How to Learn League of Legends from a Martial Arts & Chess Champion

How to Learn League of Legends from a Martial Arts & Chess Champion

Have you ever wondered not just how you can improve your game, but how you can improve the way you learn League of Legends and other disciplines?

Your approach to learning directly affects the number of games you win, how fast you climb the ranks and how capable you are of executing those super sick plays in the heat of the moment.

One of the best ways to learn how to learn is by studying top-tier performers, whether from League of Legends or any other field.

As a youth, Josh Waitzkin was an international chess champion and the only one to win the National Primary, Elementary, Junior High School, High School, U.S. Cadet, and U.S. Junior Closed and was also the subject of the Hollywood movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer.

Still young around 1998, Waitzkin had grown weary of chess, and it wasn’t long before he found Tai Chi as a new discipline, quickly moving to its martial form, Push Hands. In a few short years, Waitzkin went on to be the World Champion, even beating the notoriously tough Chinese opponents at the international tournament in Taiwan.

the art of learning book

Clearly, this man was on to something. Specifically, something that helped him master two deeply challenging, mentally demanding competitive sports, heavy in fighting, strategy and mind games. Sounds familiar…

Waitzkin’s book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance is a bible for those looking to ascend the ranks of any discipline. As a new player still learning the game, I returned to it recently for reminders on how I should practice.

The practical takeaways relevant to League of Legends are as profound as they are numerous. You’re about to have your approach to learning LoL changed for the better.

The two approaches to learning

So how do you learn League of Legends? In the book, Waitzkin cites a study conducted by Dr. Carol Dweck who researched the mentality needed for exceptional performance among children. And broadly speaking, there were two approaches to learning.

1. The entity theory

The entity theory was displayed by children who’d adopted a mentality that they were either good at something, or not so good. They attributed success or struggle to an inherent skill level which was not easily changed; a latent ability level that dictated the quality of the outcome.

2. The incremental theory

The second type of learner attributed their success to the fact they worked hard for it. Difficult tasks or lofty goals were achievable if they knuckled down and worked towards them incrementally. Even if they were novices at the time, through applying themselves, they could achieve mastery.

Anyone who wants to learn league of Legends and work their way up the ranks will recognize the lesson here. But it’s interesting to know these learning approaches are scientifically documented. It’s easy to throw your hands up in exasperation and announce, “well, I suck at this!” when you get punished for being out of position. But the reality is, if you truly commit to incrementally improving your game, you can become a master.

Numbers to leave numbers

You may have heard advice before that watching your own games is a powerful tool for learning. Waitzkin also uses this in his principal, and he calls it “numbers to leave numbers”:

“In the course of a nine-round chess tournament, I’d arrive at around four or five critical positions that I didn’t quite understand or in which I made an error. Immediately after each of my games, I quickly entered the moves into my computer, noting my thought process and how I felt emotionally at various stages of the battle. Then after the tournament, armed with these fresh impressions…When I looked at the critical position from my Tournament game, what had stumped me a few days or hours or weeks before now seemed perfectly apparent.”

Watching a 30-45 minute League replay of a game you just lost might seem like a chore. Surely, queuing another game is a better opportunity to learn LoL? Certainly it will be more fun for most of us. But go back to the replay and pull up the parts where you got rekt and you’re not sure why. Pick apart the situation with questions such as:

  • What was relevant about the match-up here?
  • What advantage did my opponent have that I failed to consider?
  • Were they at a key level breakpoint that opened up a skill that made a difference?
  • What toolkit does this champion have that I’m not so familiar with?
  • Was this player using an item or build I don’t know yet?

Over time, it pays off. And when you next find yourself in similar situations, you’ll be infinitely more likely to succeed.

The downward spiral

Most readers won’t need an explanation of “the downward spiral”. The slightest thing that bothers you is a potential precursor to something that bothers you a little bit more, and before you know it, you’ve spiraled down to full-blown tilt.

It’s important we acknowledge when things bug us, but not to dwell, rage or flame over them. Because our ability to learn League of Legends is seriously hindered when we do. Instead, we should aim to see mistakes as opportunities to get creative and claw back whatever advantage we may have just given away. As Waitzkin puts it:

“Musicians, actors, athletes, philosophers, scientists, writers understand that brilliant creations are often born of small errors. Problems set in if the performer has a brittle dependence on the safety of absolute perfection or duplication. Then an error triggers fear, detachment, uncertainty, or confusion that muddies the decision-making process.”

