Your Performance is not Your Value as a Person
How I worked through this struggle and some suggestions to help yourself or others
Written by Cora Kennedy, 01/10/23
I am not a therapist, I have no formalized training in crisis management, and what I will be talking about in this is from my experiences only. This piece is the collection of the sum of my knowledge and experiences from talking with others, working with my therapist, and a significant amount of work on my own. Please seek out a trained mental health professional for more detailed help if you think there is even the slightest chance they can do something for you, I am speaking solely from my own anecdotal experience. Hope it helps!
There is a recurring discourse in general society about the absolute need for better mental health resources, especially for the younger generations. Mental health is being taken more seriously and people are defying the stigma surrounding it by being open with their struggles, being there to help others, and viewing resources like therapy or medication not as a crutch, but as a tool to aid in developing towards the person they want to be. The esports community has increasingly made mental health a priority in numerous discussions, but almost exclusively at a surface level. It is always referenced as an area we should strive to improve, but specifics are lacking.
Performance and mental wellness coaches are becoming increasingly common in esports, but a majority of players in collegiate esports never encounter them as they lack the resources, opportunity, or funding to have coaching in this way. With the space lacking key resources surrounding mental health, we see an increasing prevalence of burnout and mental health struggles as players push to perform at their highest level while being college students as well. It is my firm belief that we as a community can collectively pool and share knowledge related to mental health support in our specific spaces for the greater good of all. Along these lines, in this piece I am going to highlight one of the more frequent struggles that I see and how we can tackle it: The idea that how you perform in-game determines your value as a person.
This is something that I wrestled with for several years when I was trying to compete in Rainbow 6: Siege (R6S), but it is also something I see with many of my students now and, in general, seems pervasive throughout esports culture. A consistent theme is thinking that if they are harsh enough on themselves, they will force themselves to get better. By being cruel and harping on every mistake, somehow they are going to fix them. These players all sink further into despair the farther off their exact desired path they are. They see any misstep they make as a shortcoming that other people should hate them for just as much as they hate themselves. This leads to an internal power struggle every time they try to celebrate their own achievements, believing instead that they aren't worth being celebrated because they are not good enough to deserve it. It is incredibly difficult to recognize your own progress when you punish every second you're not moving forward.
The path of healthy and sustainable progress is not paved with the corpse of your own sanity.
While I am not a therapist, I worked through this struggle myself and have come out of the other side. I have been using what I learned through my own growth to help students I work with because I don't want them to go down the same path I did. My goal with this piece is to translate some of those lessons to readers and hopefully spark a conversation somewhere about how you can help those around you work their own struggles with performance anxiety.
I am very outspoken about the value of mental health, my own struggles with it, and seeking help because I have put so much effort into my own mental health the past few years. This topic in particular, that of tying your value solely to your performance in-game, is something that pushed me out of playing games entirely for a while. I was playing at a reasonably competitive level in R6S and hit a wall mentally. I hated myself for every single shot I missed, every rotation I flubbed, and every call I got even minorly wrong. It drove me to leave the competitive community, the game that I loved, and leave almost every friend I had from that community because every single time I played, my mental state would slowly decline until I was so numb I was just floating through rounds. There was no light at the end of the tunnel for me really. No matter what accomplishment I earned, it wasn't enough for me to make up for not being good enough. I wasn't a person I wanted to be around, and in turn, nobody else wanted to be around me either.
It was not a short process to work through my struggles related to where I saw my value coming from as a human. When someone struggles with this concept, it is not just about their gameplay and performance. This is something more deeply rooted, of which performance anxiety is a symptom of a deeper issue. I want to speak to the performance anxiety component because it is the area I have the most experience with and it ties directly to a struggle many students in collegiate esports have as they push themselves to improve every day.
Part of why I am so passionate about this, beyond seeing my outlook radically change when I began working on it, is because collegiate esports reinforces it. Recruiting is, by nature, based primarily on rank. Rank gets players through the door, staff treat players of a higher rank differently, and this mindset is perpetuated frequently. Players start to see themselves as a tool for their program and not a person who is valued for numerous things outside of gameplay. There is so much more to recruiting and being a member of a program than simply rank. Culture fit is just as important as gameplay and players need to see that as well. While I know I cannot change the mindset of an industry in one paper, I hope to at least give some food for thought.
