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Breaking Through – On the Defensive

While I was taking classes to become a certified addictions counselor, we learned a lot about specific drugs and their effects on the mind and body, but more importantly, we learned about ways to counsel those looking to start the road to recovery. Most of the ideas were fairly cliché, and the methods nothing surprising, but it was still important to really listen to them, as the messages they conveyed were life changing when fully understood. I like to apply my field of study to Magic whenever possible, but it isn’t to see the connection here, and for good reason. If you go overboard on the controlled substances you won’t be good at Magic? Well, probably not, but lets take it a step further.

You see, one of the problems with trying to counsel people about their drug problems is that they often do not view them as a problem. Occasionally you will encounter an individual who has recognized that they have hit rock bottom and willingly wants help, but more often than not, through disciplinary action or the insistence by loved ones, addicts get sent your way with a sense of stubbornness about them. Any reasonable person can see that what they have turned their life into is unhealthy, but they choose to scrap, claw, lie, or “forget” key details just to formulate an argument that justifies their lifestyle in their own eyes.

Back to Magic now, what does this sound like to you? Well, I know from personal experience that it sounds like me. It also sounds like many of the players I have played with, at least on occasion. No, they are not trying to justify self-depreciation through illegal substances, but rather a poor line of play, deck choice, or mulligan decision. Yes, these things are drastically different as far as results are concerned, but the mechanics within are surprisingly similar.

In both scenarios, the individual is using defense mechanisms to save face. In scenario A, the individual wants to have an excuse to continue to do what he or she is doing, because they are having fun doing so. In scenario B, the individual wants to have an excuse to cover up a poor line of play to protect their ego, or justify to themselves that line should it occur in the future. In both scenarios, the individual is refusing to learn and move forward, putting mistakes they have made in the past and bettering themselves in the process.

We are often told that one of the ways for us to improve as players is to play with those that are better than us. This is partially so that we can view their play and get into their minds a little bit about why they make plays the way that they do. The other reason is that they can assess your play while looking over your shoulder. This comes as a double-edged sword though much of the time. Because you know they are good players, you want to impress them and fit in. If you feel you can accomplish this by proving to them that you are good, or of about equal skill level, when you are faced with information that goes against that, your defense mechanisms spring to action.

What comes out of your mouth may not be logical or even make sense, but it is your way of justifying your actions in an effort to cover up any embarrassment that may have resulted. Much of this comes from habit dating back to your childhood. When a kid would make fun of you on the playground, calling you fat or dumb, you would retaliate in one of two ways: You would either lash back, making fun of the bully in some way, or you would debunk their accusation with proof of the opposite. Now fast forward a decade or two. Your goal is to fit in with this group of people and prove your worth. You probably won’t be able to accomplish this through making fun of them or calling out their bad plays in a mocking manner (more on this in an aside later), but you can try to save face by debunking their poor play accusations, at least in your own mind that is.

So naturally, you begin to concoct a defense of the subject matter in question. You twist the game state as is appropriate and misrepresent parts of your deck, just so that these players don’t think less of you. Meanwhile, in the eyes of everyone other than yourself, they can pretty easily see you digging this hole for yourself that you will eventually be buried in.

(Aside: While it would make you uncomfortable to return fire against these better players in person, therefore leading you to be defensive instead, that fear is removed when the internet is introduced. This leads to the comments section that we see in just about every video done by a third party. Some viewers see the opportunity to make themselves feel better by lashing out at the producer, pointing out mistakes and sometimes mocking the person (usually someone known for being good at Magic). It just showcases the false courage people manage to mount up when a little anonymity is introduced.)

Of course, the exact methods you use as a defense mechanism will vary, so if you feel like the above scenario did not describe you, look a little deeper. There is a good chance you have done something that produced similar results, even if the route to get there was quite different in scope and direction. So, as we have touched on, obviously this defensive arguing negatively impacts you in the eyes of others, but what is it doing to yourself?

Interestingly enough, the lies, partial truths, or stretches that you need to create in an effort to defend yourself begin to play tricks on you. You see, there is another phenomenon in Psychology, that many a study has been done on, that typically examines habitual liars and their brain wave patters while they are engaging in their craft. It turns out, after either repeatedly telling the same lie, or strongly enforcing a lie even a single time, liars tend to believe, at least partially, in what they are saying. They will fictitiously warp the actual scenario so that it meets the mentally constructed world they have created. This can create new “memories” that a person truly believes occurred even years down the road, sometimes with greater accuracy than actual events that occurred in a similar time frame.

So, cool right? But, wait, where’s the harm? Well, if you didn’t connect the two scenarios yet. When a player gets defensive, they are fighting to preserve their appearance and typically ego. Because of this, they tend to be pretty passionate about their argument. This can lead to a mental creation where the defender begins to believe the scenarios he is laying out. This could be as deep as a complete lie, made up on the spot, or it could simply be convincing himself a line of play was good even when the evidence is clearly stacked against him.

