Monday, September 28, 2009

Emotional Control, Part 1: Anger

Maybe it's weird for me of all people to be writing about this subject.  I've had emotional control issues in every part of my life for years now.  Rage, depression, you name it and I've probably had to deal with it.  It might actually be more accurate to say that I have not been dealing with it.  At least not very well.

Until recently, I more or less ran into the same mental and emotional walls while I played.  It was not until around this March that I finally stopped to ask myself questions that needed answering and made some improvement.

Maybe this does make me qualified?  Either way, I hope this helps give other players some perspective.  Like everything else in this game, I also hope you can find ways to translate them into other areas of your life.  If you don't have trouble with controlling your emotions, this whole thing will probably seem like a no-brainer.  If you do have problems with emotional control like I do, then maybe this will help you out.

For better or worse, there are a lot of personal anecdotes and viewpoints in here.  This writing is based on my experiences, and perhaps they differ utterly from yours.  I can only really write what I know, and what I know best are my own emotions and reactions.

Like most of what I write, this is split up into two parts: anger and depression.

For starters, let's talk about the emotion I'm somewhat famous for: anger.  I've ragequit, thrown controllers (and other stuff), punched/kicked/headbutted walls (and other stuff), stormed out of venues, and so on.  I'd say the culmination of all this happened at Mango Juice earlier this year when, after getting obliterated by Silent Spectre, I did all of the above.

So... anger.  One thing I've noticed about it is this: you aren't just "angry."  You have a lot of emotions, thoughts, attitudes and experiences combining and boiling inside of you.  With the right catalyst, they become a singular, explosive emotion.

Let's take a look at my most explosive outburst.  I was just about to get 3-stocked.  I was in front of a big crowd of people, almost none of whom were cheering for me.  It happened at the tail-end of a long and arduous tournament day, so I was tired; I'd also just made a long trek through loser's bracket after getting stomped on by Zhu (something I also didn't take well).

And then there was my mental state.  First off, I put a  tremendous amount of pride and ego into the match.  Even though I was thinking to myself before the match, "I'm probably going to lose," my mind wasn't prepared to accept that happening, let alone getting 3-stocked.  I've built a lot of my identity around being a high-level smash player.  I had just screwed up an infinite, my trademark move.  A large crowd of people was watching me get reamed.  I was the last Arizona player in the bracket and felt like I had to represent my state.  I had to represent myself and show people I was a good player.

Every mistake I made was like an insult to myself as a player.  When I screwed up an L-cancel or wavedash, it felt like I'd wasted the previous four and a half years of practice and dedication to the game.  When I botched my infinite, I wasn't only thinking about the stock I failed to take, but the fact that I screwed up something I can do--and actually *have done*--blindfolded.  It peaked when I did an empty short-hop by mistake (to this day I can remember spazzing out and missing the buttons I intended to hit) and SS landed a knee in my face.  That was the point I quit the game and flung my controller at the wall, then stormed outside.

Not to mention, I was tired.  Managing tournament fatigue is an important part of playing well and placing highly, and I had been doing a very poor job of it.  I'd also had *two* emotional outbursts earlier, one after a loss in 2v2 winner's bracket and another after losing to Zhu in singles.  Two large outbursts of emotion, a long day... my brain was exhausted.  And after that match, assuming I won, I would have to play Zhu--and repeat the same ordeal--and if I somehow won that I'd play Mango, and if through some crazy miracle I beat him in one set, I'd have to do it again.

To top it all off, I'd been looking forward to the tournament for months and now I was--in my mind--completely ruining it (you know, ignore the fact that I'd already made it to fourth place among some of the west coast's toughest competition, and the two people who eliminated me are both really flipping good players).

Mentally speaking, I did not prepare myself to play that match at all.  I psyched myself out, so I wasn't prepared to win and keep playing.  I invested my pride and ego in the match, so I wasn't able to deal with losing.  There was no way for me to come out of this situation feeling good, and the hole I dug for myself got deeper and deeper.

Here are the two main points I want to make by describing that experience.  First, anger is a combination of a lot of different things.  If you don't want to get angry, you have to be aware of the things causing your anger and manage them.  You can't magically decide "I won't be angry," because anger doesn't just magically happen.  It's the natural result of a chain of thoughts, feelings, and events, so you have to catch it in advance.  If you *do* start getting angry, remove yourself from the situation ASAP before your rage gets the better of you.

The second point I want to make is that every factor contributing to my anger, except for the fact that it was late at night when I played the match, I inflicted upon myself.  I decided that I absolutely had to win that match or I'd look like a fool.  I decided that making mistakes was an insult to myself as a player.  I decided that losing would be unacceptable, that if I won I'd have to play matches I didn't want to play, that I wanted to be anywhere but in the chair I was sitting in, and so on and so forth endlessly.  Having decided all that, it was inevitable that I would become angry with the way things turned out.  However, I didn't need to make those decisions in the first place.  So you can't suddenly put the brakes on your anger, but you *can* decide how you react to what causes it.  That, in turn, keeps the anger from ever occurring.