Performance is not Value
One of the hardest parts of processing your thoughts around basing your value on your performance is that it is ingrained in our culture as a society. You are valued by how much you can produce in a given time period, not by who you are as a person or any other metric. All unique traits are stripped away and condensed into simple numerical values, easy to sort and rank to determine approximate value. This is further exacerbated in esports as esports is all about numbers in the most literal sense. Traditional athletics relies on third party resources to rank players and provide approximate value, but the best and worst part about esports is that every ranked ladder has an exact number associated with each player.
If you are the #238 player in NA, there is no disputing that. Whether you deserve to be there or not is a topic for later in this piece, but the numbers don't lie. Every game has either a first-party or third-party method to track every single measurable statistic and output some sort of method for improving them. Every day I see a thread or video on how to rank up in X game or how the real secret to climbing is a new account or hidden MMR tricks or any number of things focused on how to improve your rank since it is the sole measure of a player. While rank gives a broad look at skill, there is a reason that teams trial players. While you could technically slap a team together of the top 5 ranked Valorant players on the NA ladder, that team would be rife with chaos and conflict both from a personality and gameplay perspective. Trialing a player is as much about culture fit as it is skill, and therein lies the problem. Esports teams are openly saying that there are important intangibles to a player that cannot be numerically measured, despite the industry's focus on pure statistics.
This does not stop players of all skill levels from getting caught up in thinking that their rank is their value. That if they hit one more flick, one more skillshot, or land one more hook that they would be worth more to others. That others would like them more and or care about them more if they were just a bit better at clicking pixels on a screen. Many players think these sorts of thoughts to some degree, but for those who struggle with it the most, it is difficult to articulate exactly what is going on. Of course, it would be great if a student could tell me "I struggle with my sense of self worth because of my skill in-game" but that rarely happens. The level of metacognition needed to accurately and clearly see that you are struggling with performance anxiety like this is a skill that takes years to develop, so many times it manifests in ways that aren't as clear. Below is a list of some of the ways I have seen it manifest in myself and others. This list is in no way complete and is not in any particular order either, but they are all good to note nonetheless. The purpose of listing these out is to highlight some things to look for in yourself or others so you can address struggles sooner rather than later.
Thinking "I don't deserve to be at this rank"
While there are two spins on this, both reveal an underlying issue about performance anxiety. One version, saying that you deserve to be at a higher rank, reveals how there is at least a partial belief that rank determines your value. While playing at a higher rank can bring higher quality competition, this view also perpetuates the idea that your social status is based on rank. We have all run into smurf accounts who go "I'm Diamond on my main" and lord that over somebody and use it as a way to show that they look down on their teammates. All of this provides substance to the idea that rank is equivalent to status. When it turns inwardly to the idea that "I should be ranked higher but I'm not good enough", it becomes a downward mental spiral and begins to be emotionally abusive towards yourself. Rather than phrasing the areas of potential improvement as a place to grow, they are instead seen as shortcomings to be punished.
Feeling like a burden for not being good enough
This is remarkably common among players who have friends of all skill levels and is something that I struggled with very heavily as well. When you see yourself further down the scoreboard, the unhealthy way to view it is to see yourself as a detriment to the team. Even if nobody has treated you poorly for not doing as well as others in the game, you still have this immense internal pressure that you need to perform better or nobody will want to play with you. This becomes worse in an organized team environment as in ranked or pick-up games, you are only with that group for a few games at a time, but with an organized team, your teammates see you consistently. The internal pressure you put on yourself to not appear to perform poorly actually makes you play worse.
