The Burden of Winning and a Sustainable Mindset

I’m currently on the plane to Chicago for Eden and thought this would be a good time to plunk out some of my recent thoughts.

Last time I wrote about my recent competitive experiences on the bl0g, I mentioned that I ran into a “fun-block” at Olympus that I felt hindered my performance. As a result, I started playing a lot more Fox in locals. Over time I’ve worked on mixing Marth back in to see how things would go, and it’s been pretty good so far. Here and there, I’ve suffered a random loss, and then brought it back in winners. In every “random loss” case, I switched characters mid-set. Just goes to show how volatile a decision that can be! But I didn’t give up, and the mid-set switch paid off as I practiced it more.

I think since Olympus, I have lost one tournament, and gotten 1st at every other. The one that I lost was a Cave weekly where I lost to Bob-omb in winners bracket, then made a losers run to Grand Finals where I lost to Redd in a last stock set. I played pretty well and made some good adjustments, but a couple of crucial SDs cost me the set. This past Monday, however, I went to the Cave again, and beat Redd in two sets. This is the tournament I want to write a bit about.

For the most part, winning locals isn’t very demanding. I can beat most players in the region cruising on “autopilot,” and have to turn up the jets here and there for the likes of Aglet, Obi, and the MD Sheik boys. But when another of our top 7 shows up, I’ve gotta put in the elbow grease. Redd said he was going to the Cave, but I actually didn’t know if I’d go… until I opened my brand new custom controller, thought it was awesome, and wanted to test it and show it off on the stream (unfortunately, however, someone screwed up and there was no stream). I was kind of blown away at how good the snapback and triggers were on this custom controller built off a Smash 4 controller’s innards. The triggers feel like an OG controller, so they don’t get stuck if you push back. All in all, it’s a pretty swell controller out of the box, but not quite swell enough to replace my current, well-worn controller that shield drops like a dream.

In any case, I wanted to give the controller a test ride. Something was going right that day. I was moving well, thinking clearly, and ultimately didn’t drop a set. I beat Aglet in winners, and beat Redd in Winners Finals and Grand Finals (3-2 and 3-1, respectively). To Redd’s credit, I’ll point out that he was not playing at his best. The prior time we played, I wasn’t at my best… so I suppose we’re 1-1 for not-completely-deserved-wins for now. Hopefully next time we’re both at full power. But still, we take those.

Now here is the reason I decided to write this post. At this tournament, I wore a hat (which I never do), I wore a watch (which I haven’t done in about a year), and I used a brand new, out-of-box controller. I am the type of person to over-think all these different factors and wonder how they may have contributed to my improved performance. On the drive home, some of my thoughts included: “Is this hat lucky? Is this controller lucky? Am I more comfortable in this jacket? Was the distraction of the watch helping me? Maybe the fact that the controller didn’t shield drop as well made me focus on it less?” All of these can be boiled down to:

“Where did I go right? What should I keep doing for next time?”

And that’s why I titled this bl0g post “The Burden of Winning.” I suddenly felt this weight on my shoulders as a hundred little, anxious SmashG0Ds started whispering in my ear and telling me what to do. How do I address this? How should I move forward? That’s what I’ve been thinking about all week. Especially because this all occurred only five days before Eden.

I came up with one “solution” that I’ve kind of been running with in my head this week. Maybe there was something I did right… but maybe that thing wasn’t wearing a hat, or wearing a watch, or using an unfamiliar controller. Maybe the thing I did right was just… doing what I wanted to do. Maybe giving into my mundane desires relieved me of Preparation’s Burden. Next time, I told myself, instead of taking the same actions I took, I would listen to the same part of my brain. And that part of my brain will tell me something different from day to day. Maybe today I want to caffeinate myself during bracket, maybe tomorrow I feel like drinking water. If I don’t burden my brain with expectations brought on by certain preparatory routines, I stress less. And less stress is good. Less stress means I can have more fun with the game. And having fun with the game goes a long way.

