Training for Pokémon like an Elite Athlete

G’day, Rhydian Cowley here. I go by Mindape in the Showdown chat, on the forums, and in Twitch chat. When I’m not playing Pokémon, I train and compete at an elite level in athletics (my event is the glamorous 20 km Walk). I have represented Australia at international events, and I’ve travelled to many foreign countries. My ultimate goal is to compete at the 2016 Olympics.

I often see threads or questions where people ask “How do I get better?” or variations thereof, with responses ranging from “Get good” to the less common in-depth advice from big-name players. If you’re new to Pokémon this season, you’ll likely have these same questions. After delving in to article archives, I realized that there isn’t a great wealth of resources dedicated to explaining the processes by which one might actually get better. Although I have negligible Pokémon achievements, I might be able to offer some insight into the behind-the-scenes work required to become the very best at something, based both on my own experiences in sport, and from my interactions with champions. Fortunately, you don’t have to be blessed with great genes or freakish talent to be a great trainer…all you need is a DS, a game cartridge, and the right attitude. Since there is no single right answer to the question of how to get better, this article is intended to be a general guide to help you find a system that works best for you.

Outline

Making Goals and Planning your Season

As mentioned before, my goal is to compete at the Olympics. However, that goal can’t be achieved overnight, and one doesn’t just simply turn up to an Olympics or a Pokémon World Championship. You have to make plans for how to achieve that goal, and often those plans have to span months, even years. I’ve been working towards the 2016 Olympics since before the 2012 Olympics. This will all depend on the size of your goal and how far away it is.

So, to start, make a goal. For a Pokémon trainer, it doesn’t always have to be winning the World Champions. It might be something as small winning a Premier Challenge or hitting a certain rating on Battlespot. Once you have the goal, modest or grand, you’ve got something to work towards, and you can start planning how to reach that goal.

If you’re a beginner, the first steps towards achieving your goals in Pokémon will be to improve yourself as a player. This includes things such as:

  • Game Knowledge: Type charts, game and move mechanics, movepools, stats, movesets, team archetypes and strategies, how particular Pokémon match up against other Pokémon, usage rates and metagame trends, and relevant damage calculations.
  • Teambuilding: Top players are often are inspired by other teams, borrow teams, or pilot shared teams, so don’t feel like you always have to try to build your own teams entirely from scratch.
  • Planning, Logic, and Probability Management: Choosing the right Pokémon at team preview, preserving Pokémon that are important in a particular matchup, and being able to infer movesets based on your opponent’s team. Being able to determine the course of action that gives you the best chance of winning by taking possible flinches or status conditions into account, or by anticipating different move choices by your opponent. Knowing when you can afford to take risks.
  • Information Assessment and Quick Decision Making: Paying attention to the battle timer, making decisions under pressure, and staying observant throughout the battle.

These skills will need to be honed regularly. No matter how good you think you are at Pokémon (or anything, really), you need to always strive to keep learning and growing. Once you stop trying to learn, you stop improving. Once you stop improving, other harder-working players surpass you.

While most athletes have coaches, Pokémon trainers tend to be their own coaches. As your own coach, it is ultimately up to you to decide how you will approach improving those skills, or keeping them sharp, in a sort of a Pokémon training regimen. I particularly enjoyed Phil “Boomguy” Nguyen’s articles (Parts 1, 2, 3) last year, explaining how he tried to improve as a trainer during the 2014 season. He has continued documenting his progress this year, and I think his approach exemplifies what I hope to cover in this article.

Planning on improving as a player is only one part of the puzzle, though. Especially if you want to do well at big events like Nationals or Worlds, you need to plan your season out in advance. The first part is knowing what needs to be done to get there. Play Points or Championship Points needed, how well you need to do in particular lead up events, and roughly when and where events will take place. Being on top of these things means you can decide which events you want to target throughout the year, and when you have more time to experiment with ideas and when you need to get focused on performing well. It also means you should have a good idea of whether you’re on track to achieve your goals throughout the season, and will be in a better position to evaluate if your plans need changing during the year.

Second, travelling costs money, so unless you’re a billionaire flying around on a private jet, you’ll need to plan which events you can make with worst case scenario in mind, in terms of not getting stipends. Knowing that you need to save to travel to certain events can help motivate you at work, and it gives a purpose even to your time not spent playing Pokémon. Planning for the worst-case scenario can land you with a nice surplus if you do manage to snag a stipend.

