Saturday, December 8, 2012

Things That Make You Play Better

People seem to think there is a strange disconnect between body and mind, which is weird because they are basically the same thing.  Your brain is a physical object that obeys biological laws.  When we talk about how to improve its performance and influence its behavior, we don't want to rely on fuzzy advice; we need concrete cause-and-effect lessons that will let us optimize ourselves.

If you acknowledge that things like alcohol, drugs, and medications can affect how you think, feel, and act, then it's pretty darn likely other things can do the same.  The following are some things I've thought about and want to draw attention to.  I also don't want to portray myself as the final authority.  Just keep them in mind and try to intelligently apply your own experiences.

1 -- Deep Breathing

Efficient respiration yields better blood flow and clearer thinking.  A more calm state of mind also signals to the body not to produce chemicals that make you more impulsive and think less clearly.  When you're panicked and your mind is racing, it can be very easy to forget ideas and lessons that would help you; taking a time-out to breathe and collect yourself is invaluable.

I've been trying to make deep breathing a part of my regular routine before doing anything involving mental activity and decision making.  So far, by developing a habit of noticing when I'm stressed and want to follow unhelpful impulses and canceling it out with deep breaths, I've improved my energy levels, clarity of thought, and motivation to succeed in a variety of things.  It really can't hurt.

2 -- Nutrition

I don't want to pretend to be a nutritionist, so I'll just be anecdotal here.  I find that anytime I eat enough food that I feel extremely full, I immediately play games poorly and think very sluggishly.  When I eat moderate amounts and I stay away from sugary foods, my thinking is more clear.

As for fasting and avoiding food altogether, my experience has been mixed.  There are times where my motor control and jitters aren't negatively affected by hunger, and times when they are.  I generally think with more alertness when hungry (so if I'm concentrating, it's pretty sharp), but at the same I get distracted by the fact that I want to eat.

I bring up nutrition not to prescribe anything specific; you can't even trust the advice of most "experts" since so much is contradictory, and if you don't believe me, just google your most common nutrition questions.  The best thing I can advise is just recognize that your food intake is a factor in how you think and perform, try and identify what makes you play your best, and use that as a baseline.  I'll write more about this if I ever read or experience anything definitive.

3 -- Sleep

This is another place I've had mixed experiences.  Conventional wisdom is going to tell you "get a good night's sleep," and there are a lot of reasons to believe this will help you.  But then, I've had dominating performances on exactly zero minutes of sleep where I also had bronchitis and ate nothing but Subway cookies.  I've had times where I got myself a nice high-protein, low sugar breakfast after a full night's rest and then played awfully.  There ought to be a reason for this (beyond the ordinary bell curve), but since I've never tried conducting a fully controlled scientific study on my sleep compared to my play with full data mapping, I don't know what the reason is.

When it comes to stuff outside competition, I have noticed I wake up alert and stay awake after about 6.5 hours of sleep.  If I try and go back to sleep, I wake up groggy and and feel sluggish later.  Knowing this tells me when to set my alarm and when to go to sleep.

I'm going to assume that everybody is a bit different, but that each person also has some optimal range.  If you want to increase the likelihood of good performance, having solid habits that you don't break the night before an event will be more conducive.

4 -- Caffeine

No don't slam 3 Red Bulls right before an event.  You should be drinking Monster instead.

Kidding!  Caffeine is actually shown to improve decision making and reflex time in SMALL DOSES.  People get excited about the energy jolt that a large quantity of caffeine gives you, but after a certain amount the benefits to your mental performance decline.  One study on reflexes showed that people ingesting 300mg of caffeine (with forty five minutes for absorption) showed a "significant effect" favoring the participants, but there is no difference between a control group and a group that ingested 600 mg of caffeine.  The real lesson is that if you're feeling wired and jittery, you're probably not experiencing mental performance benefits, apart from being less likely to fall asleep.  You're also more likely to crash later, so you probably shouldn't do that.

5 -- Zone Procedures

The next time you're playing in the zone, try and really identify how you feel.  Some people are a bit different.  Do you get you pumped up, or are you calm?  I've played some of my best matches while sleep-deprived because I've always had issues with overthinking and getting distracted when I have more energy.  Relaxing and putting things on auto-pilot can help me do a lot better, and when I'm a bit sleepy sometimes it makes me less likely to care.  My ultimate best play has always come when I've been very emotionally tranquil and I don't let either success or failure affect me.  Find yours!  The next time you notice, "wow I'm playing really flipping well," stop and capture the feeling in your mind.

Step two is to try and develop a trigger for that state of mind.  If there is, for instance, a song that puts you in that mood, try setting up a ritual that will condition you to naturally flow into that feeling.  I take a few seconds to just zone out and relax my brain, then I start tensing and relaxing my hands in conjunction with deep breathing.  After a bit of this, I take a few minutes to listen to a song that helps put me in a suitable frame of mind.

Your brain's pattern recognition skills are ridiculously advanced; a lot of studies with regards to behavior loops suggests that, with sufficient conditioning, you can trigger emotional reactions to things before you experience them, provided your brain learns to anticipate their arrival.  So a sequence that looks like:

Routine -> Song -> Emotion

can, over time, turn into

Start of routine -> Emotion

As the sequence becomes more solidified, the trigger for that emotional state can become less lengthy.  What might start as a lengthy deep breathing routine to improve circulation and blood flow, followed by a song that gets you pumped up, can eventually turn into just two deep breaths and a little head shake where you get yourself into the game.

The hard part is remembering, in the heat of the moment, to use your triggers.  The real key--in my experience--lies not in thinking about your performance, or worrying about or winning or losing, but focusing on your mental state.  Your goal should not be victory or perfection, but achieving the state of mind that makes those things more likely.


A lot of soul-searching and a little bit of not-too-scientific experimentation has helped me understand better the things that affect my own personal performance.  Amid the excitement of tournaments and competitions I can have trouble remembering to actually follow some of them, but just knowing they exist and influence me helps me keep more perspective when my performance shifts.  People who know me know that I'm intensely perfectionst and expect to be playing great all the time, and it's something I've been working hard to move away from, because as often as it drives me to improve, it impedes the way I play.  Treating it as something based on cause and effect helps me distance myself a bit from the whole thing and keep a sense of perspective, and I hope it helps you do the same.  Thanks for reading.

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