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As Chinese Funplus Phoenix Esports (FPX) topple favourites – was Sport Psychology the secret weapon?



Author: SRI China

Since FPX was established in 2017, it has focused on streamlining the club’s operations and increasing the team’s professionalism. Their efforts clearly paid off: in the face-off with European champion team G2 at the 2019 League of Legends World Championship (S9) finals in Paris, France, FPX came through with a clean win of 3-0. FPX took a leaf out of mainstream sports and hired a sport psychologist for its athletes. This key hire was to assist FPX athletes in refining their macro and mechanical skills and ultimately create a cohesive team made up of strong individual athletes.

In 2018, SRI was engaged as FPX’s exclusive search partner for this role, a role that was set to change the game in both sport psychology and esports. After an intensive search, FPX announced that Jiejie Liu from the sport psychology department of Beijing Sport University was to join the club at the beginning of 2019. Under the guidance of renowned sport psychologist Professor Liwei Zhang, Liu formerly served as a sport psychologist for China’s rhythmic gymnastics team, trampoline team, and freestyle ski team, providing long-term counselling support and services. She worked extensively with national athletes of different ages in handling the mental aspect of competing in major games.

Liu, carefully observed the performance of every athlete under her care, and helped them to, amongst other things, manage their pre-competition nerves and the fatigue of grinding away at a game during practice for hours on end. During the competition season, she implemented a series of interventive measures designed to create the best mental and physical conditions for her athletes. Liu worked closely with the team throughout the season in Europe and in November, FPX achieved ultimate victory at the S9 World Championship.

Jiejie Liu pictured with the League of Legend’s Summoner’s Cup

On returning from Paris, Liu shared her insights with SRI.


SRI: Jiejie, thank you for your time. After working in the traditional sport psychology space, what made you consider transitioning to esports?

Jiejie: Career opportunities for someone with my background were limited to regional or national teams so the prospect of sport psychology in esports is very new and very exciting. I personally feel that esports has incredible potential and it is so influential especially among the younger generations. I wanted change and I wanted to challenge myself professionally.

S: Traditional sports and esports are very different areas to work in. Do you personally feel the difference?

J: Yes. There are equally many gratifying and challenging differences. There’s a psychologist in Finland called Mia Stellberg who oversaw this year’s T19 champion team OG. She once said, “When I was working in mainstream sports with traditional athletes, I was full of ideas about how to elevate an athlete’s mental game, but the Olympic committee would always tell me to slow down. They tried to convince me that trying something different would jeopardize my 20-year track record in the industry. For someone like me who was professionally trained and had so much that I wanted to offer, it was very disheartening. But in esports, it is completely different. Esports is constantly pushing for innovation.” I share her sentiments. Esports is a new arena and esports psychology is growing together with it so there is a lot of room for me to do more and to do it differently.

Of course, there are downsides too. In my previous jobs, I had mentor figures with whom I could discuss problems and find solutions together. In esports, there are presently very few full-time sport psychologists and sometimes it can feel quite isolating.

S: As a sport psychologist, how do you think you can contribute to the development of esports athletes?

J: From a psychological perspective, esports is extremely gruelling on an athlete’s focus, their ability to keep their emotions in check, teamwork and self-discipline. A top esports athlete also needs to be able to deal with media pressures like cyber abuse and maintaining their public image. But the most important role that psychology plays is carrying out mental assessments and counselling during the selection and training of athletes, as well as helping athletes manage the pressures throughout a competition season so that they can perform their best.

S: What do you think is the significance of esports and sport psychology coming together?

J: Right now, the demand for sport psychology in esports is coming directly from individual clubs keen on developing the psychological aspect of their athletes but the industry itself is still only warming up to the idea. Esports has created a breakthrough in traditional sport psychology and sport psychology is enhancing the quality of athlete performance. It is indisputably a positive trend to see sport psychology integrating into esports.

S: What do you think is the greatest challenge to an athlete while preparing for a competition? As their sport psychologist, what are some of the challenges that you have faced during the S9 season?

J: There are so many factors that can influence the preparation for a competition and the psychological element is but one. The coach would be the better person to answer this question. As to the challenges that I or we have faced, there have been plenty. For example, I had to consider the way I interact with the team and the coach to build a trusting relationship. Also, FPX is a young team; before the S9, none of them had participated in a world championship final so it was a new experience for all of us. Competing against teams from all over the world, dealing with the media, playing live in an arena of this scale as well as playing in a foreign venue were all obstacles that we as a team of athletes, coach and staff had to face together.

S: How did you overcome these obstacles that you mentioned? And how did you prepare for unforeseen changes during the S9 competition?

J: It was our first time participating in the S9 so sticking to what we normally do was the best approach. As their psychologist, I needed to help them distinguish between what was and was not within their control and focus on only the former. It is normal for athletes to feel pre-competition jitters but support from their teammates and coach usually helps.

The beauty of sport lies in its unpredictability. This is especially so in esports where stronger teams often unexpectedly lose out to weaker teams and this can be seen across all levels of competition. Many world-class athletes would display signs of “choking” or a mental freeze after making a mistake during a key moment of the game; they cannot cope with the mental pressure. From a club’s perspective, they want to minimize such occurrences and naturally they turn to sport psychology for a solution.

Author’s Note:

In 2018, Tencent hired a team of sport psychologists for all participating clubs in the League of Legends Pro League to oversee the athletes’ mental preparation. In order to build rapport and long-term support to its athletes, FPX decided to include a full-time permanent psychologist to its support staff. The performance of FPX at the World Championship this year was also proof that that professionalism and smooth club operations are key to success. It was a privilege to partner with FPX and use our 20 over years of experience and connections to find the best talent to help grow esports in China.

ENDS

For an introduction to SRI and what we do, please contact us – 

Chunlan (Helen) Yu
Senior Consultant – China Lead
T: +86 173 0126 8683
cyu@sriexecutive.com

With over 15 years recruiting experience, Chunlan has expertise in ensuring candidates match business and cultural needs for a variety of clients. Her combined in-house staffing and executive search experience has been gained at organisations including NBA, Baidu, Canaan and Spencer Stuart. Her functional capabilities are firmly in line with SRI’s ‘mastering disruption’ business model. Having worked for large MNC and local Chinese companies across Beijing & Shanghai, Chunlan has an unrivalled network and strong understanding of the China market.

Bo Shang
Researcher
T: +86 189 1025 1737
bshang@sriexecutive.com

As an experienced sport veteran, Bo specialises in commercial executive search, performance and sport science, and has a broad network of contacts across China. Bo works closely with clubs, leagues, agencies, brands and governing bodies to source transformational talent. Prior to joining SRI, Bo played an instrumental role at Lander Sports Development in managing the organisation’s Southampton F.C. acquisition.