Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Quitters never win.  Never quit.  Never give up.  Et cetera.

I don't always agree with those sentiments.  It IS okay to quit, provided you do so for healthy reasons.  Giving up and losing under the right conditions is A-OK and you shouldn't be ashamed of doing so.  I went over this a bit in this post but this is more specific.  It's also mostly in the context of competitive gaming.  And specifically, about quitting long-term, not moment-to-moment acts of willpower.

When and why is it okay to quit?  Well, one thing I've believed in for a long time is this: you must know what the rules before you can break them.  Cartoons and drawings might not be done with a realistic style, but they're typically based in realism and an understanding of anatomy, of light and shadow, of perspective and proportion; somebody who doesn't understand those rules shouldn't be breaking them.  When you do break them, you should know exactly why, and what effect it will generate.  Not knowing them at all, however, is inexcusable if you're going to take your art seriously.

Likewise, you shouldn't quit unless you understand exactly why you're doing it, and it's done for the right reasons.  Only break the rules if you understand them.

Rule one: you should never have a quitting habit.

Looking for excuses to stop doing hard or difficult work is a thought habit, and it's a crappy one.  Mastery and success are rarely achieved by going, "wow this is kind of hard, I'm going to go watch cartoons instead."

What are the signs of a quitting habit?  When something gets difficult, you look for other stuff to do.  You can always find convenient reasons why it's absolutely fine for you to be stopping.  You ask "am I really expected to do this?" with any degree of frequency.  When you constantly try to positively confirm that quitting is okay, that you should be allowed to in this case, that it's totally fine... in those cases, it's probably not.

The quitting habit is rooted in pain avoidance, and the desire to eliminate discomfort.  But growth is done by doing things beyond your ordinary capabilities until those things become comfortable.  Growth happens in failure and pain and sometimes even regret.  If you have a quitting habit, one of your first priorities should be identifying it and eliminating it.

Rule Two: you should establish your goals and keep them in mind when you think about quitting.

I've mentioned that being goal-oriented and results-oriented can be detrimental, because it can make you sacrifice good habits for short-term results.  It can encourage negative self-talk, when your goal seems so far away.  It can make you neurotic, always asking "am I moving closer to my goal?  Is this improving me, right now?! Rargarargabargle!"

But when you want to quit, and you start thinking things like, "well, I didn't really want it anyway..." your established goal becomes your guiding light.  You think, "yes, I did want it.  I still want it.  I want to be skilled and amazing at this thing, and I want to improve, and I can't do that if I quit.  It's okay if I try my hardest and fail, but it's not okay for me to quit now."  You have to remind yourself that your original desire outweighs your current desire, the one that wants to avoid your current discomfort, or fear, or pain, the one that's afraid of looking dumb and weird in front of strangers when you screw up.

Rule Three: Quitting to avoid certain problems might be a sign you should be fixing the problems, not quitting.

Should you quit playing a game if the game always makes you angry?  Or should you investigate the source of the anger?  If you don't want to look bad when you lose, maybe you should focus on your fear of failure, rather than avoid things you can lose at.  It's likely that if you've got a common problem with various things you do, it's probably not because you haven't found the right endeavor.  It's probably because there's another underlying problem that you're ignoring by switching tasks.

Rule Four: Not quitting can be a bad habit, just as bad as quitting.

We're getting into the gray areas now.  Our real goal should be avoiding neurotic behavior.  I'm using the definition by Karen Horney, which says "In essence, neurosis is a distorted way of looking at the world and at oneself, determined by compulsive needs rather than by a genuine interest in the world as it is" (thanks Wikipedia).

If you never quit anything, even when it would be extremely intelligent and helpful to do so, because you're paranoid about being labeled a quitter and you are compelled to never leave anything unfinished... that's just as bad as quitting everything you do.  It means you're bad at changing your mind when the situation demands it.  It means you're obsessive and will over-invest resources into pointless endeavors at the expense of other endeavors.  This isn't okay, and this is exactly why quitting is sometimes okay.

Quitting.  Stopping.  Retiring.  Persevering.  Your reasons for doing these things matter.  You want your emotions and decisions to serve your goals and purposes.  Willpower and discipline help this; neurotic behaviors and poor habits do not.  When quitting is a pain-avoidance tactic, it will not serve you; when you refuse to quit because you can't bear to abandon something under any circumstances, then you are not being served either.

