Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Mental Phrasing

How you phrase things matters.

There are a lot of reasons why I have become as good at Melee as I have.  Chief among them, however, has been the belief that I could do so.  And this belief has been shaped by a lot of things.  One of the most important ways I think differently from other people comes from the way I mentally phrase things.  I lost in the semi-finals of winner's bracket of a tournament, and somebody said, "ah so that means you're fighting for fifth, right?"

I responded, "no, I'm fighting for first."

I'm not sure if I rocked this person's world or not by saying that.  I know that I've said it more times than I can remember, to lower-level players saying "we're playing for ninth place," or something like that.  Because, underscoring every tournament I enter, has always been an intent to win the entire thing.  When I meet somebody who acknowledges they have a barrier they can't beat, a player they will never be as good as, I'm secretly delighted.  Because even if that player is better than me, I know they won't stay above me for long.  I'm always playing for first place, even if I can't do anything today but play for it in the long term.

Yes, this makes me a badass, and I like telling this story because it makes me look good.  But it highlights something else, something extremely important.  The way you think about things alters what you pay attention to.  The things you pay attention to affect what you learn.  What you learn affects what you do.  It's not a mystical, philosophical process ripped from The Secret, where you become a winner just by believing you are one.

It's also worth mentioning that I'm not the best player in the world.  I didn't make my goal of best player ever, and my competitive days are nearly at an end.  Once Evo has come and gone, which is in less than half a month, I will no long direct my energy to being a competitive Melee player.

But the thing is I'm still really darn good at this game.  And I'm infinitely better than I had any right to expect from when I started.  I displayed no specific talent, except a particular thought habit, which was I went into each tournament thinking "how am I going to beat every single person here?"  Even when I was a scrubby seventeen year-old Link player in Texas that couldn't beat his brother's Sheik, a brother that had never (nor ever would) enter a tournament.  It's actually pretty astounding, how much hubris I had.  But I entered my first major, after about six months of play, with 128 entrants and some of the best players in the country at the time attending.  And I seriously asked myself, "how can I take first?"  I got something like fiftieth.  Didn't matter.  I wouldn't win a tournament in Texas for something like two or three years.  Didn't matter.

Two or three years, to win a local.  These are not results that an infomercial would use to get you to pull out your wallet at two-thirty in the morning.  The power of positive thinking is not a magic pill that Popeyes the crap out of your mental forearms and turns you into an unstoppable engine of success and glory.

But what's strange is that now, I've become a barrier so insurmountable to some people, they legitimately think I'm just ultra talented and they'll never be as good as me.  It makes me laugh and it makes me angry, because I think about the low-level locals I got like 13th place at for a year before moving to AZ, where I was also average at best.  My belief sustained me for years of failure.  The thought of me being talented at this game is a giant joke, particularly to anybody who has known me from the start.  The most talent you would have seen in me was the energy I directed towards winning.  I finally started improving noticeably when I had frequent access to one of the most ruthless training partners in Arizona, the one who literally is capable of murdering your hope.  Unlike almost everybody else, I never stopped trying to believe I would one day beat him.  and I improved, slowly but steadily, and actually managed to win in tournament against him (though rarely).

Oh, and no, I'm not really a badass.  I give up and quit and walk away dejected and depressed from events all the time.  My resolve fails me constantly.  I get caught up in tangles of negative thoughts and self-deprecation until I don't want to play anymore.  It slowly fades, and I kick myself for it, and I get back in line to play again.

And that's because how you phrase things matters.

How you phrase things matters, because the brain thinks associatively.  And the associations trigger the release of various hormones and chemicals that change how you feel.  And little changes in how you feel will make you think about things a little differently, respond a little differently.  Little differences turn into big ones over time.  It matters.

Little phrases and mantras make me feel a certain way.  One of my favorites, in recent times, has been, "I am equal to my task."  I get this tremendous surge of inspiration from thinking this thought, as opposed to "I can do this."  Some people like saying "I can do this," but I don't.  "I can do this" feels too reflexive, too weak.  It can even be judgmental, "I can...but for some reason, I'm not."  It feels desperate.