Players who are stuck in this loop of feeling like a burden amplify every mistake they make and begin to turn their own teammates against them in their mind. I have seen and experienced instances where the team is nothing but the best of friends, but a player struggling with this will see all of their teammates all as hating them. The most difficult part of this is that, the longer it goes on, the harder it is to dig out of this sort of mentality. It becomes so permanent and entrenched in your thinking that it is no longer something you can even recognize consciously, it is an automatic reaction that you have to struggle with yourself to not have. In most cases, it doesn't turn into "me vs. the world", it turns into thinking that you don't deserve the kindness that other players show you because it obviously must all be for show. While this manifestation in particular is a symptom of a much bigger issue, addressing the gaming related issue may be able to help the non-gaming issue as well.
Another way this can appear is the idea that you need to be first on your team. No longer is it just a goal to not be near the bottom, and second isn't even an acceptable option, only first. This mounting pressure is just as bad as needing to not be at the bottom because players will commonly think that every mistake of theirs is analyzed and punished by their teammates and opponents alike. You begin to think that people only keep you around because of your rank and they don't like you as a person. While this is true in some cases, it is also possible to separate yourself and change groups. If people don't like you for who you are and instead see you solely as what you can do, they are just as bad for you as those who look down on you for being lower skilled.
Playing the game only for the status that rank brings
At the end of the day, rank is a way of measuring how well the rock we jammed electricity into and tricked into thinking believes you can click on pixels on a screen. But for many players, rank and the outcomes associated with it are all that matters. Games were created as a pastime and have developed into an avenue that allows people to find a successful and profitable career from their passions. When it stops becoming a passion and devolves into a slog, where a funny number going up is the difference between hating yourself or loving yourself before you click "Play" again, that is when there is an issue.
Many players who struggle with performance anxiety see the only reason to play games as the rank it brings. The fun and enjoyment subsides and only frustration takes its place. While not every game experience can be fun all the time (looking at you, League of Legends), if your only goal for playing the game is the outcome and not the process and things learned along the way, you will never, ever, be able to enjoy playing. Playing a game, especially with others, is about the experience and the journey, not what comes at the end. I know it sounds cliche, but think about it. What are the most fun times you have had while playing games? How many of them were solely about the win or loss? Almost none are because you remember the people you were with, specific instances from the game, and the experience as a whole. Deviating from that thought can lead down a harmful path.
Coined by Psychologist Clayton Barbeau, the term "Shoulding Yourself" consists of telling yourself that you have an obligation to do something different from what you are doing. While this can be productive in the "I should clean my house today" way, it can be unproductive when it is used to guilt yourself and mentally abuse yourself over your shortcomings. Thoughts like "I should have hit that shot" or "I shouldn't be this bad" are only used to spiral into further mental self harm and doubt. What is hard is that this appears so often in life that it can seep into gaming and leisure activities very frequently. I commonly struggled with the idea that I should have prevented virtually unpreventable things in my life. I should have noticed something with a friend, I should have done something before anyone thought about it, I should have solved my friends problems before they became a problem, and so on. For people like this, shoulding all over yourself in gaming is natural and can devolve very quickly into a spiral of self doubt that will plague them whenever they try to play.
Some ways you can work through it yourself
Before I dive into some things to think about to help yourself work through it, I need to say that nobody should have to struggle with things like this alone. Talk with the people in your life who care about you and understand that if someone cares about you, they won't be annoyed that you are asking them for help. Also, I genuinely believe that every single person would benefit from seeing a mental health professional at least a few times. We all have things to work through and stuff we want to talk about, and topics like this are especially difficult to handle on your own. Talk through it with someone who is trained to handle it please.
Tackling the idea that your self worth is tied to your performance is daunting to say the least. One of the difficulties with tackling mental health for yourself is that you don't really know yourself very well. It is incredibly difficult to view yourself from an objective, third-person lens and be able to, without tying emotion to it, figure out what methods and lines of thinking work best. In my experiences, working my way through my struggles has essentially been a dartboard of thoughts, conversations, and experiences that eventually filled with enough hits that I could make progress. So in this section, I am going to talk about some of the thought paths that helped me resolve my difficulties with my self worth and performance. While not all of them are going to be relevant to everyone, one of them might be. These are by no means complete thoughts, but they can be a starting point from which to explore in your own head too.