Rule Five: Follow your current goals, not your old ones.

I don't mean "obey your immediate impulse."  Your immediate impulse is going to be something like, "my feet hurt can I sit down," or "Jesus that lineman is huge I'm going to hide in the locker room now."  I mean that you should check up on your objectives every now and then to see if they've changed.  You shouldn't be so attached to old reasons that they distract you from current goals.

This is where self-honesty comes into play.  Don't lie to yourself.  You might be using a current short-term goal to avoid pursuing an old one.  Obviously that's bad.  But maybe your short-term goal is so important you should be abandoning an old one.  So obviously you don't want to be blind and stubborn.

When does it stop though?  You can argue back and forth, "I don't love this game anymore and it's okay to stop doing it," followed by "I shouldn't have a habit of quitting just because I'm a bit unhappy at this exact moment."  Without a good quantitative way to measure which decision is better, you could be at this all day.  So really, I guess it doesn't end until you decide.  You have to live with the uncertainty until you've burned one of the bridges and crossed the other.  Make the best decision you can, and make it in your own best interests.  Don't lie to yourself about why you're doing it.  Take your own health and happiness into account, and don't make these decisions impulsively.  Then learn from them if you can, should they not work out the way you want.

In summary?  Quit when quitting will help you meet your current and important life-goals.  Don't allow frustration and temporary pain to make you abandon that which is matters to you.  It's that simple, and that difficult.  Try to keep the above rules in mind.  I hope they help.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Losing When You Shouldn't

Most people have, at some point, lost to opponents they shouldn't have lost to.  This is another way of saying, one player was perceived to be of much higher skill, but didn't win for some reason.  I want to examine and think about this phenomenon a bit.  Because, even though it can be a valid way to assess an outcome as an upset, it can also be a very destructive mentality.

First off, the odds of losing when you shouldn't vary from game to game.  High punishment for mistakes is a catalyst for upsets, so games like Marvel vs. Capcom permit less knowledgeable and experienced players to win and perform upsets if they can avoid dropping combos, because one random error from an experienced player might give them the window for victory.  The surprise from the first error might lead to stress or an over-correction, causing a second mistake, and by then it may just be too late.  Games where you are punished less for individual mistakes, however, lets a player who is playing slightly off, or getting legitimately unlucky (when applicable) have more chances to fix things.   It should follow that the longer your sets, (a single game, compared to best of five) will shift odds to the more skilled player.  More time to compose themselves, analyze things, and more consistency will generally win out over time.

The odds of being upset can also depend on your play-style.  Some people play very defensive, safe, and fundamental, and some players take big offensive risks.  Riskier players, especially in games where you are punished for errors, are more prone to being upset.

Lower level players are more prone to upsets for a large variety of reasons.  Less skill at handling the pressure of being behind, worse fundamentals to fall back upon, and less consistency overall will all contribute to losing when they shouldn't.  So even though skill is relative, lacking skills that prevent upsets will make upsets more likely.

That's all very interesting.  But there is something of a tautology here, which is this: you measure skill by somebody's ability to win.  Losing when you have more skill does not logically follow.  You might speak in terms of probability, saying "I win about 85 out of 100 games and he got a few of his good ones in a row."  You may take outside factors into account: I had a fever and he had Adderall.  You might say, "he should have won, but then he dropped his game-winning combo and let the pressure get to him, causing more mistakes." At that point, you are making an analysis.

The words and attitudes you use here are important!  "I shouldn't have lost" is a useless statement if you don't qualify it in a meaningful way.  And it's worse than useless if you fail to phrase it in terms of what you can do differently next time.  If you don't focus on analysis and improvement, you start to sound like a sore-loser.

"I should have won.... because I'm better."  Well what does that mean?  How does that help you?  Are you just seeking to discredit your opponent's win?  If you don't measure skill by whether you win or not, what do you use to measure it?  "I shouldn't have lost, but he played gay."  What does that mean?  He used a powerful strategy?  Isn't picking powerful and effective strategies part of the skill of winning?  Isn't learning how to deal with powerful strategies part of competing?  Does this mean you expect to win without competing and adapting?

You have to phrase your thoughts correctly, or they lead you in the wrong direction.  You have to dissect your losses in terms of future improvement, or you lose opportunities for learning.  If you refuse to change certain limiting aspects of your play, you must accept the consequences, or seek to improve them to adapt to your obstacles (low-tier players, we're looking at you.)

