The Mental Game: Motivation, Confidence, Depression

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I have always loved Smash for it’s mechanical freedom. Coming from MOBAs, the free-flowing movement options in Smash left me in awe. With enough technical execution, characters have seemingly endless kill options and setup opportunities.

Much of the success of a Smash pro lies in their mechanics. Especially in Melee, there is a skill floor so high that it is impenetrable to someone the first time they touch the game. This is why the game is so beautiful to watch. If two players execute their inputs to the best of their ability, the player with better technique will win every time.

However, Smash’s true beauty lies in something beyond it’s mechanics. The better player does not win every time. There are no crazy RNG mechanics like in Hearthstone (or at least very few that meaningfully impact the average match). The reality is that, like all great sports, being physically talented is only half the battle. Where Smash truly excels as an esport is in it’s mental game. Knowing matchups, conditioning opponents, reading tendencies, etc. Even beyond knowledge, a player’s mental state plays a critical role in their ability to perform on stage. Today, I want to explore three potential limits to a player’s mental game, and how to overcome them. The discussion today is based on what I have seen on Twitter from a few specific players, but we’ll be generalizing today in order to be useful to a wider range of people.

Motivation

Prepare for the deepest and most powerful sentence you’ve ever seen on this blog: being really good at Smash takes a lot of work. In Smash 4, just learning all the relevant matchups is like taking a college math class. Not to mention all the practice required to nail your inputs consistently. There are so many talented players at every tournament, all fighting for that grand finals win. To remain competitive, you can never stop practicing, never stop learning.

Motivation is a key determining factor in success. Are you willing to put in the work day after day to master your mechanics, to learn your matchups? Can you drive six hours to a tournament, drown in pools, and come home on Monday ready to get back to practice? That is the level of motivation required to reach the top.

If you struggle with motivation, there are three keys to finding that drive, and keeping it going through anything.

1. Find Your Why

Why did you start competing in the first place? What was that moment that made you realize this was something that mattered to you? What is it about playing in tournaments that you love? If you understand your “why”, it reshapes everything. All the work, disappointment, and stress is just a part of the package. It’s a step in the process that keeps allowing you to do what you love.

Ray Lewis, linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, said it best. “You pay me for Monday through Saturday. Sunday, you get Sunday for free.” He was willing to go through all the pain and hard work of practice week after week. To run, tackle, study, stretch, and lift all because it was part of the process that let him play on Sunday. He loved playing football so much, that it was worth any sacrifice to be able to stand on that field with his teammates. If you are struggling with motivation, take some time to reflect and find your “why”. Realign your practice, your focus, and your mentality on getting to achieve that “why” as often as possible.

2. Set Small, Achievable Metrics

This is the exact same problem everyone has with New Year’s resolutions. People set goals like “I want to lose weight” or “I want to read more.” These are great goals, but they have no clear, defined metric for success. The same is true in Smash. Setting a goal like “I want to play better” or “I want to win more” won’t help you at all. You haven’t defined what success looks like.

When you are struggling with motivation, you need to redefine success. Your brain needs to see that regular, consistent progress is being made. Set smaller goals that are clearly achievable, but still move you towards your goal. Set goals like “I will do 50 perfect-pivots in a row each day” or “I will play 100 For Glory matches this week”. These are goals that you almost can’t help but achieve. They require some effort, but the success is in doing a volume of work, not specifically in victory. Obviously you’ll work back up to goals like making top 8 or winning a major. However, when you are struggling with motivation it is important to train your mind to expect success. Allow yourself small victories as a practice for the big success down the road.

3. Be Held Accountable

Motivation is the first thing to go when you feel weak. Whether you’re sick, depressed, or just tired, there will always be times when motivation is virtually impossible. You have to have someone push you through those moments. If your goals truly matter, you have to put in the work even which it feels impossible. There are virtually no humans on Earth who can motivate themselves in moments of real weakness.

Find someone you trust who will hold you accountable to your goals. Someone who you know will ask if you’ve done all your perfect-pivots today.Someone who will then call you out if you haven’t put in the work. No one has ever achieved real success alone, don’t think for a moment that you’ll be the first. You need a support system in place not only to cheer you on, but to drag your lazy butt uphill towards victory.

Confidence

It’s amazing how many people are more powerful in friendlies than in bracket. Actually, it isn’t amazing at all if you understand psychology. Studies show that most people are at their best when relaxed. There are certainly some people who shine when under the most stress and pressure, but screw those people, they don’t need this blog. Confidence is critical in Smash. In a game of two-frame windows, a lack of confidence will ruin you. You can’t hesitate for even a moment or you’ll lose the opening to punish, miss your edgeguard, or just flub an input. To understand how to achieve confidence, let’s look at two of the best to ever do it: Mang0 and Armada.

1. Mang0

Love him or hate him, you cannot deny that Mang0 oozes confidence. He simply knows he’s the best. It’s not bragging, it’s not some facade–the man simply knows that he is the very best Melee player to ever do it. Many people would disagree, and the data doesn’t support this claim right now, but Mang0 genuinely knows in his heart that he deserves to win because he is better than anyone else.

This kind of confidence is so powerful. It lets you take calculated risks because you know they will work. “Of course I got that edgeguard, I knew I would.” When you play with that level of confidence, it removes all hesitation. Inputs come faster, strings are cleaner, it’s beautiful to watch. Obviously with Mang0 there are plenty of other discussions to have about the mental game, but for now just focus on this. Mang0 is so good BECAUSE he knows he’s so good.

