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!

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