To you bl0g-worms who have diligently read all of my posts, you may be wondering the same thing I’ve wondered following the previous realization – what happened to all that stuff I wrote about preparation a few months ago? Isn’t the reason I performed so well at EVO because I committed to certain routines and preparatory actions? This is a tricky one, indeed. How can I reconcile the Preparatory Burdens of a pre-competition routine with the idea that “doing whatever I want” is going to put me most at ease before competing? If you have a good answer to this, please let me know, because this is an evolving discussion. I don’t have any definitive answers. But let me hazard a solution.

Full disclosure: there were 700 words in the first draft of this post that I have obliterated because I didn’t like where it was going. And I might have a better “solution” to hazard. So here goes.

Whether you are tempted by a mundane desire, or a part of your brain urging you to subscribe to a routine, I say go for it if it will make your body and mind feel good. I don’t think that’s too broad of a generalization, because every more specific route to “the ideal pre-tournament actions” I attempted to navigate began to contradict the others. This is largely due to the fact that every person is different, and not everyone has fully figured out what works best for them (like me). So let’s explore the value of some routes you can take.

Rituals are very interesting. Along with physics, I double-majored in Religious Studies in college and was really interested in the power of rituals. I probably wrote more than 30 pages on rituals, and described their value in purely secular terms. At the base level, a ritual starts as a habit. You form a habit over time, and you begin to associate it with certain thoughts, feelings, and sensations. One aspect of rituals that particularly interests me is how their effect can be multiplied when performed in a group setting… but I digress.

Some people have a specific pre-tournament routine they go through. This is their ritual. It may include listening to a certain song or playlist, exercising in some form, and so forth. I think it’s worth noting that the ritual becomes more powerful if it’s something you only do before seriously competing. If you wake up to the same song every morning, maybe that’s your morning ritual, but it’s not a pre-tournament ritual.

Before big tournaments, I’m brain-scattered thinking about what I should wear for the tournament. For some people, this might be a good place to utilize the power of ritual. For ZeRo, maybe this is wear he puts on his scarf and feels the power flow through him. I don’t have any developed habit like that, however, so it doesn’t work as well. Perhaps I could develop a ritual if I started making a habit out of it.

Because I don’t have a developed ritual with what I’m going to wear, it doesn’t contribute to my physical or mental well-being, right? So I should just wear what I feel like wearing, and move on.

This week, I read about an app called “Headspace” on Reddit. It’s an app that trains you to meditate. I use the word “trains” very intentionally, because it is certainly a trainable skill. I’ve only completed three days of the first 10-day course, but from what I understand, the goal of meditation is to be at ease with one’s thoughts. This is distinctly different from “pushing thoughts” away – you want to acknowledge your thoughts and let them pass. It also focuses on body awareness, which is cool (I hear “Inner Game of Tennis” talks about this as well, and it’s on my list of books to read).

At first, I thought going through the “Headspace” app would give me tools to utilize when I get stressed or anxious at a tournament. To an extent, this is true. But the real value of learning meditation is in how you treat your thoughts and brain on a day-to-day basis. The mind is constantly changing, and if you can change your mind’s neutral state and how it responds to unwelcome thoughts, you improve every aspect of your life. And that certainly includes competitive environments.

Nobody is expected to instantly calm themselves in the face of adversity or frustration; we’re all human, after all. But I can already feel how, over time, it will become easier to be at ease with and let thoughts pass. And even if you are faced with a high-stress situation, the app offers “crisis” management tools, though I haven’t really explored those yet. I think I have to finish the first 10 days of training, first.

Second full disclosure: everything written past the first full disclosure has been in the hotel lobby grill at Eden, the day after I began writing this post. So I have some personal experience I can share with regard to “pre-tournament actions” since I started writing this post.

