Thursday, May 22, 2008

deLiGHT's Muscle Memory

deLiGHT's Muscle Memory

written by David "deLiGHT" Light


The following may leave one more susceptible to RSI/CTD complications. "The term 'repetitive strain injury (RSI)' and 'cumulative trauma disorder (CTD)' mean the same thing - a muscle that has been used so frequently, doing the same motion, that it has become injured." -


Through years of inhaling eSports and all that comes with it, the one thing that has always fascinated me is the way we treat a player's ability to aim. We act like it's just how things are; some people are good, some people are bad. Some people will even try to tell you that it doesn't matter - it's all about smarts. But, to me, that's an argument that has never made much sense. The ability to compensate for poor aim by superior play doesn't negate the fact that a player's aim is, indeed, poor. And surely would he benefit from some improvement. So the age-old question is, how can one consistently improve their aim? Is it possible? To the latter, yes, of course it is. But we knew that already. What is really uncertain is just how to go about it. It is in this article that I hope to not only change the way we - as competitive gamers - perceive aiming in gaming, but also open your eyes to your own true potential. Whether you're a first time starter, or a seasoned veteran working on your twentieth consecutive championship, it would be highly advantageous to keep reading. Yes, Ksharp and company. That means I'm talking to you too.

Over the next few sections we will attempt to gain a better understanding of what aiming is in gaming, and what it means at its very foundation to improve. Welcome to the first day of the rest of your career, my friend. There's no turning back now. You're going to get better by understanding this, and there's nothing you can do about it.


Most people in gaming will recognize aiming as the physical movement of a peripheral to track and execute an on-screen target. For professional console stars like Tom "Ogre 2" Ryan this comes in the form of the Xbox "dukes" controller, where as Counter-Strike mastermind Tyler "Storm" Wood of the Los Angeles Complexity makes full use of his IME 1.1 (Steel Series edition) optical mouse. Anyone can lay their hands on a peripheral and aim - but to be accurate and effective? That's when conditioning comes into play. Your Grandma can aim, but that doesn’t mean she’s any good at it. It’s all about conditioning.


To help you understand the concept of conditioned aim, let's take a step back for a moment and observe the competitive world around us. I love comparing competitive gaming to traditional and established sports, not because I feel the need to justify the fact that I, like many, spend hours on the day in front of a monitor, but because I feel as if we could all learn a lot from the comparisons. Let's look at the great game of basketball for a second. Ball control is an extremely important aspect of basketball that is not a native ability; Allen Iverson wasn't just born with a gift that made him at one time one of the most fluid players on the court. While it's true that not all people are born equal in terms of physical stature and innate intelligence, it's also true that any action learned can be conditioned for improvement. It's not uncommon to see coaches throughout all levels of basketball insist their players dribble multiple balls up and down the court in a method that was designed to condition better ball control. This works because of something called muscle memory, which is the body's ability to memorize, or perform automatically, a well rehearsed motion. So in essence, any action that can be improved upon can be done so through muscle memory. It's the reason players can hit a three with relative consistency from beyond the arc. It's the reason the word "practice" even exists on the individual level.

If you want to see muscle memory at its best, repeat out-loud after me: "David Light is the coolest guy ever." You've probably heard this a lot, it seems to be the popular thing to say these days. But believe it or not, you just utilized one of the most incredible products of muscle memory - speech. Language is an extremely difficult thing to master, which is why it can take years before a child mutters their first coherent string of words. It's only through mental repetition and physical conditioning that we are able to understand and regurgitate such complex tongue maneuvers. We do such so often nowadays, that we've actually conditioned our ability to speak articulately to instinctive levels. People like Bobby "Weenus" Hicks are so bloody good at it it's scary, in fact. But it just goes to show what we are all capable of through repetition if even something as beautifully complicated as eloquent oral dances can become second nature. Hmm... I just said eloquent oral dances. Ugh! Moving on...


As we've just discussed, any action learned can be improved upon through repetition, which is the heart of muscle memory (which is conditioning). Just as a point-guard in the NBA wasn't born with the ability to shoot proficiently, neither were you blessed with the talent to aim on a world-class level. We all know the most effective way to improve is through practice, though much of what is done today is without focus or organization. If you were to search one of the numerous threads on eSports forums about how to best practice aim, you would be met by a superabundance of well-intended but ultimately undeveloped ideas. These ideas commonly take a shallow look at what can benefit a player, without looking at the source that makes it all possible. These suggestions range from the highly generic to the mildly useful. From the insistence to play in deathmatch (CSDM) servers, to aim maps. From constant pugging, to quality scrimming. All of the aforementioned can improve your aim, but the results are inconsistent and borderline effective at best. There are much better ways to maximize the time you set aside for individual development, as I'm almost ready to explain.

