I posted a couple lines on this subject on Facebook and got more comments than anything else I’ve ever posted, so I thought it deserved a more detailed exposition. And this applies to all games, so don’t let the example from straight pool scare you off.
I play in a straight pool league once a week and I’ve noticed that a number of the players there will often pass up a good break shot and instead play safe. I’m not talking about the situation where the shot is low percentage; I’m talking about having a good break shot and purposely passing on it, playing a safety instead.
I think this is playing scared and I think it’s a big mistake. When you know what the right shot is, you must have the courage to shoot it. Sure the pressure is higher in a league match than in a friendly game. So what! The pressure’s higher when you play in a tournament or play for a few bucks or even when a couple of railbirds are watching you play. Do you want to be afraid in all of these cases, passing on opportunities to kick butt? I hope not.
When you know what the right shot is, you have to have the courage to shoot it.
Success on the big shot, the one where the game is on the line, is one of the sweetest, most gratifying moments in pool. If you play scared, hoping to win off the mistakes of your opponent, even if he does screw up your victory will seem hollow, robbing you of the pleasure of knowing that you won rather than he lost. And you won’t ever get better under pressure. On the contrary, if you give in to fear it will get stronger and eventually own you. Pool will become less fun and you’ll either stop playing where the pressure’s highest, or quit the game entirely.
As in all of life, the first step to fixing this problem is to recognize it. Take a step back and take an honest and critical look at how you play, especially in pressure situations. Do you pass up good shots because if you miss you leave your opponent a chance to win? Do you shoot easy shots that lead nowhere instead of tougher shots that lead to run outs? Do you leave your problems until the end of the game instead of attacking them early? These are all strong symptoms of playing scared.
Although you want to become fearless at the table, you don’t want to become reckless. Don’t take low percentage shot to prove you have no fear. This approach leads to ruin. One good way to prevent this is to have a very good understanding of your actual ability. Using progressive practice techniques on your weaknesses will lead not only to improving them, but to an honest appraisal of your skills that will come in very handy when you assess in a game what shot to take or whether to play safe.
If you give in to fear it will get stronger and eventually own you.
The next step is to call yourself on it, every time you start to slip. “Always take the right shot” should become your new mantra. And notice I said the “right” shot. I am not advocating an all offensive approach. When a safety is the best shot, play the safety.
The third step is to make a note (mental is OK but a written note is more likely to be acted on), every time fear attempts to make an appearance. What was the circumstance under which it showed its ugly face?
Fear can affect your game in many subtle ways, often not recognized as fear at all. Here are a few examples that will help you see what I mean. I’m sure you can think of many more.
Asking too much of a shot to get perfect shape on the next ball, rather than taking the shot as it lies and taking a little longer, but much more achievable, position on the next shot (don’t be afraid of a little longer shot).
Remove the underlying weaknesses in your game that allow fear a chance to affect you.
Playing the position route you’re comfortable with, even though there are obstacles in the way, rather than a safer route you’re not as comfortable shooting.
Not putting the right cueing on the CB for fear of missing the ball, even though it leads to not getting shape on the next ball.
The last and most important step is to remove the underlying weaknesses in your game that allow fear a chance to affect you. Those are things that you should work on in your practice sessions. You won’t fear things you’re confident about.
For example, if you find yourself trying to kill the cue ball off the rail instead of going across and back, then set up a few examples of those shots and practice them until you are both proficient and comfortable. The next time it comes up in a game, and you go across and back with ease, you’ll have a small epiphany. Savor that “aha” moment, but remember what got you there, because you’ll want to do more of it. Not more repetition of the across and back drill, but more iterations of the whole process of fear elimination. By recognizing and correcting the underlying issues that give rise to fear you can conquer it and play fearlessly.