My pool is at 6pm, so I slept in. I took my time, lay in bed and did a bunch of chess puzzles (because they’re super addicting: see LiChess). Then I got up, did some cardio to get the blood pumping and to wake up, took a shower, etc. I was faced with some petty, inhibitory thoughts, such as: “what controller should I use today? Should I wear my watch or nah?” And so forth. But when I try and look at my thoughts, and visualize them, it is easier to let them go, and I feel the burden lifted from my shoulders. It’s really cool. And I’m only going to get better at it. These elevators are facing out and I think I just saw S2J on his way down. Ha.

I hope this post has been helpful for anyone who has struggled in the same ways I have. It was certainly helpful for me to get all these thoughts down on paper, so to speak. I think that I’m an extremely mentally tough player, when I’m in the zone. It’s all about consistency, consistency, consistency. When faced with issues like these, one of the most important things to remember is that there is no “state of perfection.” It doesn’t exist, it isn’t attainable. You have to remember that change is the only constant we have. Your mind is changing, your environment is changing, your body is changing. You have to accept change and strengthen your mind.

I’m getting pretty preachy and overly philosophical, now, but at least I know my Religious Studies major was helpful in getting better at smash! That’s all for now. Thanks for reading, as always.

The Burden of Winning and a Sustainable Mindset

Catching Up: Post-EVO and SSC2016

I meant to cover these topics in the aforementioned “Much Has Happened in the Last Four Months” post, but that was before my bit on EVO turned into a novella. So, as promised, here is the second arc of the 2016 summer of smash (and Rivals)!

Post-EVO

To be honest, the weeks after EVO and before SuperSmashCon are kind of a blur to me, at this point. I was kind of wrapped up in preparing for graduate school, I suppose, and needed a mental break after EVO. I don’t know if I can properly emphasize how taxing the loss to Armada was, and how disappointed I was with myself after an embarrassingly subpar performance against my crewmate Nintendude to get eliminated. I was feeling proud of myself for surpassing the expectations of others and placing in top 32 of the largest Melee tournament of all time… but it stopped becoming about expectations for me. It became about winning.

I don’t go into pools matches or brackets expecting to win or lose anymore. I go in preparing myself to fight, and to win. Maybe that isn’t strictly true, at least for early-round pools… but it should be. And that is a mindset I am working on developing for myself, because it emphasizes a process-oriented mental approach as opposed to a results-oriented approach. Let me elaborate.

If you are up against a top player and you expect to lose before the set even starts, you handicap yourself. To win a close set, you need to be able to draw on your ability to clutch out a set. You have to go down kicking and scratching until the announcer says “Game!” You won’t put up this kind of fight if you already expect to lose. I’ve experienced this firsthand, and I’m sure many other competitors have as well – I feel like, in this case, you accept the loss before the game even ends.

Take a look at the flip-side: a top player who is expecting to win. When you go into a set expecting to win, you aren’t as focused on what your opponent is doing, and you sort of play autopilot. This approach leaves top players vulnerable to mid- and high-level players with strong punish games. The top player plays sloppily, relying on superior game knowledge and punishes to win the set, but when each opening the other player gets (as a result of the top player’s sloppy) leads to high % or a stock… well, that’s how upsets happen.

Let’s take Zain versus Plup from The Big House 6 as an example. Plup is the closest thing we have to a Melee demi-god, and so for him to lose to anyone outside of the top 20 is a big deal. Zain isn’t even top 100 at the moment. Nobody expected Zain to win. I have a feeling Plup expected the same.

When you step into the ring with all the evidence pointing to your victory, and you believe that evidence and expect to win, you leave yourself open to the strong punish game of a player like Zain. And that’s what happened. Zain moved smoothly, quickly, and capitalized on his punishes, and followed the edgeguard flowchart well. Plup was a little stuck in his movement, and I am sure he was taken off-guard by how well Zain started off. By the time you realize you’re on the ropes against a player much lower-ranked than you are, all you can do is re-calibrate your mentality and scramble your way back to victory. But when all it takes is one or two more openings for your opponent to take the set, it could be too late.

In all fairness, I have no idea whether or not Plup came into that set expecting to win. I asked Zain about his expectations prior to the set, and this is what he said:

“When i first got news that I had to play him I honestly thought I was just going to lose. But when the time actually came to play him, my head was pretty clear and I didn’t think about winning or losing at all.

