Due to the nature of Starcraft 2, many players focus exclusively on playing the game and mastering skills before moving on to practice other things. For example, a player might focus on macro until they no longer feel that they are having trouble with that portion of their game. However, this approach of learning a skill and then neglecting it neither matches with traditional athletic training, nor does it appear to be an efficient way of improving in order to reach the top level as a Starcraft 2 athlete. Skills that are neglected often fail to develop properly, and often regress, requiring future attention from the player in order to address the lack of performance. Even worse, some players may develop a sense of having a good skill, and then when that skill falls into disuse, their perception of the skill remains, preventing them from addressing a critical weakness in their playstyle. Much as a fighter must practice basic punches and combinations regularly to continue conditioning himself for a fight, Starcraft 2 players must practice the variety of skills needed for the game in order to maximize their tournament performance. As a result, a scientific-based approach to Starcraft 2 training is needed in order to maximize player potential.
What model should this be based on?
When considering Starcraft 2 as a sport, the key elements include a need for hand dexterity and multitasking abilities. Many team sports force players into well-defined positions that serve to reduce or eliminate multitasking, whereas certain individual sports, such as tennis and running, simplify the task to the point where it is not necessary to multitask. The best example of a sport that closely resembles Starcraft 2 seems to be fighting sports, and within fighting sports Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) seems to be the ideal sport for comparison. Specifically, the need to multitask striking, grappling, and wrestling skills in a single fight provides the maximum multitasking required in individual sports. Additionally, a strong emphasis on grip and hand strength is appropriate for MMA, as this is required for effective wrestling and grappling techniques.
There are other similarities between MMA and SC2, including long periods between competitions that allow for a structured training regimen (at least in the west, where Dreamhack and MLG prevail as the top tournaments. In the East GSL and OSL tend to focus on broadcasting individual matches per night that extend for several weeks or months, resulting in a more hectic schedule). Also, the maximum length match for an MMA fight is 25 minutes (for a championship fight) or 15 minutes (for a regular fight). Similar time constraints exist for SC2 games, with a typical game lasting anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes, with some exceptions being significantly longer or shorter.
The major differences between Starcraft 2 and MMA include the inability to sustain serious physical injury during competition for SC2 players and the requirement to endure competition against multiple opponents back-to-back (again for western-style tournaments only). As a result, endurance training for SC2 athletes should be a necessary component of training.
Physical training for SC2
In order to produce an athlete that who is prepared to succeed in the highest levels of competition, he must be prepared also for the physical rigors of playing marathon sessions across a single weekend. In order to accomplish this, it is necessary to maximize strength and conditioning of the hands.
I have heard that 23 is the physiological prime for hand speed. Whether or not this statement is true, I think it is clear that no one in the professional SC2 scene trains to maximize hand speed. Therefore, physiological primes are somewhat irrelevant in discussing hand speed and the ability of players of a certain age to produce the necessary hand speed to play at the top level. A player who is somewhat older, but trains hand speed, could easily surpass a younger player at his physiological prime in terms of hand speed, given the younger player does not maximize the efficiency of hand speed training.
Another consideration for physiological primes is the skill-based nature of sports like SC2 and MMA. Although younger athletes may have a physiological advantage, often the skill and experience of the older athlete provides an advantage that outweighs the younger competitor's physiological one. Therefore, although training of hand speed is a critical feature of a training program for SC2 competitors, especially those in their late 20s and 30s, this should be limited in scope in order to maximize the efficiency of training.
Another area to focus training would be breathing. It is well known that poor breathing in MMA will cause opponents to "gas" or become fatigued, which is why sometimes grapplers in the dominant position will place their hands to cover the mouth and nose of opponents to disrupt their breathing. Similarly, in SC2, we would expect that improper breathing would result in premature hand fatigue, as well as potentially poor judgement during games (the "Laziness Effect").
Since posture can affect breathing, comfort, and long-term health, part of the physical training for SC2 athletes should also focus on proper posture, especially hand placement on the keyboard and proper alignment of the spine while seated. With regards to hand and wrist injuries especially, great care should be taken with properly stretching and warming up the hands and ensuring proper positioning of the hands on the keyboard and mouse at all times.
The methodology for physical training should therefore include a variety of strength and conditioning routines in order to produce the optimal athlete. Although a cursory analysis of requirements might suggest overemphasis on strength development of the forearms, wrists, and hands, this strategy is not likely to be efficient or optimal. Scientific study into strength development has shown that when the whole body is strengthened, individual parts of the body are also strengthened, so a general strength routine is recommended. This is preferred to isolation where development of overly specific muscle groups can result in insufficient support in surrounding muscles to further progress in the development, resulting in inefficiency and lack of progress in training. Therefore, it is recommended that the SC2 athlete follow a general strength routine, such as the 2-day split, 3-day split, push/pull split, Bill Starr 5x5, etc. Since strength development is not of paramount importance in training, this type of training should be limited to 4-6 hours (2-3 sessions of 2-hours) per week. Supplementation of grip- and hand-specific strength exercises can be added, however these should not exceed an additional 1-2 hours per week.
Care should be taken when training the athlete in all exercises to ensure proper form and execution of all exercises, however, this is of extra importance when weight training with compound movements. Specifically the bench press exercise should be avoided until a proper coach can be identified and recruited to teach proper form, as improper bench pressing can result in shoulder injuries and postural imbalances. Instead, dips using a weighted vest or weighted belt can be performed safely. Additionally, proper care should be taken in learning the squat and deadlift movements, as these can also result in knee and back injuries respectively.
