When it comes to esports and mental health, one of the most common terms is mindset. Players, coaching staff, and the community itself often refer to it as fundamental to better performance. But what does this word really mean?

To develop this idea, you first need to think about some characteristics of athletes in the sport. For example, a professional player is not someone who plays with the same motivation as a casual player, i.e. the game, in this case, becomes an occupation or a career option, which means that the relationship with the playing activity itself transforms.

 There is a need for training, practice and balance between one’s physical and mental health. Moreover, since the game is tied to a “financial life,” it is clear that there is a change in engagement, and the motives change.

 Some studies attempt to examine the motivations of players. In particular, an academic research by Peter Vorderer of the University of Mannheim shows that two aspects are fundamental when it comes to motivation to play: interactivity and competition.

 The first is related to the opportunity to communicate and cooperate with other players in the online environment; already the competition is the mechanism by which the players are able to compare themselves to the others.

 Few studies have so far sought to investigate the motivations of professional players, but it seems striking that competitive motivation, in the case of these sportsmen, is one of the main factors of engagement. A recent research by Yuri Seo of the University of Auckland sought to ascertain the elements of the sport that make pro player career attractive; the reasons why players want to pursue this career opportunity and how players progress to transform their identity in order to acquire a professional identity.

In this investigation, players revealed that the main elements that attracted them to this career were: a “celebration” of mastery of their individual abilities, search for self-promotion and the importance of justice, fairness and mutual respect. In the latter case, they referred mainly to the formal institutional rules and the norms and codes proposed within the esports infrastructure.

However, a more recent research titled “An Exploration of Mental Skills Among Competitive League of Legend Players” by researchers from the University of Denver has identified some of the skills and mental techniques used by athletes in achieving “ideal” performance in highly competitive gaming environments. Nonetheless, the researchers also investigated barriers to performing well.

Firstly, they noted that to get a good performance, players need to: have knowledge about the game; think strategically, make quick and intelligent decisions; be motivated to move on, which indicates avoiding thinking about past performances; be able to separate personal life from professional life; avoid distractions and maintain focus; dealing adaptively with harassment; maintaining a growth mindset (positive attitude); warm up physically and / or mentally before the performance. Other factors have also been marked as the ability to adapt to opponents, communicate adequately with teammates and rely on their abilities.

In addition, they must be able to develop themselves and their staff (i.e., they must engage to improve their skills, analyze their own performance) and define various types of goals (short term, long term and the process itself). Regarding performance barriers, some were identified as confidentiality issues, inadequate coping strategies for anxiety, past achievements and mistakes, harassment, lack of personal and team development (e.g. knowledge about the game, team dynamics, communication, individual skills), difficulty in separating personal life from the career.

All of these aspects are related to what the community has referred to as “mindset”.

For Natália Zakalski, the psychologist for the Brazilian League of Legends powerhouse CNB, mindset is “a set of attitudes both inside and out. That is, to prepare for the game, to train and to play in itself, demand an adequate mindset, a mindset prepared to face whatever it is.”

For her, for excellence in the game, whether in esports or in traditional sports, one must prepare the mind for each moment: “The moment of training requires concentration and focus on learning, so the mentality for this moment is different, it must prepare the mind to meet these demands.”

“Already in the context before a decisive match, the mentality should be focused on levels of activation and anxiety, so that these are at optimal level and can have high performance,” Zakalski added. “During the game, one turns to the need for concentration and focus, but together, there must be a level of anxiety and activation that leads to action and decision-making, as previously said, for high performance.”

Natália also emphasizes that mindset does not fit only in a specific context, but in a global way: “To look for attitudes of preparation and action within the mental spectrum, is also to seek a mindset, but a mindset within a larger context, which will dictate the attitudes of everyday life. This is intrinsically linked to the motivation of the individual who acts. Therefore, someone who seeks to improve mentally, seeking to activate their mentality for the right moments, with the right feelings and the right thoughts, is structuring a mindset not only for the game but for their everyday life. “

Another point addressed was the issue of depression in professional gamers, which is something that is fundamentally linked to motivation and mentality.

Zakalski tells of one of her players, Gustavo “Baiano” Gomes, who recently announced that he would not play the League of Legends Super League with CNB due to the diagnosis of depression.

The topic got more attention than usual after it was reported that Brandon “Saintvicious” DiMarco, head coach of North America’s FlyQuest, has resigned after angry reactions to his comments about the depression.

He described depression, anxiety, and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) as “fabricated nonsense.” He later issued an apology stating, “I was surprised to realize how uninformed I was about mental health, especially since it’s an important part of my coaching responsibilities.”

Considering this context, Zakalski commented: “The sport is very new and here in Brazil, we are very raw yet. In Korea there are trainers who have really studied to handle these situations. Already here everything is very new, it is difficult to find someone who is trained to be a coach. We have studied a lot about the role of the trainer within the athlete’s performance.”

“The role of the coach is very important. We have studied a theory called Self-Determination Theory. This theory says that the coach provides elements that favor self-esteem, the athlete’s autonomy — thus better preparing the athlete to deal with these pressures,” Zakalski explains. “Here the coach still does not play as strong a role as in traditional sports, but this is getting more and more professionalized and coaches are learning more and more. But you still lack the ability to deal with it.”

Even so about the role of coaches in their relationship with athletes, she added, “I’m trying to apply a model that is proven to work in traditional sports to see if it works in esports. Within this theory I study, if a coach fosters athlete autonomy, he contributes to the development of a smarter athlete in terms of technique and tactics, as well as the player’s commitment to practice and good social relationships. They need to feel safe, welcomed and connected in the environment they are. If there is no such connection, especially in LoL, where the boys live in a house, away from the family, with unknown people, of course they would miss their family.”

“The environment created within this house has a very strong impact on the athlete’s emotional processes, and this element is key to the quality of the sports involvement of these athletes. So sometimes we think it’s the player who needs the therapy, but it’s often the coaches themselves and staff members. It is common to see non-player members of the team who do not want to attend therapy sessions because they think only players need it. Coaches need guidance on how to handle it, because that makes a huge difference. The idea of my studies is to understand better the function of this environment created by the coach, the environment that they are inserted.”

Finally, about the elements that would be linked to this distance from the players, she added: “The environment they are inserted makes all the difference in this. So sometimes the problem is not even something like ‘let’s treat that particular athlete with therapy, bring psychologist’, sometimes it’s not that. I strongly believe that the environment is important and has a very strong impact on these emotional processes, being the key to the quality of their income. We already have surveys that show that when coaches act in a controlling and authoritarian, coercive way there is a very high probability of failure. In short, the coach is primarily responsible for the performance of his athletes, the influence he has on the actions and decisions taken is very great. It’s also no use just treating the player and not looking at the environment in which he lives.”

It is of paramount importance that the teams within the esports have adequate psychological support that is able to contribute to all members, not only to the players. Above all, further research is needed in this particular area so that it is possible to delve into the reality of esports psychology.

It is essential to recognize the importance of the environment in this process, which is a key factor in the team’s future success as well as the wellbeing of their players.

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