The phrase "I am equal to my task" tells me that it's 50/50.  That I have the capability to succeed and fail, so even though I'm striving for success, failure is not to be feared or hated.  It tells me that the more daunting and ridiculous my task, the more impossible and absurd the endeavor, the more of a badass I am for undertaking it, because I am that task's equal.

One helps me, the other doesn't.  It's based on associations in my head, built over time through your experiences.  Finding the thoughts that trigger successful, better behaviors is a personal thing, because.  So when I say, "think a certain way," it's not really that helpful.  It's another vantage point for you to view things from, another data point for you to use to model your own universe.  To get you to notice the complicated emotional process that happens just by choosing to think one thought over another, and the results that follow.

What thought patterns make you feel like an invincible engine of pure potential?  Which ones cripple you?  Notice it, because how you phrase things matters.

I've become more interested in working out and challenging my body lately.  I actually had a workout so tiring on me that I felt like crying afterward.  Not from pain or strain, I just felt like I'd been beaten into the ground by the universe.  I might have cried, actually, I can't even remember.  I felt completely blasted, like my workout had beaten me, even though I finished it.  And one phrase stuck with me, from somebody else's blog, talking about people he'd done CrossFit with.  "It's a common sight...  letting tears flow from their overwhelming elation especially after finishing a workout that they once thought wrongly they had no business even trying."

So it's not too surprising.  The important part are the words at the end, "they once thought wrongly they had no business even trying."  I think that phrase, and it creates a story in my head.  Where somebody goes into a workout thinking, "there is no way I can do that" and tries it anyhow.  Somebody being in vastly superior company, and basically falls across the finish line almost entirely on the basis of their determination.  The fitter and stronger people are watching and thinking to themselves, "holy crap, how did you even finish at all?"  That's how tough it was.  When it comes to fitness, being in great shape is amazing.  But there really is something about completing a stupidly demanding workout when you are in poor shape, when your body doesn't seem, by any metric, to have the capacity to finish, but you dig as deep as you can just to scrape by. Our heroes of fiction aren't always unstoppable machines.  In fact, they're the ones who search as deep within themselves as they can to find strength to just barely surmount their obstacles.

Imagine confronting something so daunting you want to give up just thinking about it.  Imagine it says, "you have no business even trying," and you reply with, "no."  And then you do it.  Alone, in front of everybody, doesn't matter.  Reality itself attempts to make you back down, and you get in reality's face and do it anyhow.

That one little phrase triggers all of that in me.  I literally start to tear up when I think this way.  And that giant emotional surge makes me want to do the impossible.  Things that seemed daunting no longer do.  I'm equal to the task.

A little turn of phrase, a change in how I think for a few seconds, and the experiences it creates in turn, it completely changes what I am willing and able to do.  If you want to learn the system of your self, you can legitimately transform it.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Skill Rules and Self-Imposed Limitations

Oh boy with a title like that you know it's gonna be a good one.

Recently I stabbed my thumb while cleaning out a blender, and the cut was actually surprisingly deep.  It was also at an annoying spot on the thumb, which made it bleed almost any time I used my right hand.

But, obviously, this shouldn't stop somebody who really wants to play video games.  The only downside is that (in SSBM) I had about 8 years of muscle memory playing one particular way, which was using my right thumb to hit all the buttons on the controller, and my index finger for the trigger.  Playing without that thumb put a massive dent in my muscle memory, which meant I could either do extremely simple stuff, or try for complicated things and just screw up a bunch.  So I decided to play a very dumbed down, simplified version of my own playstyle, and it almost completely changed how I looked at the game.

Haha!  Now you're hooked, and I'm going to change topic.

