We’ve already had a look in previous blogs about how esports performance is heavily reliant on cognitive abilities and fine motor skills1. In those blogs we talked about how sleep was an important factor on cognitive abilities and your performance in esports, but now let’s look at techniques known as mental skills that are also very important in enhancing and supporting sustained performance. Mental skills also referred to as psychological skills, are techniques that are used within traditional sporting environments to support athletes in their performance2. However, in esports mental skills training are still in their infancy and so many esports athletes either aren’t aware or are not currently practising mental skills and the benefits they bring.
What are Mental Skills?
When using mental skills training, you’re trying to build a technique that increases your ability to use self-talk, imagery, goal setting, automaticity, activation, relaxation, emotional regulation, and attentional regulation to improve your performance2. Building these mental techniques into your practice will help you develop them into mental skills. Just like you train in LoL or APEX Legends, you train mental techniques to become skilled at them. These mental skills then enable you to regulate your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in high pressured competition.
Some research into mental skills has come out in esports with LoL players3. In this study, mental skills were found to support the LoL players to optimally perform, the use of imagery, goal setting and attentional control were of specific benefit to successful performance3. Knowing that mental skills have benefits directly in esports lets explore why using them will be help you in your performance.
In this blog we’ll look at some of the common mental skills that you can be taught to use to enhance your esports performance. You can also use these in everyday life outside of esports to great effect. So, let’s get stuck in!
Why are Mental Skills Helpful?
In traditional sports, mental skills have been used to great effect to support increased performance and wellbeing4. Let’s have a quick look at mental skills in traditional sports. The effects of positive, instructional, and motivational self-talk have been found to be beneficial for sporting performance7, while mental skills interventions using self-talk, imagery and goal setting in sport have been found to increase performance8. If esports coaches actively encourage mental skills training, it has an even greater effect of increased performance on the athlete than if the athlete did it without the social support of the coach8. Interestingly, mental skills training has also been found to improve emergency care providers’ performance under stress6.
However, in esports mental skills aren’t as widely used5, which is a shame since it can bring such huge improvements to performance. Luckily for us there are a couple of awesome esports researchers out there that are starting to look into this.
A really good piece of research done by Michael Trotter, Tristan Coulter, Paul Davis, Dylan Poulus, and Remco Polman5 explored the use of mental skills on esport athletes’ game ranking and they found some interesting results. Firstly, like we already said, esports isn’t using mental skills as much as traditional sports and this is likely due to esports athletes not being exposed to mental skills strategies to support in the development of their mental skills. They found that the players who were higher ranked were more likely to be using and training mental skills in their performances and game training. Specifically, the techniques of imagery, self-talk, goal setting, automaticity and activation were used to enhance performance of the top performers.
Knowing that the top performers are using these techniques to enhance their game rankings I want to bring some basic mental skills training education to more grassroots, amateur and semi-pro gamers who want to improve their game. We’ll concentrate on three mental skills and how you can apply them to your training. These skills are: imagery, goal setting, and self-talk.
Imagery or visualisation is a powerful tool that athletes have been effectively using throughout multiple sporting competitions. The regular practice of imagery has been found to increase performance9. But how can we start to use imagery within esports?
For this we are going to use the PETTLEP model of imagery10. The PETTLEP model is an easy-to-follow model that has seven elements that support imagery scripts and instructions. The acronym stands for Physical, Environment, Task, Timing, Learning, Emotion, and Perspective.
Physical – This refers to making the imagery experience as physical as possible. In esports imagery this could mean holding the controller as you would if you were playing and using it in your imagery or using the mouse and keyboard in the same way. Try to imagine yourself winning, how would you react? Would you first bump a friend, shout out loud? Be aware of what those physical actions are and try to use them to help your imagery of success.
Environment – This relates to the place where the imagery is performed. This should be as similar to the performance environment as possible, so where you are training and competing most. If at a competition, then good practice would be to use imagery on the stage and in the seats you’d be using in the competition. If you haven’t experienced large crowds at competitions yet, then putting a picture up of a full stadium and stage where you want to compete with audio of the crowd can help you in this imagery training.
Task – This refers to the content of your imagery, it should be appropriate to your skill level and your role in the team or the game. This is where imagery interventions can be more tailored to you and your performance level. To identify the areas of improvement in your game, chat to your coach or performance psychologist about where your attention is during the game to help your imagery.
Timing – This is the pace at which you complete your imagery. You should be performing imagery in real time as timing is crucial to successful execution of skills. I love to play AoE4, and I know that the first 5 minutes of the game are crucial. So, I should spend 5 minutes of time using imagery for my opening moves, if I condense this to only 1 minute of imagery, I may miss details and so it won’t be as effective.
Learning – This refers to the progression of imagery and adapting as the individual becomes more skilled. Imagery is a skill, just like training for a game, you train your imagery skill to further develop it. Content of the imagery should be updated regularly to reflect the progress of your skill, which will ultimately help increase your performance.
Emotion – Esports and traditional sports are emotional experiences, and to make imagery more realistic you should be mentally recreating the emotions you feel during the game. Using emotions helps to create a more vivid imagery intervention, and it can also support in emotional regulation training as it can pinpoint instances where your emotions may get too high.