So how do you achieve Mang0’s level of confidence? Believe your own hype. If you struggle with self-confidence, overcorrect. Find any small victory and practice being crazy hyped about it. “Holy crap, did you see that fair-footstool? I’m probably the best fox in the game right now. Larry Lurr better watch himself!” Repeat it over and over again. Give yourself a mantra. It will feel weird at first, but this is essentially a form of meditation. Like I said, don’t be afraid to overcorrect. If confidence really is an issue, you don’t have to be afraid of becoming some cocky jerk. Allow yourself one week just straight up believing that you’re amazing. Lost a game? Who cares, I’d crush that guy if we played best of 5. Drowned in pools? Psh, whatever, those matchups suck for my character, I’d have ruined them with my secondary. Go into every match just knowing that you are destined to win. If you can combine this with our next example, you’ll become an unstoppable force.

2. Armada

Armada also knows he’s the very best to ever do it, but for a completely different reason. Hailing from Europe, Armada’s rise to prominence was a uniquely lonely experience. While he’s always had family and friends to practice with, there’s never been anyone on the whole continent even close to his level of power. He doesn’t get to play against demigods on a regular basis, he can’t attend as many smaller tournaments and practice against his fellow gods. As such, Armada has had to rely on his training to carry him through. He studies like a madman. He reviews vods, studies matchups, and practices his mechanics for hours.

When Armada shows up to a tournament, he knows for certain he is going to win, just like Mang0. However, Armada isn’t just believing his own hype. He’s trusting that the work he did in advance will carry him to the top. He knows that no one worked harder, studied more, or prepared better for this event. Nobody could possibly beat him, because they didn’t work hard enough. You can’t outwork Armada, so you have no chance at beating Armada.

When you struggle with feeling confident, this is a great tool to have in your arsenal. Just trust in your preparation. “Man, I always lose to Jigglypuff, but I’ve spent the last month watching every Hbox match I could find. Today, this Puff doesn’t stand a chance because there’s no way he understands the matchup as well as I do.” If you feel your confidence slipping, stop and close your eyes. Think back to all the work you put in for this event. This about the hours of practice, all the friendlies you won. Remember all the times you’ve beaten this character. If it’s a new matchup, trust your fundamentals. You’ve worked on spacing, on edgeguarding–trust that you are just better at playing clean Smash. If no one worked harder than you, there’s no way anyone can play better than you. ¬†Believe it.

Depression

Motivation and Confidence are skills just like anything else. They come naturally to some, but to others they require practice. If you practice Motivation and Confidence, you will improve at both guaranteed. The same is not entirely true of Depression. Depression takes several forms, and can be at the root of all struggles relating to Motivation or Confidence. If that is the case, simply practicing the techniques above won’t be enough. You have to attack the heart of the problem first. In my years as a mentor, coach, pastor, and husband I have witnessed real depression in all it’s many forms. I promise you that it can be overcome. It can be made manageable. Today I want to give you a few tools, and some hope for how to make that happen.

1. Ignore the Lies

Everyone feels sad at times. What makes depression different is the way that your brain will actively lie to you. When sad, a healthy person’s brain will say “this is a bad feeling, let’s do something to fix it.” A brain with depression will instead say “this is a bad feeling, but you are a bad person so this is the correct way you should feel.” If that sentence sounds familiar, I want you to know that it is a lie. No one deserves to feel sad. You are wonderful, beautiful, and made just the way that God intended.

You deserve as much happiness as anyone else in this world. More than anyone else, because you are a member of our Smash family. We love you no matter what. Even if you play Bayonetta, we truly love you. Right now your brain is actively lying to you, telling you what you’re reading is not true. Do not let those lies win. Recognize that you deserve joy, and fight through the lies so that healing can happen.

2. Talk About It

Just like a mold or fungus, depression grows faster in the dark. However, that growth halts in the light. Talk about your emotions, explain exactly what you’re feeling. Talking to someone will help separate the valid emotions from the brain-lies. As in any good fantasy novel, speaking the name of something gives you power over it.

Further, there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting counseling or therapy. It is my belief that every human on Earth would benefit from regular counseling, no matter who they are. The human brain is overwhelmingly complex–how can we expect to control it without expert help? You wouldn’t be able to drive a car if someone didn’t teach you, shouldn’t you treat your mind the same way? My DMs are open and my email address is listed on this site. If you feel like you have no one else, I would love to talk to you. No matter what, force yourself to at least verbally acknowledge to someone that you are struggling with this issue. You’ll be amazed at the difference it can make.

3. Medication

I am firmly against going to medication first for any problem. However, depression and anxiety disorders often stem from an imbalance of chemicals in your brain. Sometimes you need to take something to help regulate those chemicals. If you struggle with any sort of anxiety or depression, I would very strongly recommend asking a doctor about a drug called Lexapro. There are lots of drugs out there for depression, but many of them simply turn off your ability to feel extremes one way or the other, which isn’t really a solution. Lexapro simply gives you the power to sort through the real emotions and the brain-lies.

My wife describes it as if there is a screen door in front of the anxiety. She’s aware it’s there, but she can essentially examine it from the outside rather than having to live within it. If you have questions, I would highly recommend watching this video from the guys at Penny Arcade discussing the same thing. It was through this video that I first heard about the drug and thought to ask her doctor about it. I can’t tell you how much of a difference it’s made.

So, I know we took a rather serious turn at the end, but I felt that this entire article would have been pointless if we didn’t address the root issue for so many people. Smash is merely one aspect of life, but your mental fortitude is relevant for everything. Your mind is just as critical a tool as your controller. I know how much you all care about your controllers, you should invest at least as much time in your mind.
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