Whenever you pick up a game competitively, there are two primary aspects, physical and mental. Your physical game boils down to your mechanics and execution. In contrast, your mental game is how you perceive different situations in a game state, develop strategies, and your emotional well-being. Primarily people focus a ton on the mechanical application, as they should since being able to play the game well is instrumental to success and growth, but oftentimes I find a lot of players hit a wall and run through the same dialogue…” I practice hard every day, I never mess up mechanically, why do I keep losing? It’s easy to see improvement in your physical gameplay in a game like Super Smash Bros.; you play the game, practice your mechanics, and then have tangible proof of your growth; however, when it comes to mental improvement, getting a handle on your own development is difficult to grasp.
Your mental game is developed by understanding what affects your mood and emotions. How you respond to in-game and external stimuli impacts how much mental damage you receive, and continual damage to your psyche can have cascading effects on how you play at later points in the game, set, or tournament. If you rack up too much mental damage you're likely going to experience higher levels of stress, which could lead you down a path to becoming salty, tilted, or whatever else you want to call it.
Venice, FL September 2008 - Brawl Wars I: A New Hope
Brawl had come out earlier in the year and was the hot new Smash game. At the time, I was a fairly recognizable player with a few respectable placements and wins under my belt, even though I was playing one of the worst characters in the game. This is the first tournament that I teamed up with my good friend and one of the best doubles partners I have had to date, Mike "PolMex" Kopij. PolMex was the Luigi to my Mario... literally, I played Mario, and he played Luigi, so it fitted that we entered the tournament as 'Those Two Guys That Play The Mario Brothers Good.' We ended up placing fourth in the tournament and making a name for ourselves with this little number...
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Video quality aside, the tournament was excellent. The whole Florida Power Rankings was in attendance, as well as several players on the cusp of breaking into the top ten, so this was definitely the time to show up. The doubles bracket had just wrapped up, and singles were underway. Going into round two of winner's bracket, I played against a Wolf main, who my only prior experience of playing against was earlier in the day during doubles. I went in the match feeling pretty confident since PolMex and I had cleaned up him and his partner pretty easily earlier on, but as it turns out, singles was a completely different story. He sent me to loser's bracket pretty quickly, and I was getting a little tilted about the loss. My first round in loser's ended up being Steven "Fearless" Belowsky, who was the guy's partner that beat me in winner's bracket a few moments earlier. Fearless was an Olimar player that I had a winning record over at this time, so again, I made the same mistake of being a little too overconfident and was not ready for when he decided to play the entire set as Meta Knight. The cat was out of the bag that I had a pocket Snake to deal with this match-up, but at the time, I was a little too prideful about my Mario and really just wanted to play Mario the whole tournament, but my hand was forced and I had to play Snake for the whole set. I ended up losing 1-2 and, shamefully, didn't even shake Fearless' hand at the end of the set.
By the end of the event, I cooled off and talked with a few more experienced players and came to the conclusion that I was a dumb baby. The catalyst for my salt was that I had too many preconceived notions about how the bracket was going to go. I wasn't able to adjust my mindset to what my opponent surprised me with. If I had considered that my opponent was doing whatever gave them better odds and let go of my negative thoughts about him being a coward by not playing me with Olimar, I could have played a better game, maybe even walked away with a win.
Mental damage can come from a wide array of sources. I’m sure several of you have played against a playstyle that made you upset, whether it be extremely aggressive, campy, or outside of the norm. Perhaps you’ve been subjected to a bit of trash-talking, and your opponent has you a little riled up, or maybe you SD’d at five percent and are constantly worrying about how you can get back in the game. Hell, your opponent might have just been extremely lucky and pulled back-to-back stitch faces (0.03% odds).