Think back for a moment at the difference between aim, and conditioned aim. As we've already defined, aiming in gaming (in such a context) is simply the tracking of an object with a peripheral, where as conditioned aiming is the quality performance of a well rehearsed motion. Ever wonder why some angles are more difficult to efficiently aim at than others? Did you ever stop to think this might be because you practice the specific variable less often than? How about the way you change your resting
Did You Know? You can warm-up before a game by selecting specific angles and focus points to practice.

position ever so slightly from time to time to give you a more comfortable angle? You've probably hit a couple of "reflex shots" in your gaming career which no doubt left you as astonished and proud as your opponent was furious and complaining. While many will tell you otherwise - and you may think so yourself - this is not luck. There's a reason why we can distinguish reflex shots from lucky shots, obviously because one comes from a near instinctive response, where as the other is a product of incalculable variables.

What a reflex shot really is, is a glimpse at our conditioned aim at its best. It's our body calling upon our muscle memory to play out a finely rehearsed movement automatically. Think about what aiming means to you now, and consider what it will mean once you've trained your aim to act as accurately and automatically as reflex shots, and perhaps even speech itself.


Remember how we talked about improvement suggestions like playing in a deathmatch (CSDM), and the idea being underdeveloped? Here's why: While it makes sense that deathmatching and aim maps require you to aim very often, hence conditioning your aim better than other practice methods, there is a flaw present. The problem with this form of pure-aim practice is the inevitable downtime between opponents, and inconsistency in angle variation. People have tried to solve the downtime problem in the past by utilizing dozens of computer AI opponents strictly for the purpose of aiming at a target more often (not for the challenge), but the ultimate result is still a mixed bag, which makes it difficult to really refine trouble areas. The focus always being on having a good time more than consciously developing your talent.

Tyler "Storm" Wood now of the Los Angeles Complexity was one of the first players I noticed to truly make use of rehearsed motion, and is a large credit to what implored me to further analyze the state of aiming a little over a year ago. Anyone who has watched a demo or live match of Tyler will tell you he is one of the quirkier players in the game today. I've come to identify my own style of play strongly with his in that we both are constantly changing our minds, reevaluating situations and acting on impulse. One of Tyler's most noticeable quirks is his occasional pre-round ritual, which involves hastily aiming at the heads of his teammates, back and forth, to-and-fro, throughout freezetime. The fact that Tyler is using a teammate's head as a target is irrelevant; the important thing is that he's committing those exact distances and the effort that goes along with it to his muscle memory to be called upon later. Now, it's unlikely that Tyler does so for that reason. He likely does so because it helps warm him up. Even as great a player as Tyler "Storm" Wood is, he still, like many, was probably more comfortable with the result than the source of what makes the result happen. But Tyler was on to something really genius when he understood that you don't have to fire to practice your aim. Simple, isn't it? If you don't have to fire, you don't need a "living" target. If you don't need a living target, then the options are limitless in how you choose to condition your aim. It makes sense, too. Pitchers don't always need catchers to practice their accuracy; only areas of focus. Luckily for us CS players, we don't have to memorize trajectory and arc while aiming, so all we really need are clear focus points.

"Tyler 'Storm' Wood... implored me to further analyze the state of aiming"

Real quickly, you may ask yourself how it is possible to practice rehearsed aiming motions in a 3-D game such as Counter-Strike, Halo 2 or the Quake series. At first glance it seems like wasted and ineffective effort. After all, there are millions of possibilities and dozens of maps. But think for a moment: Does that really matter? How do basketball players practice their shooting in a real-world environment? Obviously they can't practice every single angle and distance from the rim on the court, but does that mean shooting cannot be improved through muscle memory? You see, what at first glance appears to be an insurmountable obstacle turns out to be a common factor within training upon further analysis. Shooting from focus areas around the court can allow a player to better understand the distances and commit them to memory, which in turn will allow them to shoot better, even if they don't always get a shot off in the exact spots they practice.

Taking in all of the information we've learned so far, we know for a fact that by utilizing focus points and rehearsed movements, we can substantially improve our aim. So now it's time to put all of this together, and see what we can achieve.


For visualization purposes, picture a common area of a map from a first-person perspective. Think about the angles, the X-Y distances of those angles from your resting crosshair position and points in which enemies are common. Now imagine a grid with no depth over lining the area. Imagine that for roughly every head width, there is a small focus point among the many grid lines. If you do this properly, you should be seeing a picture-perfect way to train as many angles and distances as you like. I've personally gone as far as to create a custom map with many different points plotted against a wall in an attempt to fully realize my own effectiveness at recalling muscle memory.

Figure A.

