You’ve probably seen a million tips on the technical side of being a Counter-Strike pro. But none of that matters if you haven’t nailed the mental side of the game. If you’re not zoned in, it won’t matter how many bots you’ve just killed or how many demos you’ve watched. Technical skill, reads, and game sense are all complemented by a good mentality.
So where do you start? You don’t have a sports psychologist like a lot of pro teams; psychological books contain a lot of jargon and are just plain boring. That’s when I come in. Here are some easily digestible tips, from a CS:GO professional, on how to master the mental side of gaming.
1️⃣: Understanding the Zone
Before we begin, what actually is the Zone? According to Jared Tendler’s ‘The Mental Game of Poker’, the Zone is a “state of heightened mental functioning, awareness and concentration”. It is “predictable”, and can be “reached consistently with sufficient knowledge and the right approach”. Reaching it is all to do with breaking the Zone down into achievable goals: high energy, subconscious knowledge, and efficient data streaming. So let’s get started.
This might seem obvious, but if you have low energy - or too high, for that matter - how do you expect to reach your peak? Again, I’ll keep it simple; we’ll break it down into five easily consumable parts.
When you think of a gamer you might not think of a good diet, sleeping pattern, and exercise habits. But all three are absolutely essential for stabilising your energy at a good level. One thing I do is record my habits, then once the data is collected I try to find patterns. Living healthily is not an instant fix, you might even hit adjustment periods that make you feel worse in the short term. But long-term not only does your mentality while gaming improve, it’ll make you feel better in the outside world too.
Emotions are also key to boosting you into the Zone. Consider honeymoon periods for teams, where you can play without any emotional baggage. It isn’t just positive emotions that can boost you, though: anger is also a powerful motivating force. One thing to keep in mind here is that emotional boosts cannot become a crutch for you. If you are too emotionally driven it can override the rational part of you, making you liable to mistakes.
High motivation is one of the best ways to give yourself a boost in-game, and having specific and achievable goals is one of the best ways to get that. Everyone in esports has the same final goal - be the best team, win a major, get into HLTV’s top 20. Having an end goal this hard to achieve is fine, but it might be more helpful to have smaller goals more relevant to your own journey. And above all, enjoy your progress, be constructive to both teammates and yourself, and keep your work ethic in check.
📈Degree of Challenge
Getting into the sweet spot of being challenged but not outmatched is easier said than done. One theory that might help is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow theory”. In the chart you can see how easy it is to fall out of flow - a heavy underdog in a series might enter anxiety, or a heavy favourite slip into routine. Both scenarios are far from ideal and can lead to you dropping out of the Zone.
Being aware of these tendencies are the first step to making sure it does not apply to you. As said by Csikszentmihalyi himself, "It is not the real challenges presented by the situation that counts, but those that the person is aware of." If you feel yourself slip into anxiety or routine, it is far easier to combat when you know you’re doing this, letting you re-apply your focus.
Succeeding is as much about belief in your skill as it is about your actual skill. Over-estimating and under-estimating your skill can have similar effects, leading to poor and inconsistent performances. Understanding your level is not easy but is crucial to reaching the Zone consistently.
A key indicator that you are in the Zone is the ability to consistently make the right decision: mind games, gut instincts, or 6th senses may seem random but they can be learned. Doing so is all about unconscious learning, which has been studied enough to give us a helpful model, the Zone Learning Model (ZLM), to apply in your own games.
The first step is knowing what is right, but being unable to explain why. You understand the sheer volume of factors in your decisions, but you can’t tell a teammate what exactly led you to a decision.
This is the “oh, right!” moment; you realise why you knew what the right decision was. There are two ways to reach this quicker:
- Develop your own concepts by rewatching and discussing your demos
- Learn from other players, via videos, streams, and articles (like this one!)
By now, you’ll have done enough work to understand the concept and can begin applying it on a regular basis. But, that still requires conscious thought; it is not quite natural yet.
Competence becomes like breathing. Even when you are tired or tilted, you can still nail most in-game concepts.
Going up this model’s ladder is a pretty long process. But there are a few ways to speed it up, one of which is a game journal. This is where you gather notes, as exhaustive as you can, about anything relating to CS: your pre-game routine, how long you warmed up, how long you slept, what you ate and so on.
The bulk should be in-game actions, like explaining a good read or micro-play you had. This should be difficult, but by writing it down you are helping yourself reach a conscious state of your competence. There is no one way to have a journal - this is just what works for me - but however you format it, having one is a great way to speed up your unconscious learning.
In-game, you’ll have an endless stream of anti-strat patterns, tendencies, grenade usage tells, footsteps and many more sources of information. Absorbing all this data can be difficult, and you can overload your brain if you’re not careful. But with enough experience and by using the Zone Learning Model listed above, you can make it manageable, ensuring every bit of information is processed properly.
2️⃣: Consistently Getting into the Zone
Okay - you understand The Zone now. So the question becomes how to get there consistently. Here’s my framework:
- Create a Zone profile
- Get into a Zone routine
- Start with a Zone warm-up
- Finish with a Zone cool-down
- Make adjustments
Without further ado…
This will be your living document - the specific features that define your Zone. Initially it’ll be more of a baseline, before eventually becoming a tool that tracks your progress (so make sure you stamp a date on the document whenever you update it). Here are some questions that might help, with my answers:
A consistent routine can lead to consistent performance. This doesn’t mean it should be static; a stale routine is less effective. A routine has to have a warmup and a cooldown, but the specifics of them can change from day to day as long as the effect of the process remains the same - that’s what makes it a routine.
Warmups let you create momentum for yourself, making sure you’re ready to play at a high level from the pistol round. This is the standard warmup every FACEIT PUGger has, like playing aim_botz. But yours doesn’t have to be in-game, necessarily - a specific Spotify playlist or something as simple as making a cup of tea still counts.
If something creates ‘armour’ to deflect pressure, stress or anxiety, while separating CS:GO from everything else that might affect your life, it can count as a warmup. The final crucial aspect to a good warmup is that it should make you aware of your tactical or mental problems in-game.
Having a consistent routine after you’re finished playing should be helpful too. It might include re-watching the stream with your team, updating your journal, or just switching off your PC. Having a good cooldown is something we already see in sports, with professionals taking ice baths. In esports, too, the same benefits can be gained from reducing your energy slowly and reflecting on the game properly. A journal is again key for this, so here are six tips to cool down properly. In the process, you’ll separate yourself from the vast majority of players who do not do this efficiently.
The last part of the routine is making adjustments based on both your cooldown and what patterns emerge from your routine. If you notice you play better with 8 hours sleep rather than 6, for example, now is the time to implement that.
Finally, the process just has to be repeated. There is no secret trick or golden ticket to consistency. Like anything, it’s a process but the models and ideas in this article have helped me a lot in my career. Now, I just hope they can help you too.
That’s it! Of course, the Zone is such a big part of Sports Psychology I couldn’t cover everything here; there might be times where you fall out of the Zone, or want to prevent falling out of it by extending your stay in the Zone. Both of these are good material for future content but this should still act as a good introduction to the topic.
If you want to explore more before then, I highly recommend checking out Jared Tendler’s books, which were my primary source for this.
🎓Some of my sources
Project Stronger Self - 5 Steps To Enter The Zone | How To Get Into Flow State When Gaming-Studying-etc - YouTube
eAthlete Labs - 3 Steps to Enter a Flow State When Gaming (Science of Flow) - YouTube
Ron Rambo Kim - How to Enter Flow State When Gaming (The Zone) - YouTube