Perspective – This refers to the viewpoint you are using during imagery practice. An internal viewpoint is viewing the experience through your eyes in the first person and an external viewpoint is seeing yourself performing as if you were a spectator. The external perspective can be useful in esports to practice posture, body language and physical cues, while internal may be more beneficial for in game imagery and what you are doing during the game. However, individual preference is essential here and using which perspective works best for you in essential.
When using PETTLEP start basic, as I’ve said before it is a skill to train and develop. Start with smaller actions in your game, like the first 2 minutes and build from there. PETTLEP works best when using all the elements, but don’t overwhelm yourself. Start with a few of them and then build in the others over time. When working with a performance psychology coach you can develop and co-create an imagery script that incorporates all the elements.
Self-talk is a key performance enhancing strategy11 and helps athletes focus their attention on skills and strategy, increase motivation, and manage levels of stimulation12. Self-talk refers to statements that you say to yourself automatically or deliberately either silently or out loud13. There are different types of self-talk14 that can be used in different contexts in a performance setting, however for simplicity we’ll look at instructional.
Instructional self-talk is typically technically or tactically oriented and aids in concentration. Continuing my AoE4 example, an instructional self-talk is a short cue that supports me in getting a faster time to age up, this helps me internalise my tactics during the game and completing good processes.
This form of self-talk centres around positive self-talk focused on specific skills and/or processes. In previous blogs I’ve talked about esports being a fine motor skill based sport, and instructional self-talk has been found to be useful with tasks requiring fine motor skills15 therefore is perfect for esports.
Instructional self-talk typically uses cue words that are directly related to the performance of the skill. An example in traditional sport may be for kicker in rugby to use the cue words “follow through”. This consciously reminds the kicker of a good action to complete the task. These are small bite sized bits of information that provide you with instruction and provide direct focus on the skill.
Here’s a way of creating cue words:
– Focus on a skill you’d like to improve on. (Faster time to Feudal Age in AoE4)
– Break this skill down into small pieces. (Food, gold, scout movement, village production, build order)
– Identify the most important parts or the parts that you need to improve upon. (I forget to cue my villagers and I need to improve this)
– Identify cue words to improve this. (“Villages”, “Villager production”, “Check Town Centre”)
– Use one of these cue words during games and practice to create a routine and improve my task of villager production, improving my time to Feudal Age.
An essential part of this is to keep the cue words short, you don’t want to be thinking of a full sentence and then paralysing your thought process. Short, intentional, and easy to repeat cues are best.
Goal setting is something that has had a lot of coverage all over the web and media. However, doing effective goal setting is something that has many different benefits in sport settings16. It is important when creating goals with an athlete to consider self-determination theory. This means are the goals set autonomously by the athlete, are related to the athlete, and the goals support mastery and competency. Including these considerations into goal setting increases the effect on improved performance17. There are also the different types of goals: outcome, performance, and process goals. Outcome goals are goals based on the results of performance, did we win or lose. Performance goals are also based on the outcomes of performance but are self-referenced, an example being increasing your total kill count in Apex Legends. Process goals are based on the execution of specific skills or processes during play, for example your wellbeing as a gamer, a process goal might be to complete 3 warm-up exercises before gaming. This is a goal that you have 100% control over and increases the likelihood of doing better in your performance and outcome goals. I want to deeper into these in a different blog, so for now let’s look at a goal setting strategy to help you in esports.
Again, there are different types of goal setting that support performance improvement, but for simplicities sake, we’ll have a look at one: Staircase Goal Setting.
Staircase Goal Setting is the setting of short term process goals to achieve long term performance and outcome goals18,19. This is a really simple mental skill that lets you break down long term performance and outcome goals into process goals
To use the Staircase Goal Setting you firstly need to set a goal, let’s say win the Esports Wales Apex Community Tournament. This is an outcome goal, and isn’t completely in your control, so the steps building up to this should be process goals and performance goals that support you in increasing your chance of winning. See the image below for an example of Staircase Goal Setting.
As you can see this is a mix of process and performance goals to support you in getting to an outcome goal of winning the tournament. However, as I’ve stated before, you can’t control everything in esports (or in life) and it is ok to not reach your outcome goal. Working towards it is how you improve and if you don’t reach it then it is good to reflect and understand why.
Goal setting, imagery and self-talk are all-powerful mental skills you can use to enhance your performance and wellbeing. However, they are skills that need to be developed and trained, just trying them once and giving up won’t bring much benefit, but repeated practice will pay off. For esports players and coaches these skills are best taught by a performance psychologist who has had training in these areas, but try out what you have read and if you need more support in them please don’t hesitate to get into contact.
Written by Rob Davies.
Rob is an Elite Athlete and Esports Wellbeing Coach with multiple years of experience coaching professional athletes around the world in strength and conditioning. He is now a qualified athlete wellbeing coach and training as a sports psychologist, he supports athletes holistically to manage the stressors of sport. Within esports he uses his strength and conditioning, wellbeing, and sport psychology background to support esports athletes on all physical and mental aspects to help them reach their performance goals and have a healthier lifestyle as they do it.
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