With the recent discussions around the importance of support staff like coaches and analyst, the concept of sports psychology has been somewhat overlooked. Teams may have the individual skill, strategic depth, and synergy in game, but if nothing else, the NA playoffs has demonstrated the undeniable importance of mental fortitude and organizational support as key metrics in team’s success.
Recently, I spoke with Evan McCauley who is a National Curling Champion that competed in the World Championships in Switzerland earlier this year. He is also an avid fan of the League of Legends competitive scene and is finishing up his degree in sports psychology, hoping to break into the e-sports industry. He brings the insight of a competitor in a strategic, team-based sport as well as his knowledge of psychology and its relevance to the League of Legends competitive scene.
Fundamentals of Sports Psychology and it's place on competitive e-sports teams
Going back to more general discussion, can you generally explain what a sports psychologist does for a team?
So, there are a lot of things sports psychologist can do, from talking to individual players through struggles, issues or doubts. But anything from team dynamics, how players are interacting inside and outside the game. How the coach handles things and dishes criticisms. All those interpersonal interactions are delicate and where a lot of sports psychologists can help with.
Building off that, a lot of people involved in the competitive scene and the support staffs are either players or famous members from the community. Can you compare specifics of your experience and how you can use it to help facets of competitive League?
So, specifically dealing with teams is huge. You will see teammates get into arguments a lot that most people probably will never see. The arguments that are shown seem like issues that are brought open in a team forum. I've learned that 1-on-1s are the most useful way to get ideas and information across. These teams are under tremendous pressure, and opening up issues could lead to emotionally charged fights instead of constructive forums. Especially since a lot of players who don't understand the psychology of team dynamics, they aren't going to phrase their criticisms diplomatically causing more problems. These are issues that are universal to sports, and people don't necessarily need a large amount of in-depth game knowledge to resolve these issues. Any member with coaching experience in any sport can help with them within a certain context.
Do you think all competitive League of Legends teams in the LCS need a sports psychologist and how do you go about determining which ones do?
I think every team could benefit from it. There are teams that may need it less. I can't say specifically because I'm not there to personally witness the inner workings of the team, but if a team has a strong emotional role model, it's less necessary. For example I think Hai seems like one that fits this description. He handles explosive situations very well and there was one time between games where they lost and were dejected, Hai comes in and says to not focus on the negative and just prepare for the next game. That was really great, and I'm sure players like Krepo and Snoopeh also have great mental states, but can't speculate on how well they transfer that to their teammates. But there are problems with having the emotional team member in the team. Nien was a perfect example of a positive emotional team member. If you remember the third game in the CLG-TSM playoffs where he broke down; that's a case where your emotional leader is a player and he needs support too. When I was curling, I played that role for my team but sometimes you think as a player and can't fulfill that role for your team. I sometimes needed that support, and I feel that CLG needed that during the game. When we hired the new coach, he was able to do that for me and fix my shooting percentage. He helped us with confidence, willingness to make plays etc. A lot of coaches in the scene try to do that, but I don't know if they have the training or knowledge to create that positive environment.
Right now, a lot of sports psychology in e-sports is a luxury. Some teams are still struggling to hire an adequate coach or analyst. Do you think that hierarchy of support staff is correct with analyst/coach followed by psychologist or do you think some teams would benefit more from the latter?
I think a sports psychologist could bring more to certain teams. If you've got someone on the team that is already strategically and mechanically sound through the strengths of their players, could simply just be having issues with how they approach the game or what they think about their teammates. It's frustrating because I wish I could see more of the LCS teams' dynamics first hand to gauge the interactions between the various members: players, coaches, analysts, managers, etc to base my hypothesis on. And, while I don't understand the strategic nuances of team play, a lot of people empirically link team's improvements to their analysts. But I do think that especially when the team is young, a sports psychologist could serve an important role in bringing the talented roster together and create the proper synergy before introducing them to a level of strategic depth. For example, if you consider a lot of great western teams, CLG EU , Moscow 5, Cloud 9, etc, you see a trend that they were comfortable with each other first, and that allowed them to become great because they had a basis for trust, whether it was common language, shared determination, or just friendship. If you have that level of faith in your teammates’ abilities and dedication, it allows your team to shake off defeats, embrace new ideas, and adapt more efficiently as a unit, and that's something a sports psychologist can help teams develop.
Some people would argue that while this level of friendship and social synergy has successfully translated to teamwork and performance, it's not necessarily the only catalyst in developing a good team and coaches/analysts can provide the proper direction to make up for it. Can you comment on this argument?
I can see that point of view, but there's a range of acceptable emotions team members can have for one another and still succeed. But if a player is harboring a grudge, or if two players just despise each other, I would argue that the team is not going to perform as efficiently at the highest level. Competitive League is still somewhat underdeveloped and so it is possible for an analyst to take the five best players in the world to victory despite them disliking one another. However, this requires the team members to be extremely introspective and objective with how they talk about the game and critique without taking it personally. This actually makes the case for sports psychologists even stronger, because they can help set up and facilitate this objective communication channels for those members that choose to be personally and emotionally detached from the team.