“Esport athletes are not superhumans immune to the same problems and concerns that affect anyone else.” - Anja Suder
The statement above is a fact and you can bet your bottom dollar on. Despite the growth of esports as an industry, mental health is an important and often overlooked aspect that can often be the heart and soul of many players. Mental strength is the backbone of growth, success and ultimately a vital part of reaching the highest heights as an esports athlete.
Anna Maria, or Anja as addressed by most people, recently completed her master’s degree in psychology at the University of Copenhagen. Her interest in psychology and mental well-being in performance and pressure environments led her to think about becoming a military psychologist.
However, with time and her exposure to esports as a growing industry, she pivoted her interests in the direction of psychology and the ways it could enhance performance and mental well-being among elite esports athletes, embarking on a new journey in the esports world.
As she hit the books, Anja penned articles about the psychology of esports and traditional sports, covering various topics such as the effects of video games on socialization in children and adolescents, the use of psychological skill training for skill enhancement, and acceptance and commitment therapy among elite athletes.
She wrapped up her studies with a Master's thesis focusing on the effects of a mindfulness-acceptance-commitment program in the game CS:GO. Alongside her academic work, she also worked closely with several esports athletes and gained practical experience through an internship with a Danish football club.
Her dedication and hard work paid off, as she's currently working with an esports team.
In this first part of our interview, Anja describes the role of an esports psychologist in enhancing the performance of esports players. Additionally, we discuss the unique aspects of the field, including challenges, handling negative feedback, common psychological issues, and how esports organizations can effectively integrate psychological support into their training programs. Without further delay, let’s begin our insightful conversation.
BLIX: Can you provide an overview of the role of an esports psychologist and how they contribute to the performance enhancement of esports players?
Anja Suder: Providing a clear overview of the role of an esports psychologist can be a bit tricky, as each psychologist has to adjust their approach based on individual and team needs.
Often, you will see an esports psychologist working closely with players and the team to set a clear path, showing where we are today, where we want to be in the future, and how to get there. Quite often, the journey to becoming a professional player starts at a young age with passion and talent. With time, that player finds themselves in an organization and a team, playing in front of thousands of viewers.
The conditions and environment this player is in now are much different from what they might be used to, involving higher expectations, more pressure, and stricter requirements on behavior both on and off the server.
According to her, an esports psychologist's main role is to support professional esports athletes in finding a purpose in following their love of competition while maintaining a healthy state of mind. This involves supporting one's ability to live a meaningful life and compete at the highest level possible despite all the challenges as an individual and a professional esports athlete.
BLIX: Does the psychological aspect of esports differ from traditional sports? Are there any unique challenges that esports players face in terms of mental health and performance?
Anja Suder: When I work with elite esports players, one thing stands out -they're really into giving it their all, every time. Whether it's in traditional sports or esports, there's sometimes this idea that you've got to think and act a certain way if you want to be the best. But sometimes, that idea can mess up your performance. What I mean by that is, that when you want to do something well, you naturally start worrying about what might happen if you mess up. That whole 'don't worry, don't feel fear' idea, it's maybe like telling yourself not to breathe. Worry, fear, and all those emotions are just part of caring deeply about something. And here's the thing: being on top of your game isn't just about feeling 'right' or 'positive' all the time. It's about doing the right things, no matter what's going on inside your head. So, when I'm working with esports athletes, what I focus on is accepting those inner experiences. Anxiety, worry, even joy - they're all just part of the deal for a professional esports athlete. Doing well is not about trying to control your feelings. It's about the ability to focus and take purposeful actions, no matter what's going on in your head.
BLIX: Esports athletes often face criticism and scrutiny from online communities and fans. How can athletes manage the psychological impact of negative feedback and maintain a healthy mental state?
Anja Suder: Yes, they indeed do, and what makes esports unique is the close connection between esports players and their fans. Often, fans and online communities tend to concentrate on the outcomes, overlooking what happens 'behind the scenes.' Therefore, it's crucial to bear in mind that having fans with strong opinions is a common aspect of any sports scene, and these opinions are sometimes formed with limited insight. On the flip side, it's important to recognize that fans are the lifeblood of the esports scene. Being an inspiration to so many is motivating in itself. As an esports psychologist, I work with esports athletes about distinguishing between constructive comments and those that should be disregarded, establishing boundaries for when using social media might negatively impact their mental well-being, and providing social support.
BLIX: What are some common psychological issues that esports athletes might encounter, and how do these issues impact their performance?
Anja Suder: Being a professional esport athlete comes with numerous stressors, such as career changes, personal expectations and expectations from the organization and fans. Similarly, esport athletes experience challenges outside the server as well. Having a qualified psychologist on the team contributes to long-term sustainability and commitment to an esport career, both when talking about performance and mental well-being. First and foremost, you have the person behind the player - the human aspect - and then there’s the professional esports athlete persona. Esports athletes are not superhumans immune to the same problems and concerns that affect anyone else. They are no different than the rest of us.
Anja referenced studies that already show elite athletes are more prone to mental struggles including a higher risk of anxiety, depression and perfectionism. She emphasized the importance of open communication and recognizing signs of struggling athletes by identifying the risk factors and addressing them through effective strategies.
BLIX: In traditional sports, coaches and trainers play a significant role in athletes' mental development. How can esports organizations and teams integrate psychological support into their training programs effectively?
Anja Suder: Esports is a relatively young sport compared to traditional sports, but fortunately, we're witnessing an increasing number of esports teams and organizations incorporating sports psychologists and mental coaches. What I envision is for sports psychologists to play a more integral role within organizations, ensuring that their values permeate through different levels of the organization.
She continued mentioning the common thing across all sports which is the “winning at all cost” mentality, while highlighting the importance of recognizing the value of mental well-being and the positive influence it can have on athletic performance. Particularly in a pressure and high-expectations environment where the "win at all costs'' mentality is prevalent. Incorporating sports psychology principles, along with nurturing a supportive environment, is key to fostering higher performance in athletes.
In the next part of our deep dive into esports psychology, Anja talks about the mental game, tilt, burnout and dealing with setbacks, so be sure to tune in and learn more.