So regardless of what Plup’s mindset was, Zain’s worked. If you’re focusing on the process – playing neutral, landing punishes, finishing edgeguards, etc. – then you are forcing yourself to draw upon your game knowledge. If you focus on results before the game is over, you’re adding an extra step of thinking and distracting yourself.

The bottom line here is that expectations are dangerous. If I started my set versus Armada expecting to lose, I surely would not have gotten so close. And on multiple occasions I have had to scramble my way back to victory against opponents with good punish-games that took me by surprise.

I think the best way to counteract the risks of expecting to lose and expecting to win is to eliminate expectations entirely. The impact that expectations have on your gameplay are purely cognitive. It affects your mindset, which in turn affects how you play. So instead of saying “I expect to win this set,” try telling yourself, “I will do everything in my power to win.” Once you shift your mental approach from the former to the latter, what follows is a change in your thinking process as the game moves forward.

Hypothetical Player #1 tells herself that she will do everything in her power to win. What follows is a series of questions that may pop up before, during, and after the set:

“What is my opponent doing in neutral?”

“What options can I pick to counter his/her options?”

“What should I utilize to maximize my advantages and minimize my disadvantages in this matchup?”

Hypothetical Player #2 expects to win, but finds himself losing to a player that he, and everyone else, expected him to beat. He starts thinking:

“Why am I losing to this guy?”

“How will it look if I lose a set that everybody expected me to win?”

And then you get frustrated. The first question, “why am I losing to this guy?”, isn’t all that bad. But in the former case, that question is skipped. The player with the better mindset skips the “why am I losing” question because he or she is already weighing and considering options.


I’ll be honest. It’s been eight days since I wrote the previous portion of this bl0g post, so it’s a bit fuzzy, but I’m determined to finish it! The main point of the previous section was to outline how I think expectations can be harmful in a competitive environment, and that the most consistent path to success is to adopt a process-oriented mindset rather than a results-oriented mindset. There are intricacies to this all, naturally. For example, one might have trouble drawing the line between “expecting to win” and “having confidence.” Playing confidently has certainly been shown to improve a competitor’s gameplay, but can also teeter too far into arrogance and the territory of “I expect to win this game now, so let me show off and- whoops, I lost!” It’s an interesting balance to strike, and not an easy one to find. I urge all competitors to explore it themselves.

Now onto SmashCon! I’m gonna keep this section brief because SSC was a bit ago and it wasn’t as significant as EVO, for me. But I can at least provide context for anyone interested in following my story!

SuperSmashCon 2016

Like I mentioned, around this time I was preparing to start graduate school. For anyone who is interested, I’m getting my M.S. in Marketing Analytics at the University of Maryland!

Let me start this story on the Wednesday before SmashCon. I was determined to “just have fun” at SSC, and not worry so much about the competition. I worried that preparing for SSC like I did for EVO would detract and distract from my school preparations. I had a positive outlook on the weekend.

I decided to attend Melee at Xanadu that Wednesday prior to SSC to compete against some good players, see my friend Mike (Nintendude) again, and so forth. I saw the aMSa was in my bracket, so I was trying to figure out how to beat Yoshi with Marth – this was a matchup I’d never experienced at top-level. I should say, though, that when I asked people for tips and they asked, “Oh, are you playing aMSa?” I responded, “if I beat everyone before him, yeah.” I was trying to prepare for a match later in bracket, but also not assuming I would just win every game up to then (eliminate expectations!).

Ironically enough, I end up losing to Wenbo the round before I would have played aMSa. I hadn’t lost to Wenbo in a very long time, so this was a pretty confusing loss. Maybe it was the heat I complained about, maybe it was because I hadn’t been preparing/studying like I had been earlier in the summer, or maybe Wenbo transformed into a g0d for a few minutes. One way or another, the loss was on me.

