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Esports psychology: A professional experience

Article updated March 2020: check the Virtual Applied Sport Psychology Summit 2019 or the podcast sport psychology in esports with Ismael Pedraza for more on this topic. Finally the most recent scientific publication on Esports Psychology: A systematic review. 

The most satisfying moments of my career as an expert in sport psychology or performance coach in esports so far, have been seeing the positive changes on the players or coaches I have worked with.

In this post, I won’t be talking about any specific strategy, tool or approach that you can use to improve your own or team performance. Instead, I will be sharing my perspective that could be useful for sport psychology practitioners from my experience working with the league of legends team Misfits Gaming and Rogue esports participating at the top European league (previous LCS now LEC). If you are interested in a more in-depth and academic report of this matter check my publication here, the article it’s in Spanish though ☺️… Enjoy!. 

So, let’s begin!

My philosophy

Due to my experience in elite performance back home in Colombia when I was playing semi-professional football and my education in sport and exercise psychology, I adopted a holistic approach in my practice aiming to develop high-performing teams. This approach leads towards an ecological framework in which the environment and every member of the team need to be considered to establish healthy practices that facilitate the achievement of success. 

However, applying a holistic ecological approach in esports has been challenging, maybe due to the need for orgs looking for immediate rewards, players hoping to achieve rapid success, or simply lack of knowledge. I understand that the only thing that matters at any elite-level performance domain is the result, the win, the championship. Although, focusing on how to achieve success is crucial to achieving mastery which in return will take you to reach success.

Consequently, I usually base my practice on three methodological principles Assessment, Acquisition, and Maintenance. Thus, my focus from day one working in esports is to observe and assess the environment. As I believe the physical environment and dynamics where your team is has a huge impact on the behaviour, emotions and ultimately the team culture. Changing small suboptimal pieces of the environment will transfer into a place that allows for optimisation of the development.

What does it mean to observe an esports team environment?

Basically, every team has environmental variables that can be destructive or constructive and are present in practice and in competition, for example:

  • Interpersonal communication (coach-player, coach-supporting staff, player-managers)
  • Behaviours and interactions between the whole team structure
  • Optimization of training and competitive space (i.e., anything that could affect the focus towards training or competition)  

Then, as I was always comparing the esports structure with traditional sports, my first thoughts after assessing the environment were “There’s so much work to do and space to improve”. Such changes were from integrating better training approaches, prevention of injury practices, nutrition and exercise, etc. However, I understood that not everything can be easily transferred from traditional sports and rather a step by step process towards integrating different tools and practices was needed to introduce them into the esports system. Today, more organizations have some stability that could allow them to collaborate with performance experts to support their players and coaches from a wider perspective to achieve success.  

Although, back in 2017 when I started with Misfits my first challenge was to gain the trust of the players and coaches, as I was purely coming from traditional sports and had a limited gaming lingo knowledge, as well as my understanding of the esports industry was limited.  These could have been perceived as a strength or a weakness.

Therefore, I knew that gaining trust from some players wasn’t going to be an easy task. Thus, constant self-reflection and understanding my role in the team were crucial in building that rapport with the players and simultaneously helping them to improve. 

Working structure

A working structure that I personally use is one-on-one meetings with players and weekly team activities with the aim of providing individual performance enhancement work and team development.

Individual meetings help to assess the needs of players and introduce specific interventions or strategies that help them with the acquisition and maintenance of skills. Although it would be ideal to have cooperation with an interdisciplinary performance team (e.g., physical trainer, nutritionist, physios), I don’t only focus on the implementation of psychological skills training that could directly improve game performance. I also look to include exercise and health routines that help players to develop life skills and healthy habits which are also crucial for performance. Additionally, facilitating a space in a form of structured team activities provides the possibility for players to get to know each other better as the individuals that they are, which ultimately will help to create a strong foundation as a team. 

Sport psychology practitioner in esports

Even though the work of a sport psychology practitioner in esports could sound very straight forward, there are many variables and challenges to consider. For example, there’s no traditional academy path where experts can help young players to develop fundamental life skills and transition into the elite. Therefore, in many cases, you have to try to assist in this process while focusing on high-performance and trying to prevent, for instance, mental issues or other issues that can arise due to the high-pressure environment. Thus, developing good observational skills and knowing what to do with the information gathered is important.

Lastly, I would like to list a few aspects that upcoming practitioners should consider when starting to work in esports: 

  • Trust your own knowledge but still be open to learn and accept you don’t know it all
  • Define your role in the team and respect it (e.g., in-game coach, sport psych)
  • Constantly reflect on your own practice for your own professional development
  • Accept that esports is still in development and not everything works perfectly but try to find alternatives
  • Be willing to work unusual hours and be available for players and coaches
  • Consider that each player has a different level of experience
  • Create a partnership with your coach
  • Pay attention to the details and develop observational and listening skills
  • Practice what you preach
  • Look after your own mental health and wellbeing

Esports has become my main focus for my professional career, thus, I continue learning and helping players and coaches to find their ways to succeed. I have many learning experiences that when I reflect on them I know that I could have performed better or different for specific cases. Therefore, it´s crucial to develop strong foundations at the organizational level. These foundations could impact the performance of the team and help players to develop skills that not only benefit their game performance but their wellbeing and their transitions during and after esports.

References

  1. Cottrell, C., McMillen, N., & Harris, B. S. (2018). Sport psychology in a virtual world: Considerations for practitioners working in eSports. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action. https://doi.org/10.1080/21520704.2018.1518280 

  2. Henriksen, K., Stambulova, N. y Roessler, K. K. (2010). Holistic approach to athletic talent development environments: A successful sailing milieu. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11, 212–222. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2009.10

  3. Pedraza-Ramirez, I. (2019). Generación LoL: Entrenamiento psicológico mediante una propuesta holística con un equipo profesional de esports. Revista de Psicología Aplicada Al Deporte y El Ejercicio Físico, 4(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.5093/rpadef2019a3

  4. Pedraza-Ramirez, I., Musculus, L., Raab, M. y Laborde, S. (2020). Setting the scientific stage for esports psychology: a systematic review. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1080/1750984X.2020.1723122.
  5. Raab, M., Wylleman, P., Seiler, R., Elbe, A.-M., & Hatzigeorgiadis, A. (Eds.). (2016). Sport and exercise psychology research: from theory to practice. Amsterdam: Academic Press Elsevier. googlescholar

Credit: Riot Games • Flickr.com * Michal Konkol

Ismael Pedraza

Currently working with esports organization Rogue as their performance coach for the LoL team. He also has 8 years of coaching and performance counseling experience with different high-performance traditional sports like football, swimming, athletics, darts, etc. Best ADC in LoL and Clash Royale player of TMC.

From author

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