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.
Roster changes, building team synergy, overcoming LAN jitters, dealing with losses, and negative community interaction.
Getting back to teams, roster moves during and between seasons has been quite common this year. Do you think sports psychologists can play a role in helping teams draft a new player, via interviews or conversations to determine if he would be a good investment, because currently the process is subject to the whims of the players or the organization that don't necessarily see player's viability from a mental perspective.
Yeah, there are several things sports psychologists can do with changing rosters. As you mentioned, the first thing is vetting the player based on their emotional and mental strength and that stuff. But these are also traits that can be learned, and that's almost more important. Having a sports psychologist can take a young player with great potential and help instill the proper mindset. For example, if I were a sports psychologist on a team that just hired a young, inexperienced player, I would work really closely with him and help instill a positive attitude, talk him through expectations, and help him translating the raw potential the team saw onto the stage. Coming from solo queue, players sometimes try too hard to make plays and when the team loses, they are probably blaming themselves for their loss. Understanding how to credit victories and handle defeats as a team and unit takes time, and I think newly drafted players struggle mentally with that. The opposite problem some new players have is lack of belief in their team, and mentally shift blame to specific members, creating a huge barrier between communication and teamwork. Instead of blaming themselves or others, I would teach them how to be a part of the team and help them communicate with the team about how they approach the game and what they need to succeed, and try to find a balance between individual and team needs. I firmly believe that trust between players is the most important thing to succeed at the highest level.
Some players seem to struggle translating their solo queue or scrim performances to live events. Pobelter and Link are two examples of players that were extremely hyped before their introduction into the scene as being incredibly strong mechanical players, and while they've demonstrated instances of brilliance, they don't have the consistency of players like Bjergsen and Rekkles who seem to thrive in the spotlight. What do you think needs to happen for these players to resolve this issue? Is it one overarching problem that applies to everyone, or do you think it's specific to each player?
There are a few reasons that cause that lack of consistency during high pressure events. The first could be belief in yourself, and fixing that really varies per person. If we consider depression, there's a range of people and how they respond. Some people can be cheered up while others; you can only help get them through the rough times. Similarly, it's about showing players that being a good player and playing well are not necessarily connected. Players that dwell on negative performances slowly change how they feel about themselves, shaking their confidence and causing them to play poorly, further reinforcing the idea.
Another reason is less based on the player and more on the team. Some teams misuse the talent on their team by transferring resources to other lanes and members, and players that rely on these resources to do well may not have the strategic understanding of how to alter their game to optimize for the team's needs. For example, if a super mechanically proficient player is brought in to play a position, but farm is funneled into other lanes, or the jungle uses his presence to pressure other parts of the map, the player may not have the decision-making skills to know the best way to proceed in that context, and his performance may look lackluster compared to his potential.
Dealing with losses in both the short term [Bo5 series, tournaments etc] and the long term [over the season] takes a lot of resilience and mental fortitude. From your experience or studies or experience, how do you think this can be improved in the scene?
I actually have a great personal example for this. We were in this curling tournament where we were against North Dakota, which was maybe the 4th or 5th seed at the time. We went in so confidently, expecting to crush them, but get absolutely demolished. It was really jarring, especially considering that we were going to play the top seeds the next day. In that situation, the team needs to maintain confidence in order to maintain belief in their team. Depends on the time between games, the team needs to either learn from their mistakes and adapt, when they have a week for their next game, or they need to ignore and shake off the defeat as a fluke, and maintain composure for the short term. In both cases, the team should go into the next game with the belief that they will still win, either because they adapted and improved since the last game, or simply because they know they are better. This is made especially difficult under high pressure situations or under the weight of expectations, and it helps to have someone outside the team, coach/psychologist that the team can rely on to talk them through it and maintain a positive attitude.
From a psychological perspective, what do you think of the level of interaction between the community and the professional players, and what would you do to address it?
Oh god...I love how close the pros are with the community...but our community is pretty terrible because there's so much pointless, poorly phrased negativity based on assumptions that are speculative at best. There are multiple approaches players can take, the first is Locodoco's approach where players isolate themselves from social media after losses, or completely. An alternative idea is to develop a thicker skin, modeled after many athletes and celebrities, where they consider themselves so detached from the community that they can look at criticisms without feeling the need to address it. It's also situational depending on the person, but some players and members in the community are so tied to social media for support, that when that support turns into negativity and critique, it's difficult to handle.
The recurring theme in this conversation seems to be that teams and its members need to believe in each other in order to achieve the highest level of competitive success?
From all my experiences and studies, I do strongly believe that everyone on the team needs to trust that their team members are going to be at their best and are doing everything in their power to strive towards that goal. As cheesy as it sounds, and I know I've stressed it multiple times already, trust is extremely important. A team that has these qualities is most likely going to sustain through difficult times, because the knowledge that they did the best they could and will continue to keep going is the biggest strength for a team's mental fortitude.
I wanted to thank Evan McCauley for taking the time to speak with me. His experience as a national curling champion and knowledge of sports psychology brought a great deal of insightful depth to the discussion, which highlighted countless and extremely relevant ways that principles of sports psychology can help make a positive impact for professional e-sports teams. With the current growth in coaching and analyst infrastructure in the western League of Legends scene, hopefully teams will also consider the addition of sports psychologists to the support staff, even temporarily will have a positive impact on the mental fortitude of the team.