Thursday, May 28, 2009

All in Your Head

I was asked specifically to do an article on stress management. Don't hate me because I personally think this article sucks.

In order to write this article I had to do homework. I'll be really honest here. I have no idea how to deal with stress. I'm not a very stressed person generally, but doing the research for this article made me realize that when I do get stressed I tend to express it poorly. For instance, when I'm in a gaming tournament, I generally play far worse than I do in casuals. My most recent SF4 tournament, I lost in the first round to a bad Ryu player. At the last K-con SC4 tournament, I lost in the quarter finals to someone probably better than me, but the match was incredibly horrible and I made tons of mistakes.

My research generally wasn't very promising either. 99% of the stuff I read suggested either something new-agey or escapist as a means of dealing with stress. If you want any of these new-age stress management links from me, post a comment and I'll dole out some links. I have no doubt they do work for people who live generally stressful lives, but they do absolutely no good for people like me.

The escapist things, like going for a walk, or doing yoga or whatever nonsense probably works for people with stressful lives. However, when you are in a pressure situation and your performance actually matters, it doesn't work at all. You can't pause your tournament match of SF4 and do some yoga or walk out of your job interview and go jogging a few miles. You've got to cope with the stress and turn it into a positive energy that empowers you.

One way to improve your overall stress management skills in crunch time is, annoyingly, lifestyle changes. Now generally I prefer technique, such as when you get into situation x, do move y and it handles the situation better. However, healthy lifestyle changes such as eating better, exercise, and basically anything that puts dopamine in your system helps you cope with stress, since dopamine puts you in a positive state of mind. The studies I read state that cigarette smoking doesn't help (stimulants in general don't) even though dopamine is a product, which was sort of surprising to me. Marijuana does, scarily enough, as does moderate drinking (eg. a beer here or there; excessive drinking hurts).

Don't take that as an advertisement to go smoke weed, by the way.

Anyway, lifestyle changes only work if you practice them beforehand - don't go smoke a joint before a poker tournament then ask me why you lost. The idea is that you influence your body to produce more good chemicals on a regular basis. I say lifestyle changes because it's not just stuff you put in your body. Having healthy friendships and romantic relationships helps us cope with stress better and it's not just because those people are there for moral support. The relationship actually puts chemicals in our blood that help us deal with problems even when they're not around.

As a side note, rumor has it that sex is a pretty good performance drug. Coffee, soft drinks, and cigarettes are not! Don't smoke before a big match, or drink energy drinks. Drink fruit juice (pulpy juice is best) and eat a low-fat, high-fiber breakfast or lunch. Chocolate chip cookies are a pretty good performance drug, especially oatmeal chocolate chip (I'm seriously not joking).

Next idea is to care less about what you're doing. I know, laugh. I know it's ridiculous but it's so true! If you care less about the outcome of whatever it is that you're doing, you'll be less stressed about it but more importantly you'll perform better.

I am someone who used to be gifted with good local competition in Soul Calibur. For a long time, 3 of the 4 best players in my state, who were also among the top 20 or so in the Northwest, were local to me. Of those 3 (I'm one of them), I was the better player. When I played against the other 2 in casuals it typically resulted in somewhere between 6-4 (bad days) and 8-2 (in the zone) win ratios for me. In competition, I almost always played better against them than the other top players, typically playing like I was 'in the zone'. When I played against decent (but typically worse) players, I tended to play a lot worse, and most tournaments I play in, I tend to get upset by someone not quite as good as me (occasionally I meet someone really good, but usually that results in me getting pasted). By comparison, the other people in my crew that I beat on a regular basis typically place first and second, and generally no lower than top four.

The reason for this is because I care far less about matches against my friends than I do about unknowns. I know I can beat my friends - I've studied their playstyles and I know them inside and out. They know my game too, so they have the same advantage against me - but despite that I know I can win. Against an unknown, there are many variables I have to think about, and it causes me a lot of stress. I am well known for losing matches against people when I could just beat them with standard frame traps and pressure (not really even having to think) just because I try to think too hard during the match.

Just saying "relax" doesn't work. Care less. The lesson is that the outcome doesn't matter as much as you think it does, so don't worry about it as much. Most likely your life will go on no matter what, and you'll be able to make up your failures even if it takes some time. If it is a life or death thing, such as a combat situation, even still worrying about it will just make you screw up. Just focus on doing what you know, because the outside stuff will just screw with your brain and make you lose your skills.

Foreknowledge helps. "Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance" is how the saying goes. If you know what to do in a particular situation, if you've got the skills to pay the bills, handling the rest is easy. If you're a guy, most likely you can just convince yourself you have the skills even if you don't.

Yes, I realize that's kind of sexist.

What's most important in this scenario is that you believe you can succeed if you just stick to your guns. This doesn't always work in competitive games but it works in pretty much any other scenario, including job interviews, college exams, and oral presentations. If you're confident in your material and your skills, it'll help you deal with the task ahead.

Preparation in general is sort of a relaxer. If you actually make the prep time, it helps to really boost confidence. A good example might be if you do rehersals before a performance and the rehersals go well. You can duplicate that scenario for an oral presentation or job interview. Combo practice and practice matches before a tournament help a lot. I used to never play casuals before a tournament because I believed 'going in cold bore' helped keep me from making dumb mistakes and kept people from learning my tricks. This is not a good idea in actual execution and you should really practice as much as you can before an event without exhausting yourself physically or mentally.

Going back to lifestyle really quick - SLEEP. I can't stress how important good sleep is for performing at 100%. Go to bed early if you have to - don't take sleeping pills. Eat a good meal (low fat, high fiber, eat a lot of food) and get some quality rest. If you sleep well and eat well beforehand you will feel over 9000 times better in the morning.

Anyway, that's most of what I have - stick to your guns, practice, live healthy and don't take the stressful situation too seriously.

And uh... don't rely on any new-age tricks or escapist methods of dealing with stress. Work with your problems, don't try to ignore them.

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