Third, even if you have infinite money, time can be an issue. If you want to be the very best, you’ll need to know when you have free time to go to tournaments. There will be a bare minimum number of events you should be attending before you should question whether your goal is realistic, and whether you can actually commit enough time to achieve your goals. It is important to have a life outside of Pokémon, so even those aiming to be the very best shouldn’t go overboard. But if you want to be the best Pokémon trainer in the land, you need to be prepared to prioritize Pokémon over other activities of lesser importance, at least during key points in the season.

Training

Now it’s time for the “training phase.” The long, steady grind you need to go through to make your dreams a reality.

Routines and Training Schedules

All competitors have a training routine, and Pokémon should be no different. If you’ve made the commitment to playing Pokémon seriously for the season, you’ll need to schedule regular “training sessions,” where you work on the skills that you’ve identified previously as needed. This training can be any or all of battling, teambuilding, watching YouTube videos, doing research on blogs, discussing teams or games with friends, whatever it is you think may be useful to improve your skills.
When training for anything, you need to make sure that the training you are doing is good quality. There is no point doing lots of training if it is not benefiting you. Mindlessly running through games on Showdown without any goals for improvement in mind is nothing more than a way to pass the time.

A good way to get into good training habits is to have a pre-training routine, something that tells your mind and body to be switched on because it is training time. Something like having a cup of tea before/during your Pokémon training session, taking a short walk outside are all examples. Feel free to experiment and find a pre-training routine that you like.

Another step to ensuring your training sessions are beneficial to you is to make a training schedule, and write down what you aim to achieve in that particular training session. It could be anything from setting the number of battles, to making a conscious effort to begin and improve at taking notes, reading x number of articles, learning how to use a particular team archetype, as long as you know what you are getting out of a session. In particular, if you have a bad day of battling, having a set limit to the number of battles you planned to do can help you avoid tilting and chasing wins to repair your ego. Training schedules make sure that you are doing enough training, but also that you are not doing too much training. If you feel like all you do is play Pokémon 24/7, it’s likely that you’ll get sick of the game and burn out before the season even finishes.

Here is a sample training schedule and session plan I threw together (with materials within reach at the time) to give a rough visual idea of what I’m talking about. As can be seen from image one, this sample trainer still goes to high school, and has to factor in large amounts of study time and a commitment to a sport. But that’s not a problem. Even if your scheduled training time is small, what matters is that you have a regularly scheduled time set aside on specific days. You can fill in your schedule according to what you do in life, and can draw it up in Excel if you want.

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There appear to be no competitions for that trainer this week, but as you can see that 9-10 hours of Pokémon related activity a week can fit even in more busy schedules – and this adds up to 450 to 500+ hours of Pokémon training a year, which is a solid amount of time when you stop and think about it.

Not all of your ‘training’ has to involve Pokémon. Elite athletes often do what is known as cross training, whereby they do something a little different to their regular training – a runner might go for a swim or a bike ride every so often, for example, as a way to keep their fitness up while giving their mind and body a break from running. Similarly, a Pokémon trainer might do things like play other games they feel improve their ability to analyse situations and make quick decisions, or simply play another fun game for mental relaxation.

Training Diary

In addition to planning your training sessions, it is advisable to keep a training diary as well. By noting what you accomplished during a training session, especially in relation to what you aimed to do, you can identify what worked and what didn’t, and be reassured as to whether you have been training well, or enough. You can also track progress in terms of developing certain skills, such as note taking, and overall improvement in terms of win/loss ratio. It also makes writing season battle stories easier. While your training diary doesn’t have to go into serious detail, simple things like tracking your own Pokémon usage, teams you faced, and win loss ratio would be the bare minimum for battles, and perhaps your satisfaction with and the success of a particular team if you were practicing teambuilding. If your session had a specific objective, you can also note whether or not you achieved it.

On my end, It’s nice to know that if I planned a 12km walk, I then will have a record of whether or not I completed it, how I felt, my time, and so on for every other training day. That way I can get a feel for long-term improvements, and the sort of training load I can tolerate in the future to help with planning an appropriate future schedule. Presumably, in Pokémon it would help you identify flaws in your playing or teambuilding that you need to improve, or observe changes in the metagame that you might be able to pick up.

