solid practice routine.
This is not just about the drills, the builds and the ladder. It’s also about the quantity and quality of time you are willing to invest.
Ask yourself, “when am I the most focused during the day?”, “when are there less distractions?”, “at what time of the day do I perform better?”

If you don’t know the answers to these questions yet, GO FIGURE THEM OUT. Try practicing different things at different times of the day. Try weekdays, try weekends. Slowly but surely you will find a practice schedule that is right for your routine.

Design a routine that fits your lifestyle. There is no reason why you should set up unrealistic expectations at the expense of other important things in life or compromise other activities that might be beneficial to you.

It’s not all about the game. The mind and the body need care and nurturing. Practice shouldn’t make you ill, it should make you better.

Practice routines should include rest. PRACTICE. ROUTINES. SHOULD. INCLUDE. REST.
Burnout is a real thing and it can knock you back unnecessarily. But more importantly, it can ruin your motivation to go on. Having time away from the game will give time for the knowledge to sink in, and for that back, wrists, fingers and arms to cool down. Schedule that time and respect it.

Add variety to your practice

Pedagogically speaking, ladder is the worst environment for learning.

Let me repeat that…

LADDER IS THE WORST ENVIRONMENT FOR LEARNING.

The ladder is a highly competitive ranking system. The whole point of the ladder is to segregate players into different tiers based on how many games they win.

Ladder is no different from a standarized test. Playing in the ladder repeatedly might give you an understanding of how the ladder system works, but without any external information to aid you, you could be stuck in there forever. The other thing to note is that ladder doesn’t measure your skills in the game, it rewards you for winning. If you don’t win, you don’t move. The improvements you make everyday do not matter to it. Hence, you have to keep track of and appreaciate those yourself.

If you play a 100 games on ladder and never look at them again, analyze them, share them with other for feedback, chances are, those 100 games will take you nowhere.

What helps us move up in the ladder is not playing the ladder itself but what we do when we’re not on it. Analyzing replays, exchanging notes with other players, practicing a build order, going over a tutorial for a particular skill, watching how others solved the problems you are facing right now. Learning from others and teaching others what we know is what will eventually help us break the barrier between tiers.

Use the ladder not as a means to practice but as a tool to evaluate what your practice is doing for you.

Join a tournament once in a while. Tournaments are great places to connect with other players with similar goals and interests. They also give you a unique experience in that you face a same opponent for more than one game. Take this as a tiny test of knowledge, skill and adaptation.

In this video, I briefly discussed and shared some of the things I do for practice. Have other resources or suggestions for practice? Share in the comments what you do to become better at the game!