Performing under stress
Let’s breakdown what stress is, the purpose, and function. Stress has a role in changing performance by making you alert, excited, aware, awake, and energetic. Because of its role in performance, it’s necessary to experience a certain degree of it in order to play at your best. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released into your body to prepare you for the upcoming event.
However, when the stress goes overboard, you enter a state of chronic stress, which produces those hormones for too long a duration and they don’t get broken down. Believe it or not, this is an incredibly common experience for many Esport athletes competing at a professional level. Let’s take a look at “why” it happens to so many athletes, then let’s get into the practical side of things in what I like to call “game time”.
You’re an athlete competing in League of Legends (for example, whichever game you play can be substituted here). You just got picked up by a local semi-pro team that you’ve been GRINDING hardcore to join. You’re in practice sessions, strategy planning, VOD views, scrims, and discussions with your team. Now it’s time for the first game as part of the roster. You’ve dedicated so much time to making it here and you feel the pressure of needing to perform. What happens if you cost the game? What if you’re not as good as they thought? What if you… what if you… what if you… The thoughts are nearly endless and you’re starting to panic. This is the same type of panic that was designed to help us escape from harm, like being eaten by a predator or getting attacked by a stranger. Your thoughts are no longer on the immediate, but on the potential downfalls and all your ability to think is shutting down – energy is being diverted to survival. You can no longer follow your strategy or access all the skills you’ve been working on because your brain is only focused on survival despite not being in a life-threatening situation.
So, what do we do about it? I’ll break this into a 2-part solution.
Firstly, you’ve got all these hormones fueling your body to survive. Let’s utilize all that fuel and energy pumping through your body the way it was meant to be used: activity. Get outside and briefly jog. Go up and down the street or around the block a few times. Or, maybe you can turn this into a team prep session. Get all your teammates together and kick a ball around, play a mini round of dodgeball with each other, or really any type of physical activity. Just get moving, but try to overly exhaust yourself. Fatigue will also impact your performance.
Secondly, you’ve completed the physical activity and put all that energy and stress to its intended purpose. Now, let’s bring you down into the right mentality for peak performance. Find yourself a spot – it may be away from others or where you’re competing, doesn’t matter. Close your eyes and take a breath in and then a LONG exhale. Focus on that exhale. Do it 5 more times. By the time you finish your last round of breathing, start shifting your thoughts to your strategies. Play out situations in your mind and watch yourself executing those actions flawlessly in your mind. I mean truly see yourself doing it as if it was a movie happening in your mind. Get your hands on the mouse and keyboard and click as if you were actually playing while you watch it all happen in your mind. We are priming your brain for flawless play by performing if in your mind and raising confidence. You started by burning through that energy, now you’re mentally ready.
With these two stages complete, it’s time to play. You’re going to notice your body is more relaxed and calmer than it was at the start. You’ve primed yourself and you’re ready to play despite that initial feeling of stress.
Remember, a certain amount of stress is performance-enhancing. An overabundance of it shuts down your ability to think, causes health issues, and negatively impacts your performance. As with any skill, the more you practice them, the more effective they’ll be. If you wait until you’re neck-deep in stress to try this out, it won’t be as helpful. Start building it into your pre-performance routine and benefit!