Interview: What Street Fighters Can Learn From Sports Psychology

By on August 19, 2013 at 10:03 am

If there’s one thing practically every Shoryuken reader is interested in, it’s new tech. However, most fighting game enthusiasts hit the lab or YouTube to step up their game — not their local sports psychologist. But for devoted players, the methods and techniques of sports psychology might be just what makes the difference between champions and top eight.

Dr. Shane Murphy is the chair of the Psychology department at Western Connecticut State University, and has worked as a sports psychologist with Olympic athletes as the head of sport psychology for the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1987 to 1994. In an article published in The Sport Psychologist entitled “Video Games, Competition and Exercise: A new opportunity for Sport Psychologists?”, Murphy wrote that video games could very well be the next major frontier of study for sports psychologists — so I thought I’d talk to him to see what parallels he saw between sports and video games, and how his work might be able to cross over and benefit professional gamers.

(Photo by Kara Leung)

Patrick Miller: Dr. Murphy, tell me a little bit about your work; what does a sports psychologist do?

Shane Murphy: I’ve been a sports psychologist working with very high-level athletes (when I was with the US Olympic Committee for 8 years) to working with young athletes, youth sports, coaches…it spans a pretty wide range.

At the elite level, people are just looking for a slight edge, and a lot of the consulting we do tends to be mainly around performance. Certainly there are issues (life issues, relationship issues, financial issues) that can come up that need more of a holistic approach, because what happens off the field can affect what goes on on the field (and vice versa, as you can see with Tiger Woods).

PM: Players in competitive video games often tend to be rather young — younger than your average professional athlete, anyway. What age are the athletes you work with, and how does their age affect the way they compete?

SM: [At the Olympic Center] we had pretty young athletes, a lot of resident teens that lived there 8-9 months in a year. I’d say most of the athletes we saw were somewhere between 15-30. When I left Colorado and came to live here in Connecticut, I opened a private sports psych practice and thought, you know, in NYC, the tri-state area, most of the athletes I see will be fairly elite-level. But the majority of the consulting work I’ve done is with kids, because the pressure comes from parents who invest a lot of time and energy into their children’s sports.

Working with a 14-year-old athlete is gonna be different than working with a 30-year-old athlete, especially mentally. A lot of what goes on on the mental side of the game has to do with how we talk to ourselves, how we think about our sports, and to be honest, there’s a great advantage that young athletes have, which is that they tend not to overanalyze, and that gives them an edge where the thinking part of the brain doesn’t get in the way and they can just react.

It’s the part of themselves that says, maybe, I should be winning this, I should be more aggressive, I should be changing my strategy — all of that is playing out in the moment, when you’re supposed to perform. And in that moment, you should be focused on reacting to what’s in front of you, and athletes will always tell us that one of the things that stops that happening is that part of the brain that demands attention — that voice in the head, if you will — and the more attention you pay to that, the less you spend on processing the moment. And I think that’s an age-related thing; you tend to do more of that as you get older.

Now, with that, I think there are some advantages as you get older; you can sometimes be more skilled at being able to change directions and adapt to a new situation, and so on. There’s a little bit more wisdom, you have seen more scenarios and you have a bigger database to draw upon. But I think the young ones can just go out there and do it.

PM: You work with coaches as well, right? We haven’t really seen an established coaching role in competitive games quite yet — what do athletes gain from working with a coach?

SM: My philosophy is: if you work with ten athletes, you help ten people. If you work with ten coaches, you could help 300-400 people.

The big advantage in well-established, traditional sports that coaching gives you is that coaches have a body of knowledge and training that athletes don’t have, and they give you that critical outside look, where they can look at you honestly and say, hey, this is where you need to improve, and the good athletes take that and run with it. That’s actually one of the characteristics that separate the good athletes from the ones that make it to the top: the willingness to say, “Yeah, I do need to improve at this,” and they don’t get defensive. It’s as if they thrive on criticism.

The player’s personality is a factor, you know, the history they have, and one of our jobs is to help players deal with criticism, because people take it in different ways. This is something that younger athletes have to learn: criticism doesn’t mean negativity. If someone says, “You need to improve”, they’re not saying, “You’re bad.” They’re saying, “This is something you can do better at.” But most of the time, our natural reaction when someone says, “You’re no good at this,” is to say, “Whoa, hey, I am good.” That’s something that comes up very often. And on the same token, working with the coaches, helping them try to figure out how to reach their athletes in the most productive way, is an essential part of being a good coach.

PM: I’ve heard a lot about sports psychologists recommending players mentally visualize themselves playing their game in order to improve their performance. How does that work?

SM: It’s a great question; I’ve spent most of my career studying visualization and imagery, so that’s my area.