What happens when you don't do this?  Besides looking like a tool, you hurt your own growth.  You set yourself up for endless cognitive dissonance that must be justified with fallacious reasoning.  "I'm better, but I lost, so now I have to redefine 'better' so that it applies to me and not my opponent."  You have to discredit the things that you choose not to do, because otherwise, you might not actually be "better" after all.

I mean, yes, sometimes better players aren't focused on the game, so they make worse decisions and make technical errors.  And then their opponent, who is playing the best they've ever played in their life, takes advantage, and it tilts the scales just enough.  Sometimes the better player overloaded on carbohydrates and wants to take a nap in the middle of their set.  The difference between better players who continue to improve is that they honestly examine the causes of their losses, and the players that plateau brush these losses away as trivial or stupid, and brush them away.  One attitude is healthy in the long run, and the other is a recipe for stagnation.


To finish, let's talk about the difference between "skill" and "skills."

Skill, singular and general, refers to your ability to win.  More skill equals better player.  Better players  win more.  Simple.

Skills, plural yet specific, refers to the tools you develop to lead to victory.  You pick skills.  If you have developed your (specific) skills well, and they lead to victory, then you have successfully cultivated (general) skill, and you win a bunch.  Also straightforward.

And this is where the confusion happens.

"I have learned more difficult skills.  I have more varied skills.  Yet still I lose."  There's the possibility that you may work hard developing hard-to-master tools, yet not have the results you want.  The possibility to have more specific skills, more finely honed skills, yet less OVERALL skill, is a cold hard reality.  This is where the frustration commences.  You want to feel like your training is valid.  You want to feel like you are a worthwhile player.  And if you can have a bunch of developed skills and tools, and still be losing, then something must clearly be WRONG.  With the game, or with the opponent, or with the structure of the tournament.  Don't worry, if you're determined, you will find something.

Or you can stop here, and accept responsibility for your losses.  Accept that you may have been working on the wrong skills, and change.  Accept that you've chosen a tougher road to walk and that you don't get bonus points for doing so, because picking good paths is part of winning.  Accept that your opponent played well and you didn't, and that's okay sometimes too.

What if a path is too good though?  What if you invest in something that is so strong, it can't lose?  In the context of games, we call that "broken."  And that will be the subject for next week.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Mental Skills: Long Post Ahead

I want to open up today's post with a question; do you believe that mental skills exist?

Given the title of the post, you can assume my answer.  Yes, obviously mental skills exist.  The best way to define them that I can think of off the top of my head is this: a mental skill is a trained habit of thought which leads you to ideas and decisions you have deemed useful or beneficial for the situation.

For instance, a skilled rapper doesn't just magically have better connections between words that happen to rhyme in his/her brain.  That person has trained their mind to scan quickly and efficiently for words and enjambments that create rhyme, and even more impressively, to also screen those words for contextual meaning.  The brain quickly searches for options and ideas and doesn't just pick good ones, it actively shuts down undesired ones before they hit your conscious thought.  At least, it does this when the mental skill is well trained.  Eventually, you can get to the point where you don't have to consciously activate the skill.  Like a martial artist might immediately assume a ready stance when confronted with a a sudden threat, your mental skills send you to certain thoughts and ideas and skips ones that will probably be useless.  Thoughts and ideas are geared to lead you towards decisions, so you train mental skills to create decisions that help achieve your goals.

I guess it's worth saying that, because every skill starts in your brain, technically every skill is mental.  I'm bothering with a distinction here because I'm referring specifically to skills that create ideas and decisions, and not to skills increasing the efficiency of physical actions.  So for purposes of this post, quickly assessing a goalie's stance and picking the corner you aim for with a soccer ball would count as a mental skill, but the trained form of the kick would not.

A well-trained mental skill doesn't just become an unconscious process, it becomes an assumption, an invisible rule that guides your decision making.  The skill quickly limits and defines the choices that occur to you; the more efficient the mental skill, the fewer options you get.  A perfectly executed mental skill leads you to a single decision or idea, and it happily turns out to be the correct one (i.e., the one that leads to achieving your objective and promoting your happiness).


So what's the point of this distinction?  The implications of this definition are many and, I think, extremely useful for self-growth.

