The term “ladder anxiety” is often mentioned in relation to competitive games, and for good reason. It affects a large number of players in one form or another, and can be a huge deterrent for those who are seeking to improve in their game of choice. There are a lot of different ideas of what ladder anxiety is, and how to deal with it. Unfortunately, a lot of them are a bit misguided, and some of the advice I’ve seen can actually do more harm than good. I’m here to offer a slightly different perspective on the topic, which will hopefully prove more beneficial than the tons of different opinions you’re likely to find on a site like Reddit.
What is ladder anxiety?
First, let’s briefly define ladder anxiety. In a nutshell, it’s the fear of queuing up for a ranked game, since the outcome (a loss) may be undesirable. When this actually causes a player to choose not to play a ranked game, it’s because not playing guarantees that they can’t lose, while defeat is a real possibility if they do choose to play. By choosing to simply play in a “casual” (or un-ranked) mode, or play a different game entirely, the worst-case scenario of losing a ranked game is completely avoided. Of course, the flip side of that is that the best-case scenario of winning a ranked game is avoided as well.
The causes of ladder anxiety
There are several different factors that can lead to feeling ladder anxiety, which is why discussions that try to pinpoint the “one true cause” are meaningless endeavors. Five different people can feel the same emotion, but have five different reasons for feeling it. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to determine why they feel a certain way.
As an exercise to attempt to do just that, the next time you’re thinking about playing a ranked game but begin to feel nervous about it, stop what you’re doing and close your eyes. Don’t try to fight the feeling of anxiety, and don’t even view it as a negative experience. Allow yourself to experience it, and begin to explore it. Ask yourself, “What’s the absolute worst thing that can happen to me if I play a ranked game right now?” Don’t try to force an answer, but allow your mind to work through it, and slowly go through the different scenarios that could occur by playing the game. By doing this, you’ll have a better understanding of what’s truly causing that anxiety. That is the first, and most important, step in being able to move on from that emotion, and no longer allowing it to dictate your actions.
As I mentioned before, different individuals will have varying answers as to why they feel ranked anxiety. I’d like to go over a couple of the most common causes, and what can be done to ease those feelings.
Anxiety in team games
I’ve seen people discuss that in team games, they’re actually most worried about letting their team down, and not performing well with other people (usually strangers) judging them based on their performance in this one game. That is understandable, as feeling that you were the most significant contributor to a team’s loss can be an extremely negative experience. On top of that, feeling as though your teammates are scorning you (either because they’ve written negative messages in chat, or simply due to imagining they must be seeing you this way even if they don’t write anything) can certainly cause stress.
So, how do we deal with those feelings? The first part, not wanting to let your team down, is a matter of accepting your own imperfection as a human being. The fact of the matter is, if you play a game for long enough, there are going to be games where you will be the worst performer on your team. There are also going to be games where you hard carry and your teammates will be thanking you. Accepting this variance, understanding that just as one good game doesn’t make you a professional, one bad game doesn’t make you complete trash, is absolutely vital. Take some time to reflect on this, and to realize that you’re going to have an awful game here and there, and that doesn’t make you any worse of a player, or de-value you as a person in any way.
The second part, dealing with judgment from your peers, can actually be dealt with in largely the same manner. Chances are very good that unless you want to, you’ll never see any of these random strangers again after this game. What they think of you will have no actual impact on the rest of your life, until the day you die. Of course, it still doesn’t feel good in the moment to feel that you’re being judged harshly. The only way to truly make peace with this, is to value your own opinion of yourself more highly than the opinion of faceless strangers on the internet. If you’ve been able to follow the previous steps, and have embraced the idea that having a bad game sometimes doesn’t de-value who you are as a person, then the judgment of these strangers will have no power over you. It sounds simple, but the reality is that truly taking this to heart can take some time. If you still find yourself with the same negative feelings at first, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Just remind yourself that this a process of re-training your brain how to react in certain situations, and it will not happen right away. However, if you stick with it, and keep practicing it, the change will come.
Anxiety in individual games
When it comes to game that are played as an individual (1 vs 1), most of what was discussed above will apply. There is one new wrinkle, however. In team games, blame for a loss is shared among all team members, even if some performed better than others. In individual games, there is no one else to blame, and the loss will rest squarely on your shoulders. Many of us like to believe we’re very skilled in our game of choice, and any loss threatens to tear down that self-image. To deal with this, if you’re not having the level of success you’d hope for, don’t allow that to bring you down. If improvement is truly your goal, then accept you might not be as skilled as you thought, but use that to fuel yourself. You can’t improve if you’re perfect; improvement only comes from accepting that you can get better, and then deciding to do whatever you can in order to get better. This can be practicing, watching streams of pros, or simply trying to play differently than you have been. Once again, the most important thing is accepting losses, and not allowing them to affect your own self-worth.
The magic number
The last point I’d like to make is that in many games, there is no actual difference in gameplay whether you queue up for “casual” or “ranked” play. The only difference is that a virtual number changes, depending on whether you won or lost. Don’t allow that number (or rank) to determine how you feel about yourself as a player. If changing that number is your focus, you will feel stress every time you queue up, no matter what. If your focus is simply on learning, improving, and enjoying the game, your virtual number will be much more likely to improve as time goes on.
In the end, these are games we’re talking about. They’re intended to be enjoyable activities, which we partake in completely by choice. If you ever feel like there’s simply no way to actually have fun with a game, then it might be time to consider taking a break from that game, or moving on from it altogether. We all only get so much free time in our lives. Make sure that the activities you opt into create a pleasant experience, as the power to enjoy yourself, or stress yourself out, is completely in your hands.
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