I started off with the term "implicit rules," then looked it up, and found I was using the phrase wrong.  The definition I had in my head was, "rules you start to obey in order to play better, even though they aren't technically rules of the game."  But these are rules you start to treat like absolute rules, and when somebody breaks them (and still succeeds) you might ask yourself, "wait, what, who even does that?!"  I guess I will call them "skill rules," because they are the rules you obey in order to win more; i.e., demonstrate more skill. They are rules you are totally free to disobey without being called a cheater, but you're much more likely to lose.

Playing without access to most of my tricks and tools made me ask, "what can I do that will still let me win?"  And I got an interesting answer, which in retrospect should have been stupidly obvious.  I ended up focusing on timing, observation and occasionally doing something really dumb-looking that was actually safe, to make the other person impulsive.  I didn't just start winning, I started winning by margins that made my old playstyle look dumb and obsolete.  And I did it with alternate characters, low-tier characters, in matchups I had no experience in.  I think it made the people I practiced annoyed, to think I could beat them in such a weird and hindered way, but really I was as dumbfounded as they were.

Have you ever watched a low-level player get a few hits on a "high level" player?  Have you ever stopped to ask why?  It's because at the end of the day, most games are about putting the right tool in the right place.  Somebody who looks high-level, who knows his combos and can play quickly, will still crash into moves that are done with good timing.  Even if that move is done well on accident.  Everything else you learn and practice is designed to facilitate the appropriate placement of attacks.  Everything you do is meant to serve that purpose.  So the next time you play, ask yourself, "am I obeying these 'rules of skill' because they help me play better?  Or am I obeying them because other people told me to, and I never really stopped to think about them for more than two seconds?"

It's the difference between a chess player who thinks, "I won't make this capture because you're not supposed to double up your pawns," versus somebody who says "doubling up my pawns is weak here because I sacrifice control of this square that's important to my defense."  Or an SSBM player who thinks, "I can't get out of this pressure because rolling is weak," compared to one that thinks, "he's using the pressure to force impulsive movements, so rolling into him will only get me grabbed."  Your view on "rules of skill" should be "how and why are they serving me," not mindless obedience.

That is when they stop being guidelines and start being limiters.  Playing with a physical limitation made me consider older, weaker, simpler options that turned out to be perfectly fine in a lot of situations, as long as I timed them well.  I reconsidered how much waste I was using with habitual "skilled" movement that sometimes put me in weak positions, when most of the time, I could be slow and patient.  I started thinking way more about where I went, because I was so rarely able to take back my movement with a quick adjustment.  And of course, with fewer inputs, I made fewer mistakes.  Even if the ratio of errors to correct actions is the same, a flat smaller number of mistakes is always better since it means fewer free openings.

This is the basic rule for thinking outside the box, when it comes to games.  Every choice you make in a game is meant to serve you.  If it isn't serving you well, consider what you lose by not making that choice, and making a different one.  Of course, this requires that you actually pay attention to the results of your actions, and I'd say most people aren't in the habit of doing it.

And I think that's because most people are in the habit of going into games trying to win, and not trying to learn.  To win, you don't try new stuff thinking, "hey I wonder if this will fail or not."  You do what you believe will lead to victory.  Sometimes our beliefs are based on what we've been told is "supposed" to work, rather than what actually does.

I had the fortune of injuring my thumb, which made me go into games thinking, "well I definitely can't win like this.  So I'll just try some stuff out that I don't normally do."  And it was the most eye-opening experience of my career.  And while I must explicitly forbid people from intentionally stabbing themselves in the thumb with a food processor, I also have to say this; if you want to expand yourself, start limiting yourself in creative ways.  Force yourself to obey different rules, and see which of the rules in your head are worth obeying, and which are hindering you.

Good luck, have fun, and learn well.


I'll also say this; my goofy, slower style would not have worked if I didn't already have a ton of game experience.  Even though I didn't choose to hurt my hand, I did choose to slow myself down and focus on other parts of what made me strong.  So it's not really a quick fix, and I don't think anybody should treat it as such.  I had a massive investment going into my experiment, and it meshed well with how I think about the game.