I thought about including a sample of a training diary, but then I also considered using practical examples as potential inspiration. Cybertron and Alex Ogloza’s daily battlespot battles serve as a great public training diary for them. Additionally, in Boomguy’s previously mentioned 2014 article, he showed his note taking progression, demonstrating how quickly one can go from messy to effective when it comes to note taking.

Before

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After

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While Battle Spot and Showdown are great places to practice, it is important to train specifically the event you are planning to attend. If you are aiming for Top Cut or attending a National or Worlds, you will need lots of practice with best-of-three battles.

Friends/Rivals, Practice Competitions, and Miscellany

Playing Pokémon doesn’t have to be a lonely exercise. Athletes in individual events often attend training camps with other athletes, where they can learn new skills and swap ideas, training sessions, and such. Making friends with people around your level gives you people to measure your progress against, as well as people you can rely upon to give you challenging practice battles with good feedback. Sometimes it can take a level of rivalry to push the best out of each other. These friends can also potentially form a group where the stresses of team building and testing are shared around, and you can get better feedback on improving your team than the average RMT might offer. There is a reason why groups like Team Magma, The Boiler Room, Imouto Island, and the Delphox Cubs see regular success from their members. Particularly in recent months, I have become aware of an increasing number of skype groups for teambuilding being publicly advertised, as well as the introduction of many new team/group blogs, as it seems that more people are making use of working together to collectively improve. AusTerrain is one such example of a recently formed teambuilding group from Australia – if you look at their member list, you may notice that many contributors to AusTerrain performed well during the recent VGC 2015 season, with several Nationals top cutters, as well as a Regional Winner and several other Regional Top 8’s.

Competing regularly, even in lower level events, is another important aspect of the process of training. There’s no way to truly replicate the experience of playing in a live event. The increased weight of the value of winning, the fact that you can’t just put your DS down when you feel like it, dealing with distractions, stress, and anticipation. Usain Bolt didn’t just train and then turn up to the Olympics to race without having done many races previously, training him how to respond in those big moments and how to race against other people.

Although it is not directly related to anything I do in my athletics pursuits, I feel it is also important to mention that preparing Pokémon for use on your cartridge should also be a part of your preparation, whether you breed and train them yourself, or rely on contacts and friends to source things for you. Try to make this part of your actual training session, to avoid the temptation to procrastinate. Not only does this make competitions significantly less stressful, it also makes teambuilding and testing on Battle Spot easier.

I’ve been pretty vague on the exact design of training programs and year schedules, since I’m not in a position to say what the best way to train for Pokémon is. As such, it is advisable to do a bit of background reading to help you make the best decisions when it comes to designing your own training. After originally posting this article, I created an Article and Resource Index on Nugget Bridge to compile reading material for all Pokémon trainers to use to improve themselves. Pokémon Australia itself also has a Website and Social Media guide to use to follow particular players and gain inspiration from their teams.

To save you from having to dredge through those straight away, my suggestion as a good starting point in identifying good habits to get into might be Bearsfan092’s article on effective trainers. Youtube channels like Cybertron’s and Alex Ogloza’s are particularly good if you want to learn how to self analyse and talk through your thoughts during turns. The sidebar of the Nugget Bridge Forums hosts a bunch of Twitch streams  you can watch, including the above two’s Twitch channels, if you want to interact with the players live. Good local alternatives for both Youtube and Twitch content would be BaseIn2 and Lumario, while several Australian twitch streamers are findable in the above mentioned Social Media Guide.

I suppose the underlying point of these last couple of paragraphs is a reiteration of what I said in the planning section. In order to stay at your peak as one of the best in the game, you need to consistently keep trying to learn and grow as a player, in whatever way you think you need, because if you stop, you risk being left behind.

Tapering: The lead up to a competition

Now we fast forward through all that training, hopefully with a cool montage, and arrive at the last week prior to a big competition, let’s say a National Championship. Spending all that time preparing and improving yourself shouldn’t go to waste by you stuffing it up in the last week, so here we will cover things you can do to like an elite athlete in order to make sure your final competition preparation is good. It is important to reiterate here that there is no cut and dry way to prepare, so you will need to find a process that works for you.

Elite athletes generally spend the last week or so prior to their event “tapering,” a process whereby they freshen up their mind and body in order to make sure they perform at their best on race day. To put it simply, this involves paring back the length and intensity of their training sessions (at least if you do long distance events, like myself), and essentially storing up energy.

