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.
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:
My colleague Seth Killian expressed these ideas terrifically in an article about Street Fighter tournaments, reprinted here: