Meditation, Smash, and Just Getting Started

"Did he really just meditate?"

D1's flabbergasted stutter finally arrived at the words many of us were too dumbfounded to express. It was one of the most exciting match rebuttals anyone had ever seen and we wanted to know how Armada did it.

Leffen looked unstoppable. From his earlier set in Winner's Bracket at B.E.A.S.T. 5, to his dominating performance over the course of that same tournament's Grand Final's set, Leffen systematically broke down Armada's Peach. For Leffen, it was the equivalent of a competitive Smash Bros. thesis statement—the culmination of years of grinding and research that would finally cement his graduation to world-class threat. For Armada, it was a reality check.

"I lost in Winner's Semi-finals and now I was also down 2-1 in Grand Finals, I had to win twice in a row." Armada said to me, almost a year ago. "I knew the stakes were high, winning was the only option from here on."

So, he pauses.

And after 1 minute of very little movement, aside from a few gentle sways and visible breathing, Armada picks up his controller and signals for the next match to begin.

Armada (Peach) vs Leffen (Fox) - B.E.A.S.T. 5 Grand Finals

One stock. Two stocks. Three stocks. Really? He's about to do this? Four stocks.

In a scenario that would have completely demoralized lesser players to the point of flopping over and letting the set go to the person controlling the momentum, Armada reversed his fortune.

At the time, D1 asked "Did he really just meditate?"

Later, Armada would describe the moment leading up to his four stock. "At first it was about taking it easy, deep breaths and closing my eyes."

Yes, he did just meditate.

The Meta-tation

The idea that meditating will help your mentality within competitive Smash is not new. Wobbles covered mindfulness in his blog, PPMD has attributed some of his success to meditation in many of his interviews, and yesterday 12Yan_drug posted on /r/ssbm a cognitive behavioral approach to improving your mental game that provides an analytical alternative to mindfulness, or meditative, habits.

The time of scoffing at meditation as some kind of spiritual practice or trendy self-helper fad is quickly coming to an end. There is active scientific research dedicated to understanding the neurological effects of meditation on the brain. A growing body of evidence suggests that meditation may help with the following:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Pain
  • Emotional Regulation
  • Introspection
  • Motivation
  • Focus

And in his interview for ESPN Esports, it was PPMD that said, "I tend to increase my meditation times closer to events because meditation calms the mind and focuses it, clearing out nerves and allowing for pure focus on the game."

In the highly competitive esports-era of Smash, where players endlessly dig at and scour through logs of frame data and player VODs to gain whatever edge they can over the competition, the popular meta-trend, exemplified by players such as Leffen, is to play optimally. For many, "optimal play" means frame-perfect 20XX execution and high-reward punishes.

But for a growing contingent of smashers, "optimal play" begins with "optimal mental health" and a mindful approach to the game. The type of play exhibited by your Armadas, PPMDs, and Mangos.

Project: Mindfulness

Meditation is a loaded word that covers a variety of different methods and philosophies. The most practical methodologies, as they apply to Smash, is to develop mindfulness through simple breathing meditation.

Mindfulness, to paraphrase Jon Kabat-Zinn's definition, is "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally." This means that I would actively pay attention to my thoughts and actions as they are happening, without labeling them as "good" or "bad".

As it applies to Smash, "mindfulness" is the opposite of playing the game on auto-pilot. You're aware of your strategies, your movement, and every other aspect of the current game without worrying about whether or not you're winning or losing. You're simply playing the game and focusing on the game.

For all competitors, this type of active playing should be the ideal. Auto-piloting can prevent players from: DI'ing effectively, attempting creative mix-ups, or maneuvering around the stage intelligently. While being mindful: you're aware of when you're combo'd so you can combo DI appropriately; you're paying attention to when an opponent has adapted to your usual approaches so you try something different; you're focused on both you and your opponents movement patterns so you're able to punish at just the right time. To play mindfully is to play as if you're fully awake and present in the moment.

For developing mindfulness in-game—and in all facets of your life—one must meditate. And meditation is simply "intentional self-regulation of attention from moment to moment."1 A simple and common example of mindfulness meditation is paying attention to your breath.

Let's try it.

Whether you are sitting down or standing up, close your eyes, be still, and focus your attention on your breath for just one minute.

Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Let your breath flow effortlessly through your body.

Let go of your thoughts. Let go of all the things you have to do later today. Let go of all the things that need your attention.

Simply let yourself be still and breathe for one minute.

Purposefully watch your breath, focusing your senses on how the air enters the pathways and then leaves your body.

If your mind drifts, or if a thought suddenly pops into your mind, this is okay. Acknowledge the thought and then bring your attention and focus back to your breath.

If you attempted the exercise and stuck it to it for one minute, congrats! You have meditated. Can you do it for two minutes? Three? Five?

Remember, that mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment nonjudgmentally. In focusing on your breath during meditation, you are actively practicing and training your mind to focus on the present moment. The same way you tell your fingers to execute a wavedash on command without thinking about you, you are telling your mind to focus on simply breathing.

Focusing on one simple task is difficult. Eventually, your focus will drift away from your breath, the same way in that you will eventually miss a tech. The mind drifts and has rogue thoughts all the time. The "nonjudgmental" part comes in when you're able to acknowledge that you had a rogue thought and then bring your attention—gently—back to your breath.

Mastering new tech is not a one-session process, developing mindfulness through meditation takes time. Remember, it's something to relax with and practice lightly. Start small (3 to 5 minutes daily) and then move up from there.

More Resources

  1. Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual and Empirical Review by Ruth A. Baer, University of Kentucky