The first rule of progress is this: you cannot become discouraged by setbacks and failures if you want to improve.  They are inevitable in every endeavor.  You want to train a skill?  Expect for it to fail a bunch.  If it weren't failing, that would be a sure sign you were wasting your time working on it, because you're clearly already perfect.

Guess what?  That applies to mental skills.  And we're remarkably good about maintaining that distinction when it comes to mental skills like your ability to do rapid arithmetic, but not when it comes to skills that seem related to your personality.  Skills like willpower and emotional control.  Angry people are just angry, lazy people are just lazy, and people who lack willpower are just weak-willed.  Which is weird, because no athlete has 100% success rate at their various physical skills, and you don't assume because somebody misses a free-throw that they're "just bad at free-throws."  But when someone loses self-control, we're more likely to think "what an angry person," and should they fail to resist a temptation, we're more likely to think, "why are they weak-willed?"  Skills and training increase the probability of success, but don't always guarantee it.

And actually, I take back what I said earlier; lots of people out there think they're "just bad at math."  We're used to thinking of all these mental processes as things that are an inherent part of our personalities, that define "who we are."  We do this because so many of them happen so fast.  You can watch yourself kick a ball, it happens on a level you can visually process.  But you can't visually process thoughts nearly as well.  Even worse, you're using your thoughts to think with, and questioning the tools that allow you to question things in the first place.  It's even trickier when those thoughts also affect our feelings.  Feelings aren't often associated with skills, but that's strange since "anger-management" is about handling feelings, and it's most definitely considered a skill.

Willpower is another skill I think about a lot.  I mentioned failure earlier because, in the case of willpower, failure can have insidious effects; it can be tough to trust your willpower once it fails, so failing can give you less of it.  Or consider perseverance; what if your goal is to train how long you can stick to certain tasks even when you screw up?  You will screw up at persevering and quit early, because it is a skill you're actively trying to practice (and there'd be no pointing at practicing it if you were perfect at it already).  Then you have to exercise your perseverance if you want to practice it again (because you failed).  You must use a tool, one that falls apart as you fix it, to fix itself.  How infuriating.  What a shame you're also having trouble remembering to work on your anger management because you get angry at yourself so easily.  Whoops.

Yeah, it gets rough.  Something that helps me in cases like these is remembering that these skills are nothing more than thought habits.  You train willpower and perseverance, in part, by training yourself to think more thoughts about reaching your goals than thoughts about quitting.  For some people, the thought of quitting early doesn't even occur to them, and it's not because they are magically better than you; as they have grown up, the thoughts of maintaining focus have been positively reinforced (by parents and by results) while thoughts of quitting have been negatively reinforced.  Overtime, association with negativity causes quitting to be forgotten (or quickly and immediately discarded).  Parents are critical for willpower development because they provide a useful external force towards action; they can provide that negative reinforcement when you flake on your homework or forget to practice clarinet that day.  You are less likely to follow through with grounding yourself for disobedience, however.

You must also remember that mental skills, like all skills, require training.  If you can only train your anger management when somebody cuts you off in traffic, it might be tough to practice.  You can practice a scale on your piano one hundred times, but can you do the same with willpower?  Maybe you can!  Maybe while trying to stop drinking soda, you can practice by opening a picture of one on the internet and saying to yourself, "I don't want this because I'm trying to lose weight."  Then you minimize it, open it again, and say, "I don't want this because I'm trying to lose weight, and I'm a person that sticks to my goals."  And maybe the next time you think about having a soda, you will also imagine that phrase, and it will help you resist drinking soda.  Give these kinds of things a shot!


The next part of this post is about spotting the mental skills that need improving and getting started.  It's actually not a super complicated process, but it can be an agonizing one.  Then again, the trade-off here is that unless you go through that agonizing process and improve the mental skill in some way, you will always keep making the same mistakes (or even worse, reinforce them through repetition over time, and make them stronger).  So the choice here is between something that sucks and makes things better, or something that sucks and makes things worse; the arduous task of improving crummy thought patterns, or reaping their penalties forever.

1) Find a behavior that is causing you problems.  This is a pain in the butt because you have to experience the problems to single out the behavior.  You can't do it beforehand, you find out the behavior is a problem because of its problematic consequences.  Which kind of stinks, but that's induction for you.