The question could be asked why strength development is important when an SC2 athlete's most important physical attribute is hand speed. Such a question is likely to arise from pop-culture ignorance as to the nature of muscle tissue, and a belief that strength and speed are incompatible. In fact, muscle can be divided into three types: slow twitch, fast twitch 1, and fast twitch 2. Slow twitch fiber provides a small force but can be activated for greater periods of time and is therefore most prevalent, for example, in marathon runners or other endurance athletes. Fast twitch 2 fibers produce great force, but typically can only be activated for brief periods of time before they must rest and recover and are therefore most prevalent in olympic lifters or powerlifters. Fast twitch 1 fibers lie somewhere in between. Since a greater force is required for greater speed, it is therefore desirable to have fast twitch fibers prevalent in the hands of a SC2 athlete, which means that some strength development is needed. One caveat is that endurance is also needed, so care should be given not to overtrain the hands in the development of fast twitch fibers. More simply put, without strengthening your hands, they will be slower.
For proper breathing, different exercises and techniques can be applied to maximize the efficiency. The first step should be to make the athlete aware of his breathing. Often in close matches, especially under the effects of an adrenaline dump, an athlete can become constricted and breathe poorly, which will result in premature fatigue. It is important, therefore, for the athlete to spend some time paying attention to the rhythm or his breathing during matches. The athlete's breathing rhythm should match his normal rhythm when he is not in a competitive state. For example, the athlete should pay attention to how he breathes when watching a movie, or driving a car, when he is relaxed and at rest. The athlete should train to maintain that rhythm with deep, full breaths, even in competition.
A laymen who has, for example, run a mile, might take quick shallow breaths, however, this is inefficient. The brain sends a signal that not enough oxygen is reaching the muscles, causing the untrained individual to gasp for air while experiencing some chest pain. The athlete must learn to distrust these signals and ignore them, since gasping for air is the least efficient way to recover your breath.
A secondary step should be to provide cardiovasular training for the SC2 athlete. This can be accomplished via a variety of methods, including weight circuits, plyometrics, interval training, sprinting, etc. This training should not be confused with endurance training, which emphasizes long distances and light effort, such as distance running or swimming. Optimally, a heart rate monitor could be used to track progress, however, this is not necessary for this type of training to be effective. The athlete should spend 30 minutes to 1.5 hours performing this type of activity (due to the efficient nature of interval training, less time can be spent on this activity).
Approximately 3-4 weeks before a major competition, the athlete should drop strength training entirely to allow for proper recovery of the central nervous system and to begin endurance training. Cardiovascular training should continue. At this point, the athlete's focus should be on building up endurance as much as possible in order to prepare for an extended period of intense competition. Swimming is the ideal form of this exercise, as it requires the athlete to learn to control his breathing while also being easy on the joints. Cycling is another option that is relatively easy on the joints. Running could be incorporated, but great care should be taken to ensure proper equipment is used, as failure to use running shoes with proper support and cushioning could result in injuries to the legs and knees. Running on concrete and other hard surfaces should be avoided. Grassy fields and hills should be the preferred running surface, or rubberized tracks if one is available. The athlete should spend 4-6 hours per week focusing on this type of training (to replace the time spent doing strength exercises).
During all of the physical training above, the athlete should focus on maintaining proper breathing throughout each exercise. By practicing this habit, he should never find himself lacking energy at critical moments during a competition.
In order to develop ideal hand coordination and finger dexterity, as well as to help develop lung capacity, it is recommended that the SC2 athlete practice a musical instrument. The three ideal instruments to learn are the piano, clarinet, and flute, in all their various forms. The clarinet and flute offer the same benefits of requiring 9 fingers to coordinate in order to play a variety of notes. Additionally, as higher-octave instruments, their music tends to be technically more difficult, which requires greater coordination of hand movements in order to play properly. Proper posture and breathing is necessary to play both instruments, so benefits to posture and lung capacity are provided as a result of learning these instruments. The piano offers similar benefits, however, does not help with developing lung capacity. Instead, the piano does a superior job of requiring posture and hand coordination, and lays out keys in a more familiar level than a wind instrument. In either case, emphasis should be placed on technical development over musical development when learning the instrument. Brass, string, and percussion shoudl be considered less helpful, as they incorporate only 3-4 fingers on one hand in order to play. Time spent on this training should be roughly 2.5 hours per week (or five 30-minute sessions).
In conclusion, physical training should take up no more than 8-12 hours per week for the typical SC2 athlete. Efficient training allows for the athlete to invest heavily in bursts of activity on a regular schedule, with long periods of rest in between for recovery. The major issues include misinterpretation by the athlete of the methodology presented, which makes it difficult to provide a training regimen without close physical proximity to the athletes, such as a team house. Additionally, the manager and coach should be able to observe the athlete's exercise routine in order to track certain key variables, such as relation of hand strength to APM and EPM, for example. Finally, the manager should be able to track performance as a result of the training regimen in order to provide more specific recommendations for each athlete (some athletes may benefit from more or less physical training). It is important to note that strength training can cause fatigue and a temporary drop in performance. This should be considered a necessary part of training, as the long-term benefits of strength development will keep the athlete at his peek far longer than if he simply maintains the status quo for the sake of a ladder record. Emphasis should be placed on the cycle of competition: the MLG schedule for North American athletes, and Dreamhack for European athletes. This methodology is probably not optimal for Korean athletes who must perform for long periods during the GSL tournament, as there will be insufficient "down time" required in order to develop strength properly between competitions.