I was chatting with Ice a bit later and he asked me, “why did you lose to Wenbo?” I didn’t have a good answer. There were answers in my head (the main one was the heat complaint), but I didn’t feel good about offering any of them up. I knew that, had I appropriately adopted a winning mentality, any excuse I could come up with would have been nullified. If it was hot and I really wanted to win, I would have drank more water, taken breaks outside, and so forth. I felt kind of fraudulent having performed well all summer, then to lose like this.

As Ice and I talked about mentality and the challenges of winning and achieving success, I realized we agreed on a lot. We talked about how you should take care of your body days and weeks in advance of tournaments (which, for serious competitors, is all the time). At the end of the day, you want to eliminate as many excuses as possible for losing so that all that’s left is your gameplay. And your gameplay is something you can analyze and improve on.

Fun fact about me – I’ve been doing theatre for many years, mainly directing. One note I got from a director many years ago that has stuck with me and that I have given to cast members I’ve directed since: leave everything on the stage. Never leave the stage wishing you’d given more. Competing should be the same. Never walk away feeling like you could have done more to perform better, or that you could have prepared something in advance to eliminate any excuses you can come up with.

Back to Xanadu – I kind of recalibrated my mindset and reminded myself that I don’t like losing, so I played with a renewed mind in loser’s bracket. I beat SypherPhoenix 2-1, then played my brother lloD. I lost game 1, after which we switched setups. We were playing on a 20XX setup that had distracting visuals and music. I ended up winning in the following two games. Then I played Nintendude in our first runback since he eliminated me at EVO. I beat him 2-1 as well, being more stubborn about sticking to my gameplan of camping platforms. He flubbed a Marth killer on game 3 which cost his stock… but we take those!

Next I finally got the match against aMSa I was expecting. I put up a good fight, but man was I unprepared. People told me some stuff about the matchup, but you really don’t know what it’s like to fight against aMSa until you fight aMSa… the punishes were unreal. I didn’t know Yoshi could combo Marth like that. But now I know, and since then I’ve practiced with local Yoshi player PeanutPhobia. You’ve got to be prepared for any matchup that can come your way!

That night I got home and slept late, but had to be up at 7am to move into my new apartment! Spent the whole day moving all my furniture in and taking a trip through IKEA on three hours of sleep. It was awful. But luckily I could sleep early that night in preparation for SSC.

In keeping with my “have fun at SSC” mentality, I entered sm4sh as well as Melee singles and doubles. I played pretty well, tried to have fun, and it was all good. To summarize my Melee singles experience… it was bad. I did fine going through round 1 pools. But coming in day 2, I just had a bad feeling all morning. I woke up late, I forgot my badge, I was stressed about Rivals of Aether (more on that in another post), and I was overthinking a lot.

I had to play Tafo round 1 of my round 2 pool. We sat down and he said, “Are you ready to win?” I guess he expected me to beat him, which I guess wasn’t unreasonable given my summer performance, but I just said, “We’ll see!” because I knew anything could happen. I lost game 1, and the pressure was on. Game 2 I took him to FD, and all I remember from that was getting a sick kill: I hit him off-stage, grabbed ledge, and forced him to UpB on-stage. Then I ledge-hopped Dair, and caught his DI away on the Dair with a perfect pivot Tipper kill. It was dope. Then I had the lead game 3 and threw it away. I honestly don’t remember what happened, but I didn’t feel good. That kind of set the tone for me the rest of the day.

In losers, I played a Fox player who had been doing well. I forget his tag, unfortunately. But his whole squad was cheering him on. There were a bit of shots against me while we were playing, but I think I beat him pretty badly and the posse was a bit quieter as game 2 moved along. I remember seeing that I had to play against the winner of Aglet and Cyrain. Obviously I would have preferred Aglet, because he’s a Puff, but Cyrain clutched it out game 3 with a Bthrow into Uair. Cyrain beat me 2-1. It was a super flubby set, and again I felt pretty bad.

I feel like that weekend, my downfall was my lack of preparation. I felt awful all of Saturday after losing. My temper was on edge, and I couldn’t shake off the salt. It really just ruined my day.