Example: you have a tendency to shout about how BS a video game is when you something goes wrong.  You don't like this behavior, the unpleasant emotions associated with it, or the weird stares you get from people on the bus for yelling at Plants Versus Zombies.  You want to work on your anger-management, so the first step is noticing occasions on which you get angry.

2) Once you've picked the behavior that is causing you problems, try and pinpoint the thoughts and feelings that lead to the behavior.  It helps to do this later when you are able to think detachedly about things.  That way you can do a play-by-play review, rather than get caught up in the moment.  Something like, "I did <X> because I felt like <Y> because I experienced <Z>."  Then you can propose and test solutions: "Next time, I will <A, B, C>."

Example: You go and take a break when you're confronted with a ton of homework after working on it for only thirty minutes.  You want to work on your willpower/perseverance, so you have to spot these feelings of tiredness (and desire to retreat from your work) before they turn into the undesired action of abandoning your work.  Then you may try and tell yourself, "I will work for just five more minutes, even though I'm really tired," and over time, you will develop a habit of procrastinating on abandoning your work.

(Side note: I learned about the "five more minutes" solution from a smoker attempting to quit cigarettes.  When he felt a craving, he said to himself, "if I still want a cigarette in five minutes, I will have one," and found it drastically reduced his consumption.  He would sometimes give in, but many times he would either forget about the craving, or tell himself "well heck, I went five minutes without it" and feel so proud of himself he wouldn't want to break the streak.  Your mileage may vary)

3) Attempt to actively think things which will lead to the right decision.  It is definitely a lot nicer to use positive reinforcement when you succeed; negative-reinforcement can be extremely effective, but it can also make you very neurotic and stressed out.  It's one thing when an outside source negatively reinforces you, because you can go along with it while retaining your sense of value.  If you negatively reinforce the wrong decision yourself by using unpleasant self-talk, you create a stressful mental habit of thinking "if I screw this up, then that means I suck."  That can detract you from thinking about the skill you're working on, which then defeats its own purpose.

There's also evidence that things like procrastination and self-sabotage occur when people have too many negative associations with failure.  They will avoid trying, or only try under conditions where failure is both likely and understandable.  So from what I can tell, in the long-run it helps more with your self-esteem and self-compassion to use positive reinforcements when you do things right.  And when you screw up, instead of berating yourself, congratulate yourself for being ready to try again in the face of a painful failure.

Example: Back to video games.  You notice yourself getting angry at a game, and try to think to yourself "I know that I don't want to be angry at this game just because something didn't go my way.  Staying calm and having fun always makes everything better."  Then, proceed to seriously pat yourself on the back for catching the impulse to become enraged, and attempting to prevent it.  Sometimes you get angry anyhow, but now you are developing a habit of noticing and trying to prevent that anger from taking over.


Here is the second to last idea of this post.

After thinking about it a bunch, I think the prime skills mental skills to develop in your life are probably these:

1) Perseverance: the ability to stick to a goal or endeavor in the face of setbacks and failures.  This skill is number 1, because it will be the guiding habit in everything else you learn.  If you believe that you lack this skill, you must make improving it your #1 priority.  It will be instrumental in learning other skills, and without it, everything else you do will be less likely to succed because you will be more likely to quit.

I can't stress this enough.  Everybody fails, everybody screws up, everybody wants to quit at some point.  People who habitually think, "I'm gonna keep trying to make this work, I'm not gonna give up on it right away," those are the people who see results in the end.  There is definitely a point where you must reassess your approach, but it's typically farther along than people think.  They try and convince themselves they have reached that point of "welp, I tried!", just so they have an excuse to quit.  That is not being realistic.  That is lacking perseverance.  Train honest perseverance.

2) Willpower: the ability to restrain momentary impulses in favor of overarching goals.  It is perseverance's twin, and in many cases they look identical.  But sometimes willpower will fail you; perseverance is the ability and willingness to try and draw upon your willpower again, even after it has let you down.  Willpower is only a hair behind perseverance in terms of importance, so it's not really #2, it's more like #1.5, or #1.08.  "The Willpower Instinct" is a good and interesting read on the subject.

3) Impulse awareness: the ability to recognize unhelpful impulses before acting upon them.  Mental skills, habits, and tendencies will make you want to act a certain way, and they often do so at lightning speed.  You want to hone your thought-processes to lead to positive, successful action; to do this, you have to spot that break point between deciding to do something and doing it.  With willpower, you will resist the urge to follow that impulse, and you will pick something better.  With perseverance, you will keep trying to do so, even when your failure frustrates you.