We’re all guilty of raging, and we all know it doesn’t help us win games. But now, it’s official. The downward spiral is a thing, and we must be weary and build discipline to avoiding it if we want to become truly competent players. In short, we need to enter “The Soft Zone”.

The Soft Zone

The tendency to let a bad start affect the rest of the game is sometimes tough to avoid. Especially if you’re on a rough streak. Maybe you missed your creep score benchmark, or maybe the killing spree announcement for the enemy team’s top laner gives you that distracting pang of loss in your gut.

A good opponent will take advantage of such chinks in your armor. They’ll be spurred on while that disappointment breaks your concentration, puts you slightly out of position, a snare lands, and the downward spiral looms overhead.

Waitzkin’s remedy to this is The Soft Zone. The analogy he uses is that of the blade of grass in a hurricane. No matter how hard the hurricane blows, the blade of grass will bend, but never break. When we let things bother us, we’re more like brittle twigs; easily snapped when pressure is applied.

Building your trigger

What can you do to enter in The Soft Zone at will? To cultivate flow and significantly increase your chances of a good performance each time, even when your ADC is feeding like they’re five cans deep into a six-pack? Waitzkin uses a process he calls “building a trigger”:

“…a problem I have seen in many inconsistent performers. They are frustrated and confused trying to find an inspiring catalyst for peak performance, as if the perfect motivational tool is hovering in the cosmos waiting for discovery. My method is to work backward and create the trigger.”

The steps to build a trigger go like this:

  1. Think back to a time when you were truly in a state of flow. A relaxed presence where you can really focus and enjoy what you’re doing. Maybe it was going skiing, maybe it’s playing catch with your parent or child (an example used in the book), having a particularly killer session where you got a pentakill. Waitzkin says that he’s “…observed that virtually all people have one or two activities that move them in this manner, but they usually dismiss them as “just taking a break.”
  2. Next up, Waitzkin recommends sitting down to eat a light snack before doing a meditative breathing exercise. Regarding the meditation, just sit, calm your mind and focus on your breath for 10 minutes. When your thoughts drift, come back to focus on your breath. It’s meditation 101. As for the snack, if you play 10 games of the League every day, that’s a lot of Doritos and Mountain Dew. Whether that’s your food of choice or you choose something healthier (probably recommended, let’s face it) just move straight on to the meditation if that feels right for you.
  3. Stretch your body out a little. In the case of gamers, stretching out wrists and hands might be a good thing to focus on. I myself used to suffer from pretty serious Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in the wrists, and I found that a particular sequence from a specific type of Yoga practiced 10 minutes a day practically healed the problem. I’ll be writing a detailed article and probably making a video in the future
  4. Listen to a little music. There’s something about music that helps build associations faster. Ever heard a track you associate with an earlier time of your life, maybe a great summer, and it instantly brings back all those memories? It’s the same idea for building your trigger. The track you use is up to you, but something calming, focusing, inspiring might be a good idea.
  5. Play League

So, to recap, remember a time in your life when you were in a state of relaxed flow, do a simple meditation exercise, stretch and add a little music to help associate that same calm, focused feeling with League games, and you’re sure to see your play improve.

Just like building the associations with anything, it takes a little time. But, the more we work on it, the more time we spend in an optimal learning state when playing League of Legends. As Waitzkin says:

“The point to this system of creating your own trigger is that a physiological connection is formed between the routine and the activity it precedes.”

Yes, with this routine, you may play a few games less per day or week. But the quality of your games can increase significantly.

Making sandals

When we find ourselves in sticky situations, we need to do what we can with what we’ve got. If you build your trigger and find your The Soft Zone, you’re more likely to avoid the downward spiral and get creative, or “make sandals.”

Top-tier performers work with what they have. They don’t wish things were different and get all salty when Teemo joins their Garen on the top lane in solo queue and no one uses the jungle; they make sandals and make the most of the situation. The concept comes from an Indian proverb which has Waitzkin describes in the book:

“A man wants to walk across the land, but the earth is covered with thorns. He has two options. One is to pave his road, to tame all of nature into compliance. The other is to make sandals. Making sandals is the internal solution. Like the Soft Zone, it does not base success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience.”

A good example might be if you’re playing a jungler, your top lane is getting zoned out of farm, and is maybe a couple of kills down. If your bot lane has a strong duo against a favorable enemy match-up, focus all your attention on the bottom lane rather than getting salty and flaming at your top laner. That’s working with what you’ve got to ensure success.

Investment in loss

This idea leads nicely onto the next learning principle which is “investment in loss”. Sometimes, when you go into a game and it becomes clear your ADC is greedy for kills and regularly playing way out of position (like I did for some games when I started playing Ashe), making sandals is easier said than done. The salt is real, and tilt is once again just around the corner.

