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Head Games - Injecting sports psychology into esports

Weldon Green is a professional esports coach and performance consultant and has worked with multiple top-tier League of Legends teams. Courtesy of Weldon Green

In the world of competitive gaming, you can have the sharpest mind, the fastest reflexes and be the greatest player alive in your bedroom -- but it's all for naught if you can't perform under the spotlights of the big stage with thousands, sometimes millions, watching you.

When you look at the current crop of professional esport players, the ages generally average from a senior in high school to a college student. These players are getting big-name sponsorships, talking to the press and doing this for a full-time job; they weren't prepared for the world they've been thrown into. Traditional sports like basketball have kids with extraordinary abilities that are brought up from a young age to be ready for collegiate basketball media, or even, if they're good enough, the NBA. A majority of the biggest competitive gaming stars a few years ago never dreamed this career could be possible, or the mental fortitude needed to remain in the top tier. They simply liked playing in their bedroom by themselves or with friends, and the profession of 'competitive video gamer' was something that came unnaturally.

You have 17-year-olds who are the best at their specific game online; however, when put into an offline setting, they sometimes crumble under the pressure before they can even establish themselves. And in this growing industry of esports, one bad performance, one crack under immense pressure, and your shot of becoming a professional can get passed onto the next kid playing in their bedroom who is making waves with an amateur team.

Weldon Green, 33, is attempting to change how esports organizations operate in 2016. He's a sport psychological skills trainer with a master's degree in sport science and sport psychology from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Green, a former traditional sports coach (soccer and swimming), believes the mental game of competitive video gaming might be more important than the mechanical side.

"I think the biggest difference I found is the idea of embracing the pressure of performance instead of running away from it," Green answered when asked about the biggest difference between working in traditional sports and competitive video gaming. "I've worked with esport athletes who have a background in sport and [others] who just have a background in playing video games. The biggest difference between the two is that when the pressure comes or the stressful situation comes, it actually excites [the ones with a sports background]. Which is one of the reasons they like competition -- it's why they were doing sports in the first place."

""The environment there is merciless in terms of the drive to be perfect.""

Weldon Green

For the others, Green went on to say it can be a struggle. A lot of players on teams were merely teenagers in high school who never thought of competing in traditional sports or going out for one of their school teams. "A lot of people just play video games for fun," he told me, calmly and thoroughly contrasting the two sides. "Then they find themselves accidentally becoming an esport athlete, and they realize they haven't for years been putting themselves in competition over and over again. So they don't have that mental toughness built up."

When I interviewed him, Green was on a vagabond-like journey working with several teams in the NA and EU LCS. From Fnatic in Europe to Team SoloMid in North America, he worked with some of the brightest and biggest talents currently playing today. Since then, he has joined the minor league North American team Ember as their head coach, turning his successful weekly stints with teams into a full-time coaching role with a squad challenging to make it into the summer season of the NA LCS.

"When I'm with a team [in person], I get to look at their communication and training," he told me, breaking down what he did to help teams who hired him for a week. "I confront them on how they're being too nice to their teammates or too mean to their teammates, or passive aggressive instead of just aggressive or just not focused enough on their play."

With his ability to work with various teams from across the world, it's not as easy as one solution fixes all. Some teams Green had to work with are at the bottom of table and struggling to survive into the summer split, while others wouldn't be happy with anything other than first place and a championship trophy brought back to their team house.

Two of those teams were Team SoloMid, a team of all-stars put together to win another title, and the last-place Renegades, who were going through a weeks-long losing streak and slump when Green worked with them.

"Well, with TSM, you have a bunch of people who are very experienced," he said. "They've been on a lot of teams and had a lot of failures already. And they've learned through those and become pretty driven. The environment there is merciless in terms of the drive to be perfect."

When working with Renegades, Green experienced an entirely different group dynamic. "In Renegades, we have two people who are really experienced, but we also have a fresh kind of talent and fresh blood, and they need to be seasoned with years of competition before they build up the resilience to train super, super hard."