Being kind to yourself
The first thing, and the concept I lead with in all my discussions with others on a variety of topics, is to start by being kind to yourself. Phrasing your struggles not as absolute failures, but as things work on and improve. Working on your mental health goes from being a hopeless pursuit to a path forward towards a person you are happy to be. Being kind to yourself is not a magic bullet because it starts out as performative. It won't be a lightswitch where you will suddenly be kind to yourself, but you will start believing it the more you do it. As cliche as it sounds, "fake it til you make it". What being kind to yourself does is it allows you to not get hung up on the fact that you made a mistake and instead learn from them and still be happy with yourself in spite of them. It's ok, and in fact expected, to make mistakes, so there is no reason to treat them like the end of the world.
If you wouldn't treat others as poorly as you are treating yourself, why are you doing it? What are you accomplishing by doing this? If you drill down to the core of it, it comes down to just mentally harming yourself for the sake of thinking that you are going to improve yourself more this way than being kind. But in actuality, it only worsens your mental state and drives you further from your goals.
How much people actually remember you
I say this with as much love as possible, but nobody cares about you so much they will remember everything about you. No person will be thinking about a minor slip up you made even 10 minutes after you made it. If they are, they aren't worth having around. Think back to the last time you played games with friends. Do you remember a specific embarrassing mistake they made and look down on them for it? The answer is likely no. Treat yourself the same way too.
Whose opinion do you actually value?
Something people also commonly bring up is how there are people in their respective gaming communities or social circles who judge them/others for their rank and degrade them over it. These people are absolutely not worth having around, but it can be difficult for people to separate themselves from these groups on that basis alone. Another way to reframe it is to think about all of the people who you actually respect who treat people poorly based upon their rank/skill in a game. How many people is that? The answer is likely quite small, and in many cases will end up being zero. I always ask myself this question when I find myself falling into a rut that others will look down on me, and it puts some perspective on what would otherwise be a spiral over the perception of others. It is very easy to tell someone "don't care what others think" but it's a whole different story when that person is you. Put some thought to whose opinions you actually value, and why. Don't just blindly accept that you have to value someone's opinion.
Related to this is the struggle of thinking that the people you actually care about also look down on you for a perceived lack of skill in your mind. Players who struggle to think that they aren't worth others' time because they are "not good enough" tend to also project that most heavily onto the people closest to them in their life, thinking that their friends tolerate them at best. A question I was asked by a close friend when I was struggling with this is "how do you think the people who care about you feel when you say that you think they hate you?" and that made me pause. When viewed from the outside, it honestly really hurts to see someone you love and care about think that you hate them. The people in your life who care about you genuinely, actually, want you in their life. Sure there are some people who are only surface level, but if you think about the people who are truly always there for you, they have no reason to hate you over a video game. That changed a lot of my perspective and is something that sparked a lot of thought in me, so I consider it one of the strongest tools I have.
Don't tie your ego to the outcome
While it may be cliche, powerful statements and quotes tend to give me pause and force me to stop and think. One such statement is "Don't tie your ego to the outcome. Be proud of the work you put in and the journey you took". Something I commonly see on Twitter is that you enjoy the game and rank up more when you don't care about rank, and I think that ties into this. When you focus on the experience and the learning process you go on along the way, it becomes less about the magic rank that will supposedly make all of your frustrations and hatred towards yourself go away and more about actually being present and in the moment. It is incredibly difficult to start focusing on the journey and not the outcome, but a way that I approach it is setting micro-goals for myself along the way.
In Valorant, for example, I wanted to learn Fade when she came out. I made my first goal just to feel satisfied with my understanding of her kit by the end of my first game playing her. Then in my second game I worked on trying to homebrew lineups and think about how to effectively use her kit rather than throwing the kitchen sink at a problem. Games three and four I refined my approach for how to play her kit, tackled some new maps, and focused really heavily on trying to be utility based more than anything else. I did these in unrated games because I very much wasn't focusing on the game at hand or my scoreline, I was focusing on agent mastery. After those games I took a break to look up and workshop some lineups and then I took Fade into ranked with some friends. My goals for those games were to rate my performance after every couple of rounds and make adjustments to how I was playing things. If I died, I evaluated why and looked for solutions. If I lived, I did the same.
