I’ve been reading an interesting book lately called “Find Your Focus Zone,” by Lucy Jo Palladino, and it’s been an interesting read so far. One of Palladino's primary assertion is that for a given task, you will have an optimal state of energy for performing and focusing. For more tasks which are simpler or less stressful, you want a low state of energy or arousal to perform it. For tasks which require intense reflexes and sharpness, or put great demands on your body and its systems, you will need a higher state of energy or arousal. When you fail to match adrenaline levels with the demands of the task, you may over-focus; you will become anxious, irritable, or your mind will wander because the task doesn’t fit. You might also under-focus; things won’t process quickly enough or connect well enough, or you may just feel overwhelmed by the demands of the task in front of you. The analogy in this post came partially from that, and partially from ideas of my own on the subject.
This, of course, had me to thinking about gaming. What’s the optimal level of adrenaline/arousal for competitive gaming?
Obviously it will depend on the game. But one of the side effects of high levels of adrenaline is that it increases blood flow in the body and muscles, diverting it from the brain. Extremely high levels of adrenaline can also decrease critical thinking powers, and when many people hit that state they often shake. Fine motor control can go out the window. Higher-level processes can diminish, for better and for worse. We want to have lots of energy and concentration--just count the number of sodas and energy drinks at your next event--but there can be drawbacks to too much stimulation.
Gaming frequently requires your mental involvement. But you also want to be in that heavily focused zone where your reflexes are at maximum, your instincts sharp. Bear in mind that different circumstances in games require different attitudes. If you’ve just finished a round and have a few seconds to reflect on the strategies your opponent used, you want to heavily downgrade your adrenaline and become more cerebral; you may need to adjust your strategy, and to do that kind of analysis, you need to be frosty. But then, within seconds, you will need a lot of energy again, right away! Then after that you want to tone things down in between matches, because you can’t stay in that state all day and expect to be sharp the whole time, especially if you aren't playing. Yet repeatedly entering and exiting heavy states of focus and adrenaline takes a toll of its own, as does maintaining those states.
This puts me in mind of a few points; one of them is the fact that lower levels are at a huge disadvantage with regards to mental stamina. Very good players can frequently “autopilot” their lower-level opponents, using basic strategies and conserving mental energy for later on. A lower-level player, however, will need to hit their zone earlier on to combat equally skilled foes, and then they have to face better opponents who demand even more focus, and who make them even more nervous. This doesn’t even account for the fact that the other guys is already better at the game. In the mental-marathon of tournaments that can last days, lower-level players actually have additional hidden handicaps.
This should also let higher-level players know that they need to conserve mental energy. Like I just said, one of the ways you do that is by developing “brick walls.” I believe you can find some information on that in David Sirlin’s book, “Playing to Win: Becoming the Champion” The idea is that if you have some braindead strategies that you can execute with minimal effort, but the majority of players can’t beat, you will be able to stay sharp later in the event.
The third point is that you can't afford to ramp your adrenaline up too early. If you're getting too into the match before it starts, you risk draining precious mental resources. Timing is everything.
The final point this brings up (to me) is that regardless of the level you’re at, you should frequently be taking a mental inventory of how energized you are while playing. If you can find your optimal state, whether it’s chill and relaxed or fiery and amped up, then your main goal before each match should be trying to scale yourself to that level. A technique that Palladino recommends is giving yourself a number from 1-10, and simply asking yourself what you’re at right now, and where you want to be. Of course, the challenge of gaming is that you will be going up and down as the situation changes, but that’s part of the fun of the whole thing.
Thanks for reading. See you next week.