Reinforcement of Depressive thought tendencies within Competitive Pokemon – Why ‘No Johns’?

Hello hat lovers!

One of the academic fields in which I find the most interplay with competitive Pokemon is psychology. Mental state is almost always a fundamental part of my tournament runs, whether good or bad, and I believe it to be worth examining different theories of how to think about improvement, practice, and in-tournament mentality.

Perhaps the most widespread piece of advice that I see about mentality is to avoid making excuses when practicing. This “No Johns” approach reinforces some important ideas of improvement: the aspiring Pokemon Trainer must examine the details of why they lost, and unhelpful or inaccurate explanations are not particularly conducive to really learning. You must accept fault for your losses in order to improve.

The problem I see with this (well-intentioned) advice is that there are dangers in stigmatizing excuses. Although they seem to be unnecessary, annoying, and hindering, they serve a valid purpose, and to seize upon excuses as always wrong is to lose an element of healthy mentality.

According, at least, to psychology when taught in an entry-level university course, avoiding all excuses is a significant deviation from the norm. Healthy people, although willing to take credit for success, will often ascribe their failures to their situation, or to bad luck. Success is internal; failure, external. Although it sounds arrogant on paper, it’s actually a fairly important part of being able to function normally.

Indeed, one of the cognitive symptoms of depression is viewing successes as the result of external factors (like luck), while seeing failures as internal, completely the person’s own fault.

Now, it’s important to note that cognition is only one factor in determining clinical depression (and not a make-or-break one, either – symptoms like anhedonia and, above all, a depressed mood are noticeably more important). Moreover, making excuses for failure is only one part of your cognition; how you approach success is important too, as well as a whole host of other factors. But the point remains that there’s something a little skewed about not being able to make excuses for failures, and there’s danger in internalizing losses as deeply as a no-excuse approach sometimes asks us to do.

My concern, then, is that somewhere along the path to effective improvement we’ve started to reinforce depressive thought patterns. In order to improve, we push ourselves towards elements that make us less likely to want to persevere in the game, and which make it harder for us to believe in our ability to win or to recover from losses.

One of my goals to prepare for the US national championships last year was to lose 100 games. I wanted to practice recovering from losses, and to learn as much as possible from each of those losses in order to craft a truly effective team. Unfortunately, this regimen really, really didn’t work for me. There are many reasons why I fell short at nationals, and it would be unfair of me to blame solely this, but one of the reasons the regimen failed for me is that I lacked the mechanisms to accept and recover from losses. Indeed, my goal in the first place was a symptom of this lack of loss-recovery: I had hoped that by making losing my goal, I would begin to accept it as part of a natural process of growth. However, without really establishing a process of managing losses, I simply fell flat: I didn’t manage to complete my goal, and I failed to gain a single championship point from the 2016 national championships. I think that, if anything, my practice regimen simply reinforced thought patterns that were not in the least conducive to improvement, and I found myself more stressed than ever when heading into nationals. The stress I felt was not, as Pokemon stress usually is, easily turned into motivation or excitement. Instead I felt dread, a distinctively foreign feeling for me in a Pokemon context. That event was perhaps the only time I’d ever felt relief to be eliminated from a tournament.

My point is not that a no-excuse philosophy doesn’t work. My point is not even that a no-excuse philosophy might not work for some people – it probably, in some form or another, works for everyone. But I do believe that it is an insufficient grounds for improvement, and that it can push us a bit farther from truly enjoying Pokemon than we really need to be. I would posit that there’s another element to improvement, one that allows for coping with losses, that doesn’t stop at identifying mistakes but also includes a way to actually learn from them. There must be a way to practice that doesn’t just involve “that was dumb, don’t do that anymore” but rather incorporates the patience necessary to go through matches intimately, to see everywhere that one could improve, and to have the forgiveness to accept not only your losses as they are, but your limitations as they are, and, in so doing, to see your wins as they might be.

– Hayden McTavish


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