Sun Tzu speaks about the strict discipline of soldiers in a number of his chapters. He explains that a clear and enforced system of penalties and rewards is imperative in the military. In the chaos of battle, men are put under immense strain both physically and emotionally, and in order for them to survive and for the greater purpose to be served, they must reflexively follow orders. The officers must trust the men to carry out orders and the men must trust the officers to issue good orders. Likewise, you must be able to trust your body to carry out your mind’s orders.
In the chaos of battle, you will only be able to execute difficult maneuvers if they have become second nature and practiced by rote. The more moves and sequences that can be incorporated into your muscle memory, the more attention you can pay to the strategic tasks at hand, rather than being distracted by the mechanics of execution. This applies more to some games than others, of course. Players of tennis or fighting games need to heed this advice more than players of chess or the card game Magic.
The moment you have to think about juggling is the moment you drop the balls.
—Old juggling proverb
Some players have far more aptitude for discipline in execution than others. I’m not sure whether all players have the potential to reach the same level of precision, but some players require radically less practice to get there. Some would call this “skill.” Beware that “skill” takes many forms and this is only one, and not even the most important one, though it does rank highly. The primary skills of competitive games—the ability to know the mind of the opponent and the relative value of pieces in a game—are elusive. It’s hard to even detect these skills in others when they are occurring right in front of your face. But skill at execution is clear to all. Either a player can flawlessly execute a difficult series of moves or he cannot. Because of the ease of identifying this type of skill, I think it receives a bit too much emphasis, and I say that not just because I am notoriously lacking at it.
Execution is so important (beyond the obvious reasons) because it’s more of a sustainable advantage than knowledge. In today’s world, information flow about game tactics is very high, so new “secrets” do not remain secret long. The players who are best at execution—the “technicians”—will refine these innovations and improve upon them. Gaining knowledge is significantly easier than gaining more skill at execution—an endeavor that can take years of muscle memory conditioning.
Discipline is more than just skill at execution. There is also mental discipline: the ability to stay focused and conserve your limited resources of concentration, tenacity, alertness, and physical strength. Physical discipline is a factor, as it can determine how much endurance or alertness you have to work with in the first place, but mental discipline is what lets you stretch your resources as far as possible. You must create a situation for yourself that allows you to be just as fanatical about winning at the end of a tournament as at the beginning.
Chess master and author Edward Lasker had this to say about chess tournaments in his book Chess for Fun and Chess for Blood:
I do not think there is any other mental strain comparable to the exertion to which a tournament game subjects the Chess master. Working at what seemed to me the most difficult mathematical problems has never exhausted me nearly as much as playing in a Chess tournament; and of all intellectual applications mathematical work is surely the hardest. That is why physical fitness is a most important factor in tournament Chess and why young players, whose brains can stand the poisons of fatigue much longer than those of older players, have a great advantage.
My colleague Seth Killian expressed these ideas terrifically in an article about Street Fighter tournaments, reprinted here:
Winning a tournament requires more than just strategy and execution. It requires being able to look past all the distractions. It requires being able to grit your teeth and come back from what looks like an insurmountable lead. It’s being able to consistently stay on top of your game, and face down the best players in the country, and that takes mental toughness. In analyzing what tournaments (rather than just “winning”) require, this is almost invariably overlooked by scrubs—it’s not something that you can “see” on a video, and it’s often the missing ingredient that keeps otherwise excellent players from having any real shot at winning when it counts. Maintaining your focus is essential. Here are a few of the most common pitfalls:
That “Not So Fresh” Feeling
Tournaments (if you’re not planning on losing early, and retiring to the fabulous snack bar) are almost tailor-made to sap your strength. You’re in an arcade. You’re tense. Everyone else there is tense. The music is loud. The lights are annoying. People smell. And you’re there for between ten and fifteen hours straight, usually eating highly crappy food (or none at all), subsisting on sugar-water.
Every hardcore player has, at some point, felt that deep sense of burnout you get from playing a little (or a lot) too long. It’s the Street Fighter equivalent of futilely reading the same sentence over and over again after studying too much. You slip into a minor coma, unable to do anything but the same stupid, ineffective thing you did two seconds before (“I know! I’ll throw another fireball!” . . . eats vicious super-move as opponent reads him like a large-print book for the elderly). This is actually a non-minor problem for a lot of intermediate players—when you miss a certain move (especially fireballs), you’re seized by the urge to “prove” (to yourself? to anyone watching? god knows . . .) that you CAN do the move (as if anyone really doubted it), and you jump at the first opportunity to do it. It’s like you’ve got some ridiculous “rep” that you have to “defend” (your rep as a player so good, he’s actually able to do the fireball motion on command!). So you go for a fireball, and get a standing fierce or whatever—you’d be AMAZED at how many otherwise smart, competent players will IMMEDIATELY try ANOTHER fireball. It’s as though they’ve deviated from the mental script they had of how the match was supposed to look, and can’t proceed until they get that part “right” (the part where they were supposed to throw a fireball). I can’t tell you how many free jump-in combos just looking for this has netted me over the years. If you thought about it for even half a second, you’d realize this was a dumb play, but that’s exactly what you don’t do when you’re burned out.
This may sound stupid to the uninitiated, but over the course of a tournament, not having been forced to think about your early-round wins can be a big advantage as you progress. If you don’t have to think to win, you can stay loose, and fresh. Mental fatigue is a very real, though often overlooked danger. A lot of people actually tend to play WORSE after they’ve advanced to semi-finals and beyond because of this (another reason that tournament footage isn’t always the stellar display you might expect—people are burned out—they’ve been there for 10+ stress-filled hours).
