Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Timeless Skills

In the world of competition, nobody really stays the best for very long.  There are a lot of hungry players out there, and--particularly in very physical competitions--the younger generation always wants to climb up and take the throne.  I remember losing a match to my friend Jeff and I yelled at him--as a joke--”Why did you beat me?!  I wanted to win!”  And he replied, in a very solemn voice, “well, I wanted to win too.”


If somebody stays the best forever, nobody else gets to be the best.  That’s what that means.  There is always going to be an ebb and flow of players as new strategies are discovered, new techniques, new nutrition, or just as new genetic freaks mature and come stomp on your face with their prodigious ability.  It happens.


But there are some players who seem to have that special something that lets them stay at the top for a long time.  If they can’t remain the uncontested best--thanks to the throng of hungry players beneath them--they manage to stay pretty high up in the rankings.  This is the result of possessing and mastering timeless skills.


How do I define timeless?  I don’t have a clear-cut sentence to describe it.  But things that those “timeless skills” encompass would be fundamentals, adaptability, and focus.


Fundamental is a very similar word to foundation.  It makes sense then that another word you could use for this element of play is “basics.”  Players with poor basics don’t stay good for long, if they ever can find a way to win at all.  This means that whatever the core skills of your game are, you have learned them!  Well done.


There are ways to win without good fundamentals.  The most obvious way is with a gimmick.  I define “gimmick” as “something that can only work when the other player does not know the counter.”  If you can always stop something just by having some experience against it, it’s a gimmick.  Some strategies have counters, but they can be implemented in the form of mix-ups, and you can still catch somebody off-guard even if they know better.  Whether it’s finding something most people can’t deal with and exploiting it, or specializing so much in one single aspect of the game that you can overwhelm many people, you can still find ways to win even if you actually stink.  Focus on general, fundamental skills.


Does this contradict my previous post about playing stupid, and spamming one thing?  It does, but only if you allow that stupid spammed tactic to become the actual core of your gameplay.  If it is a tool for you to learn more about the game’s fundamentals, that’s good.  If you only do the one stupid thing because that’s the only way you know how to win, that’s bad.


I would argue that, in my career, this is something I did early on.  Not only did I rely on the serious punishing power of the Ice Climbers (whether it was my infinite, or other chain-grabs) I also dedicated a lot of my game to basic calls.  So the first chunk of my career sacrificed control and consistency for the ability to guess right four times and kill you.  It was, in fact, pretty gimmicky and damaging to my long-term growth.  If I could coach myself from the beginning, I would definitely do many things differently.  I would emphasize control, precision, and a better understanding of the characteristics of all the moves, rather than trying to master any particular strategy; after all, there will never be a strategy I could come up with that won’t require those things.  So if I had begun with those fundamentals, it would have assisted with whatever specific strategies and techniques I wanted to learn later.  This move from the general to the specific is how you develop a fundamental core that lets you branch out and do almost whatever you want later.


Fortunately, because this isn’t about hating on myself, I did spend some time cultivating the skill of pattern recognition.  It is probably the only reason I ever became good at all.  This leads us into the next element of timeless play, which is adaptability.


Adaptability simply means that you recognize patterns and can change your approach to matchups (whether between players or characters) as you go.  It means that no matter what state the game reaches, it only takes you a few games to get the gist of the new meta.  Even better, if you know your particular game well (for instance, by having good fundamentals!) you will be able to incorporate those new strategies quickly, or at least develop counters to them.  Some players will break for a year, then come back and just magically stay good.  How?  Because they have strong fundamentals that don’t decay, and they are adaptable.


This is not a mystical skill, a “have it or you don’t” kind of thing.  It is developed by looking for patterns and thinking a lot about them.  It is done by being willing to test lots of ideas and gather data.  It’s a mindset, more than anything--you intentionally create new outcomes by giving new input.  You develop the knack for seeing what inputs will likely yield what result.  How do you do this?


In the context of one game, you start to quickly think “I feel like this kind of strategy, or this particular move will be at the heart of success in this situation.”  In the context of many games, you start seeing what moves and skills will become fundamentals, and you get decent pretty quickly.  You can start dedicating your efforts specifically towards the things that will yield success, because you recognize those patterns from other games.  And so we link into the third skill, which is focus.


I think focus should go without saying.  But it is a key element of being a great player, and therefore an important element of staying one.  Remaining focused is how you learn, and it’s how you avoid crumbling from pressure.  Particularly if you play a game for a long time, you can easily develop expectations of your own performance.  Moreover, others may develop expectations and impose them on you.  Focus is about deciding what will get your attention, and what will not.  The ability to say, “those expectations don’t matter to me, only the match in front of me does,” is one of the ways that you continue to perform well even as time goes on.


Moreover, focus ties well into adaptability, because it keeps you from obsessing over temporary outcomes--”he knows more than me now, I can’t win, I’m washed up, this strat is stupid BS”--and emphasizing your possible options and adaptations.  I may be able to beat this if I try this, I might be able to catch up if I take a risk here, and so on.  You don’t have room in your head for extra thoughts when you’re trying to learn and adapt, so obviously that means you must focus.


I’d like to point out that I have moved from a specific theme--fundamentals in a given game--to the creation of skills that apply everywhere in your life.  When you start in a specific arena, you want to pick a single thing to master because without learning something, you have no anchor, no rock to base your other lessons around.  It’s your starting point, your home-base, your first puzzle piece.  Over time, you will move from the specific strategy to a more general understanding of how the whole game works together.  Which leads you to master a more general skill of adaptability.  When you can focus and adapt, you can then identify fundamentals of any other endeavor you choose, at which point you start to master the game of life  And one of the most important skills in that game is the recognition that you have more to learn, and it’s the focus on learning that leads to the improvement of performance.


Which, I suppose, is why if I had to include a final skill, it would be humility.  Acknowledging that time goes on, that the other player wants to win, that he could win, that you might be outdone in time, that you always have more to learn: this element is crucial to further improvement and growth.  I see so many people who think “I’ve made it, I’m good, I should be winning now,” but they don’t want to acknowledge they have more yet to do.  You might be the local best who refuses to admit that anybody could teach him anything.  You might become a parent that thinks “mom” or “dad” is equal to “indisputable dispenser of knowledge and wisdom.”  You lock down.  Suddenly, adaptability seems less important than maintenance.  Applying your fundamentals is less important than preserving your apparent success.  You become entrenched in whatever strategies got you to the top, until people develop counters and move on without you.  Stuck in the old identity of being good, you can’t keep up.


Alternatively, you can focus on the learning element of the game and seeing what is at its core, what skills make you timeless.  Then you get to keep playing and enjoying the game, and it cannot move on without you.


Thanks for reading.

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