This doesn’t translate perfectly in to Pokémon, but I’ll give my two cents on what I think tapering means as a Pokémon player:

Making sure you have a team ready (including their items), or mostly ready save for some last minute tweaking, that you are happy with and comfortable using. That way you don’t have to panic build the night before, or be frantically testing in the last week or so. I have read stories of successful regional teams being finished in the registration queue, but I’d like to think that these were aberrations, whereby the player’s skill and the relative solidness of the team carried them through their relatively poor planning.

By having your team more or less ready, you have the freedom to only battle as much as you feel you need to keep your skills sharp for the upcoming tournament, rather than potentially wearing yourself out or not being fully settled on a team because you haven’t had enough time to iron it out and get fully comfortable with it. This also means that if you have a team ready, you shouldn’t be doing so many battles as to potentially lose confidence in yourself or your team at the last minute by going on a losing streak, whether it be because of rough matchups or poor play.

You should also try to ensure that your travel and accommodation plans are confirmed well in advance, as the stress of trying to organise these things at the last minute can detract from your performance.

Additionally, you should try to make sure that you get good sleep not just the night before the tournament, but the week leading up to the tournament. You sometimes can’t help but have restless nights just before big tournaments, especially if you’re full of nervous energy, so having had a good rest on previous nights means one night of poor sleep is less likely to have a detrimental effect. Remember, big tournaments are long.

You should try to prepare everything you need to bring for the big day(s) a night or two in advance, depending on what is practical. This includes food and drink to get you through a day, especially on the off chance that food options suddenly become limited or nonexistent during the day, but also so that you don’t have to risk missing rounds while getting lunch. Make sure your DS is fully charged to start the day, and bring extra charging devices in case you need them.

You also need to have your travel plans set out so that you have got lots of leeway for unforeseen delays to not ruin your day. You don’t want to miss registration because of a flat tire, or because your bus was delayed, or something relatively minor like that. It might not always be fashionable, but in this case it is much better to be early than late.

If I had to sum up this section in one sentence, it would be “Don’t be unprepared like Ash was on his first day as a trainer!”

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Competition Day (or Days)

Finally, the big day is here. Worlds, Nationals, whatever it is, this is what you’ve worked towards. You even got your taper week perfect. Now what?

I think the most important thing for competitors in all events at all levels is to stay relaxed, and to stay focused. In the Pokémon context, staying relaxed and focused means not dwelling on losses, misplays, or bad RNG, as well as not being overawed by your opponents, and not getting overly nervous if you are going x-0, or are getting close to bubbling – just take it one battle at a time, one set at a time. After all, you’ve already done the hard work, you need to have faith in your training to get you through, and once your mind is elsewhere, you risk not making full use of your training. You won’t be phased by problems getting to the venue (because you planned to get there early, remember?) and by things going wrong in the running of the event (apparently par for the course in the UK), such as late starts, and long delays between rounds. If you deal with those problems better than your opponents, you improve your chances of beating them.

A Nugget Bridge top players talk article in the lead up to US Nationals had some great advice regarding mental preparation, and I think this either says what I want to say better, or at least augments it, so I do recommend giving it a read if you haven’t already.

Additionally, it’s a great idea to have friends, family, or people you just met on the day around to chat to between rounds, and to follow your progress. These people (and potentially you for them) should be able to help keep you focused in between rounds, whether you need them to help you chill out or relax, or to get you fired up and excited again. Just as you should try to have a good training routine, if you can find a good routine for between rounds that keeps you playing at your best, try to stick to that routine. Again, the time to develop or start routines is in tournaments earlier in the season if that’s possible. You shouldn’t have to be experimenting during a big event.

For multi-day events, if you make the second (or even third) day, you want to make sure you have something left in the tank mentally. There is no point going 9-0 on day one if you choke out at the first opportunity on day 2. Stay focused on the job overnight, do whatever matchup planning you think you need if team info is available and time allows, but the most important thing is to keep well rested and relaxed, so try to have an early night if you can, and if you can find some way to unwind that refreshed you and doesn’t exhaust you for the next day, that’s also good.

