How To Improve Without Playing

Apr 13 2021 4 min read

UltraDavid explains the many ways you can improve at a video game without actively playing them.

I don't know about you, but I can't play fighting games all the time. Whether it's due to work, school, family, friends, burnout, boredom, or anything else, for most of us, the time we can spend on fighting games is limited. I've been thinking about this because personally, I've only played four times in the last month! I miss it of course, but I also feel that I've been productive in improving even still.

How can I feel that I've still been improving even without actively playing? Because fighting games are at least as much a mental exercise as a physical one, and the brain can keep working even when the hands cannot. Yes, even when you can't play a game, you can still find ways to improve in it.

Outside Inspiration

For me, a good play session lasts at least an hour without other obligations that might take my mind off the game. If I don't have that much time or headspace at once, I'd rather not get involved. But while I may not have a contiguous block of time to myself, I almost always find little moments of availability interspersed here and there.

One way to improve without playing is to use these moments to help outsource your improvement. In other words, use this time to get ideas while watching other people play! We have a wealth of stream footage and YouTube videos from strong players and knowledgeable teachers available to us. Use these moments to watch them, and in doing so, try to put yourself in the place of the player or their opponent, try to think critically about their decision-making, try to recognize their motivations, and try to notice if they do anything you haven't seen before. In this way, you'll often find things that you can use in your own game next time you play. I don't remember everything I come across like this, so sometimes I'll even take notes on what to use in the future.

When I eat breakfast and do my exercise routine in the morning, I usually do it while watching fighting game YouTube videos. When I'm winding down before bed, I often do it over a friendly fighting game stream. And while I'm taking short work breaks or waiting for clients to get back to me during the day, I often do it over fighting game content as well. There are lots of other ways to use these little moments of freedom of course, many of which are more important than fighting games. But don't forget that this time can help you find ways to improve as well!

Thought Experiments

If you're anything like me, you may find that you don't need to be actively playing a game to find yourself thinking about it. I know in my case, it's not uncommon to have dreams about a character I like, whether in full form at night or little daydreams while zoning out during work breaks. Once you're well enough acquainted with a game or a character, these little departures into make-believe gaming may come in handy for finding ways to improve as well.

Have you identified a specific issue that's been causing you problems when you've played recently? Do you have an understanding of your potential options without needing to have the game on in front of you? If so, try focusing your wandering brain on making some guesses as to how your options might work in your problem situation. You can't know for sure without trying it in game at some point, but you can absolutely come up with solutions beforehand.

The next time you get some free minutes to think about a game, or the next time you suddenly realize that you've been thinking about a game for the last few minutes, remember or write down what you thought about. These thoughts often carry nuggets of new knowledge in them, or at least represent the kind of creativity you may need to find new solutions.

Chill Out

Burnout is a common issue for players at every level, from new players to major tournament winners. Improvement is largely a story of climbing cliffs and then walking plateaus, of spurts of new skills and approaches followed by periods of acclimatization and stagnation. Oftentimes, those periods of stagnation come because we don't yet recognize what our next step should be. Sometimes, those periods even turn into frustration, anger, and fatigue.

In these situations, intentionally taking some time away from the game can help to reset your brain and regenerate your drive. In doing so, I've often found that when I finally come back to the game, I'm better than the last time I played even if I haven't been thinking about the game in the meantime. If you find that you're getting burned out, use the free time you'd spend being mad at your game to pick up another game, read a book, hang out with friends and family, and so on. And when you finally feel the urge to return to your game, you may notice a new cliff to climb that you never saw before.

Good Luck

Naturally, not playing is not all positive. Certain skills must be either actively maintained or drilled so relentlessly for so long that they can never be forgotten. At certain levels of play, getting more time under your belt is essential, whether you're still figuring things out or are at the cusp of overcoming a plateau. And some things, like testing theories you've come up with while away from the game, must ultimately be actively tried and tested in game.

But nevertheless, being away from your game for a while doesn't mean you can't find ways to improve. Good luck implementing these ideas!


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