Here’s one way to help alleviate the fatigue: develop a basic technique for winning. Against players who aren’t capable of overcoming your little algorithm, you can virtually play on autopilot. Beating someone “out of your book” is usually done most easily with fireball characters (a perennial choice of strong players), but can be done in lots of ways. If you can implement a simple, effective technique like this, weak early-round opponents will spend all their time worrying about just getting past that (dodging your fireball barrage, or looking for an effective anti-air to stop your Zangief from jumping in for the 43rd time in a row). They’re vastly more likely to do something stupid just trying to get into position to actually attack your character (which is the only thing that counts). This is very nice, if you can manage it.
Please note: if you are a scrub, this technique is not for you. It requires not only having a gameplan but also having a secondary, simpler (yet still effective) gameplan. Some people use different characters to accomplish this earlier on. This not only lets you play on “autopilot” but also hides the best techniques of your main (“bidness”) characters until necessary. It’s also a perfect example of why you don’t necessarily want to be flashy. If you want to win “by any means necessary,” you first have to realize exactly what IS necessary. If you have some stupid pattern that’s killing the opponent, don’t bother doing anything else (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”). This also has the added bonus of driving people absolutely nuts. Someone getting beat by a single, repetitive tactic usually gets really angry and short circuits, causing them to play even worse, making more mistakes, getting angrier, and so on. A vicious spiral.
Not only does this help you to preserve brainpower, it also minimizes the chances of anything “traumatic” happening that might haunt you later. This is another major pitfall for players at every level: getting stuck in the past. They get hung up on something that’s already happened, mentally focusing on it, instead of the match at hand (“How could I have been so stupid?”). Bad idea. You’re taking a mistake (which is already bad) and making it even worse by focusing on it. This is not going to help you, and no one else is impressed by your willingness to yell at yourself. For instance, when I’m playing against Ken or Ryu as Chun Li (always a challenging fight), and I finally bait them into throwing a fireball when I have super charged and ready, NOTHING frustrates me more than missing it. They’ve handed me the round on a platter, and I didn’t take it. In cases where this has happened, even if the match is still close, I used to almost always throw it away entirely, disgusted with myself, feeling like “If I can’t even super through a fireball, I don’t deserve to win anyway.” Dumb. The same thing goes for when you pull some lucky win out of your butt. Don’t sit around punishing yourself for not having earned it (“I only won because he missed his dragon punch”). If you believe you don’t “deserve” to have advanced, you’re likely to prove it by losing the next match, stuck in the past. Best play is to laugh it off, thank/curse the deity of your choice, and move on. Luck (or the simple failure of your opponent to execute) is a real part of every tournament. Be happy when it goes your way.
The Future is Now
Stuck in the past is not where you want to be. Where else don’t you want to be? Major pitfall #3: Worrying about the future. While this probably isn’t something that you’d think about if you’ve never been to a tournament, once you’re there, it’s easy to get preoccupied.
Not worrying about the future means not fretting about which bracket you’re in, with who (something people seem to obsess over when they get there, and always a major cause of traffic around the organizing table). This will help avoid fruitless focus on the enormity of your task. If Luke had stopped to think about what he was really up against, he never would have left Tatooine. Sure, you may be freaked that Dominator#47 is in your bracket, but if you spend energy worrying about it, you’re handing him a big advantage before the match even starts. Lots of people psych themselves completely out. While it’s true that these players have their reputations for good reasons, it isn’t true that they’ve got some kind of magic powers, or are going to pull out some secret move that kills you instantaneously (actually, even if that were true, worrying about it would still only make things worse). Concentrate on the match you’re playing, and beyond that, your next opponent at most. If you’re new to tournaments, or are merely guilty of the sin of not knowing every player’s history and profile, it may be worth your time to ask around a little. Knowing that Scrub#212 plays Ken, Ken, and nothing but Ken may be very helpful, especially when choosing your initial character. Advanced Tip #2: Try to have (at least potentially) alternate characters/teams—avoid being a one-trick pony, unless you are a mighty, terrifying, Pony of Death. This will prevent your opponent from being able to select a character who they wouldn’t have otherwise picked, but who beats your only guy (or team) “for free.”
Matchups aside, however, you should always (almost always, anyway) pick the characters you’re most comfortable with. I didn’t start playing Chun Li because I thought she was #1 (she isn’t even close)—I picked her because I felt comfortable with her. Even if it may open you up to a slight mismatch, you want maximum execution, and playing with “your” character is the easiest way to make that happen. Don’t rely on someone else’s “rankings” to decide your teams for you. Just because the theorists on www.shoryuken.com have decided that “X beats Y” doesn’t mean you can’t win (note: this does not mean I think rankings are worthless—quite the contrary. It’s just pointing out that rankings assume evenly matched players, playing at full capacity, which is (obviously) not what you get in every tournament match. Duh.). Playing “your” character also vastly decreases your chance of being paralyzed when you’re put into unfamiliar situations—something that top players are good at doing to you. You don’t want to have to stop and think about which technique is going to get you out of this one; you want to know reflexively, automatically. The hesitation that anything else brings on will cost you.
To maintain mental toughness, you want to stay fresh, be in the moment, and stick with what you know. Focus on your match, and you can hold on to the motivation required to win.
—Seth “s-kill” Killian