Mischa (Mikhail) German is a sports psychologist, specialized in esports. Besides that, he is an active gamer (Dota2 and Counter-Strike) and athlete (boxing). This makes him an esports-psychologist that knows by own experience what the needs of a pro e-athlete are to up his performance. At the beginning of February we had a really nice talk about sports in general, esports and psychology.
Mischa has written a manual on recognizing and turning around negative stress into positive energy: ‘Esport Psychology Skillbook’. I’m free to give this manual to anyone who wants it, so Like this Facebook page and share this article so I can send it to you.
Are e-athletes aware of the fact they need you, an esports psychologist, when they’re on a low?
At the end of my study I conducted an in-depth interview (2 to 3 hours) with 11 e-athletes. One of the questions was: ‘are you in need of an esports psychologist and/or have you ever used one?’ The answer was an almost unanimous ‘yes’. The only ones that wouldn’t use one were the more experienced gamers, the ones that had already been through the whole process or had already reached their goal. All the less experienced gamers indicated they would want the help of an esports psychologist and, to my opinion, even more than they realize themselves.
Less experienced gamers are more open to new things as it is, but it turns out that the gamers that would have the most advantage of an esports psychologist are the ones that don’t see the value of consulting one. A gamer that acknowledges the benefits of psychology is mostly already working on self-reflection. ‘What’s the influence of my emotions on my behavior and performance’. A gamer that doesn’t self-reflect and is only into hard work and practicing will have the most positive outcome on consulting an esports psychologist. I interviewed uThermal, a very intelligent young man, super driven, would love to talk to him again. He is a gamer that almost exceeds psychology because of his openness to new things.
Is the age of the gamers (18-19) a factor in needing coaching as well?
A gamer’s career starts at 16. There’re already millionaires at the age of 16, 17 who’ve won a big tournament. The careers last until around the age of 28. In between that time they’ll progress, as in all sports. There will be new challenges, mentally as well. When they start it’s only a matter of being good at the game. That’s not difficult, because it’s all they do anyway and they’re better at it than their friends.
After that, more factors come into play. Playing in a team, playing under pressure, knowing friends and family are watching, their income depending on their results, their image and also online feedback. Gamers are very closely watched all the time with everything they do. Every mistake they make is instantly talked about on fora by a young audience that feels free to say anything, many negative things as well.
ls 16 an age where you’re mentally strong enough, aren’t you super aware of yourself at that age?
Especially the 16 years old are the ones that are able to outplay 24 years old. Just before the stage of insecurity in a young man’s life, there’s a phase of extreme confidence where he has no doubt about his abilities. When something goes wrong, it’s never his fault, instead it’s the team’s or any other factor. This can be a winning factor in gaming because he’s not held back by self-doubt, so for some boys, being 16 is an advantage.
What happens when the turning point kicks in. Is it your job to prevent that from happening or are you there to recognize it or help the gamer recognize it and only then take action.
That’s a complex question, actually, you’re trying to do both. Preventing a low in a gamer’s state of mind is one factor, however, it’s difficult. You only experience losing when you’ve actually lost. There’re two things an esports psychologist can do: performance recovery and performance improvement.
When the peak of your performance is 100 and it takes a bad turn, because of for instance losing, your performance lowers to 90. It’s my job to take it back to 100.
Not only are you trying to get his performance back to 100, but by letting the gamer acquire new mental skills, you’ll get him to 110. This 110 will be his new 100.
During the phase of performance improvement you will really improve your game skills and mental skills as in self-control and composure, which will allow you to make better decisions and by that, level up your game. However, there will always be fluctuation in the way you play, you will have good and bad days. There are many factors that influence a gamer’s play as well as each gamer being unique in his pressure point. Universally seen, athletes are the same. There’s pressure from your surroundings, pressure from within yourself, fatigue, physical aspects, those are all the same pressure points.
