Plateau. Few words are more frightening to a person in pursuit of a goal, and given that this is a series about improving at fighting games, we’re talking about sharpening stick skills. To plateau means to stop improving. It’s like trying to drive a car in neutral, you aren’t moving forward, but you aren’t slipping back (well… unless you are on a hill, but I digress). In the arena of playing competitive fighting games, this means not progressing against an opponent, still falling for the same tricks, failing to learn from your mistakes or never improving your placement in tournaments. The list goes on and on. How exactly do you recognize if you’re “plateauing”? How can you move past this point? In this week’s RipTen Dojo, I hope to be able to answer these questions.

Hitting the wall in your training is incredibly frustrating, but it is something that most players go through at some point. The most important part is to come to terms with how much you honestly want to improve. Plateauing can be the result of lazy practice patterns or an unwillingness to continue to learn new material. It could also be the result of a complete lack of challenge giving the false perception that you don’t need get better (big fish in a small pond syndrome).

This is exactly why plateaus are so often encountered. There are entirely too many ways for players to hit this stage in their fighting career. However, they also make you reevaluate how much you care about improving and playing the game in the first place. Perhaps it was not meant to be, and you should move on to other things.

You will rarely be able to avoid hitting a plateau. It’s most likely going to happen to you and there’s more or less nothing you can do to stop it.

Basing your entire strategy around one horrible idea is, well, a horrible idea.

That’s right, you are likely going to end up at a point where your improvement will slow, and chances are, it’s going to last for a while. At first, you may find yourself making excuses for stumbling. Losing matches might be blamed on the fact that it was a bad matchup for your character or an opponent simply being too good. Hitting a plateau is a wakeup call. You can either recognize that you’re not getting better and break through, or give up and stay where you are.

Thankfully, breaking through the wall isn’t always as hard as it seems. There are a few things I like to go through when I feel that I’ve stopped progressing in order to reassess my weaknesses and start walking the path to improvement again. For starters, I like to go through my old replays, if possible. Considering most modern fighting games feature a system for reviewing old matches (some of which even allow you to do so in slow motion), being able to go and look through my losses is always something I jump at. One of the things I’ve started to do is narrate my replays and say what I was thinking as each move is executed. If I can put myself in the exact mindset that I was in and understand what I was thinking when something did or didn’t work, I can start to change bad patterns. If I can recognize where and why I made mistakes, then I can start to fix them. Sure, it may sound incredibly strange, but it helps me become more active in my thinking instead of just passively watching a video of myself.

Being able to watch my replays allows me not only to see where I’m making errors, but to see what works against me. At times when I go through losses, I make it a point to write down things that I have trouble with. Perhaps it’s knowing the spacing of an opponent’s poke, or learning how much of a frame advantage or disadvantage I get after blocking an attack, regardless there are always things to find in your old matches. Go over why you were hit, and see if you couldn’t have reasonably found a way to avoid the damage or a better move you could have made. Learn that you have the potential to win every match against every opponent, if you can move past your own barriers.

Lastly, if you feel that you are still not progressing after trying both of these methods and refocusing your strategy, take some time off. Step away from the game to clear your head and focus on other things. If or when you decide to come back, you’ll return with a fresh perspective, which can make all the difference. Taking time off can be incredibly important for skill progression, as well as your own mental health. Don’t be afraid to walk away from the thing you love every once in a while. The game will still be there when you get back.

Bruce Lee knew more than a few things about plateaus and self improvement.

I’d like to close with a quote from Bruce Lee that’s become quite a personal favorite of mine.

“If you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there. You must go beyond them.”