4) Critical-thinking: the ability to continually ask "why" and "how" when confronted with a new idea, as well as the ability to make connections between new ideas and old ones.  Attempting to take new skills and ideas and actively understand them, as well as relate them to older ones, is another unbelievably useful element of learning and improving.  Learn to play and tinker with your new knowledge, and don't just passively add it to the list of things you read or heard somewhere.

Maybe not the stuff I write.  But some stuff, for sure.

I picked the skills that seem to be the most important for (and this is no accident) learning new skills.  I think the consequences of this are obvious; by making yourself a better learner and student, you give yourself the capacity to do more and understand more.  Expanding your mental repertoire, generally speaking, just results in more success.  Hopefully in the future, as I read and learn more about from these skills through experience, I can share more comprehensive methods of improving them.


Final point:

The recurring mental skills that I mentioned were anger-management, perseverance, and will-power, and this is because these are the skills that I have worked on the most lately.  I have also seen a lot of results, despite my many failures and setbacks.

Personally, I've gone from becoming distracted, tired, and negative after working on something for twenty to thirty minutes, to being able to stick to that same project for hours.  This blog post, for instance, has involved more than an hour of sustained, undistracted writing and proofreading, something which would normally leave me tired and drained.  But over the past few years, I've substantially improved my focus (allowing me to stay away from distractions), my mental endurance (I don't feel mentally fatigued), my conscientiousness (I don't feel inclined to say, "okay I did a bit now, I'll finish it later"), and several other related skills in that vein.

Another skill I've improved on is the tendency to give myself credit for what I do right.  Yes, even this qualifies as a skill.  It's a mental habit that confers advantages in the form of positive reinforcement and higher-self esteem.  It encourages me to try harder and succeed more, and in this way, guides my actions positively.  I'm also lucky, in a way, because a history of extreme self-criticism has made me less likely to lie to myself and pretend I'm succeeding where I'm not.  I'm more likely to regard a successful outcome as neutral, a neutral outcome as a failure, and failures as, I dunno, double failures.  The tendency for self-doubt is a useful insurance against developing a tendency for self-BS.

Nowadays, I'm less likely to let my negative and unproductive behaviors discourage me and make me feel like a lesser human being.  Instead, I am more likely to examine them, try and find the point in my thought process that sent me down the negative path, and come up with a plan to improve it.  I don't get it right every time, but I also have faith that this too is a skill I can work on and improve.

Take care, thanks for reading, and see you next week.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Mental Real-Estate

There's a phrase I've been tossing around a lot lately, so I wanted to talk about it.  The phrase, as you can guess from the title, is "Mental Real-Estate."  Which is just another way of saying, "the available energy you have to think about all the stuff you want to think about."

There are two main points I want to address.

Avoiding Unwanted Thoughts

You can only have so many things on your mind at once, yet still give any of it the focus it deserves.  In the best-case scenario, whatever you're working on gets 100% of your high-functioning attention.  Some of your brainpower will always go to the annoying stuff like breathing and pumping blood, but your conscious thoughts This is what we're talking about when we mean that somebody is really focused on something.  Focus isn't just about putting all your energy in one place, but about keeping it from going anywhere else.

Time you spend thinking, "this is BS and overpowered" could be used to focus on winning.  Time you spend thinking about what the livestream will think of your incipient comeback (which you just flubbed), time spent thinking about how you need to calm down, and (ironically) time spent thinking about how much you want to win, could be better spent actually winning.  So you have to shut out all other thoughts.

How can you do that though?  The knack, interestingly enough, is not in saying "I won't think about it."  Because, as the famous "don't think about purple rhinos" experiment proves, you can't choose to AVOID thinking about something.  By thinking about not thinking about it, you've just wasted mental real-estate.  The internal conversation goes like this:

"I must not think about it."
"Ah, if I have to avoid thinking about it at all costs, it must be important."
"What's important?"
"Oh, purple rhin...crap.  I'm not supposed to think about those.  I must not..."

And so on.

