Wednesday, February 3, 2016

My concussion has made me a better player

About a year ago, I was doing a standard experiment in lab and I fainted. Apparently my head made a resounding crack on the tile floor; I woke up to concerned faces and paramedics loading me onto a backboard. I don’t remember much of what happened at the hospital, I just remember staggering outside and climbing into an uber so I could go and lay down. It took me a few days to really notice, but in addition to the pounding headache, fatigue, and an almost insipid calm fog of apathy, I seemed to have entirely lost my sense of smell and taste. I can’t remember much about the months following my concussion, I am currently finding it terrifying how little I do remember. I remember the intense headaches lasting for about 6 weeks. I remember the only time I could find relief was laying in the sun in the late afternoon. I remember burning things multiple times because I couldn’t smell that they were done. I remember not feeling emotions; I would know something should make me angry or happy, but I couldn’t actually feel rage or joy.

Mirana Cosplay with Nahaz
 MLG Columbus 2015
So how does Dota fit into this? I continued to stream, but I focused more on crafting cosplays and playing casually. I still traveled to MLG Columbus, but I made sure I had friends around to watch out for me. I went and worked at The Summit 3, and my concussion almost seemed like a blessing. I was assigned to watch the players practice room: a room with no airflow, snacks littered everywhere, and sweaty player occupation 24/7. I was quite happy I had lost my sense of smell. I was convinced that the loss of smell and taste were the only long term side effects of my concussion, and I was very slowly gaining those back. My headaches subsided, my emotions became less apathetic, and I was learning ways to cope. I still had trouble concentrating and it took much more effort to commit anything to memory or learn new concepts.

Dota was excellent therapy to retrain my brain. There is a constant learning curve, a high priority placed on decision making, and a need to keep several things straight in your head all at once. At the same time, it only exists as a single finite match, so a game didn’t represent an extended source of mental stress. I could tax myself for a short interval, rest and reset, and try again. I started playing ranked, and I was winning. I played a couple heroes over and over again to grind their mechanics into my brain and hone my instincts. I’ve noticed something as a result of this. If I haven’t spammed a hero since my concussion, I cannot play that hero well. My reactions that might be lightning fast (for me) on my QOP, my first hero spammed post concussion, but they are slow and pathetic on Tinker, a hero I had trained on with the help of a coach for several weeks pre-concussion.

My skill level is immensely dependent on how my week has been going. If I get 15 minutes less sleep than I need, I am incapable of winning. I lose all focus, make poor decisions, and seem trapped in a cycle of self-destruction. If I am well rested and not feeling any kind of stress, I am unstoppable. I can play any of my favorite heroes and dominate any lane I am in. These are concepts that probably hold true for any player, rest and an uncomplicated day lead to you playing better, why are these specific to trying to play following a serious head injury?

I recently started exercising again. I am an active person, and having to be still for nearly a year was slowly destroying me. I have taken it slow and been careful, but in a moment of sleepy stupidity, I decided to warm up with jumping jacks. The first nine were fine, but the tenth had me on my knees in agony as a fierce headache took over everything. It went away, and I figured, okay, no more jumping jacks. I entered a losing streak in game, nothing I could do seemed to change anything. Any position I played, any choices I made, they all seemed to be wrong. I stopped playing ranked and decided to learn new heroes, or just relax and play casually for a bit. Then I realized something very important. Every day since the jumping jacks, I have had a low grade headache. I am much more likely to be impulsive, I have no filter, and I have very poor decision making. Even simple items builds take twice as long for me to decide on, and standard spell combos have noticeable delay before my brain can tell my fingers what keys to press. I am quick to notice others mistakes and I often join in on fights against my better judgement, but the little voice telling me to ignore my team is dwarfed by my desire to run in.

These are traits normal of a lower skilled player (mid 3ks, reporting in), but they are noticeably worse for me when my concussion symptoms resurface. It is my belief that my concussion impaired my ability to make decisions and critically analyze situations. While Dota does seem to be excellent therapy for training my brain, I have to be continuously aware of that little voice, and ensure I learn to follow it.

A Dotabuff graph of my win rate since my concussion, the trend seems clear to me!
I think that my symptoms represent the challenges most average players face, mine were just exaggerated enough by the head injury for me to notice how important they were. We ignore the rational side of our brain, we struggle to control our emotions, and we lack the focus necessary to understand everything that is going on in the game. Normally, I blame my head injury for my inability to improve, but now I realize that it has given me a vehicle for understanding exactly what I need to work on. I know that I am slow to mentally process combos, but repeated practice lets a different part of my brain take over and allows me to excel. I know I make impulsive decisions, but emphasis on listening to the tiny rational piece will eventually elevate my decision making. I might have a steeper climb than without the concussion, but I think that I develop as a better player overall since I can clearly recognize my weaknesses, even if they will be a struggle to overcome.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting read! Thanks for sharing