And that helped me learn what kind of competitor I am. First, disclaimer: I really dislike johns, and I hate making johns. In the context of this bl0g, I’m trying to contextualize my experiences and learn from my mistakes. In this case, I thought I could aim to have a chill, fun weekend and still compete. But why did I feel so bad?

Let’s go back to my experience at Xanadu. When was I feeling bad, feeling uncomfortable? It was when I lost to Wenbo, and did not have a good excuse for it. I had excuses, but none of them were good. I felt the same way after being eliminated at SSC. I felt like I would have won both of the sets I’d lost had I prepared appropriately, but I didn’t, so I lost. And that felt awful.

This was a good realization for me. I can’t tell myself that I will be okay with any outcome if I decide to compete. I need to prepare and try my hardest… as it turns out, that isn’t even the end of the story (more on that in my post about Olympus).

I want to end this bl0g post on a more positive note, so let’s talk about Melee doubles! lloD and I did really well in teams. Our first big win in the bracket was over Wobbles and Axe. I remember walking to the restroom before we played them, and I was thinking about whether to go Fox or Marth. Typically, Fox/Peach is our default team. In this case, I thought Marth would be a better idea, so I texted lloD and asked him what he thought. He trusted my judgment and said okay.

It ended up working out really well. Fox/Peach may have been a better choice on paper, but the risk of Fox dying to Pikachu gimps by Axe or eating a ton of damage from Ice Climbers was too high for my liking. I recall a specific moment in game 3 that summarizes why the team worked so well – Pika was offstage while I was on the ground guarding ledge, and Ice Climbers were in the corner on the other side of the stage while lloD floated in center-stage with Peach. Even though we didn’t have reliable kill setups that we’d have had with Fox, the stage control and hitbox advantage of Marth/Peach was sufficiently oppressive.

Next, we played PewFat. As lifelong teams partners who have been training together for a long time, lloD and I respect PewFat. This set was pretty hype, and it was on the mainstage. We lost 1-2, but it was very close. We actually had a lead on them game 3, but Mr. S “Most Improved Player of the Year” FAT really stepped it up and turned the tides. I remember lloD pointing out that every unsafe dash attack he threw out on SFAT was punished with waveshines out-of-shield into Usmash. Even though we lost, we played our best. We actually lost to PewFat at EVO in teams… to be honest, they bodied us. It felt like they always covered the other’s position very well, and we had trouble getting our footing. I am kind of the “coach” of me and lloD’s team, so I tried re-tooling our strategy before we played them at SSC. To have gone from getting bodied to a near-win against one of the best teams in the world was a great feeling.

At SSC 2015, lloD and I got 5th in teams. We were double-eliminated by Colbol and Gahtzu. In losers, it was an extremely close game 5. We notably had trouble with Falcon’s camping on the top platform. After losing to PewFat, we were set to play against KJH and Gahtzu. We tried learning from our mistakes again, and anticipated how Gahtzu planned on playing Falcon in teams. I think, individually, lloD and I had both improved in the matchup as well. We beat them 2-1 in a fun set.

In top 8, we lost to ChuDat and Chillin. lloD often says that our team relies on my Fox holding my own, or winning, Fox dittos against any other Fox. And for the most part, that holds true. I held my own against KJH and SFAT. For some reason, Chillin destroyed me in the ditto. The guy plays so weird. I actually think our Fox styles are kind of similar, but his is more refined. We lost 0-3. They were definitely the hardest team we played at the tournament, and the only one we didn’t take a game off. But we have learned and will win next time. ;]

That’s pretty much all for now. Upcoming posts will outline my thoughts on Olympus as a tournament and my personal experience with it, and another post on “The Games I’m Playing” where I’ll talk about… the games that I’m playing and not playing.

Hope you enjoyed this post!

P.S. Never let me write “I’ll keep this next part brief” again because it’s always a lie.

Catching Up: Post-EVO and SSC2016