I made it all about the learning experience versus "oh my god I missed that eye and we lost the round and I'm going to lose RR and demote." If all you see for your self worth is your rank and your position on a scoreboard at the end of the game, there will end up being no outcome that is satisfying. Goals will shift from being actionable and attainable, like "Learn how to do X tech on this map" and devolve into "don't be bad". However, that is so subjective that any way you spin it, you can always find some angle to use your performance against yourself. While this ties into the concept of being kind, putting the outcome before everything else will only be hurtful.
Wanting to help yourself
Lastly, the hardest hurdle for me to clear honestly was wanting to fix the issue. I was painfully self-aware of the fact that I struggled with seeing my performance as my value as a person but I saw it as productive. Many people are in a similar spot too, thinking that being overly critical of themselves and basing their value on their rank will lead to improvements if they just keep at it. So while they see it happening, they see it as a necessary struggle. Everyone must go through it at some point, right? All the conversations in the world can't address that you have to want to fix an issue to go about fixing it, so that is typically the first place I start with someone who hasn't seen it as a root cause yet.
Some ways to help others work through it
This is once again where I need to make a disclaimer that I am not a therapist and this is from my experiences alone. While I have talked others through this issue, I will still always recommend they see a mental health professional as well. A trained mental health professional can provide numerous resources to help aid in addressing your specific struggles and guide you along a healthy path much more efficiently than I ever can. I am not the sole source of information and I am simply here to provide what little bit of help I can.
As I mentioned earlier, it is difficult to view your own struggles from an outsider's view, so that is why it is so helpful to have others around to help. Simply hearing words of advice or kindness from others can do so much, even if they are practically the same things you say to yourself internally. Hearing another person agree with your line of reasoning is always nice, and everyone brings their own perspective that can offer another angle to look at things from. From a collegiate esports perspective, we as the "adults in the room" are always sought out for advice and see our students from an even more objective view as we are not friends with them. Given all of this, we are poised to help and do what we can to help our students see that there is more to being in esports than just their in-game performance.
First off, read the above section about how to help yourself. When I have a discussion with someone who is struggling with this concept, I commonly refer to all of those talking points from a third-person perspective.
Listen more than you speak
Beyond that though, I start by simply listening. Everyone has nuances to their struggles and different aspects that ring more soundly with them than others, so getting a handle on that first is essential. If I just ramble on and on with a list of potentially helpful thoughts, it will not be useful in any way. I am not saying that I am perfectly attuned to figure out the best way to approach a person's struggles, but listening first gives me a nice place to start.
With all of these sorts of conversations really, I want to listen much more than I talk. Letting a person get things off their chest does a lot in the first place, plus you are there and supportive and helping them work through it! Be an active listener and show them that you care. So much of my talking points tend to be around key questions to ask and useful thought paths to guide someone down. Walking the person through a line of thinking along with me allows them to talk about their struggles in the way that makes sense to them while I am still guiding them to a conclusion I want to work towards on one of the above talking points.
Remind them that people care about them
Very commonly it simply comes down to me walking someone towards the fact that myself, and many others, genuinely care about them. I remind people that I want them there, that many people do, and that they aren't a burden for struggling or asking for help. The idea of "everyone must hate me for being this bad" is so common among these students that I keep this theme constant throughout our conversations because everyone deserves to have someone in their corner. In reality I've always been there, but it hasn't always been visible, so I make it very apparent in these conversations.
Listening more than you speak, walking them through logical steps, and letting them talk about their own patterns of thinking are all good strategies to help those who are struggling with their sense of self worth. While there are no surefire methods for helping people in this situation, starting there will be effective in transitioning the conversation into a more focused and productive conversation. But even if it isn't maximally productive, that's ok.
