I want to talk about pressure and the impact that it has on us as players of a game. I imagine that many of you will have been in the situation where you are lying in bed thinking about a tournament or game so much that you cannot sleep. Maybe it is the night before your national championship, and you are worried if you’ve made the correct deck choices, or maybe it is the night after and you are replaying your mistakes looking for ways to do better next time. You may also never feel pressure playing games, it may just be fun for you regardless. However I think many people want to do well, are competitive, and as such feel pressure, to extremely different levels.
There are various reasons for you to feel under pressure, it may be because you are attending your first competitive event and have been practicing really hard for it. It could be because you’ve developed a reputation for being a strong player, whether that is with your group of friends or on a national or worldwide basis. It could be that you are playing top tier decks which you don’t normally play, or it may just be that you really want one of the prizes.
Regardless of what the reason is, we often put pressure on ourselves, and all the reasons are valid! What matters to me will likely not matter to many other people, but that doesn’t make it any less real or important to me. So don’t worry that you are putting yourself under pressure, its normal and it just means that you care about this game.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
There are a number of both good and bad things that can come from pressure. I think it is important that these are explored, so we can recognise them, and where appropriate try to overcome them. I’m going to start with the bad, mostly so I can end on the positive.
The problem with setting ourselves goals that we really want to achieve is that it comes with stress and worry, it can make people focus on their goals relentlessly, when actually it isn’t healthy to do so or you have more important real life things that need you attention. This is going to be a line which is very individual to everyone, but I think there are times when the best advice is just to take a step back or walk away. If a game of any kind is causing you stress, multiple sleepless nights, or impacting the rest of your life, then take a break or walk away altogether as its likely not worth it.
The thing to remember is that we play this game for fun, regardless of how competitive you are, fun is the goal, and as soon as your hobby becomes horrible and stressful or reminds you more of work than a hobby, its time to do something to address that. How you do that is up to you, people are different, but make sure you can recognise this.
One of the things I have seen most often in games where you are putting yourself under pressure is an enforcement of the rules. In most games there are obscure rules that everyone is aware of, but it’s not something that is enforced or worried about much. If you are trying to gain advantage by catching your opponent out, then you are playing the game wrong in my opinion.
Games are supposed to be fun; you are supposed to be able to have a joke with your opponent even in the top level of competition in games. In my opinion part of the fun of games is pitting yourself against your opponent and seeing who has come up with the better strategies, people who bend the rules, cheat or anything similar ruin the game.
Now some people may disagree with me here, and say that winning is all that matters, and any tactic is valid. I understand that view, but it’s not the game I want to play, and I imagine few others do. Also, if you are so focused on catching your opponent on a missed trigger or obscure ruling, then there is a good chance you are not focused enough on the game and the scenarios playing out in front of you.
When we aren’t doing well, we are likely to experience tilt, when we are putting ourselves under pressure; we are even more likely to tilt. Tilting is when you lose a game and then get stuck replaying your mistakes or your bad luck, it strips away our focus and our minds are still on previous games when it is time to play again. This is disastrous as it causes more losses and more of this focus on previous games.
Brian Holland of The Winning Agenda fame wrote much more and much more eloquently on the subject than I ever could. Suffice to say it is a serious issue when playing in tournaments and under pressure.
Finally, it is possible to become down and depressed when we fail to achieve our goals. We have put so much time, effort and focus into them, why did we not succeed? It is really hard to make suggestions on what to do to get out of this, but the important thing is recognising it.
I’d always recommend getting someone to teach you, if you want to get better, watch games online, read articles and practice with popular decks, even if it is just so you can beat them. However after whatever attempts you’ve made, the game is still a chore, still getting you down, then consider taking a break, especially from competitive events where you are more likely to feel pressure.
Some good things do come with pressure, and that is sometimes it makes you step up to the challenge. You recognise it is important to you and so you spend the time and effort practicing, learning and getting better. It is one of the greatest feelings in the world when you put effort into trying to achieve something and come away with great results. I’m sure many people have practiced for a tournament and then walked away with their first ever tournament win or high placing and felt delighted with it.
Pressure helps us be students of the game; we practice more, read articles on our game, watch games online, whatever we can do to become better.
Pressure tells us that the subject is important to us, whatever the reason that may be. This is something that matters as if we don’t admit this to ourselves then why are we investing time and money into it? This knowledge, this acceptance of what pressure means is important as it justifies our interest and also means that we realise that if we don’t achieve what we wanted to, that it matters. Pretending it doesn’t is counter productive in most cases.
There are definitely a lot more problems recognisable from being under pressure, but the reward can be a great feeling, it is up to you as an individual to figure out if it is worth it. I say that, but make sure you are looking after your team mates too, they’ll have rough times and you should be checking that they are okay even when you are riding the wave of exhilaration that comes from winning.
I wanted to share some personal experiences with you, things that I have seen or done over the years that have stayed with me, some are really positive, some definitely less so. But I’ve definitely learned from them and I make a really special effort to make sure the bad things never happen again.
