If you’ve ever wondered what makes the best in the world so good at what they do, you’re not alone.
Modern science and especially performance psychology has produced incredible research on this topic in recent years, and it turns out there’s an answer. Not only that, but it’s one that can help you maximize your time in how to practice League of Legends, or any other videogame.
Researcher and author of The Talent Code, Martin Coyle, spent two years visiting the world’s most renowned “talent hotbeds” – very small places that produce very large numbers of top-tier performers. Examples include:
- A tiny tennis club in Russia responsible for more world top-20 players than all of the US combined
- A classical music academy in upstate New York where students achieve one year’s worth of curriculum in seven weeks
- One family in a tiny UK village responsible for three world-class writers
After visiting nine such places, a pattern emerged and it became clear that the number one difference is how they practice.
Coyle’s findings show that certain types of practice grow what he describes as a “fast, accurate brain” and the biochemical component cultivated is called myelin. It insulates neurons so they communicate faster and more effectively, and the premise of this book is that it’s the secret sauce of talent. Here’s a gif to show what that looks like.
Before discovering how to make information travel down your neurons like the blue electricity in the animation above, let’s look closer at how the talent hotbeds reliably producing world-class performers use the process of “deep practice”.
What is “deep practice”?
There’s a great quote from Coyle that illustrates how important this type of practice is and why it applies to all skills (which I personally read as “all video games”).
“The idea that all skills grow by the same cellular mechanism seems strange and surprising because the skills are so dazzlingly varied… But then again, Redwoods differ from roses but both grow through photosynthesis.”
Learning how to practice means not queuing up game after game, instead finding the edge of your ability’s comfort zone and stepping over it. If you only do what you’re now good at, you’ll never get better than you are. The way forward is to make mistakes through playing just outside of your capability, focusing there for as long as possible, and take note of your errors before you rinse and repeat the process.
It’s hard pushing your limits and messing up regularly, especially if it means your team mates flame you more often than you’d like. But the research shows that this kind of struggle is a biological requirement for building myelin.
It’s like resistance training in the gym to build muscle, which anyone who even lifts will know all about. You get stronger by pushing yourself bit by bit, always seeking that comfort zone edge so the biological tissue grows back stronger than it was before.
An example of this in action
Here’s a great example from one study on this topic. If you tested to see how many word combinations you remembered, you’d recall those in column B three-fold to those in column A, assuming you’re anything like the average participant.
|ocean / breeze||bread / b_tter|
|leaf / tree||music /l_rics|
|sweet / sour||sh_e / sock|
|movie / actress||phone / bo_k|
|gasoline / engine||chi_s / salsa|
|high school / college||pen_il / paper|
|turkey / stuffing||river / b_at|
|fruit / vegetable||be_r / wine|
|computer / chip||television / rad_o|
|chair / couch|
l_nch / dinner
By creating situations where the gaps must be filled in, we remember more. In terms of practicing League of Legends, that means we’ll have more knowledge to apply the next time we’re in that situation, making us better and better at the game. Climbing the ladder then becomes a logical outcome. Before we look at the rules for practicing in this way, we must first understand one thing.
“The sweet spot”
There’s a sweet spot to be found here because going too far outside of your comfort zone will only cause frustration and demotivate you.
For example, if you only ever played against people two tiers above you in League, it would be tough to learn anything as you’d spend most of your time waiting for the respawn timer to end.
But playing against people a little better than you? You’ll get outplayed in ways where you learn from your errors, and to outplay your opponents will push you to the edge of your ability. As Coyle says about students in talent hotbeds:
“They are purposely operating at the edges of their ability, so they will screw up. And somehow screwing up is making them better…It was as if the herd of deer suddenly encountered a hillside coated with ice. They slammed to a halt; they stopped, looked, and thought carefully before taking each step. Making progress became a matter of small failures…”
Examples of that in League might be:
- Playing with or against people who are better than you at the game, even if it’s laning practice with friends in custom games
- Going all-in on champions even if you’re uncertain of their toolkits or you can see they have a level or farm advantage over you
- Developing the habit of pressing tab and taking notes of enemy builds during games to push your focus and multitasking
- Getting used to reading and making decisions based on armor, magic resist and HP values
Screwing up on these things allows your brain an opportunity to fill in the gaps and, when that happens, myelin is built.
If you practice League of Legends this way, you’re more likely to cultivate a “fast accurate brain” for this complex skill. Let’s look at the three rules for really nailing deep practice.