Our understanding of visualization is evolving; we understand now that a lot more is happening inside the brain when you perform visualization than we had previously thought. You’re preparing the motor neurons that are involved with the activity, so it’s like you’re preparing the same neural pathways you use during the actual performance. That almost certainly has to do with some of the benefits we see from visualization — almost like you’re “priming the pump.” But visualization is my favorite skill because it’s incredibly complex and versatile — one of the things that sets people apart as a species, besides language. It can be used for problem-solving in a very powerful way. There was one athlete I worked with who did whitewater kayaking; you have to go down this whitewater rapid and there’s 25 gates to go through, and they set the gates the day of the competition and only allow you onto the course for your first run — so how do you prepare a strategy, knowing what’s the best way to go from gate A to B to C? They do it with visualization; they try things in their mind, and often the person who’s best at that is going to be the winner.

PM: Think it’d work in video games, as well?

SM: I do think there’s tremendous potential for video gamers and visualization for problem-solving strategies. Think a team of WoW players looking to take down a boss as a world first, or figuring out a strategy for an FPS, figuring out ways to deal with someone who has an unusual way of attacking you. I’m sure a lot of top games athletes are using these techniques and might not even be aware of it, and we’re not asking the right questions or studying it yet.

If you are rehearsing the right things — if you are paying attention to the things that are really important for high-level performance — then that priming the pump, in theory, should make your neural pathways more efficient in the heat of battle. Some people who are looking at the game of golf, well, one of the folk pieces of advice is that you keep your head down when putting and look at the ball, but we’re finding that actually lifting your head up and looking at the target, and the ball’s path to the target, and even putting looking at the target might be more effective.

Other people are looking at research doing eye movement, using equipment to track what the eyes are actually looking at — they find that for a tennis player, the really elite athletes will look at things like their opponent’s wrist angle and the angle at which they’re holding the racket, instead of looking at the ball, because that kind of thing is probably giving them clues to the type of serve that is about to come. Even a very good player will mainly be looking at the ball; it’s only the really elite ones that have that really sophisticated database to draw upon, to look at subtle cues like wrist angle.

PM: What kind of health issues do you think might crop up as a result of a long professional gaming career? Players often compete through weekend-long tournaments and drink a lot of energy drinks; how would that affect their performance?

SM: I’ve thought about the same thing myself. I worry about elite players for things like Starcraft, how fast they have to move their wrists and fingers; you’re looking at repetitive stress injuries down the line as they get older. I’m not a sport nutritionist, but I’ve worked with some, and they would say that that’s a losing strategy, because the caffeine is only going to work for a few hours, and then you’re going to crash, and more caffeine won’t be enough to keep the mind at a higher gear.

A lot of athletes use caffeine on a regular basis; in the NHL, a lot of athletes take various cold medicines for stimulants, and it helps a little bit with pain. Caffeine was actually outlawed in a few sports (triathlons, decathlons, pentathlons) for a few years by the IOC, and people used to use caffeine suppositories and so on. But in the last few years the IOC has dropped trying to ban caffeine. I don’t think it’s banned in any sport at the moment.

PM: Wait, caffeine was banned in the Olympics?

SM: If you look at the definition of doping in the IOC, it’s “any form of ingestion of unnatural substance, or a natural substance ingested in an unnatural manner.” Athletes were taking the equivalent of 10-12 cups of coffee before they competed. Any time your body is reacting in a pumped-up way like that, your brain is reacting as well, and I think that’s where experience comes in. If you’re used to it, you know what to anticipate, you can recognize the symptoms going on. If you’re not, you might be spending a lot of your mental energy trying to deal with that racing heart, you know, or even misattributing it, thinking, “Gosh, I’m getting really nervous.”

PM: Similar to the Olympics, many competitive video games — like Street Fighter — often end up with players who are on the same training team competing against each other. How does that affect a player’s training and performance?

SM: Sports like the Olympics, you might have people training in the same gym, with the same coach, that end up in the top four for the final spot in the Olympic team, and you’ll be going up against people you’ve trained with for four or five years for that last spot.

Some people do it better than others. I think a lot of athletes say that the advantage is that if you’re training with the best, you know, you’re pushing each other to be better, and there’s nothing that can beat that. There are some great stories during the years I was with the Olympics from, you know, rowing, they’d be coming up against their training partners of the last four years in the Olympic final — one would get the gold medal and one would get the silver — and the person who got the silver would say, “Well, it’s okay because I fully acknowledge that they were better than me on that day, and we have been pushing each other to get to that spot for the last five or six years.”

But, having said that, humans are humans, and there are some people who have a little bit of a harder time with that, and facing someone you know can be problematic, because there can get to be some animosity there, and personal background and relationships can get involved. It can go either way.