So more or less, I did it to myself.  What's funny is that if I hadn't been so bent on winning and playing perfectly, I wouldn't have become so angry.  I probably would have played a lot better, maybe even to the point of winning.

It's surprisingly Zen.  You have to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time.  Giving everything you have to win and pushing towards perfection, yet being content with losing and making mistakes.  To get what you want, you have to stop wanting it so badly in the first place.  To avoid being angry so you can play well and win, you have to decide that playing well and winning isn't as important as remaining calm.

This, I think, is the key.  However, you can't focus on keeping calm without knowing what will keep you from doing so.  Let's look at what factors can lead to anger, and what we can do to control those factors and hopefully keep anger in check.


I believe that pride is one of the main roots of anger.  I'm not talking about positive aspects of pride, like integrity and honor.  What I'm talking about is self-importance, ego, and lack of humility.

When you have too much pride and someone or something challenges it, it's very easy to beome angry.  When you're proud of something you've accomplished and somebody else says that achievement was worthless, it probably upsets you.  If you have a positive view of yourself and something happens to turn it upside down, it probably hurts.

Personally, I've developed a lot of pride in myself as a Smash player.  It makes me feel fantastic to say that I may be one of the best ICs in the world.  I can say that I know way more about this game than most people, that I know more about the Ice Climbers than almost anybody.  Weird as it sounds, because I've learned so much about Nana's AI and weird behaviors, it feels like I know her as a person.  I've invested a lot into this game, and integrated it into my self-image  When things start challenging and contradicting that self-image, it hurts me, because this is an important part of my identity.

So what's the solution?  I think it's pretty simple: abandon pride.  What good does it do you?  It can help you push yourself further, but it can also hold you back.  More often than not, pride blinds you to things that are actually happening around you.  You can't accept the things that challenge your pride, and being unable to accept them (even when they're true) easily leads to anger.

Or if abandoning pride seems impossible, change the things you take pride in.  I've started to put my emphasis on how I feel and think during tournaments rather than how I perform.  For most of my career so far, I've entered matches wanting to play at my peak, wanting to win, wanting to be the best.  In recent tournaments, however, my emphasis has been on the following things: keeping calm, being a good sport whether I win or lose, maintaining a positive attitude, never getting discouraged, never quitting a match out of despair, and having fun with a game I love.  If I can achieve those, then I can take pride in my time at the tournament, even if I've taken last place.

Funnily enough, since I started doing that, I've been playing better and better.  When I'm playing poorly and getting angry, I start asking myself questions: "why do I want to win so badly?" I want to be good at the game, but getting pissed doesn't make me any better--it usually makes me worse.  "What's the worst that happens if I lose?" Maybe I'll get eliminated from a tournament, but at least I can have fun in the mean time.  If I enjoy the time I spend doing what I'm doing, then the time was fulfilling regardless of the outcome.  "Who cares if I make a bunch of dumb errors?"  Maybe I look stupid, but it's better than looking like a sore loser and getting angry over a bad performance.  If I laugh at my mistakes, I can even turn a bad performance into something enjoyable.  And then I remember that even players like M2K in his prime would make technical errors; thinking that, I can't honestly feel that mad about my own.

What's most important here is that even when things around me are outside my control, *I* can choose how I view them and how I react to them.  If I keep these things in mind, I don't think it's even possible for me to get angry at all.  However, if I let them get out of control, anger isn't an emotion I'll just be able to shut off.

In all honesty though, I still haven't gotten rid of my pride, but I think I've channeled it somewhere more useful.  I'm proud of the new player I'm becoming, and if something challenges or contradicts that pride, I can use it as a guide for my own improvement.  I recommend others do the same.


Denial, it seems to me, is another part of anger.  When things don't go our way, sometimes we deny their legitimacy.  Because we can't accept that the problem exists, we can't fix it.  It's nice, cliched, and stolen from the twelve-step method for fighting addiction, but that doesn't make it less true.

Let's say that you believe you are the best player in the world, and then you lose.  There is now a contradiction between your view and reality.  There are several possible responses:

--Claim that the other players aren't really better than you.  They clearly just got lucky, or they were playing cheaply or unfairly.  You're still the better player.
--Blame your loss on something like a controller malfunction, or an unfair counter-matchup, or that you just got over the swine flu, or that it was raining and made your amputated leg ache, or that your mommy didn't hug you that day.  You're still the better player.
--Accept that you lost, and use your loss as motivation to practice.
--Accept that you lost, and decide that being the best isn't as important as having fun.
--Other stuff.

In the first two cases, it's easy to imagine somebody getting angry in those situations.  The world is not how they thought it was; they've been humbled in front of other people and can't accept the disgrace of losing.

