Jul 12, 2018 Written by: ROG

The mental coach taking Ninjas in Pyjamas' game to the next level

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Me and RezsmallMental coach Jens Hofer and Rez review before a game. (Via Ninjas in Pyjamas / Petter Nilsson)

In a sport unconstrained by physical limitations, breaking through barriers requires new tactics. Esports teams like NiP are expanding beyond typical strategic and team coaches, and taking creative cues from athletic pros by hiring a very different breed of coach: the kind for your mind.

From pro basketball to the Olympics, sports psychology has long been important for athletics. Growing evidence suggests that it works equally well for esports. Whether it’s your body or brain being pushed to its limits, psychology often decides those white-knuckle moments. It’s also a field that’s becoming increasingly necessary, as we discovered last year with Maria João Andrade, one of the Portugal’s only esports psychologists. Though her work focuses more on working with families and building Portugal’s nascent esports scene, it’s yet another example of how psychology intersects with esports in many different ways.

That’s exactly what Jens Hofer thought when he began looking for ways to enter the high stakes world of pro gaming. “It struck me that pro gamers would need a mental coach,” he says. After years of varied experience—first as a pro basketball player and coach, later as a special education and preschool teacher—he wanted to apply his experience to esports. And, after cold-calling different teams, he soon landed a job, first with Fnatic’s LCS team, later with NiP. But if you think esports psychology is like traditional therapy, think again. Hofer’s work is specifically tailored to pro gamers. After all, he has to get them to see blind spots, confront weaknesses, and break bad habits, all while competing for incredible sums of money in high stress competitions. No pressure, right?

Getting outside your head

Me and Get_RightsmallGeT_RiGhT says Hofer has helped him overcome extreme perfectionism for his entire team’s benefit. (Via Ninjas in Pyjamas / Petter Nilsson)

Unlike traditional therapy, Hofer’s work is “about competing at the highest level,” he says. Although esports relies heavily on strategic thinking rather than physical strength and speed, professional sports and esports aren't so different, in reality. Basketball players choke up as seconds tick down; gamers tilt in a key round's breathless, dwindling moments. Mental resilience, communication, and emotional control are crucial whether you're on a court or in the arena.

Mental coaching isn't about couches and psychoanalysis. Sessions are all about setting goals and seeing results. The mental coach identifies measurable milestones for each player. Then, in a short prep before practices, player and coach review their plans. Hofer says it's especially important to focus on just a few goals at once. “One player might focus on being able to reset after mistakes,” he says. “If he was able to handle three mistakes, we’ll try going for five mistakes and give him tools for handling them.”

Plagued by perfectionism, GeT_RiGhT says this was a struggle in the past. He was his own worst enemy in-game and out. “I’ve always been so cruel to myself,” he recalls. It was a constant feedback loop of trying to limit mistakes followed by an internal refrain of, "This isn't good enough." Hofer helped the legendary lurker shift his mindset and avoid fixating on failure. “I accept that I made the mistake instead of taking myself down,” GeT_RiGhT says. He now sees how ruminating on early-game mistakes jeopardizes the team. You can be so caught up feeling bad that you miss winning opportunities later on.

Controlling emotions is also vital, and it's a skill that veteran players can often still improve. Even 16 years into his career, f0rest has discovered that he's been able to learn and improve. After recently losing a map at Dreamhack, f0rest recalls how Hofer approached, saying he looked frustrated. “Once he said those words, I realized ‘S***. Yeah, that's true.’ That was not me, I was not being myself.” A few words from the mental coach were enough to get back on track: “For the next two maps I was the good old Patrik again and could focus on the game.” It may not sound complicated, but it’s difficult for players to get outside their own heads and work on mental blockers. Someone like Hofer helps them identify areas for improvement and make concrete changes.

Going beyond the game

Me prepping before gamesmallHofer preps before a game. He always tries to review a few points with players before matches. (Via Ninjas in Pyjamas / Petter Nilsson)

There’s a reason why pro gaming has earned a reputation for burning through young players like wildfire. “Esports has long, long days. There are no physical limits,” laments Hofer. Without outright warning signs like injuries, gamers can go long hours and push through their exhaustion. In tough times, they may double down on practice, fast tracking to social strife, burnout, and mental breakdowns. Even during good times, players can ignore key factors like eating well, taking breaks, and moving around.

This is why Hofer emphasizes practice quality over quantity. Since he's joined, NiP's CS:GO team has divided sessions into competitive and non-competitive practices. During the latter, players focus on personal and mental goals, not the scoreline.