A long time ago, I played Magic the Gathering for a few years. I was pretty good at it, but then again it was 15+ years ago. The event I want to talk about was during a tournament where I had made it into the elimination rounds. I had won the first game, but part way through the second game my opponent checked some of his cards not in the game which I knew he wasn’t allowed to do.
It was such a minor thing, it didn’t impact the game and I was playing against one of the local players who had been really supportive of me getting into the game, he was a friend really, even if not a very close one. I was so focused on winning that I took advantage of a small rule that really didn’t matter.
The pressure of winning, to continue to prove myself made me do a really bad thing. I realised afterwards, and donated my winnings into the team fund as an apology, but it still bothers me. I think it still bothers me so much that I did that, because I don’t want to play a game where people are like that. But I was so desperate to win, I was pressuring myself.
I also played quite a bit of a board game called Chaos in the Old World; it is a great game, one that I almost always won when playing against my friends face to face. When I started playing online, I felt like I should win, I felt pressure to be the best. I’m competitive and that’s where this comes from, but it was a good thing in this situation. I became a student of the game, I read articles, I looked through old games, I was dedicated to getting better. When online play of the game died out I was top of the leader board, it isn’t much of an accomplishment, but it felt good.
Pride can be both good and bad.
You may or may not know, but I’m pretty good at Netrunner, I think I can say that now. However, the pressure that I put on myself is pretty crazy, and it is this feeling and this worry that made me write this article.
Since coming third at the 2015 World Championship all I have thought about is what decks I am going to play during Store Championship season. I need to do well because I am good at the game; I’ve proven that, so I have to continue to win. Every practice game against my friends I have played, I’ve been thinking, that wasn’t good enough, even the games I won.
The games I lost I often spent awake at night replaying, I actually think I played fine and that I was just testing bad decks, but my brain doesn’t seem to agree. I’ve been frustrated and probably a bit off with my meta mates (sorry guys). This is all because the pressure I’m feeling to win. Hopefully this will drop off a bit as time goes on, but currently, I’m finding the need to find my next decks quite draining. It is all self inflicted, but recognising it helps.
Reputation is something that comes with success, and with this comes pressure, at least for me. Reputation is hard to achieve and even harder to maintain. It’s definitely part what drives my pursuit of improvement and victory.
After I won UK nationals in 2014, I went to the World Championships and finished 8th. But even then I felt pressure, I was the UK Champ, I was expected to do well, to represent the UK. I never got any pressure from anyone apart from myself. After Worlds I knew I wanted to go back again, it was fun and the pressure had gone, as I’d done well.
2015… I won three Store Championships and a Regional in the lead up to UK Nationals. That becomes a bench mark, and I was going to write that you get more questions when you don’t win or don’t do as well as people would expect you to. But that isn’t true; I only really got pressure from myself to do well.
UK Nationals came around and I finished 5th out of 170. I’m not going to lie. I was bitterly disappointed, I’d lost my title. The attention and recognition fell on to Alex White, who is a great player, a really nice guy and 100% deserved it. 2015 had a good number of tournaments between Nationals and Worlds, I played in a number of the Bring Another Brit to Worlds (BABW) events, winning a couple and placing second in a few more.
However the finals came around and despite making the cut as 1st seed I didn’t do as well as I had hoped in the cut and it was Alex and Tim Fowler in the final. A few weeks later the Stimhack PSI games happened, I didn’t play as I don’t generally play online, but I watched the outcome with great interest. Alex won; I was really pleased for him.
As Worlds got closer a number of things happened, Spags predicted a Brit to win worlds and quite a lot of the people agreed with him. They were talking about Alex. When we got over to Worlds in the days before most people we spoke to had Alex as the favourite to win Worlds.
The interesting thing is that I don’t think any of them were wrong, I wouldn’t have been surprised by Alex winning Worlds, he’s a phenomenal player who deserved his wins and his accolades. But all of this made me feel under a lot of pressure, while I didn’t have the focus on me from recent National or other high profile wins, I had a different type of pressure, the pressure to be on top again and if anything I found this worse.
I don’t think that I would be writing this article if it wasn’t for the fact that the pressure was relieved by finishing 3rd at Worlds. For me this sort of pressure, the pressure to win that I put myself under is probably just right. It drives me to be dedicated, and to focus, but it is probably a fine line. As I said, nothing has changed; I’m now pressuring myself to do well in 2016.
I find it quite hard to share personal experiences, it isn’t really who I am, but I’m sure everyone suffers from pressure, stress, tilt, and many other things that are related. Whether it is gaming or something totally different that triggers it for you, it’s just worth being aware of it, you can’t deal with it unless you see it.
Dave Hoyland is a panellist on The Winning Agenda and is the 2014 UK National Champion as well as a 2014/15 Worlds Top 8 competitor. He has a huge love of board games, martial arts and Anime. You can follow him on Twitter @Cerberus__d