Of course, maybe your controller DID break or you caught SARS right before your match or something.  The point here is not to say "you are always completely 100% to blame for a loss" but for you to honestly acknowledge the source of your defeat.

Often when I'm angry, I start muttering things to myself like "I'm better than this" or "I should be better than this," and, internally, I begin fighting reality.

It's not just Smash.  Most people have a tough time accepting hard truths about themselves and the situations around them.  People justify and rationalize their own shortcomings and failings because they really don't want to admit certain facts.  It's part pride, and part denial.

In place of denial, you want honesty.  You need to honestly assess the causes of your loss before you can change them.  It's not helpful to say "he picked a gay stage" and pretend that you, not your opponent, is superior.  Instead, you have to say, "I was not prepared to win on that stage," and practice it so it will never be a factor again.  Don't deny that you weren't ready, and you will help eliminate your anger.  You also give yourself a clear plan for improvement.  With that in your mind, you won't even have room to be angry; you'll have a positive goal instead.

Outside Factors

There's a lot of stuff going on in your head at all times.  Sometimes you're hungry, tired, sick, cold, hot, whatever, and it's throwing you off balance.  Sometimes you're worrying about a job you lost, or a fight you had with a friend.  I've gone into tournaments worrying about sick relatives on more than one occasion.  Sometimes you hate the person you're playing against and want very badly to beat them.  Maybe somebody is talking trash about your region, or your friend, or your mother, or your Hello Kitty backpack.  Maybe everything just seems to be going wrong; your car breaks down on the way to the venue, and when you get out to see why, a truck splashes you with mud, and then when you get to the venue you find you forgot your controller and during one of your matches a power surge resets your Gamecube....

These things originate outside of you.  Though you can try to have some influence on these environmental factors, you can't possibly control them all. The only thing you can do is decide how you will react to the things happening around you.  Here are some questions I've come up with to keep myself from getting into out of control rage at external factors.

--Does it actually matter?  If it doesn't, I do my best to ignore it.  If it does, I move on to the next question.
--Am I somehow able to deal with it?  If no, then I just accept it and move on.  You'd be surprised how easy it is not to get angry at something if you just acknowledge its existence.  If you *can* deal with it, however...
--What's the best way to deal with it?  When I ask this, my mental energy gets transferred to solving the problem rather than raging at it.

Steadily eliminate the factors that can cause you stress and anger, and the anger will never become an issue.

I hope this helps.  The next section will be about anger's close relative, depression.  See you next time.

* *

Below is a write-up from last weekend's tournament, so check that out too!



  1. I have issues that I might categorize as pride. It's not so much that I have a big ego; if anything I lack self-confidence, but I have really high expectations for myself and I feel terrible whenever I feel like I'm not playing my best. That probably has more to do with your next post, though.

    I also always intentionally set goals that I don't think are realistic in an effort to not become complacent with my skill level, but I think this is contributing to my emotional unease during and after tourneys, so I think I'll abandon that habit. I realy like your goals about remaining calm and controlling your nerves.

    I think the concentration section in your other post is somewhat relevant to the outside factors section here. Sometimes I'll get excited about something not explicitly related to what's happening in the match, which hurts my focus. Yesterday, I actually remember thinking in my 3rd round against Lucky "Hey, I have a lead. It would be so cool if I beat Lucky after he beat Wobbles!", and then he naired me a lot and I SD'd at a low percentage. I'm really bad at preventing myself from feeling like this and I'm often thinking about the outcome of a match rather than what's actually happening in the match as it's going on; I've had this problem ever since I started going to tourneys and have been unable to fix it despite my efforts. Will you be addressing this sort of issue in one of your later posts?

    Thanks for writing this series, btw. I'm sure all the ICs appreciate it.

  2. Well, I wanted to write a third section on focus, but... it's something I still don't really understand and I'm not qualified to write about.

    I'd say that 99% of the time during my matches, I'm thinking about things that aren't explicitly match-related. I've only had one time in my life where I understood what it meant to be truly focused on something. Unfortunately, I only understand it as a feeling, not a method :( Some people have amazing focus and it's something I personally have to gain as well, so... I would LOVE to write about it if I could, but I don't think I can.

  3. a lot more people than ICs appreciate this blog :D

    Personally, I've never had a huge problem controlling anger or depression; my biggest mental weakness comes from getting tangled up in expectations.

    Thanks for coming to socal last week, even though I would've liked to play you more and talk some smash philosophy =\.

    Anyway, good work on the writing. In every post, it's been both entertaining to get a glimpse of you as a player and informative to hear your theories on smash (which I all agree with =] ). Keep it up! And hopefully we can play again soon.

    -Joe (replicate)

    P.S. Was I that fox in the mms?

  4. Jeez, you make me want to play Melee again. :)

  5. It's eerie how many of your problems match mine. I'm working to get over them, and this blog helps a lot.