Reflecting on personal health, burnout, and fighting games
My life is incredibly blessed in all kinds of ways. It has also gotten increasingly stressful over the last few years, mostly due to a combination of life circumstances, a pandemic, and a neverending series of political nightmares. I came into the end of 2021 feeling like something about my life was unsustainable and needed to change, and the holidays afforded me some time to reflect on how I could make things a little easier for myself. As always, nothing in my life happens without fighting games being involved somehow, so I figured I’d write about it.
On identifying burnout and being a goddamn idiot
I’ve written previously about how much I like New Year’s resolutions. They’re a great ritual for reflecting on my day-to-day life and committing to small changes, like daily or weekly habits (like flossing!), that can add up to significant change over the long run. So, while reflecting on 2021 during the holidays, I realized that I had been carrying a lot of physical and mental stress that had just kind of built up over time, and it had added up to keep me in a state of persistent burnout which stuck around even if I took a week or two off of work.
This is somewhat self-inflicted, of course, since I do a lot of stuff besides just the day job (which is itself a handful). I spend most evenings trying to cram in a workout, a snack, and maybe a quick nap before streaming a tournament or a training session or an interview. Saturdays are for locals or seeing friends (when it’s safe, anyway), and Sundays are for writing, errands, and meal prep before getting back into another busy week.
I do all this stuff because I find things I love to do and cannot bear to give them up. I want to be a writer, teacher, tournament organizer, martial artist, game developer, husband, and the best goddamn Chipp in the business, and my road to that life is one of small decisions made every day over the course of decades. So the answer for me is not to “do less stuff” if at all possible — and, anyway, I had found that when I actually did do less stuff, it didn’t necessarily leave me feeling less stressed or unhealthy.
Indeed, it took me a little while to understand what “burnout” meant for me; it wasn’t that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing, it was that I wasn’t able to bring a very good version of me to those things because I wasn’t taking care of myself, and I wasn’t taking care of myself because I wasn’t quite sure of what I needed to do. I thought I was taking care of myself by eating well and exercising consistently, but it wasn’t enough to stop my brain and body from just feeling kind of tired all the time, so something needed to change.
I went through my weekly routine and tried to pinpoint all the little things that felt like they cost me something. Some of these were things that I could solve by buying stuff — for example, my home desk situation was a nightmare I had neglected for far too long considering how much time I spend at it for work and recreation, so anything I could spend on making that suck less was money well spent. (I’m about a month into my switch to a standing desk and I swear some of my ongoing hand and wrist issues just about vanished overnight!)
But it was while thinking through some of the routines I had seen professional mixed martial artists develop in order to gear up for competition that I realized that the thing I was neglecting the most was my recovery. Spectators and fans of combat sports are well versed in the mythological extremes that world-class athletes will put themselves through in order to build up to optimal performance, but the part that usually goes unnoticed is that they need to spend just as much time on helping their body recover from all the work or risk injury. This isn’t just sitting on the couch, mind you; it can be physical therapy to rehab injuries or strengthen at-risk areas, flexibility and mobility training to reduce the risk of injury, bodywork and contrast bathing to speed up muscle recovery, and so on. The more you train, the more time you need to spend on recovery.
This was the kind of thing I had generally failed to prioritize in my daily routine, for no other reason than I had failed to heed all the signs that told me I should do otherwise. I had never convinced myself to stick to a stretching routine, or yoga, even though I always felt better when I did it, because I always felt like my time spent doing strength or skill training was more valuable. I hurt my left shoulder while lifting over six months ago and was too caught up in the daily grind to a) see a doctor or b) look up some rehab exercises on my own. I had a perfectly good mobility warmup routine from a personal trainer I had seen years ago that I stopped using after a month even though I always felt great after doing it. I had trained in enough high-performance athletic environments to know what kinds of workouts I could do (or at least, the ones I was able to do at 25), but I wasn’t putting in the effort required to recover properly (because when I was 25 I didn’t have to).
