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High Pressure and Losing Streaks

Handling negative emotions

A friend of mine, writer John Murphy, pointed me to this discussion, in which devotees of the computer game Starcraft talk about how they recover after a losing streak. My first thought was that the topic wouldn’t be of much use in terms of looking at how we motivate ourselves in general, because computer games are hardly the same thing as cleaning out the garage or succeeding at our chosen career, right? Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to set myself straight on that count: after all, when we are focused on a goal and are facing obstacles and frustrations, the emotional situation is very similar regardless of whether the obstacles are gaming opponents, inefficient coworkers, or unmarked boxes full of bicycle parts. (See “A Surprising Source of Insight into Self-Motivation: Video Games“)

That’s not to say that I think that all goals are equally praiseworthy. I wouldn’t expect to impress anyone with my skilled movie watching or badminton playing, and while computer games are much like anything else in terms of how motivation works, that doesn’t mean I’d especially recommend that people direct their energies there. Engrossing is not necessarily the same thing as meaningful. With that said, every healthy life has leisure activities, so let’s learn from this one.

A warning: if you do read the discussion I linked to on your own, there may be parts that are completely foreign to you. For instance, in the following passage, I had no idea whatsoever what the author was talking about (although I enjoyed the sense of disorientation that came with that):

When I lost to broods, I checked the rep and knew I needed an observer in his main to see what the hive timing was, when hive was started I threw down a stargate. If I couldnt get an obs in his base, I told myself to start a stargate at the 12 minute mark, and to try to get a third faster.

But enough jargon: to the interesting parts. Many of the suggestions and ideas in the discussion touched on meaningful self-motivation strategies that are supported by research. For example, the gamers in this discussion were very sensitive to losing streaks, as most people tend to be. Streaks can become a burden, or can be used to create more motivation (see “Harnessing a Winning Streak” and “How to Stop Having a Bad Day“).

A couple of things to know about Starcraft (although everything I know about the game I learned from that discussion thread): first, there are different kinds of games, and the highest-pressure option seems to be “Ladder,” which I gather is a highly competitive fight to move up in the rankings. Also, unlike many video games, Starcraft seems to have limited social aspects. A user called Stereo (all participants in the discussion went by user names like this) said

Yea in wc3 if you had a losing streak it didn’t seem to matter at all ’cause I could just go talk to people and jump back into a game and have some laughs …. Here it’s like a ghost town where the only thought is the last game and why you lost.

Some of the insights in the thread (and there were a number of insights from gamers paying attention to their own thoughts and feelings) touched on taking ownership of success, failure, and the emotions that result from those experiences. Qriator said

When I’m losing it’s not because the other guy’s trolling or just way better – it’s because I’m messing up my own build.

This point is a key one: our mood, effectiveness, and resilience are affected enormously by whether we assign blame for a failure to someone else or take responsibility for it ourselves. It’s not intuitive, but taking responsibility for a failure can actually be much less stressful than blaming it on another person or outside forces, because it suggests that we have some control over the situation and might be able to handle it better next time. Focusing on others’ actions is demoralizing and stressful because by and large we have no power to make people act as we think they should. RipeBanana (I know, the names are a little strange for a conversation like this, but bear with me) commented in a similar vein:

I used to get really angry when I lost a game, then get a ton more angry if I lost 2-3 (or 9) games in a row. Then one day, and I am completely serious, I told myself I wouldn’t get mad anymore.

As simple as that – and I no longer rage.

It’s interesting how emotions work. We may have little control over our immediate, initial reaction to an experience, but our emotional state from there on is powerfully influenced by our own thoughts. (See “How emotions work” and “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair“).

Several participants in the discussion emphasized the importance of going back to figure out what went wrong, and of concentrating not on winning, but on improving. Terminus said

… by analyze I mean going to the point in the replay that made you lose the game, and remembering to not commit that same mistake again.

You have to get into the mindset that games are no big deal. Points aren’t important, ranking isn’t important, what matters is improving …. once you improve, your ranking will naturally rise.

Jazzman takes a similar approach:

… then I watch the replays of my last couple of losses, pinpoint the earliest possible fix I can make, and proceed to go crush 3 or 4 people in a row.

Both of these players have a good chance of doing better through this process–that is, their loss may mean that they’ll actually win more in the future–because they’re pushing themselves to consciously work in a different way. (See “Practice versus Deliberate Practice“)

The last idea I’ll quote from the thread–although far from the last idea that was suggested there–is from piCKles:

There’s actually a little trick that I learned from a quarterback that I’m going to start using. You wear a rubber band around your wrist and every time you get into a new game, you snap the rubber band. This helps create a trigger in your mind … that every time you snap the rubber band you forget about everything that went wrong with any of the previous games, and that this game is fresh start and a new chance to pull off the winning play or game in this instance.

I’ve never tried this, but it makes perfect sense: any simple reminder to clear our minds and shed any lingering anxieties or anger about previous problems is likely to help us do better at the next thing. For instance, if a person has two job interviews in a row and the first one is a disaster, the ability to “snap back” and approach the second job interview fresh is likely to make a big difference for the better.

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