(E)Sports Psychology and Goal Setting: Working on the Team Foundation (Part 1)


Now that we have outlined the foundational elements of team-building, we need to articulate some strategies for working on and improving, these elements. Simply knowing the elements is not enough to drive their improvement. The current article will outline strategies for improving the team’s foundation through setting goals.


Change is difficult. Really difficult. We are the way we are for very good reasons. Children are exceptionally good at learning and do so by keeping behaviors that have helped achieve goals while discarding behaviors that worked against getting what they want. As adults, then, it makes sense why we act the way we do. However, the way we interact with others, known as our interpersonal (IP) style, is driven by early family interactions. Sometimes we find that these IP patterns are less effective, or even maladaptive, outside of our family of origin. So while it makes sense how we interact, it can also sometimes be the problem, To say it more bluntly, it is unreasonable to expect our family-driven IP style to match what is needed by our team. This suggests that we need to learn new, adaptive ways of interacting within our team in order to reach the team’s potential.

Change can be achieved through intentional, purposeful practice. This practice can be difficult and uncomfortable as we must necessarily struggle and fail in order to make progress. This change also asks us to “risk being new” by stepping outside of our comfort zone and practicing new ways of interacting with ourselves, others, and the world. . Finally, change can be difficult to make in the absence of measurable progress that serves to behaviorally reward us. This suggests goal setting is an important part of the change process. Change works the same way for adults as it does children: we change when we get what we want.

Goal Setting

Stated simply, humans are bad at setting goals. Common goals I hear in the community health center in which I have my adult job include, “I just want to feel better”, “I want to get healthier,” and “I want to stop smoking”. Each of these treatment goals is “bad” for different reasons. To apply this over to HotS, “bad” team goals may look like, “Work better as a team”, “Not lose a game tonight”, and “We are going to git gud”. To understand why these are “bad” goals, we need to introduce a model for setting “good” goals.

Goal Setting: +BSMART

“Good” goals are: positively stated, behavioral, specific, measurable, achievable, reasonable, and time-limited. These elements can be combined into the acronym “+BSMART”.

Positively Stated

“Good” goals are stated in terms of what is being added, increased, or improved. An example is the word, “stop”. Whether you want to stop smoking or stop feeding, the concept is the same. It is difficult to change when no replacement behavior is offered. In this way, negatively stated goals often create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. By restating the goal of “stop feeding” to “Increase time spent alive” we avoid this self-fulfilling tendency. Further, we increase physiological reward, as the brain interprets “positive” outcomes as reinforcing (via dopamine release), making the change more likely to occur. This is called positive reinforcement, which different from negative reinforcement and punishment. Negative reinforcement requires the removal of an aversive stimulus which may not within our control, further suggesting negatively stated goals are ineffective. Punishment is different still since it involves adding a adding an aversive stimulus in response to behavior. Research suggests that, after age 12, positive reinforcement is the most effective method for driving change (see Crone, et al., 2008 for a review).


By making goals behavioral, we are making them overtly objective instead of subjective. Behavioral goals allow all observers to agree upon goal progress, making this an important aspect of goal setting. The restated goal “Increase time spent alive” is behavioral since all observers can see if your character is alive or not.


This step is where words like “better” and “healthier” get in trouble. What is “better”? How do I know when I am “better”? What does “better” look like? Another example is the common self-talk word “eventually”. “I’ll be serious about my diet eventually” and “I will prioritize exercising… eventually” also fail the specific stage of goal setting. Our example goal “Increase time spent alive” fails the specific stage as well. To improve our goal, we need narrow it down. I use quick match to practice new heroes, work on mechanics and map basics, and generally learn how different heroes interact with one another. For me, QM may not be an appropriate place to work on the goal of “Increase time spent alive” since my overarching objective is not winning, but self-improvement. We can restate and improve our goal: “Increase time spent alive in unranked and ranked play” since my overarching goal in these gamemodes is to win.


This is another place where words like “better” and “healthier” fail. In addition to being behavioral (or objective), our goals need to be measurable; otherwise, how do we know when we have reached our goal? Goals that are not measurable might be forever ongoing. How do I know when I have reached my goal of improving time spent alive in unranked and HL? As it is stated, I have no idea. This goal, then, cannot be reached; it can only be failed. Our example goal now becomes, “Increase time spent alive by improving KDA” because KDA is easily measured in your profile.