Everyone needs to cry sometimes
If they just need to get things off their chest and out of their mind to free up mental bandwidth, that's ok too. It is incredibly difficult to work on your mental health with so many things piled on top of you, so easing their burden for even a bit can mean the world to someone. Above all else, just be kind to them as well. Someone opening up to you about their struggles is an incredibly vulnerable state and people deserve to be protected in those moments, not dismissed. While it is not necessarily healthy to validate every feeling someone has, some level of validation will go a long way.
The collegiate esports dilemma
From a collegiate esports staff perspective, many programs are set up to make this problem much worse instead of helping. We as staff can do all the counseling of our students we want, but at the end of the day students are treated differently based on their rank and their competitive value to a program in many instances. Students are incentivized to rank up quickly over finding high quality and long term methods of improving because their starting spot, and in select instances their scholarship and ability to get an education, rides on their numerical performance. Situations like this make it impossible for players to separate their self worth from their in-game performance because instead of someone else inextricably linking the two in their head, it is happening in actuality.
For all but a select few of the extremely intrinsically motivated students, this link puts a stain on their time in collegiate esports and acts as a storm cloud overshadowing all of their experiences. No longer is grinding to improve motivated by wanting to find success with their teammates. Instead it becomes grinding to improve otherwise I may have to drop out. I understand that financial situations at universities and their esports programs are all different, but this is also a cultural shift that can be made, and one that I vow to push forward on in my own program too.
One area that we can most apparently influence is how we treat players from a variety of teams. No matter if a player is the substitute for a substitute on your sub-academy team or the star player of your varsity team, they should all be given the same respect, time, and care from the staff.
Something I became incredibly frustrated by while working as a high school teacher was how athletes, especially star athletes, were given special treatment by administration and their coaches in class. Come into class late, leave early, get off task for the purpose of the team, you name it. It was maddening because all it taught these players, and everyone else watching, was that performance could buy special treatment. That is not equitable in a team environment, especially in education, and cannot be allowed to stand in collegiate esports. Any sliver of this sort of treatment within programs can lead to it being normalized in the culture of a program and further harm the students who are already struggling with their self worth being tied to performance.
I know that competitive success means a great deal to esports programs, that is perfectly fine. What is not fine is treating players who are not competitively successful as if they are not worth your time. Making yourself equally accessible to all students and showing that you care about all students, regardless of performance, will help alleviate this significantly. This, coupled with recognizing the students who are struggling with some of the concepts mentioned in this piece and helping them through it, can make a world of difference.
In general, the ways collegiate esports unearths and amplifies mental health struggles is monumental and somewhat inherent to the industry. The full scope of this is beyond this paper, but I wanted to touch on the aspects specific to performance anxiety at least where relevant.
Your performance in-game does not determine your value as a human. No rank, scoreline, or leaderboard placement will change that you are a valuable and meaningful person in the lives of many others. Mentally torturing yourself over every imperfection will only lead to a severe degradation of your mental health and as a result, your performance. The path of healthy and sustainable progress is not paved with the corpse of your own sanity. It is 100% possible to improve at the cost of your mental health, but it is not a sustainable improvement. Something will always give. Instead, be kind to yourself, reframe things from a third-person perspective, and don't tie your ego to the outcome. Your own physical and mental health and wellness should always come before pixels on a screen.
Thank you for reading! I understand this topic is difficult to address so I wanted to get this out there to spark conversations about mental health and push us all to do better for the sake of both ourselves and others. If you would like to talk more about this, I would be happy to! You can find me on Twitter at @TheRogueCora and Discord at Rogue#6142, reach out any time!
ABOUT THE NECC
The NECC has sponsored both regular season competition and championships across a wide variety of popular titles since 2020. With more than 300 colleges and universities currently competing in the conference, the NECC strives to be a positive home for the collegiate gaming community. The NECC fosters innovative competition experiences, provides quality broadcasting services, and works to support an inclusive community within collegiate esports. The NECC was started as a way to provide the collegiate gaming community with the respect it warranted and deserved. The conference prides itself on responding to the needs of its schools, directors, coaches, and most importantly, its players.