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Beating Tilt: How to stay level when things aren’t going your way

We’ve all been there when nothing seems to go your way in-game, no matter what you do. Maybe you’ve been spawn peeked at the start of a round in RS: Siege, get killed just as you use your ultimate in Overwatch, or get eliminated whilst looting in Fortnite. Whether you’re a pro or game for fun these things happen to all of us and can set you on the slippery slope of anger, annoyance and frustration for the rest of the session, usually alongside a run of losses. It’s this spiral of anger and reduced emotional control that is known as tilt in the gaming community. When you’re on tilt the decisions you make suffer, your adrenaline surges, and you lose focus, so if you can remain on a level whilst your opponent’s go on tilt you could be at a huge advantage.

So what is tilt? Originally a Poker term, tilt refers to “a state of mental or emotional confusion or frustration in which a player adopts a less than optimal strategy… resulting in over-aggressive [behaviour]”(1). Adopted by the gaming community the term has essentially the same meaning, but usually signals the beginning of a downward spiral as frustration rises and wins fall.

How does it affect your gameplay? The concept of tilt is better known in psychology as the ‘curvilinear relationship between arousal and performance’, which effectively means that as arousal (stress) increases so does performance, to a point. After this peak however, performance begins to trail off as arousal continues to climb. Known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law2, this performance/arousal curve can be catastrophic for gaming where fortune can sometimes favour pure luck (or just high-ping). Of course, some stress can be useful causing a slightly increased heart rate, breathing, and raised adrenaline levels which can all aid in reactions and quick-thinking. However, after a point this increased arousal state can become detrimental, with shaking, anger, and frustration resulting from too much in-game stress.

Yerkes-Dodson Law – Inverted U hypothesis(2)

When you’re on tilt your gameplay can suffer dramatically. Instead of focussing on team strategy, your aim, or thinking ahead, thoughts shift internally towards negativity and trying to make up for mistakes or get payback. You might begin to rush in without thinking, start blaming your teammates for not covering you, make unnecessary call-outs in anger or even blame the game itself. All this does is serve to increase your arousal state, making you even more frustrated and pushing you further down the performance slope.

If you can recognise when you have reached the performance/arousal apex and nip tilt in the bud, then you can maintain a peak performance whilst managing your frustration. Channelling this frustration into improved gameplay is simple, so long as you can manage it and stay level whilst others slide down the slippery slope of tilt. In summary, stress and adrenaline are good for performance, up to a point. It’s balancing on this point that is an essential mental skill which most of pros possess.

Recognising tilt

​ Keep your head – Photo by Gabriel Matula on Unsplash

Learning to recognise the signs that you may be heading towards tilt can be one of the most important steps in combating it. If you can recognise the symptoms early, you can shut it down before it becomes a problem.

What to look for: • Elevated heart rate • Short sharp breaths • Overly tense muscles (hunched shoulders, mouse deathgrip) • Flaming teammates in chat • Wanting payback • Forgetting the opposition are still human behind the screen • Unnecessary call-outs

How you can stop tilt So, we know what tilt is, how to recognise it, and how it affects our play, but how do we stop it? Longstanding techniques from sport and performance psychology can be useful here, with athletes from more traditional sports using them to help stay on track and remain at the peak of the arousal/performance curve.

Positive and functional self-talk: Remind yourself of what you’re good at if it looks like a game isn’t going your way, refrain from beating yourself up over a mistake as this isn’t productive. Use words and phrases either in the first or third person that boost your confidence such as ‘you’ve trained for this’ or ‘I’ve been through worse and come out on top, I can do it again’. Alongside this, use phrases relating to specific functions or aspects of your game like ‘check the corners’ or ‘remember to breath’, these serve to bring your focus back to the present rather than dwelling on mistakes or letting anger get the better of you whilst making sure the core of your game remains covered. You’d be surprised how often people forget to breath properly during a tough match and make simple mistakes as a result.

Cognitive restructuring: Change the way you think about being unlucky or making a mistake. Instead of flaming yourself or your team for what’s happened, accept it as something that is done and cannot be changed. What you can change however is your reaction to a mistake or loss, repeat to yourself how it won’t happen again because now you know that strategy/move/play did not work. Gradually begin to manipulate your mindset to see mistakes as learning points which you can take control of, rather than just bad luck or a problem with the game. Remember, it’s only a mistake if you don’t learn from it.

Breathing focus:

Just breathe – Photo by Julia Haupt on Unsplash

Another classic technique is to focus on your breathing during a stressful match. As things are heating up use self-talk to remind yourself to keep your breathing calm and focussed, and if you make a mistake rather than verbally lashing out, getting angry and inadvertently holding your breath, inhale deeply. Feel the air enter your lungs as they expand, then focus on the feeling of it escaping as you breathe out. Try and notice how the warm air feels as it hits your top lip and continue to take notice until you’ve returned to a managed emotional state and get back in the game with a clear head.

Take a break: If all else fails, then just take a break. Walk away from the game for a moment, play another less intense game you enjoy or do another activity. Once you are back in control and calm, come back to the game and play some casual matches or grab some mates for strat roulette and have fun again. Too often people forget that at our core, all gamers play to have fun, and reminding yourself of that can help put you back on track to a more positive mindset.

Reach your peak: So then, if you can use a few of the above techniques every time you feel frustration and anger taking over during a match then you’re well on your way to reaching the performance/stress apex and staying there. You won’t conquer tilt overnight, but with dedicated practice and conscious effort you’ll notice a change in your reaction to adversity from anger, to acceptance.

Author: Callum Abbott MSc, CPsychol

References: 1 2Cohen, R. A. (2011). Yerkes–Dodson Law. In Encyclopedia of clinical neuropsychology (pp. 2737-2738). Springer New York.


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