During his time with TSM, Green's main goal was to "unlock them" and have the squad be able to be more open with each other when it came to confrontation and criticism. With REN, he wanted to teach them how to "lose together instead of lose apart," wanting the team to trust one another even when the end result could end in failure. He commended Renegades on not turning on each other during their slump and trudging forward even through the losses, constant roster changes and issues with the lineup.

"I think what [teams] should add is the deep focus during training," he said. "What usually I see in houses is kind of a causal focus, then training happens and it's the same casual level of life, and then training ends and it's the same casual level of life. But in the best teams, from what I see, life is very relaxed and free, and then when work starts -- work starts and everyone goes full-on and focused [with] no mistakes forgiven. No lapses in effort are allowed by the players to themselves. They themselves are regulating that effort."

The stark deviation from Green's philosophy and the one implemented in South Korea, where they've won the past three League of Legends World Championships, is that he believes teams should be extremely free-flowing and relaxed when not practicing or scrimmaging. In Korea's premier league, LCK, some teams will steadily practice the entire day without any free time or relaxation. For some Korean teams, there isn't any fear of 'burning out' or getting tired. They'll work 14 hours, go to bed and then wake up to do it all over again in a diligent, no-nonsense fashion.

The effort that region puts in isn't seen as working harder than everyone else. To them, the rest of the competition is just lazy -- and they'll do what's necessary to stay ahead of the pack.

But what about South Korean players in other regions, like North America? "I think everybody's actions are dictated a lot by the culture of the group they're in. So when you live and exist with a Korean team, you might start acting the same way because that's the structure of their society and the structure of their organizations."

Green continued: "I have experience with sport in Japan, which is very similar style of approach to sport compared to Korea. ...The thing that I noticed was that they were much more about pursuing mastery instead of pursuing competition. So in the West, we're very driven by beating the people in front of us, and when that opponent is not there, then our motivation drops. ... But in Japan, people trained for the sake of training, to be better than they were when they woke up in the morning."

Green also spoke on the group dynamic in countries like South Korea and Japan. When you're in a team of people in those countries and are the weak link, it's seen as something shameful and becomes a sort of guilt that pushes them to practice even longer to make up for it. If a player thinks they're lagging behind the rest, they don't give up or complain of the regimen being too difficult. They do everything in their power to become a use to their group and release the guilt of being the one dragging everyone down around them.

"Let's say you put in 14 hours of effort in a day and your team loses," Green said, describing the mindset of a player taken from the machine-like environment of Korea and transitioned into the more carefree living of the West. "You train like crazy and then your team loses, and you look around you and you see your teammates, let's say, watching Hearthstone videos or something on Twitch. And you think, well, I trained an extra four hours and we didn't win. And if I don't train an extra four hours, we don't win, so maybe my effort isn't worth it because my teammates aren't doing it."

Green also believes esports won't reach its full potential until the idea of playing video games is seen and used as a way to sharpen your mind instead of a tool for purely entertainment. If schools and other youth organizations see there are games which can help kids become quicker thinkers or possess better management skills, it will allow esports as a whole to be better accepted into society.

"I think Fnatic is the closest to creating a sports environment," Green answered when I asked which teams or players had impressed him the most after working with them. "They have the mixture of trying to be focused on mastery and focused on competition at the same time."

When it came to which player he believed encompassed the capabilities of an in-game leader the best, Green had high praise for TSM's support, Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim.

"I feel like YellOwStar on TSM is really ready to develop himself," he said. "I gave him criticism on how he could be a better leader, and within 10 minutes, he was deploying that in-game and post-competition. And I didn't ask him to do something that was easy. I asked him to do something that was very hard, and he did it instantly. Not only that, he's very humble and compassionate at the same time, which I think are two necessary attributes for a leader."

From hiring cooks to prep healthy food for the team to eat, to required gym for all members of the team to keep their bodies in shape, to now having sports psychologists and similar staff members attempting to solve the mental side of the game.

Mechanical prowess might get you through the door.

Your mental fortitude, though, is what will keep you inside the house.