In this small example, I've placed a very amateur (but well served) color coordinated target range against a wall. The colors are very important, because visual cue is an integral part of muscle memory. Just as you'd be hard-pressed to improve your beyond-the-arc accuracy by lobbing a ball at the net while blindfolded and ear muffed, it would defeat the learning process if your brain did not correctly correlate your muscle movements with success. If you keep things color coordinated it will allow you to more easily recognize your intended focus point. So for example in figure A, one could laterally move from red to blue, red to green and so on and so forth for a number of repetition, as far as needed until the wanted field of accuracy (FOA) is rehearsed. Completing the grid ring by ring is also an option.

But wait, before we move forward, why do we have to practice left if we are already practicing right? Why practice up, if we are already practicing down? Isn't that repetitive? Why practice the same axis more than once? Couldn't I just increase the number of repetitions moving right, and not even worry about the left? Well, no. You can't. Look at how your hand holds your mouse for a second, and move the mouse across your surface left and right. Notice anything different? Depending on your grip, the effort required to move left and right is not the same, which means it requires different memorization. This is because if one were to move the mouse to the right, they are generally pushing with their thumb, where as pushing to the left for many means utilizing the pinky, or ring finger to apply pressure and maintain control. Yes, you are technically gripping the mouse and moving with your wrist, but natural movements with the mouse require you to stretch and utilize your fingers to garner better control. This is most noticeable with vertical movement, where most players will simply push their mouse forward by out-stretching their digits, because it simply offers more control and precision than maintaining a solid grip and pushing the entire arm forward. And just like the difference between left and right movement, moving down requires a different effort to reach the same distance than moving up, where the emphasis is on pulling as opposed to pushing. Understanding that each axis and direction within requires different memorization to reach the same distances is very important to comprehending the next statement.

Keeping your settings consistent will make it easier to commit movement to muscle memory.

X effort in X direction = X distance
This is an absolute. This will always be true as long as settings, surface and mouse are all consistent. What this means, is that applying three points of effort to move the mouse left, will always yield X distance on the screen, and on your surface. We know that though. We know, without thinking, that applying a certain amount of effort to move the mouse a certain direction will always yield the same results. The key, however, is connecting the distances with the effort. That's what you are learning with muscle memory drills. You are repetitively practicing the specific effort required to reach X distance at X direction. Thinking logically, 100 repetitions of a single point in two minutes is roughly the equivalent of 100 perfect frags in a deathmatch for a specified angle and distance. This is because the whole point of a deathmatch, aim map, bots, and all that jazz is to find a target to aim at, and aim at often. With grids and a muscle memory system, you can effectively erase almost all downtime and practice the effort required to hit a target several hundred times in only several minutes.

Imagine, for a second, that one could theoretically gain a year's worth of deathmatch in only a week, acquiring better all-around results, depending on the number of repetitions, in only a fraction of the time. The scary thing is, it's a reality. In terms of pure aiming -- not factoring in continuing to track, and predict target movements -- there is no better way that I have come across to improve, and improve quickly. It is a strong belief that with enough practice and repetition, reflex shots can be conditioned to be the norm for the very dedicated. And why not? If all reflex shots are, is muscle memory doing what it does best, then should not direct muscle memory practice increase the frequency of reflex shots? One need only understand the logic of the system to know it works, without even trying.


You read that right. There's not just one method here. In fact, there's at least two I'm currently familiar with, both of which have their pros and cons, while still revolving around the same ideal, albeit from slightly different viewpoints.

The first is the aforementioned method, with the focus on a large number of points in exchange for lesser repetitions. Basically, a player could come to understand the effort required to move the crosshair a large number of distances across the screen. This, perhaps, is the most muscle memory oriented of the two methods, and one with probably the most potential. The only drawback to this method, is that is very, very intensive on the eyes. If one doesn't pace themselves properly, they could find themselves with painful eye strain after only a few day's practices. This is because requiring the eyes to focus and re-focus on dozens and dozens of points of different colors in differing areas is simply not healthy for anyone in longer sessions. The advantage, of course, is becoming a much more well rounded aimer by practicing the efforts required specifically for many points, assuredly leading to more immediate results. Put it this way: The points on the wall are sized to match the heads of opponents. Imagine during a map that you have the practice grid transparently over your screen. Picture any position you can think of, in fact. Now, imagine an enemy coming on the screen in any area. Do you see it? Chances are, if the enemy appears at X distance on X angle, you've practiced it thousands of times before. Remember, the opponent doesn't have to be in an exact position you've practiced to reap the rewards -- the space covered is just an added benefit.