But, the reality is, you’ll likely lose about 50% of your games anyway. So ensure you invest in those losses rather than let them be things you want to forget as soon as you’ve persuaded the rest of your team to surrender at 20 minutes. For example:

  • Can you have a good team fight elsewhere on the map and practice your positioning?
  • Can you beat your CS score and set new benchmarks?
  • Is there an opportunity to practice a different item build you’d been considering?

You might not win the game. But make it count towards improving your skill level, if not your win-loss ratio.

Making smaller circles

This concept is described by Waitzkin with the analogy of a straight jab; a fundamental of many martial arts.

If you want to make a big impact on the punch bag (the kind of impact that makes it fly back with force) the temptation is to wind your arm up far and then haul it at the target. That’s a problem because it’s easy for your opponent to spot the punch coming from miles away, and dodge it.

But really, the desired effect of the bag flying back comes from solid technique, not how far you can swing your arm back. So, after focused practice to get force flowing through your body, arm and eventually fist, it’s possible to see the same effect of the bag flying back without all of the unnecessary swinging back. A short, quick jab.

That’s how you make smaller circles. The same external result with the minimum effort expelled.

A good example of this in League (or any other MOBA) might be positioning your screen over a team fight with the mouse, otherwise known as camera control.

New players often don’t realize it, but the tendency in team fights is to spend too much time positioning and re-positioning the camera over the fight. Just watch yourself in a replay.

Every time you move your mouse to the edge of the screen to get a little more vision around the area, you move the cursor away from clicking a skill onto a target at a crucial moment and you’re much more likely to miss.

That means you waste valuable split seconds that can mean the difference between winning and losing a team fight, and ultimately the game. Although I do my best to make smaller circles with my camera positioning, and use the minimap for periphery vision, it’s definitely a process…

What else are you doing in League where you could achieve the same result with less effort?

Cultivating presence

Towards the end of the book, Waitzkin talks about cultivating presence. For example, if you’re:

  • Stressed out about losing
  • Overly excited about winning
  • Want to get this “bad” game over so you can hit the queue for a fresh start
  • Are hungry and want to finish the game so you can grab more Doritos

All of these things come at the expense of the moment. You’re there at your keyboard, but you’re not really present.

When we’re not present, we simply can’t perform to our greatest potential. Our minds are distracted and we’re unfocused.

A good example of this for me is when I see a precious opportunity to gank an enemy solo farming their lane, hoping no one will notice their plans for a sneaky backdoor push. I ping excitedly, head over there all amped up, and get so focused on the gank that my map awareness goes down the toilet.

Next thing I know, I’m getting unceremoniously destroyed by the enemy team who were watching me travel there the whole time, my backup was too far away for me to have engaged the gank in the first place and, after I’m deleted, my team mate’s next in line for an asswhooping.

By letting the excitement of something that might happen in the future (in this example, the seemingly imminent gank) whatever presence I may have had evaporated and my attention was not focused where it needs to be; in the moment. As Waitzkin says:

“If you get into a frenzy anticipating the moment that will decide your destiny, then when it arrives you will be overwrought with excitement and tension.”


It’s an amazing book and it’s great to see the parallels drawn between competitive eSports like League of Legends and other battle-heavy psychological games such as chess or martial arts. So let’s have a quick recap on how to use these principles to learn League of Legends faster and more effectively than you are right now.

Let’s do a quick recap:

  • First, remember that learning takes time and an incremental approach. You don’t suck; you just need focused, intentional practice.
  • Watch your old games at stages when you were stumped so you know what to do for next time instead of repeating the same mistake
  • Don’t get tilted, and be mindful of the things that start the downward spiral that leads you there.
  • Work on building your trigger to enter The Soft Zone at will
  • Invest in loss by learning and improving what you can while you’ve got a game loaded up anyway.
  • Keep cultivating presence, even when things get super exciting or downright spirit-crushing

If you do these things, you’ll be in Diamond V or higher before you know it, or at least much quicker than if you didn’t.


New information is easy to forget if you don’t review it. Our article on how to learn is very in-depth, so we’ve created this separate bullet point list of the concepts discussed to help them sink in and make it easier to apply the wisdom from Josh Waitzkin’s book.

Download this sheet to your phone, browse through it on the way to school or work, before you start a game or any other time when you see few minutes. By embedding this information in your mind, you’re much more likely to use it.

Download The Art of Learning Cheat Sheet