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Excelling at the highest levels in sports isn’t just a matter of the body, but also a matter of the mind. For decades, psychologists have worked with athletes to give them the cutting edge in intense competitions. In esports, psychological coaching steadily gains more importance as well. In this article, we take a look at how much of an impact psychological training has on the top levels of gaming.
Imagine being in an arena playing a demanding computer game, surrounded by thousands of spectators on site. And now try to picture the amount of pressure on your shoulders with more than $15 million on the line. This is not a mere hypothetical scenario, this really happened.
In August 2019, the Dota 2 team OG competed in the finals of The International for the second time in a row. It was the biggest esports tournament in the world, with a ridiculously high prize pool of unprecedented $34 million in total. Being down 0-1 against their opponent Team Liquid, captain Johan “N0tail” Sundstein and his team-mates staged a comeback, finishing the best-of-five series 3-1 – while making it look easy.
No other team has ever won The International twice before, let alone back-to-back. The decisive advantage OG had may have been Mia Stellberg: the Finnish sports psychologist has been a well-known name among experts in the industry. She is often quoted as the reason for OG’s incredible mental composure in situations that put enormous pressure on the athletes. Not only did she have her hand in building the most successful Dota squad ever. When Stellberg entered the world of esports in 2016, she helped forming what would eventually become the most dominant team in the history of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive yet – Astralis.
Pushing the pros beyond their limits
In her job as an esports team psychologist, Stellberg works on many fronts. From team practice to individual sessions, she covers all the areas in a squad’s everyday schedule that have an impact on their mental health. She also assists the coach and consults him in order to bring the best out of each player.
In an interview with Red Bull she says: “To be the fastest possible version of yourself, you need to be calm and collected because if you are nervous or stressed, that does affect your hand-eye coordination and your reaction time.” She adds: “Also your self-esteem as a person has a huge impact on how you’re performing because if your self-esteem isn’t on the right level, you get much more easily stressed.”
For this reason, she tries to create an environment in which players can let loose, have fun, and have a healthy social life next to their profession: “I feel that no matter what your profession is you are entitled to have a life and you’re entitled to have a social life and perhaps someone you’re dating.”
The power of psychology isn’t a secret
The success of OG and Astralis speaks volumes about the power of psychology. Most top-tier organizations look after their players quite well, although not all of them employ psychologists. In some teams, such as G2 Esports, the coaches assume this role in each roster respectively.
G2’s CS:GO coach Damien "maLeK" Marcel told us in an interview: “Counter-Strike is a game where confidence has a huge impact on the performances, being a step ahead and being proactive is very important to make a real difference on the field.” His philosophy is very similar to Stellberg’s. Both share the opinion that controlling emotions is key to performing at the highest levels, because decision making becomes more rational.
About anxiety and self-confidence
Anxiety can influence performances in-game negatively. It is often reported by StarCraft II players, for instance, that the pressure some individuals put on themselves can hinder them from performing at their best. The high expectations towards oneself can be higher than in team games, were the performance burden is distributed among multiple players. In the latter, however, there is another problem that may occur. If just one player has a mental breakdown, his negative mindset can affect the whole team’s performance. Teams such as OG and Astralis almost never ‘choke’ (i.e. perform worse due to an unfavorable mental condition). Instead, their mental fortitude is what distinguishes them from most other teams and makes all the difference between just being good and being the best.