The coach also gets them thinking about life beyond the practice room, beginning with physical health. First they did a month of morning team walks. Then he added basic exercises to maintain core, back, and leg strength, all crucial for extended gaming sessions. Now Hofer is surprised and delighted that some players are asking for more. f0rest asks for weekly check-ins to keep him disciplined, and, during tournaments, GeT_RiGhT asks for special morning workout wake-up calls. But their mental coach isn’t the only one who's floored by the differences.

staff-fullres-8smallCEO Hicham Chahine (left) and player-turned-manager HeatoN are impressed by the differences they’ve seen in the team, thanks to mental coaching.

I saw GeT RiGhT at the gym!” exclaims CEO Hicham Chahine. “Rest my case, there,” says team manager Emil ‘HeatoN’ Christensen with a decisive nod, as if that settles it. Chahine also regales us with a tale about offering f0rest a soda one late night in Marseilles. He was swiftly shot down: “f0rest’s like, ‘We're not allowed to drink that, it has caffeine, which means it will affect your sleep,’” the CEO recalls with comedically wide eyes. A pro gamer who turned down a caffeinated drink? To hear them tell it, it’s a brave new world of uncharted firsts with Jens Hofer at the forefront.

An invisible hero

The mental coach's greatest value is often undetectable by outsiders. “Jens is a really important piece of the puzzle in our team,” says coach Faruk ‘Pita’ Pita, quiet respect filling his voice. As a CS spectator, Pita says, you can see how the team coach performs. You can see how the players perform. But someone like Jens Hofer is an invisible force. You see the ripples beneath the surface, though you may never know what happened.

The team coach emphasizes how pivotal it is having Hofer there during competitions when emotions are running especially high. The mental coach is an unwavering island of calm; a stark contrast to whatever emotions Pita must channel in any given moment. Hofer admits that he's not immune to the pressure: “I have to admit, once we’re in semifinals and finals, and it gets really close, I’m boiling inside as well.” But he must have an incredible poker face because everyone thinks he’s calm all the time.

While Pita specializes in tactics and gameplay, a mental coach like Hofer is instrumental in handling players’ mindsets. “He brings a lot of stability,” Pita says. “He knows, even from small movements during the game, who is angry, who is stressed, who is too calm.” It’s Hofer's job to be eerily attuned to players’ individual characteristics. He also monitors the in-game comms, so, as soon as something is off in the heat of battle, he knows how to respond. And players know they can always look between their monitors and see him there, being his calm self.

“What Jens is doing for this team, no one from outside can measure it,” Pita says. “He’s a big reason for every success that we have. Who knows, he might be the reason we win a final. But no one will know that. Only me and the players.”

Reaching their full potential

Me and DrakensmallDraken and Hofer chat during Dreamhack Masters. (Via Ninjas in Pyjamas / Petter Nilsson)

Interestingly, players aren't required to work with Hofer. There are no obligatory appointments. Yet, the entire CS:GO team not only chooses to spend time working with him, but sings his praises. This, in itself, is a testament to who Jens Hofer is as both a mental coach and a person. His impact on the team is immeasurable. Ninjas in Pyjamas is a changed place since he arrived.

When I first ask GeT_RiGhT about Hofer, there’s a very long pause. “Jens Hofer is a very special guy,” he finally says in a thoughtful tone. “Especially because he doesn't come from esports. He always has a different point of view than the rest of us, but he's never wrong.” The mental coach has especially helped the veteran player realize he doesn't need an armor and shield all the time; it’s okay to be his authentic self. “He’s helped me as a player, but more as a human being."

From CEO Hicham Chahine’s perspective, this is exactly why Hofer came onboard: “He’s there to give comfort, to support, to inspire.” Sure, it's about eking out that last 5% of performance, but it’s about more than that. It’s about helping players become better people, too. Whatever they need to work on, and wherever their blind spots may be, Hofer can help them get there.

behindthescenesd1-fullres-26smallEven veteran players like f0rest and GeT_RiGhT have discovered they greatly benefit from mental coaching.

For the NiP mental coach, this is exactly where he wants to be. He has a long-term vision for each player. And, beyond that, he loves the job: “You get to be part of somebody’s life. They open up to you, and you get to be part of their journey along the way. That's pretty special, actually.”

In the future, Hofer hopes all teams will have a mental coach, even if they can’t hire someone like him full-time. It's difficult imagining teams reaching their full potential without incorporating esports psychology. And the field is only getting bigger; SKT, Fnatic, and Astralis are only a few of the top-tier teams turning to mental coaches. As more teams catch on to the benefits, one thing is very clear: if those mental coaches are even half as good as Hofer, those players will be very lucky indeed.

By Kimberly Koenig

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