Personal influence however is what makes each athlete unique. Maybe one gamer is hang up on what his parents think of him, for someone else the opinion of his friends is a huge thing, maybe he wants to prove things to himself or maybe he’s depending on gaming for his income. Together we’re trying to find out what’s important for that particular athlete and what causes his decrease in performing and by that, solving the issue.
Is a gamer able to indicate the problem himself or do you really need to dig into his mind.
This is the soft side of psychology, a person often doesn’t know what’s bothering him, nor does the psychologist. The important thing to do is give hypotheses, so talking to that person and getting him to say:’ I think so and so is important to me’. You will then work on that issue and turn around the negative stimuli. When his performance hasn’t improved after you’ve done that, you know you need to look for other things. Working like that, you’re trying to improve his performance.
Doesn’t that take far too much time, a career only lasts 10 years.
Finding out what issues influence a gamer in a negative way is only applied in performance recovery, so when his performance takes a turn for the bad. You never know how long it takes, but you’ll recover much faster with a psychologist than without one. Sometimes it takes a week, sometimes only one conversation, sometimes it’s a (sudden) understanding or just a simple way of doing something differently, it varies a lot.
Unfortunately, some gamers stay in this regression, they’re mentally not strong enough to bounce back and return to the battle seat. This is such a shame! The gamers that stay in the team always really regret seeing a colleague leave just because he’s lost a couple of games.
uThermal told me the #1 reason gamers quit is because they don’t understand that losing is temporary. Losing is always temporary, you shouldn’t look at in over weeks, but over a year, 2 years even, only then can you draw your conclusions. At the same time, young gamers put in a lot, they skip school, their social life is low, they invest a lot financially, 2 years can be a really long time.
How important is the behavior towards each other within a team?
A team lives together in the same apartment for weeks to prepare for a tournament, it’s only in everyone’s best interest that they’re all comfortable with each other. There might be the occasional frustrated shout when someone just isn’t listening and keeps making the same mistake, but that’s all. It has shown that the tight teams are more successful than others.
What does happen and will happen more is the forming of forced teams. Because of the economic development in esports, more brokers and sponsors will determine the team’s structure. Athletes are being bought or taken from other teams and put together on individual skills. It’s a coach’ job to make sure they all get along, teams will not be formed based on character. It’s not happening on a grand scale at the moment, there’re strict rules on for instance not transferring in the midst of a season, but the more money gets involved, the more it will take place.
Do e-athletes find esports a sport compared to traditional sports?
The e-athletes I spoke to, find it relatively easy physically. The only real physical aspect are the actions per minute, the amount of clicks you make per minute. A normal gamer makes 60-100, a professional gamer (for instance in StarCraft) makes 300-600 clicks per minute. That’s a bizarre amount of clicks. It’s a skill that takes years of practice, but is not necessarily tiresome like for instance running. So physically no, but mentally absolutely.
E-athletes are subject to something unique, namely the duration of gaming. Gaming for 10 hours in a row and making strategical and focused decisions is not only not realistic, it’s damaging. Many gamers point out they have burn-out like symptoms because of that.
One of the definitions of sport is:’ getting the best of what’s humanly possible in competitive context’. 300-600 clicks per minute definitely applies to that definition.
Is the brain of an e-athlete in any way different from a ‘normal’ brain, does it take a different approach to find solutions for gamers?
I’ve asked gamers the question:’ what is your impression of the sports psychologist you’ve worked with?’ A common answer was that they understand the problem, however, they can’t find applicable solutions.
Psychology is a very wide field. Sports psychology is a derivative of performance psychology and esports psychology is a derivative of sports psychology. It’s slightly different from soccer psychology which is again slightly different from tennis psychology. Esports has two different aspect: time and physically-mentally.
For instance, soccer as a 15 minute break in between. During this break a player can reflect on his game. E-athletes don’t have that luxury, it’s just slamming, slamming, slamming, often several games in a row. In between the games there is some time to talk strategies, but absolutely no time to recollect yourself. That’s why we emphasize on performance improvement before they play for real. It’s important that gamers get that mental state and perception while only practicing, so it becomes an automatic state of being during a match.