*This is different from a lie in that the player simply comes to believe wrong data, but it is not something he fictitiously made up. For example, a player may believe that his 2 for 1 play was better than the alternative 3 for 1 play through irrational reasoning despite the evidence being pretty clear. They never lied in this scenario, causing it to act on the brain a little differently, but in general, the two scenarios are close enough that we will just proceed without going into too much detail.

So, because the individual has essentially rewritten his memory, any and all positive data that could have been retrieved from the event ends up in limbo. Meanwhile, any data that the individual constructed or falsely identified begins to seep its way into their larger pool of Magic playing data. This could, in theory, rewrite an entire framework of skills learned up to that point with poor skills. The brain does not differentiate between these two skill sets, because as far as it is concerned, you learned both legitimately. If the later skill contradicts the former skill, just like anything in life, the brain corrects itself to the newer skill. In Magic terms, time stamps occur, just like if you go to the wrong address when looking for a friends house but later learn of the correct house, you tend to stop going to the original wrong address.

This means, that by actively being defensive, you could theoretically get worse at Magic. But even ignoring that scenario, which is likely the worst possible case scenario, you are most certainly robbing yourself of an opportunity to get better at Magic regardless of whether you convince yourself that your poor play was correct. If you are failing to listen to those people trying to help you, you are throwing out valuable information that would potentially make you better at the game.

Defense mechanisms are a natural part of the human make up. We use them to protect ourselves in times where we feel threatened. Physical defense mechanisms still do that for the most part, but emotional ones can definitely lead to a poor outcome as they often come out for things that do not need to be defended. Darwin was on to something when he introduced the idea of survival of the fittest. This is all just an adaptation of those principles into a modern context.

This means, that in order to avoid falling into these traps, you are going to have to make a conscious effort. Just like quitting smoking will not stop naturally, your brain has been wired to send impulses that trigger defense mechanisms when you feel threatened, so it is not going to just stop doing that. I have found that there are two ways to best learn and grow rather than defend in these situations.

The first is the ideal method, but is going to be a pipe dream for most people. This is, of course, to avoid being defensive before it ever begins. You need to be relaxed enough and confident enough that you can take criticism without feeling threatened. For some, this will not be an option, but for others, they may already have this sort of personality. Assuming you are able to do this though, you must still take it a step further. Just because your mind is willing to listen to criticism and not respond aggressively, does not mean you are actively taking in the positive feedback when it comes. This requires you to make an effort and do some filtering, sifting through what matters and what doesn’t, but it is essential to growing as a player.

Sifting is important because if you are relaxed enough to take criticism without reacting, you do this for both positive and negative feedback, both with valuable and invaluable content. If someone calls you a vulgar name, you probably brush it off as you are prone to do. Well it is important that this is not the same outcome for constructive criticism. There, you need to digest the information at hand of course. Note that while it is going to take more than just not getting defensive, this group of people is still pretty far along and should be able to learn the rest of the needed habits without too much effort.

The other method for dealing with defensive attitude is for those of us who cannot simply brush off criticism. For this group, we are going to get defensive, it is our routine way of dealing with legitimate threats as well as perceived threats. I am sure that through extensive training we could eventually overcome this, but that is asking a little too much in regards to Magic. (If you choose to seek help in this department, kudos, as it can definitely be a hindering set of habits, similar to an anger problem or the like). Instead though, we need to begin smaller. We need to catch ourselves during our defensive stands.

This means you will need to put up with some embarrassment when these situations come up, because you will need to consciously recognize when you are babbling on about nonsense in an effort to not look dumb. It may require some apologies to those who you were arguing with, it may require dealing with a little shame from time to time, but it will slowly teach you to not be defensive against constructive criticism.

It becomes a simple matter of learned behavior. If every time you become defensive, you end up feeling embarrassed or ashamed when you eventually catch yourself in the act, you will slowly begin to decrease the behavior. You are experiencing an undesired result and thus, the only way to rid that result is to rid the behavior.

Keep in mind that catching yourself is going to be progressive. At first, you may not stop yourself mid-argument but then a day or two later you may think back and realize how foolish you were. Eventually that time span is reduced to a few hours. Then immediately after the argument, so on and so forth.

I felt compelled to write about this topic because it is something I am going through myself. Working with a team has brought a lot of good with it, but also a lot of challenges, and this lesson is one I am currently working through. Hopefully most of my brief explanations of the various concepts were not so poor that it distracted from the main argument, as I realize there is a lot going on above. At some point, I expect to have “conquered” my defensiveness and learned to be a little more confidant in myself and my ability to take criticism and I hope to write about what I have learned then. For know, as a reminder to myself, and anyone else who fills these shoes, remember to not let your bruised ego keep you from excelling at whatever you do in life. Thanks for reading!

Conley Woods

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