Rule #1: Absorb the whole thing
On this first rule, the book quotes Anders Ericsson, author of the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance:
“If you were to visit a dozen talent hotbeds tomorrow, you would be struck by how much time the learners spend observing top performers. When I say “observing,” I’m not talking about passively watching. I’m talking about staring—the kind of raw, unblinking, intensely absorbed gazes you see in hungry cats or newborn babies.”
Coyle gives a great example of this when he asked one top-tier tennis player how she learned to swing in such a formidable way at just 8 years old – “I dunno…I just do” was her reply and it turned out her coach didn’t know either.
After later chatting with the girl’s mother, Coyle discovered the whole family were huge fans of world tennis champion, Roger Federer, and they’d watched pretty much every one of his matches ever televised.
Examples of how to apply this insight into your League of Legends practice is by watching streams, pro games and high level games by regular Challenger-tier plays. Here are some resources to get you started:
- One-trick-pony streams by champion
- LoLEventVoDs YouTube channel for pro games
- LoLSummonerInfo for easy access high-level replays
Rule #2: Break it down into chunks
In addition to absorbing the whole thing, it’s important to break down the games you watch into chunks.
Getting granular with your replay watching means you can truly understand the specifics of what just happened. It’s where you access a level of detail that improves your game knowledge and really helps the outcomes of team-fights sink in.
A lot happens in a 10-man battle in League of Legends, so look out for things such as:
- Which champions where at item or level power spikes?
- Which wombo combos made the difference?
- Would the outcomee have been different if some champions were closer range when the engagement started?
- Were any mistakes made with skill uses, such as missed or mis-timed CC?
- How were summoner’s spells used or mis-used on each champion?
Watching replays inside the client with tools such as LoLSummonerInfo means you can slow chunks of the replays right down and watch in more detail – another practice used by the talent hotbeds.
There’s almost no end to how granular you can get in such a complex game, so be prepared to invest time getting to the nuts and bolts of your replays.
Rule #3: Repetition & learning to feel it
Even if you’re changing your practice sessions to produce myelin on overdrive, lessons don’t sink in unless you put in your reps. Coyle quotes infamous basketball coach John Wooden on this point:
“The importance of repetition until automaticity cannot be overstated… Repetition is the key to learning.”
There’s no quick fix that avoids repetition and continued practice. It’s the only way to master the third rule which is learning the lessons of your mistakes so well that you do them on autopilot – what some learning theorists might refer to as “muscle memory.”
By committing skill shots, CS’ing, and all other facets of your play to muscle memory, you free up mental space for all kinds of other things, such as map awareness and the macro game.
With League of Legends, this means mastering all aspects of the champions you play, including:
- Trading patterns
- Flash + skill combinations
- Last hitting in custom games
- Jungle clear routes
- Practicing custom game 1vs1 laning
- Knowing all skill and autoattack ranges by heart
Only by repeating these things until you can do them without even thinking can you ever hope to master the game. And that’s what rule number 3 is all about.
Eventually comes the point where you just feel it. It’s those moments when you pull off combos or positioning or small tactics during skirmishes without even a moment’s hesitation. That means practicing things like:
- Sticking with the same champion or a small champion pool
- Practicing combos daily, in custom games and in fights, even if you don’t have them down yet
- Studying the Wiki to learn skills, skill ranges, AP ratios, and anything else to help you make good decisions in fights
- Renounce the quick fix and make time to practice and study
Accelerated learning is the only “quick fix”
Learning complex games is something that takes time… In The Talent Code, Coyle also discusses a study whereby the largest single factor in success was a long term commitment to learning. Students committed to learning their skill outperformed the short-term committers by a factor of 400%.
That’s something worth thinking about if you have aspirations to seeing the shiny Challenger badge when you log in to your account.
“We instinctively think of each new student as a blank slate, but the ideas they bring to that first lesson are probably far more important than anything a teacher can do, or any amount of practice…it’s all about their perception of self. At some point very early on they had a crystallizing experience that brings the idea to the fore, that says, I am a musician. That idea is like a snowball rolling downhill.”
So no, there is no quick fix to getting really good at League of Legends. But you can speed up the learning process by getting good at deep practice and insulating the neurons your brain fires whenever you play.
If you change the way you practice and always seek the edge of your comfort zone, you’ll be very glad you did when your end-of-season results is achieved.