RNG, external actions, and technical errors are all stimuli that trigger emotional responses, but the important thing to remember is that regardless of where it came from, how you respond to it is what impacts your play. In one of my previous articles, I used one of my favorite quotes from George Mumford’s book. The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance, “We can either make ourselves miserable, or we can make ourselves strong, the effort is the same” that applies here as well. If you look at the situation negatively(I’m so far behind now), you set yourself up for failure, but by looking through a lens of critical thought(what can I do to get back in the game), you can lessen the impact a negative stimulus has on your play.
In my experience, meditation practices have helped me improve my mental state by leaps and bounds. I would suggest doing a quick Youtube search on meditation and finding a short two to five-minute video on meditation and make some time a couple of days a week to try it out. Alternatively, if you have fifteen bucks to spare, I highly recommend checking out Playne: The Meditation Game on Steam. Meditation can be difficult for many people to get into due to not getting a physical sense of progression, but Playne adds a physical representation for your time meditating in the form of storyline progression, which is a good starting point for more completionist personalities.
Obviously, if a tournament organizer won’t allow more than thirty seconds for coaching in the middle of a set, they’re probably not going to allow you to do a full-on five minute guided meditation after your game one loss. Still, you can carry skills you learn from meditation such as letting go of thoughts and playing in the moment, increased patience, and proper breathing (This is a big one since I’m pretty confident most of you are forgetting to breathe a lot of the time), into every one of your rounds.
Meditation is great for teaching yourself to remain calm and relaxed and can most certainly help remove any mental blocks and keep you focused, but it’s only one part.
“To keep the body in good health is a duty... otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.” ― Gautama Buddha
I know most of us have probably done the classic late-night practice sessions fueled by Mountain Dew and raw determination, but if that’s ingrained into your routine, you’re probably doing more harm than good. Mild exercise, a good sleep schedule, and proper hydration will drastically improve your mental state and ultimately provide you with more stamina.
Inflicting Mental Damage
This is the part that I'm sure a lot of people were looking forward to; what tips do you have for me to start dunking on people psychologically? I spent a large portion of this article talking about working on your own mental well-being, and that’s no accident. If resisting mental damage is about understanding yourself and your emotional responses, we can determine that inflicting mental damage is about understanding your opponent and their responses. Ideally, if you’re able to understand yourself and your own responses, that gives you more mental capacity to focus on what makes your opponent tick during a match. Pay attention to your opponent’s actions; are they shaking their head after every stock they lose? Ask yourself what is causing them to shake their head and start playing to press that point. Do they click their tongue every time you hit them with Ganon’s forward air? Go out of your way to connect with that move.
Obviously, in the midst of this pandemic, events are all online, so getting a read on someone’s physical responses might not be possible, but you can still read situations in-game. Due to Melee’s fast pace, picking up on some of your opponent’s habits can be difficult, but if you’re able to dissect a few small things from their gameplay, it will go miles towards adding stress on your opponents. Make mental notes of how your opponent reacts when they’re in a situation where they need to tech, how often they’re mixing up their approaches, and how they respond to different things in neutral. By paying attention to small factors like those, you can start building a profile on what type of player they are, and you can eventually start renting out space in their head, and once you’re there, they’re going to have to spend extra mental resources to get you out.
The last thing I want to talk about is probably one of the biggest factors I have ever learned about inflicting mental damage. That is the aspect that the sheer act of surviving and avoiding a KO drives people absolutely insane. The simple act of living at a high percent will make your opponents reach for the KO in unbelievable ways, oftentimes they’ll start throwing out kill moves hoping for one to connect, or if you’ve been dodging hits for a while, they’ll start to take bigger risks. If you notice you’re in a high percentage situation, start tightening up your gameplay and squeeze your stock for all that it’s worth by getting in incremental damage and DI-ing hits to the best of your ability.
The biggest factor to keep in mind is that unless you’re some thousand-year-old zen master, you’re never going to be able to prevent one hundred percent of mental damage sent your way, and that’s perfectly human. The lesson is not about becoming immune to tilt; it’s about understanding your emotional responses to negative stimuli, acknowledging it, and letting go of it so you can move past it and keep playing to the best of your ability, and eventually understanding what makes your opponent tick.