Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Reactive Mind

In an email conversation today (the other day now) the post topic came up peripherally--okay, so I brought it up--and afterwards I thought it might make for a worthwhile post. (So here we are.) Everyone (with even a modicum of critical thinking) eventually realizes one of the largest pieces of the puzzle in making "great" players is something we don't often talk about--the mental game. Other than of course you have to be mental to play this game. Our conversation was broadly about the suitability of players to styles of play and I brought up the distinction between the proactive and reactive player types--and all the elements that tend to push players toward the reactive mind. (Not the best choice.) Since we didn't take it any further I'd like to do that here. (Which makes this being my blog rather convenient.)
One reason the mental game remains less thoroughly explored (in all sports) is because it's difficult to discuss. Mere words frequently seem inadequate expressions of what's going on inside the mind. And this will be no exception so bear with me and see if, in the end, this makes any sense to you.
The proactive player is actively (naturally) engaged in controlling the play and making things happen. And if you have learned nothing from competitive paintball you should have grokked by now that it is always better to give than to receive. The proactive mind is totally focused on the game, on the imposition of the player's will and playing the game wholly in the moment. The reactive mind--even when the player wants to be the aggressor--and completely in the moment--is encumbered and inhibits that effort for a variety of reasons. The most common reasons are nature, uncertainty and fear, both singly and as a collective stew. Nature, in this instance, is a function of the gene lottery and what that means in each individual case. Some people are more cautious than others, more thoughtful before they act, more inclined to weigh risk or avoid a mistake and less inclined to make snap decisions. So in one sense the reactive mind is perfectly understandable, rational and no doubt comes in handy on lots of occasions--just not so much playing competitive ball where it causes indecision and unnecessary delay and can cede the initiative to your opponent. But other factors can also trigger the reactive mind like uncertainty and fear. Uncertainty creates hesitation and that is when the reactive mind is engaged. Uncertainty is sourced in any number of concerns but broadly comes down to insufficient information (with which to make an immediate and/or comfortable decision) or a lack of experience--which can amount to the same thing in some situations. Fear works on the reactive mind like one's normal inclinations and uncertainty but also adds a more debilitating component; it also functions at an emotional level. While fear may serve a valuable life preserving function in sport it tends to produce a feedback loop of failure and it doesn't matter whether it's perceived or real. All of which makes fear particularly difficult to overcome. That and the fact that most players who exhibit signs of the reactive mind will deny to themselves and everyone else they fall prey to fear at times.

Next time (maybe) some practical ways to counter the reactive mind. 


Anonymous said...


Is it possible to have a "truly" reactive mind? Are you not always assessing the situation and acting upon your knowledge (and gut)?

I guess what I'm asking is: isn't a proactive mind just a faster thinking reactive mind or am I missing something?

Interesting post btw!

Old in 402 said...

My theory is that we all have proactive and reactive functions of our brain. It is when we allow the reactive thinking to secede in favor of proactive thinking that we embrace our proactive mind. It is the frequency at which this occurs on the paintball field that becomes a valuable asset.

In theory familiarity and preparation should help court our proactive mind into taking over. Developing experience via practicing game scenarios, making it to finals, field walking, etc, all go to relieve the fear and uncertainty we have. But at the highest levels, where experience is plentiful does a natural, more genetic, ability exist to push our will beyond those of our peers?

Nick Brockdorff said...

Very good post Baca and an incredibly interesting topic. - The mental aspect is often talked down way too much in paintball.

People tend to forget paintball is not a physical sport - well it is to a degree - but it is much more a mental game, in the sense that - as opposed to many other sports - you can win at paintball solely by being smart, and beat opponents that are physically and technically superior.

In most sports, you succeed mostly by a combination of technical and physical ability... while in paintball, neither is the ultimate decider of being good.

In paintball, even in a basic thing like a one on one gun battle, success is not determined by whether you are a technically good snap shot or physically fit, but instead whether you out think the guy, and win by timing, choice of from where to shoot, when to shoot, when to move, etc.

Paintball, in essence, will always be a mental game, fortunately :)

....if the bunker and field designers of the world don't kill off the sport before, by making idiotic bunkers and defensive one dimensional field designs ;)

(rant over - sorry - I am under the influence :D)

Anonymous said...

Sorry I put "truly reactive" where what I meant was "truly proactive".

After a quick Google I'm reading that proactive thinking is "thinking ahead of anticipated events".

So now I'm thinking that it is about understanding how the game will unfold and how you can act to put the odds in your favour? Planning "moves ahead" so to speak :)

Nick, while I agree paintball is largely mental I'm not sure you can win a 1 on 1 gun battle with 0 level technical skills. That said a player with poor technical skills is unlikely to understand paintball as well as a technically superior player, and therefore cannot outsmart him :P

anon 10:44

Nick Brockdorff said...

Degrees dude :)

If we deal in absolutes, it's difficult to ever agree on anything.

Baca Loco said...

Anon & 402
We'll get more into in the next post but in most cases the less conscious thinking the better.
This is what most sports psychologists are working toward--getting athletes out of their own way.

I think you will be surprised by how the best teams will find ways to play the MAO layout. :)

Nick Brockdorff said...

Oh, I wasn't specifically thinking of the MAO layout - while it is a defensive layout, it is at least an attempt to be creative, which is a positive.

My general gripe with field designs, is that they are often made so only the wires can be pushed (from end to end). Those designs make the game very one dimensional and stifles creative play.