The trick to dealing with evicting these thoughts is not by trying to force them out of your brain, but by closing the thought loop.  You give the thought closure and throw it in the "finished" box.  Most of the time, we put things out of our minds by coming to conclusions about them: I don't have time for that, I don't have the resources to deal with it right now, etc.  My preferred method is to mentally say, "it doesn't matter," or "that's not important."  I consign the troublesome thoughts to irrelevance, and my brain discards them.

Does this actually work?  It mostly does for me.  I tell myself, as convincingly and persuasively as possible, that a detail that's bugging me is totally irrelevant.  As I mentioned in some of my earlier posts, this was very hard for me because of how much I tend to equate winning with self-worth.  Currently, I have to spend a lot of time before matches and games "loss-proofing" my mind by focusing on all the things that make victory and loss unimportant to me.

Then again, why is it I this?  Besides feeling better, it increases the likelihood I'll play well and win.  It's a tricky line to walk.

Tactical Real-Estate

There's another application of this concept, and that's how it applies to tactics in-game.  When you convince your opponent (or your opponent convinces you) to watch out for a move or attack, that takes up mental real-estate in their head.  It bogs down their processing speed.  It lets you get away with things you can't normally connect with.

When you are practicing on your own, all your mental real-estate is devoted to execution.  When you have to use some of that processing power on predicting your opponent, adapting to mixups, figuring out counters to new technology, things like execution and reflexes must diminish because you aren't focused 100% on those things.  It's the reason not every jump-in gets punished with a shoryuken, and not every overhead gets blocked.

A common word that fits into here is "respect."  When you respect a tactic, you force yourself to consider it as a possibility, or acknowledge it as a threat.  In fighting games, when you have a frame-trap on block that abuses people who mash buttons, you are teaching the opponent to respect your pressure, and that's what allows you to hit them with mixups.  When part of their focus is on, "okay let's make sure to block and weather this frame-trap," it lets you walk right up to them and grab them.  Focusing on this mixup encourages them to use laggy reversal attempts.  Frustration at being out-foxed on knockdown sometimes leads into reduced execution and more impulsive decisions elsewhere.

Applying this concept tactically comes in two flavors.  First, you can actively try to get the opponent to waste mental real-estate on trivialities.  The human brain is wired to respect and analyze novelties; doing things that are uncommon or weird forces the opponent to sit up and say, "wait, what?"  It tells them there's new stuff to analyze and observe, and that drains mental resources.

For some players, it can have extra effects beyond that, where they waste their precious real-estate thinking thoughts like, "ugh I can't believe I'm letting him hit me with stuff like that," or "there's no way I'm going to lose to someone playing this scrubby."  If you're better than them, they may wonder "why isn't he taking me seriously?"  It takes time to banish those thoughts, and in the meantime they've decreased the odds of successful execution, and they've increased the odds of taking impulsive and exploitable actions.

Second, you need to have methods of dealing with it when it happens to you mid-game:

1) In high pressure situations, switch to things that are easier and more automatic.  Less damaging combos and less precise set-ups that you can do without thinking about very hard are good here.

2) Take your time in-between matches to create a gameplan for yourself, and keep them laughably simple.  Some matches I tell myself, "I'm throwing this game away to learn how to beat this guy," and every time I get hit, it turns from frustration into data.  Some games I go in with one thing that I'm going to make my staple defense or my preferred approach.  Unless I win by a landslide, I also make it a point to switch the gameplan every round.

3) Following off #2, streamline your game plan.  Strive to keep your gameplay no more complicated than rock-paper-scissors, and only worry about true optimizations later in your training.  Only make things stranger and trickier when you have absolute control over the situation; remember, strange actions trigger the brain's reaction to novelty, and that helps consume the opponent's real-estate.  You don't want to obsess over it yourself, however.  When your flowchart has too many lines going all over the place, it becomes harder to follow in the heat of battle.

4) Give yourself something to run to, not something to run from.  Phrase your thoughts in terms of what you will focus on, and not what you'll ignore.

5) Give yourself a bit of leeway to get distracted.  That perfect, iron-clad focus is something even the most mentally sound players rarely lock themselves into; it's a rare state that's treasured and sought after.  Not only that, you'll keep yourself closer to it a majority of the time if you don't obsess over your failure to focus perfectly.

6) The last thing to remember is that your thoughts and your feelings can be as habitual as checking your mirrors while driving.  If you don't naturally and automatically think a certain way, you must train and condition yourself to do so automatically.

Thanks for reading.  See you next week!