This article is part of Volume 3 of PoolSynergy, a monthly collection of the best writing on pool. After you read this, be sure to check out the rest of the January edition of PoolSynergy for other great articles over at Mike Fieldhammer’s Billiard Coach. January’s theme is Life Lesson Application.
There are 3 things from outside of pool that continue to have an effect on the way I see the game and my pursuit of excellence. The translation to pool is not perfect but is strong nevertheless. Each of these things can be, and often are, learned within the confines of a typical pool education. Somehow, though, I find these specific examples to be more profound than the versions I hear related to pool. For me, the understanding is more intuitive, more visceral. Maybe they’ll have that effect on you.
The first comes from tennis. I played quite a lot of recreational tennis when I was in my teens and 20s. One thing from that experience that has stayed with me is the admonition “don’t run around your backhand”.
The backhand is one of several fundamental strokes in tennis, but for most people it’s more difficult to learn, especially to do well, than is the forehand stroke. Because their forehand is much better than their backhand, many beginning players, and a surprising number of intermediates, will work hard to position themselves so they can always hit the ball using their forehand. This is a losing strategy against a competitive opponent, who would just hit to your backhand all day and make you do double the running he does. You also miss out on the great weapon that a strong backhand can become. And having two weapons available is always better than only having one.
In pool this shows up in a number of little ways, and one big one. An example of one of the more common little ones is not using inside English. It doesn’t directly give your opponent an obvious advantage, but it does prevent you from playing your best, and every little bit makes a difference. The big way is that you should identify and then work on your weaknesses, until they aren’t weaknesses anymore. This to me has always been one of the more obvious ways to improve, but it continues to amaze me how few people actually do it.
Another sports related item, this time from baseball, is the age old advice to “keep your eye on the ball”. Both as a hitter and a fielder, this advice is critical to becoming any good at the game. By focusing on the ball itself, rather than on how to hit it, you let your unconscious mind manage the daunting task of lining up your swinging bat with a fast moving ball, thrown by someone intent on making you miss.
It’s similar in fielding. If you had to consciously figure out where the ball was going to go, and when it would get there, and how you should react to be able to intercept it, you’d never be able to do so quickly enough. Instead, you’re taught to react right away, just to do what feels right, and it will come to you. And amazingly enough, after a little practice, you find yourself under the ball when it comes down more often than you would have thought possible.
In pool you need to learn to do the same thing, it’s just a lot more subtle. It’s obvious in baseball that you can’t consciously do the calculations, so you quickly pass that off to another part of your brain. In pool, you often don’t realize that you benefit just as much by doing exactly the same thing. Not only is the cerebellum (subconscious) much better and much faster at aiming and judging the appropriate force to use than your conscious is, but it can manage your fine motor control so as to deliver the stroke you want much better than the cerebrum (conscious) can do.
The more you concentrate on controlling your stroke, the worse it’s likely to get. Instead, just relax, and feel your stroke, every little thing about what your body is doing, without trying to control it. Observe, rather than influence. Your subconscious will learn to associate the good feelings of correct execution with the appropriate muscle control needed to achieve it.
You can augment this by watching a lot of excellent players, letting your subconscious learn from the best examples. Read my review of The Inner Game of Tennis, an excellent little book about this. Ironic, isn’t it, that the best book about my baseball example is about tennis?
In baseball, it’s easier to learn to let go, because you fail quickly and miserably if you don’t. In pool, you can think your way to managing your stroke, aim, etc, enough to achieve a modicum of success, but mastery still requires that you trust your subconscious to do its part and get out of its way. Think without shooting, shoot without thinking.
My last non-pool item that helps my game came from a cheesy movie. “Wax on, wax off” and “paint the fence” come from the movie The Karate Kid, where Mr. Miyagi, who has agreed to teach young Daniel Larusso karate, starts him out doing chores, waxing his car, and painting his fence, both with very particular techniques. Daniel gets angry with his teacher because he wants to get on with karate, but learns in a particularly vivid moment, that he has already acquired some important basic karate skills.
Because the learning of technique was separated from the intensity and the excitement of competition, Daniel was able to learn more and faster than would have been possible if he had been in control of his own training. If he’d been trying to learn while up against an opponent, even one at his own skill level, he would have been concentrating on all the wrong things.
In pool you can get some of this same benefit by practicing by yourself. Doing drills to focus on one thing at a time will shorten the time to competence and to mastery. It’s also important to get a coach or take lessons. Learn from someone not only more knowledgeable than you, but more objective. Like Daniel’s experience, it isn’t fun and it can frustrate you, but it works like nothing else.
Prior Editions of PoolSynergy
Review of The Inner Game of Tennis
Don’t Waste Your Money on Pool Lessons
Driving to Excellence
How to Practice Pool
How to Practice II – Expanding Your Perspective
Five Ways to Liven Up Your Practice Drills