I’m sure you can see the pattern here: I find something that feels good, and I don’t keep it in my life because I am too busy chasing my sense of progress towards other arbitrary goals (like hitting a personal record lift, or drilling a specific set of techniques). I’ve been actively cultivating my knowledge of how to train my body for literally half my life, and I’ve learned so many things that make it feel strong and healthy, but I wasn’t doing them. Not because I “didn’t have time” to do it, mind you — it was just that I was too busy prioritizing the things I thought I wanted instead of the things my body was telling me I needed.
So I sat down and rewrote my routine into just a list of activities I liked doing. Short morning yoga warmups (shoutouts to Yoga with Adriene’s amazing YouTube channel), evening workouts that mix physical therapy and powerlifting and boxing and rowing, cooldown routines with lots of foam rolling and warm baths. Just three weeks into the new year and I’m already feeling a lot better. It’s also been a good reminder that if you go deep into a physical hobby, your mindset flips from “do [activity] so you can be healthy”, into “be healthy, so you can do [activity]”.
The part where I talk about fighting games
I often describe playing fighting games as the video game equivalent of lifting weights with your brain. Both activities involve practicing a specific set of movements and training to perform them under additional stress; in the gym, it’s the literal weight you’re lifting, and in the game, it’s the time stress brought on from reacting to your opponent. Both activities are also satisfying when you make progress, because things that used to be hard become easy, and so you move on to find new hard things until they also become easy. It’s just that weightlifting tests your body first and your mind second, and fighting games are in the reverse order.
To continue the analogy, the part of my fighting game practice that I had neglected most egregiously wasn’t lab time or replay analysis, it was the active recovery for my brain. My built-up mental fatigue and irritation made it harder for me to concentrate while playing, more likely to tilt after dropping a combo, or needlessly second-guess my decisions under pressure. And during my downtime from work or games, I felt like I was too tired, and my attention span too shot, to do anything besides cycle through a bunch of stupid phone apps, which is not exactly restorative these days.
I am describing this pretty matter-of-factly, but the reality is that even though I could see the facts in front of me as plain as day, it was hard for me to describe this physical and mental stress in a way that made me feel like it was fixable. I would just tell myself that I was stressed and tired because my job was kicking my ass on top of a pandemic and a neverending set of political crises and my shoulder hurt because I’m getting old. All of this might be true, but framing it this way means there’s nothing that I can personally do to fix the stress or the pain.
If the shoulder injury was my cue to revisit my physical health and realize that I had spent the last several years neglecting certain habits, fighting games were my catalyst to check in with my mental health and see what I was missing in my routine. By any outward marker of physical health, I was in good enough shape for a guy in his mid-30s; when it comes to mental health, I’ve generally been keeping together pretty well (all things considered). I would have likely been able to continue in this direction of general decline for years before anything in my body or mind gave out hard, and once that happened I’d probably look around and realize I was pretty deep in the hole.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen. I do stuff that pushes me, and my performance under that pressure is what gives me the perspective to see where my cracks are and look for ways to fix them before they become a problem for everyday life. I may be stressed out because we’re living through a pandemic, but I was still stressed out before the pandemic, so clearly there are other things I can look to fix. Getting my body into a healthier place has certainly helped my mind as well, and spending more time on physical maintenance has meant less time getting angry at the Internet. I’ve also gotten back into regular daily meditation (another thing that I did because it made me feel better, and stopped doing because I’m a fool) and I’ve been reminded that a lot of basic mindfulness techniques are directly applicable in fighting games to help maintain mental stability and focus.
And while doing all this to play fighting games better feels good, perhaps the sweetest payoff is that being able to see these small decisions add up to a major impact on how I feel during any given day makes me feel hungrier to change more of the things in my life that cause stress. It’s not easy to make yourself feel better than you did the day before, but if there’s one thing we love, it’s turning hard things into easy ones.
I don’t think there’s any convenient takeaway here. Yeah, you should do what you can to stay in shape, both physically and mentally, and if fighting games give you a reason to build some good wellness habits earlier in life, that’s fuckin’ awesome. But speaking more broadly, I hope that you can take the time to look at whatever weight you’re carrying around in life and see if you can’t find a way to make it a little lighter.
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