Sunday 6 June 2021

Gaming mentally

by Dr Denise Bouah

Esports is not sport! If we were to accept this notion it will mean that you do not need mental skills! Or dare we tread into the realm of it being a sport and maybe against your will acknowledge that you actually need to have a pretty good arsenal of mental skills that you can whip out and use to your advantage? Yes, we know it is a sport. So, my dear athlete, my question to you is this: What does your personal repertoire of mental skills look like? As a competitive athlete, you need to be mentally equipped.

Anytime you attempt to achieve something, mental skills come into play:

Do you know how to enter a zone of optimal focusing and concentration so you can perform your best? How do you re-enter it when you get distracted? What do you do when you feel anxious the night before a big event? How do you curb those negative thoughts that you just might not have what it takes? How well do you cope with a lack of support from those around you? What do you do to maintain a healthy balance in your life - this means your sport is not ruling your life and that you can make time to visit with friends and family, enjoy other activities, be successful in academic studies etc., whilst not feeling guilty for not practicing or performing. It is all a fine art of setting up your life as a competitor in such a way that you can perform to the best of your ability, whilst also maintaining a well balanced life apart from your performance domain.

Fast forward to your next competition game, your game hasn't started yet. It is minutes before it starts and your palms are sweaty, you glanced at the opposition and suddenly you wonder for a brief moment if you will win, you shrug it off and tell yourself that you think you will be fine, your heart is racing, the intensity of your emotions is palpable, you feel nervous and if you are honest maybe ever so slightly anxious. You hope your training will pay off. The game starts.... and suddenly you're in it! Time for action!

This is what we experience as athletes. I am a competitive Chess player who has been representing South Africa since 1998. I know that competing is tough and that preparation can be strenuous and lead to making all sorts of sacrifices to get the required amount of training done. I know that sometimes, things go wrong and that hard work doesn't always pay off when we need it to. We have to dig deep to bounce back. But then I also know the joy when a win is recorded and you can sit back and just take in the moment of a good performance. As athletes, we get to experience it all! The highs, the lows and everything in between. 

Being mentally strong is NOT overrated. Making the decision to grow mentally as you progress in your sport is one of the most important choices you can make. Let's look at just 5 benefits of incorporating mental skills training into your preparation programme:

1. Confidence

Insecurity and doubting one's own ability can hamper performance greatly. It also saps energy and can distract a player from focusing on task related skills. Through mental skills training, a player can learn ways to boost confidence levels and as a result also increase positive thinking and self-talk. This is a crucial skill to have in the heat of the battle.

2. Coping strategies

 Anxiety is a common emotion to experience in the performance domain. I know athletes who have terminated their sport careers due to their negative experiences caused by anxiety. A psychologist can assist players to deal effectively with anxiety and stress. Depression can be a silent companion of an athlete. It is important to deal with this and not be limited in life and performance just because an athlete feels embarrassed to get help. Working with a psychologist is confidential. 

3. Time management

This is an important aspect that can be fine tuned with the help of a mental skills expert. Using time productively during a performance can be a determining factor of the result. If a player is anxious or gets distracted, it can cost the player valuable seconds during critical moments. 

4. Dealing with losses and mistakes

We cannot be part of competitive activities without experiencing losses from time to time. How we deal with them is critical, especially during a competition. This refers to making mistakes during game time. Being angry with ourselves or other teammates will not be helpful for our performances. So it is a good idea to develop strategies to deal with these type of moments and situations. 

5. Balancing life and sport

This is probably the most important skill to develop. We cannot live in a performance zone most of the time. There must be time for relaxation, connecting with others socially (face to face), and making time for other interests as well. Because eSports is sedentary in nature (as is Chess), it is important to be fit and maintain one's general health. Burnout can be prevented and it renews our energy when we step away from the world of performance so we can return with gusto, motivation and renewed enthusiasm.

Performing well is not just about plugging in and giving all we've got.  A successful athlete is one who lives a balanced life, who has the ability to be resilient, fair and on the lookout to grow emotionally through experiences. If you should score yourself on a mental skills scale of 1-10, realistically speaking, would you say that you can give yourself a 10/10 for doing the effort of developing key mental skills necessary for you to perform all-round in your life? If not, you have nothing to lose by investing in your growth as athlete and person. What do you need to take that step? Also read:

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