The second method is what I could best describe as the basketball method. Basically, instead of shooting from every inch on the court for a handful of repetitions, you instead practice a select few points at drastically more repetitions. This, theoretically, should allow you to better understand the effort required for a specific distance much more quickly, and as a result may give one a quicker understanding of distances in general. This is a lot less intensive on the eyes, but relies on an acute understanding of distances through general repetition, rather than specific understandings of every inch of the screen. Both methods have their pros and cons, but both very much rely on correlating effort with distances.

Personally, I've worked out a fairly solid method of getting through the points in method #2 that involves a comfortable playlist on my ipod/winamp as I rehearse multiple repetitions at each point. I won’t tell you how many repetitions I do personally, because quite frankly I can be a bit obsessive about practice, but I will tell you if time is of any factor it may be good to lessen the number of repetitions the farther you progress along the grid in method #1. This is obviously because it would be better to maintain focus on the most active angles and distances, if one had to prioritize his or her time. Consider for a second that if one were to do a massive but approachable amount of 500 repetitions per point in method #2, they could finish the grid in roughly 45-60 minutes. Think about that -- 45+ minutes of pure aiming. That's intense, for real. I would recommend figuring out what best fits your schedule and expectations, but heed these warnings first!


I am not kidding here. I will say it again. I know some of you didn't hear me!


It's easy to understand logic of the system and know it works. It's easy to practice once and be immediately addicted to the short-term results – after all, if 15-30 minutes of muscle memory drills is the equivalent to hours and hours of death matching, you could effectively warm up to your maximum ability in one session (great to do before a match). But it's very, very important to pace yourself. It's all too easy to want results faster and faster, and practice the method more and more. I can tell you now, this will cause you to burn out in two weeks or less, for sure. Your mind simply won’t be able to handle such intense practice, several hours a day, seven days a week. Your mind needs to rest, your hand actually needs to take a break to avoid cramping, and your eyes, above all, need not be subjected to such torture.
Don't Forget: To avoid injury (yes, injury) be sure to practice in moderation.

By setting up a manageable schedule one can reap the benefits of the method(s) without spending hours and hours each day doing it. Thirty minutes a day for four days a week, for example, is more than enough to see very good results. It's very easy to always want to do more, burn yourself out and not want to play the game entirely. This is because the method is NOT FUN. It is NOT MEANT TO BE FUN. It is meant to consciously develop a talent. Perhaps the only time it is fun, is the first time you do it, when you initially understand how things work. But overdoing it will lead to nothing good. Stick to a patient schedule, and put a limit on how often you practice. You never want to be in a position where you skip out on real-game practice afterwards, because you’ve worn yourself out with too much muscle memory drills. Doing 60 minutes of muscle memory drills is not as effective overall as doing 30 minutes of drills, and 30 minutes of real-game experience. This isn't to say real-game experience is equal to muscle memory drills in terms of aiming, it's just saying that there's more to CS than pure aim. Sitting in a dark map for 60 minutes and jumping into a match is not what you want. You want to be familiar with the game speed, and comfortable in your movements.

I can tell you now, for every one person that takes what I'm saying here seriously, there will be another 20 that will over do it, see faster results but be at a loss long-term because they neglect to further practice in the future after becoming complacent with their improved level of aim. I’ve been a victim of this myself many times. Slow and steady is the key. Just because you can effectively warm up with one practice does not mean cramming more in will do anything other than continue to warm you up. Muscle memory is best utilized over time -- that's how it works. Doing a set number of repetitions over a year is more effective than cramming all of that time into two weeks, basically. If you want great long-term results, you need to practice consistently, over a long period of time.


I'm hoping that this enhanced understanding will bring some consistency to improvement aficionados, where at least part of quality practice is judged by the number of focus points on a grid rather than the amount of minutes spent deathmatching. Method #1 only has 64fp (focus points), so what about 100fp? 300fp? 1000fp? It's really up to you, as an individual, to decide how far you are willing to go for success. And this is just the beginning, I assure you. There are many facets of a great player, and it wont be long until better ways to train ourselves as competitive gamers are discovered. Whatever you do, though, don't be content with what works. Strive for more as not only a player, but as a human being. Think about not only what you've learned, and how you can improve upon it, but the root of the topic itself. You see sometimes you have to pull a Barry Sanders and go backwards to go forwards. Sometimes you have to use your brain against the grain of conventional wisdom; like aiming, for example. Video games may not be real, but your actions are. Before this article, many people believed that aiming was all in the game, or even your head, but as we've come to learn, maybe we had it right the first time. Maybe it's all in the wrist.

Download deLiGHT's Muscle Memory Map Pack

Complete with two muscle memory maps and a quick and easy desktop practice executable. Maps are made on the Source engine to reduce eye strain, but should benefit all FPS players assuming values are consistent across platforms.

David "deLiGHT" Light is a freelance eSports writer and aspiring professional Counter-Strike player. source