Everybody Misses Skill Shots

The other day, my friend and I were engaged in a heated discussion which eventually led to me writing this article. We were arguing about skill shots, their mechanics, how good we were at them, and… You know what?

Let me back up a bit. Before I go into a psychoanalysis of landing skill shots, let me give you a bit of history.


I like to play jungle. In fact, for all intents and purposes I only jungle, something which I have discovered really hurts my game in the long run. Last hitting creeps and juking in bushes really isn’t my cup of tea. Most people get high off making flashy plays (I have to admit that this one is pretty sweet) or outplaying someone mechanically in a skirmish. What gets my blood boiling is outplaying opponents strategically. This could be predicting what they will do way before they do it or making the right decisions at crucial points in the game. I love jungling because it hinges almost entirely on your ability to make decisions.

Recently, I have started to practice high skill-cap junglers like Elise to work on my mechanical skills. This is a subject explained very well here. My friend half jokes and tells me that I do fine as long I don’t play skill shot heroes, and I should probably stick to that. I get a bit upset and defensively state Vi is a mechanical hero with skill shots. Despite Vi being labeled as a press R hero, there are quite a few nuances in the way her abilities work. Saint is of the same opinion, as stated in this grilled interview. For the record, I love Vi. She’s one of the more awesome heroes in LOL, and was a day one buy for me. Great voice over, great skill set, and satisfying sound effects. I almost always play her when she’s open in ranked. I do very well with Vi, I’d like to say. My friend goes on to say that I miss way to many Q’s even with her, and we go at it for a while…

The truth is EVERYONE misses skill shots!  You can’t hit any if you don’t miss any. You’ll never make any more than you do now if you don’t make more attempts and build confidence and a feel for the technique. No matter how good you get, you will still miss! That’s why Ryze was so popular in the pro scene back in season 2. He was on par with most other casters, but had no chance to screw up skill shots. Pros will always pick a hero with minimal risk for maximal output. It’s simply the way of the world; optimization and safety take precedence to risk. Why do you think the best play on 4th down is usually to kick the ball?


The most important thing about landing skill shots is NOT how much you practice though. Although practice is crucial, the most determinant factor is your state of mind. If you think about the maneuver you are about to perform, you probably won’t land it. If you doubt yourself, you will probably miss. Sports psychologists like to talk about “Flow”. You might know this better as “Being in the Zone”. Everyone has experienced being in the zone at some point. That one game where you went legendary, got a penta-kill, landed all your spells, were at the right place at the right time, orchestrated a series of clutch ganks…. And so on. You were on fire and felt invincible. You felt faster and smarter than anyone else at that moment in time. Ironically enough, this is how people claim they feel on cocaine. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that relationship…

A key trait that that separates great athletes and performers from good athletes and performers is their ability to enter the zone whenever they want. Michael Jordan was claimed to have an ability to flip a switch right at tip off.  He would become an entirely different person, channeling all his intensity with unwavering focus. Being able to channel your focus is the key to entering the zone, and a lot of research and writing has been done in an attempt to define flow.  One great book on the topic I highly recommend is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In this book the author, whose name I cannot pronounce and hence do not deserve to write, discusses the fundamental principles of flow and the many different situations it applies to. He goes on to identify the relationship between individuals who are constantly in flow and their overall quality of life and happiness. Flow doesn’t just apply to someone competing in an intense environment. It applies to a housewife knitting, or a chef cooking. It is the complete and utter immersion in what you are doing. Only through this total immersion can you perform optimally. Your mind is free from distraction and clutter, and can efficiently focus on the task at hand.

It sounds simple right? We all know it’s not. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes you miss an “easy” skill shot and get laughed at in chat (Isn’t that the worst? Being laughed at by random people you never will know?). Sometimes you just lose all confidence because you get first-blooded. Most people go on tilt upon onset of such events, and lose all chance of returning to flow state of mind in the near future. However, good players have psychological hardiness and are resilient to upsetting events. They possess the ability to free their mind from all sorts of distractions and to not allow negative events to affect them.


If the key to winning is enter the state of flow, then how can we learn to do that? It’s not easy, but one of the best books I have found on this topic is the Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin. This book recounts the personal thoughts of a chess playing prodigy who was a top American player at a very young age. After stopping his chess career for personal reasons he picked up Tai-Chi and in a short time began to compete in world tournaments, eventually winning. Clearly he understands how to channel intensity and focus to improve his game. If you remember from my first article, we talk about developing self- awareness. A lot of his book focuses on self-awareness and the techniques designed to mentally prepare one’s self to enter the zone.

One of the core messages of Josh’s book is that you have to develop good habits, or even pre-game rituals. Once you have developed those habits and practiced rituals, you are able to condense and recall them at any point in time to “reset” to your ready state. You can also use this ability to mitigate nervousness before tense competition. We work with a group of Slovenian psychologists who train the national basketball team, skiing team, and so on. Slovenia is a small country, so they have access to top tier Olympic athletes quite regularly. They even do psychological counseling for a few Eastern European NBA players. What I learned from them is that everyone has doubts, no matter how good they are. The reality of the situation is that our minds are fragile things, and we are easily influenced by our immediate surroundings. Once we develop enough cognitive ability (around 11 years old) to project our thoughts and expectations onto our performance, things start going downhill.

Of course, There are several training exercise that the Slovenian psychologists ask their athletes to repeat if they are having psychological fears. One technique is to develop the habit of making a fist and willing themselves to be invulnerable (for those of you who have seen Naruto it is actually very similar to what the main character does in tense situations). At first this may not do much, but the more they repeat it, the more they are able to visualize the objective. It will give them more confidence, along with an ability to deal with any situation. Now when they enter the big game or a nerve wracking moment, they repeat this sequence of making a fist. The process acts as a form of hypnotism and is a trigger in their mind to dispel all doubt.


The above technique is just a simple example of a way to build confidence and clear your mind. Anticipating your opponent’s movements and landing skill shots is a very satisfying feeling. Getting caught up in expectations and hypothetical scenarios is not. This is easier said than done, but always try and keep a clean slate. Approach each situation as if it’s the first time, and rely on your practice and intuition. Your conscious mind can be deceiving in most cases. Oh and that friend who berated me for missing skill shots went on to play Blitz the next game, landing 5% of his hooks… Looks like he got under his own skin.

Flow is a complex topic and we can discuss at length the different techniques people have defined to help achieve an “empty mind”, but the above linked books are a good place to start. Some of the best things you can do to learn to get your brain to be quiet include meditation, archery, martial arts, and yoga. All of these ancient disciplines focused heavily on removing distractions from our awareness.  The core of meditation seems so simple, paying attention to your breath, yet mastery is not within the reach of most lifetimes. The best thing you can do is consistently practice attaining the proper mindset. Until next time, I will leave you with  this  relevant clip… its from a great movie.

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I have been playing competitive games at a high level for 10 years, 2 of those years were spent playing WOW for Fnatic. I dialed back the intensity to finish my PhD, and now extensively study human performance. My research focuses on understanding optimal performance in extreme environments ( think Mountains Climbers and Fighter Pilots), specifically cognitive performance. Follow me on twitter @Dr_Uthgar for regular physiologic insights on E-sports.

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