Put simply, the achievable component sets a finish line. Measurable and achievable ensure our goal has a definite end-point so we know when we have succeeded or, if needed, to re-evaluate an ineffective strategy being used to work on a goal. Our example goal of “Increase time spent alive by improving KDA” is not achievable since no endpoint exists. We can improve our goal to, “Increase time spent alive by improving KDA to 4.0” which sets a defined end-point.


The reasonable step ensures the starting point is appropriate. I may have the goal of “Run a marathon before 2018”. This may be inappropriate in a number of ways, but if I have not engaged in running exercise at any point in my life, running may not be an appropriate starting point; I may need to walk and do muscle strengthening first in order to avoid injury. Our example goal may or may not be reasonable depending on my current KDA. If my current KDA is 1.1, 4.0 may be too far off to be realistic. If my current KDA is 3.3, then 4.0 may be appropriate.

Time Limited

This final stage serves two purposes. First, it limits the time spent working upon a goal in order to minimize ineffective practice. Second, it sets a point after which we reevaluate our current goals for success or update. Our example goal is not time limited, meaning it can be improved one last time. “Increase time spent alive by improving KDA to 4.0 over the next 2 weeks”. I will revisit this goal in 14 days to either update it or consider it successfully reached.


Let’s go back to the examples I provided in the introduction and understand why they are “bad” goals.

“Work better as a team”

When do you want to work better as a team? Tonight? Tomorrow? Next season? How do you know when you have reached “better”? How do you measure it? “Better” is a pet peeve word that simultaneously means “perfection” and “nothing”. To say it differently, you cannot achieve a goal of “better”; you will always fail at it because you will never reach a point where “better” is no longer achievable. Even at the extreme, small and insignificant improvements still constitute being “better”.

A common issue I hear from team captains is that practice performance does not mirror tournament performance. The problem? The goal is not to perform well in the tournament. The goal is to perform well in practice in order to improve tournament performance. The goal you really want to set, then, is to improve practice performance right the hell now. This goal is also “bad”, as we do not have a behavioral, measurable, observable means defined for improved practice performance.

A +BSMART-consistent goal is, “Improve team cohesion by practicing pick comps during scrims this week.”

“Not lose a game tonight”

We play games because they are fun, and losing is not fun. I get that. However, a team can often learn much more in a loss than they can in a win. Losing provides objective, clear results of bad choices and decisions that need to be altered in the future. Winning suggests things that could be changed, but still worked out anyway.

As a team, I encourage you to cast aside (Alpha Tyrael reference, ✓) the importance of W/L in QM, unranked, and scrims. Perhaps the best interpretation of winning is, “Whatever we just did worked well.” It could be a composition, a map strategy, etc. Keep it in mind, write it down, and save it for the tournament. Move on, develop, innovate, and improve.

I’ll be very clear on this point: scrims are very different from Hero League or Team League. There are no points and no ranks. Scrims are there to facilitate consistent, intentional practice.

A +BSMART-consistent goal is, “Improve scrim results through intentional practice over the next 2 weeks.” While this is a “good” goal, sub-goals to define “intentional practice” are required to truly make this goal specific.

“We are going to git gud”

See my remarks on “better”; this goal suffers from the same errors.


            This may seem like a clunky and time-consuming practice. Like changing any other behavior, we are not immediately good at setting goals and can only improve through repeated attempts. The time spent defining goals will decrease as your skills improve. Another counter-argument compares the time spent setting good goals versus the time spent in ineffective practice. Through this lens, taking 5 minutes to set a good goal is preferable to 4 hours of purposeless practice.

             Part 2 of this article will apply these goal-setting strategies to working on the team foundation.

References influencing this work:

Van Duijvenvoordee, A. C. K., Zanolie, K., Rombouts, S., Raijmakers, E. J., & Crone, E. A. (2008). Evaluating the negative or valuing the positive? Neural mechanisms supporting feedback-based learning across development. Journal of Neuroscience, 28(38), 9495-9503.