It has been remiss of me to leave it this late in this section, but through all of this, remember to have fun. If you ask Olympians why they do their sport, most will answer “because they enjoy it.” I have fun competing whether it is against the world’s best, or just against people from my locality. The same should apply to Pokémon, especially since it is a video game, and hence meant to be fun. Obviously not all training sessions will be fun, but if you still enjoy the game, and have fun at tournaments (big or small) no matter how you perform, then that’s the most important thing. Obviously you’re striving to be the best, but what is the point of being the best if you get no enjoyment out of it?

Post Competition (What to do next)

We fast forward again, and this competition is over. What do you do now? The simple answer is to recover mentally, and then analyse your performance, and use that to help you decide your future plans.

However, it can be a little more complex than that. You may have performed much worse than you expected, in which case you might need a bit of time to pass before you’re in the right mood to properly analyse your performance. You should take all the time you need so you can make decisions that aren’t clouded with disappointment or frustration.

Try to identify things you thought you did well during the competition, and things you think you didn’t do well. Also make a note of what your goal was for that competition, whether you achieved it or how far you were from achieving it, and how your performance affects your ability to achieve your season’s goals. This analysis might help you understand shortcomings in your training and preparation, which you can then note and improve for next time, be it for competitions later that season, or for future seasons. It might also highlight parts of your training that were really useful, that you will want to keep the same. As well, you might notice that what had originally got you frustrated or disappointed on the day was actually not such a big issue, or was something outside of your control and as such not worth losing sleep over.

If you can view your battle videos, it may be beneficial to look over them again in time and appraise your own play, again noting things you could have improved, but also noting when you or your opponents simply made the best possible plays.

Just like in your preparation, your analysis might benefit from the insight of friends, or rivals. You can, if you want to, involve them however you think is most useful, whether it’s helping you go through battle videos, asking for advice, or just trading war stories and complaining about things.

Now, you may have been fortunate, and achieved your goal in this tournament. You should ask yourself what your next goal is. Where to from here? If this was a stepping stone tournament, the answer may already be clear, but it is still good to think about it. If you qualified for Worlds this year, is aiming for a paid invite, a top 8, or more the next year the next step? If you’re a Senior transitioning to Masters, what is your aim in your debut season? Whatever the question, it is important to ask yourself if you still have the desire and the commitment to do everything you need to do to achieve that next goal, or to continue chasing your goal. If the fire is no longer burning, or you no longer have the time, maybe you need some time off, however long that may be. Maybe you are satisfied with your achievement and content with playing on a more casual level.

Remember, the best in the world don’t usually become the best overnight, so it may take several seasons to reach your ultimate goal, so don’t stress if you fell short in your first year. Use that new knowledge and experience to get even better and go even further in future years.

Summary (TL;DR)

For those lacking the time or the inclination to read through all that text (Yes, I know it’s a lot), here is a bullet-point summary that covers the gist of what this article intends to convey.

  • Make a goal
  • Figure out what’s needed to achieve that goal – skills to acquire and improve, events to attend, money and time to budget
  • Once you know that, use that knowledge to make season plans and training plans
  • Do good training (weird tricks not compulsory) – read widely and battle with good habits often and consistently
  • Make a training schedule, keep a training diary
  • Get some good friends/rivals to practice with and measure yourself against
  • Make sure you’re prepared – travel, team, sleep, food, mentally
  • Leave plenty of time for things so you don’t have to feel rushed
  • Don’t stuff up all the earlier hard work with poor decisions late in the piece
  • Have fun, enjoy the day, but stay focused the whole time, and have the right people around you, and routines between rounds to keep you on the right track
  • Do the right thing between days to make sure you back up strong day one performances on multi-day events
  • Don’t get flustered, or salty. No Johns.
  • Take however long you need after an event to analyse how it went, your own progress, and to decide on your future plan of attack. But make sure you analyse it at some point.
  • If you’re willing to keep going for another season, chasing the same goal or a new one, return to the planning stage, rinse and repeat.

Thanks for reading, and hopefully this was helpful for you. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, this guide is not prescriptive, and while it is longish, it is not an exhaustive guide, so take whatever advice from it you think is useful, and please keep asking questions and reading articles in your pursuit of becoming the best Pokémon trainer in the land.

About Mindape

A Pokemon fan since Blue and Red. Rarely seen as a trainer in the wild due to irl commitments, but dedicated to contributing to the community regardless. Rio 2016 Olympian.
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