The Mental Side of Melee: An Introduction to the Mental Game



Sat 2nd Jun 2018 - 8:15pm

The mind has a heavy influence on performance in any execution-based sport or art. The difference between gracefully draining a shot from the 3 point line and missing over the backboard is most often decided before the player even starts his follow through. Mango on The Scar and Toph Show said, “90% of the game, and that is no exaggeration, is mental game... But it’s the hardest thing to work on in Melee.” Although there is not a consensus on a numerical percentage, all top players agree that Melee is mainly mental. So how does one start to improve their mental game? This guide will identify some common mentality habits, how to begin addressing them, and how to maintain a healthier mindset.

The Inner Monologue

What do you think about when you play? Perhaps you think about how you want to approach next, how annoying Falco’s lasers are, or what you want for dinner. It could be a number of things but take a minute to really think about what is going through your head during tournament play.

Now analyze those thoughts and break them down into categories. Are your thoughts focused on the game or something else? Are they negative or positive? An easy first step to improve mentality is to start small. Of the categories, negative, non-game focused thoughts are clearly the most unnecessary. Discipline is a critical, but it can be difficult to transition from no discipline at all to self-moderating every bad habit you have. So just start with cutting out negative thoughts which do not pertain to the game. Make an effort to shut down thoughts about how annoying your boss was today, or how that truck cut you off on the highway; any thoughts like this have no place in a tournament mindset.

After mastering one category, try and stop any thoughts which aren’t game focused entirely. Personally, I found myself thinking about what I might say after the set while I was playing. This thinking was not game focused, and only distracted me from the task at hand. All that matters in the moment is the game, and I realized I could think about topics like that later. Even after eliminating all non-game focused thoughts, there is still work to be done. The last big change for a pro level tournament mindset is a shift from positive and negative evaluations to pure objectivity.

For example, let’s say a Marth keeps getting you with a dashback grab after a forward air. Some thoughts which might come to mind are “Wow, he just keeps dashing back, so lame” or something more positive like “Wow, his controller has really good dashback!” Both of these add something to the topic at hand. The only information which needs to be communicated is that the Marth tends to defensively dash after a forward air and will mostly whiff punish from it with a grab. Don’t add any positive or negative opinions onto the event, simply focus on gathering the relative information. From that info, find solutions and adjust accordingly.

Reactionary Play

When discussing the mental side of Melee, it is imperative to keep in mind the speed of gameplay. Unlike chess, poker, or other turn-based strategy games, Melee requires real-time decision making. In Melee, reacting is a valuable skill. Many new players do not react well enough due to their focus being on themselves and their execution rather than their opponent. Even if a player’s focus is on the right subject, the focus may not be strong enough to react at the speed necessary for top level play.

Red outlining the unreactable zone of Fox in the ditto; Green showing the reactable range.

Every player has what is called an unreactable zone. This is the space around a player where they can no longer react to one or multiple options from their opponent. This is the area where most mix up situations occur because each player must choose an option without knowing what their opponent is going to do. This is important to consider in the mental game.

If a player is thinking about a gameplan far in advance of an interaction, it becomes harder for them to react to a different interaction than what they expected. In the same vein, if a player needs their inner monologue to talk out their next move/sequence of moves when a familiar situation occurs, they will react slow. In essence, the best mental state to have is the one which minimizes your unreactable zone. For myself, and many others, this state is one of clarity. Leave the theory crafting and decision-making analysis for outside of the game, and simply clear the mind when playing. Trust in yourself to make the choices you have previously thought through on reaction when the applicable situations arise.

Although this may seem contradictory, sometimes focusing on something abstract from the game can help clear the mind. Mango would think about a body of water while playing to achieve this zen like play. If you find it difficult to silence the inner monologue, choose something simple to envision or focus on. I found envisioning a body of water or an open field hard to do while playing, and personally had more success focusing on my breathing instead. Find what helps you reach a state of an open, focused mind.

Execution, Mental Ruts, and Confidence

Humans are naturally analytical creatures, we have a fascination with patterns. This is important to understand when trying to improve tournament performance. The mind will think many events are correlated in some way, when most of the time they aren’t. Some examples are “I always lose Game 3 to Falcons!” or “I never hit my ledgedash when I really need to.” These false correlations become self-fulfilling prophecies and can trap players into mental ruts which can be troublesome to overcome. How can someone stop themselves from creating mental walls in the first place, and get over the ones they already have?

It is impossible to perform to your full potential without confidence. It’s not hard to see what thoughts like “I never hit my ledgedash when I need to,” can do to a player’s confidence. Sometimes these thoughts even act as excuses, “I can never beat Jigglypuff with my Peach.” One thing all of these thoughts have in common is that they stem from a fear of failure. The only way to free yourself from these thoughts is to stop being afraid to lose. Do not play to not lose, play to learn. From Llod’s guide to improvement, “Every player starts out with a board of red lights. Each time an interaction occurs and you understand why you won/lost that interaction, one of the red lights turns green. The players that improve the most efficiently are the ones that convert their board to green lights the fastest. Every time you lose, remember that your opponent has pointed out at least one red light to you. You can either choose to be upset about losing, create more mental ruts, and stop improving, or learn the lesson(s) within that set. Be confident enough in your play to win, but not so confident that you do not learn.

There exists a constant struggle between the mind and execution. The mind is directing you to win, so when an execution failure occurs the mind is less likely to pick that option again in the future. Confidence degrades, even subconsciously. Remember that if the option really was the best choice, your percentage of successful execution should not matter. The decision making was fine. With practice and time, execution will improve on its own - all you need to do is remain confident in your attempts. When solo practicing, emphasize consistency! Challenge yourself to successfully execute a technique 10 times in a row. This will help emulate crucial moments, as the 10th ledgedash is always the hardest. This routine builds both consistency and confidence in your execution. Remember, the best way to improve at ledgedashing in tournament is to ledgedash in tournament.

The mental side of Melee is a deep, complicated, and individual subject. Hopefully this guide made you evaluate your own mentality, and how it could be improved. Take some time to challenge mental habits you may have, and experiment to find the best alternatives for you. There is no quintessential mindset for Melee but try and identify similarities between successful mindsets of other players. The mental game is never ending, and rewards continuous, consistent self-discipline.  

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