How do you eliminate distraction and focus on your goal. In traditional sports, the emphasize is more on the physical than the mental aspect. In esports, a gamer is constantly working with his brain, thinking, making strategic decisions all the time. This patron of deciding and thinking happens extremely fast and needs a different approach.
Everything a person feels will express itself physically. Performance is influenced by frustration or overconfidence. The thing we aim for is for emotions not to influence performance, make sure a gamer can play his game regardless of the opponent’s impact on him. A big problem for e-athletes and athletes in general is; they can win all the time, until they face a certain gamer from whom they’ve lost a couple of times or who is a legend of some sorts. All of a sudden nothing they do works anymore and they fail. It’s at that time a person must be able to shut that emotion down and not play in a reactive manner. You have to devaluate that person, so rationalize your emotions.
The way to do this is using RET-therapy: Rational Emotive Therapy. With this method, you reflect on your thoughts. Your thoughts effect your emotions and your emotions effect your behavior. When you make a mistake and think negatively because of that mistake, it brings on an emotion:’ I’m no good at all’. From that emotion comes behavior, your play takes a turn for the worse. If you’re able to stop that process and just acknowledge:’ Ok, I made a mistake, stop thinking about it or I’ll feel worse’ and replace that with something else or better still, not even acknowledge the mistake at all, your performance will go up. This is the state we want gamers to get in.
Is it possible to completely shut down emotions?
No, but you can learn to handle things differently and make them occur less, so stopping the emotion you’d normally get when you make a mistake. That way, the moment things go wrong is shortened. Besides that, emotions can also enhance your performance. Positive tension makes you perform better. There is a field of tension: if you don’t care about the game, you’ll fail, if you care too much about the game, you’ll fail, but there’s this kind of golden area where you care just enough about the game, it superpowers your energy level and focus. It’s in that field you’re at your peak.
As an esports psychologist you practice a lot with rationalizing emotions, but sometimes it’s just a matter of changing things, a sleep pattern, better diet, different kind of friends, it can be anything, rationalizing is only one of the tools.
Is acknowledgement for esports and gamers something you aim to achieve?
Well, what I think is needed is acknowledgement for all the aspects of esports, not just the commercial one. This acknowledgement is not an esports psychologist’s task, our job is to let an e-athlete play at the best of his abilities. Acknowledgment will come due to a team or individual gamer that creates a feeling of national pride. Like for instance Max Verstappen in Formula 1 racing. Because he is a Dutchman doing well, Dutch people can be proud of a Dutch achievement and will be more interested in- and get a better understanding of the difficulty of racing.
The same will happen with esports. When a Dutch team or -gamer becomes very popular outside the existing fanbase, there will be a deepening in esports and what it takes for a gamer to reach- and stay at the top. There will be more nuance and with nuance comes acknowledgment.
Thijs Molendijk (ThijsNL) is one of the world’s best Hearthstone players, however, nobody outside of the esports fanbase has heard of him. What can make a change is the current Fifa e-competition that’s starting in several countries. With this e-competition you target a whole soccer club’s fanbase directly. These fans aren’t game fans originally, but can make a difference for esports and how it’s viewed upon because through the club e-gamer they will be interested in e-gaming.
What are your goals in esports psychology?
Apart from the obvious self-interest, I see myself doing two things. First and foremost I want to help the e-athletes, that’s what I’m doing it for. I want to see those boys perform the very best they can, preferably because of me, I want to help make champions. Secondly, the communicative aspect.
I think a lot of gamers are helped with media training. Many gamers don’t see yet that, when being interviewed after a game, they’re actually talking to the fans, not to the person interviewing. Besides that, they represent their team. What’s happening now is that team leaders criticize not only their own team, but other teams as well, that’s something that’s not right. There’re millions of fans watching that are not only interested in knowing what went wrong, but also want to hear ‘Thank you to all our fans, this is for you’ and so on. That’s a really important aspect, for the sport as well, it’s a form of professionalism that’s not there yet.
Is esports psychology an undiscovered field?
No, not undiscovered, but new.