Pro gaming is huge, with esports events now regularly pulling in tens of millions of views, ESPN dedicating a vertical to covering esports, and games like Heroes of the Storm appearing on ESPN2. A whole industry has grown around sponsoring and supporting pro teams, so it should come as no surprise that sports psychologists — considered a must-have in both professional and amateur sports — have moved into the esports world.
Westworld has a great piece on some of the ways gaming can become a profession, and spoke with two performance psychologists who work with esports teams in the process. Dan Himmelstein and Alyson Calman are colleagues who both work with pro or semi-pro teams.
For Calman, the mental skills they teach are also life skills. “A lot of what we talk about — motivation, confidence, self-talk, how to prepare for games — it’s very applicable to real-life things.”
Himmelstein and Calman can’t discuss details about their sessions, because it would violate patient-confidentiality agreements. But they say the one-on-one meetings are similar to traditional therapy. Issues arise organically through conversation. Calman may start off an individual session by asking the client about her struggles, which hopefully helps her overcome mental blocks.
Colorado Clutch, the team Himmelstein works with, is focusing its efforts on Overwatch, Blizzard Entertainment’s outrageously popular new team shooter. Colorado Clutch members practice six hours a day, six days a week in the game, and spend one hour each week in individual sessions with Himmelstein. They also have a one-hour team session each week.
The work that Colorado Clutch has done with Himmelstein has paid off, according to [team member Connor] McCulloch. “If we lose a game, it doesn’t weigh down on the team too much. We just look forward to the next. That’s been helping a lot.”
Himmelstein will be heavily involved with Clutch’s eventual expansion. He wants to have on-the-ground coaching support for players and teams, including performance training and biometric feedback research. In other words, Himmelstein wants to hook gamers to instruments that can read their brain waves, muscle tone and heart rate as they play.
Last year, Weldon Green, a professional esports psychologist, opened up about his experiences in a Reddit AMA. He describes some of the ways he helps players work through choking.
1. I explain to them what choking is. We define it and put bounds around it so that players don’t confuse
- being bad at the game,
- having fear affect their playstyle,
- honest mistakes,
- and incorrectly-trained instincts
Choking is when you have an automated behavior and because you focus on trying to execute that behavior with conscious control you screw up the automation and cause it to falter. Like when a tennis player tries REALLY hard not to double-fault by concentrating too much on their movement, and thus causes the movement to degrade from an elite, automated level down to an average level (and also double faults).
2. I work with teammates on communication strategies and specific scripts to use to pull a player out of choking and return their focus on to the game rather than their execution of skills. Other people’s talk in our minds is much more powerful than our own. Just think of this example: You tell yourself every morning for 4 years that you are beautiful A random beautiful girl/guy walks up to you on the street, looks you up and down, and goes “puhLEASE stop trying, you’re making those close look bad.” and walks away.
1 sentence in 1 moment > 1,300+ statements to yourself.
It works the other way as well. Just ask any happy couple who’s significant other adores them and compliments them all the time (honestly). They feel very powerful, more so than they deserve to probably.
Most of what Green advises could apply to any performance situation, but esport players benefit from those techniques as much as any athlete. If you’ve ever considered playing esports seriously, it may be well worthwhile to make time with a therapist part of your training plan. More than that, though, the skills taught by performance psychologists are helpful for anyone: maintaining positive attitudes, self-motivation and concentration, setting achievable but ambitious goals, and managing interactions, emotions and anxiety. If you can master those skills, you’ll be well on the way to handling any situation life can throw at you.