Shooting Under Pressure
by Lou Figueroa
When we experience the dreaded "break down," several things are going on.
First, is the issue of pressure and how you react to it. If it's one of the first times you're playing in a league, or a tournament, or for money, or maybe just playing someone you'd REALLY like to beat, chances are you're going to experience the pounding heart and sweaty shaking hands syndrome -- that's just normal. (You may also cease to mentally function and just experience brain lock :-) The solution is really pretty simple: repeatedly put yourself in the same situation until the unusual becomes normal. Eventually, you'll walk up to the table to shoot the money ball just as relaxed as you would take a stroll through the park. A good thing to do is to understand the psychological side of playing pool and for this I recommend Dr. Faucher's "Pleasures of Small motions."
The second part of what's going on revolves around unrealistic expectations. This boils down to simply believing that it is within you ability to make shots that you cannot. The problem for most of us is that we watch the pros in person or on television, or perhaps Accu-Stats tapes, we see the good players at our local room and they make it look so easy. They make it look so easy we lose sight of how crushingly difficult the game actually is and we become disappointed in ourselves when we can't do this simple thing. I recall watching Willie Mosconi run a 100 and I literally rushed to my pool hall thinking, "Well, that's so easy -- anyone should be able to do that!" Of course when I got there and couldn't run more than 10 balls...
And then in practice, in the absence of pressure or distractions, we set up our easiest and favoritest shots, on our preferred table, and fall into a selective memory trap, remembering the shots we whip in (with BIH) and forgetting how many times me missed it or blew the position. From this stems a totally unrealistic set of personal expectations. The next time you think you're "running racks," pay closer attention. Are you really breaking and running out? Are you just spreading the balls around the table with no clusters on balls on the rail? Are you starting with an easy BIH? Are you really doing it repeatedly. After all, think of all the shots you'd have to have mastered to do it repeatedly. It's one thing to break them, sinking a bunch of balls, having a wide open spread, and being perfect for your first shot. It's another for the balls to bunch up, with several on the rail, and a long thin cut to start off with.
A few days ago I gave a lesson to a guy who was beating himself up saying, "I can't make a ball today." I had been watching him play and told him that one thing every good pool player has is good probability and risk assessment skills. Setting up a moderately difficult cut shot he had missed in a match, I asked him if he thought he should be able to make it. He said, "of course." I told him that I guessed he was actually something like one in five for the shot AND if he tried shooting it with the position that he had attempted during the match, he was more like one in 12. He looked at me like I was nuts and I told him to go ahead and shoot it without position -- to just cinch the ball.
One in six.
The third part of the breakdown is getting into a pressure situation and just trying harder -- unconsciously changing our preshot routine and stroke mechanics. In trying to be more careful and precise in our execution, we change the way we shoot -- often times, the changes are subtle, but significant enough to throw off our alignment and stroke. I believe everything from the preshot routine to finally pulling the trigger is an organic whole. In other words, you can't just say I'm going to use a certain bridge, a certain, grip, with a certain stance and head position. It's also the movement you employ to get into your stance and the motion you employ during your preshot routine that impact the final outcome. When we slow down and try to be more careful, everything gets altered. The answer here is to pay attention to the motions and rhythm that works best for you in practice and try as best you can to stick with them in actual play.
Lastly, as we're mid-match and we realize "the wheels are coming off" and we watch them go spinning merrily down the highway in front of us, we start to think negatively. Our mind becomes filled with questions: "man, why am I playing so bad?" "what am I doing wrong?!" "why me?!" Of course every bad roll that we get and every good roll our opponent gets contributes to the toxic sludge that starts coming out of our ears. The real problem here is that in thinking about these things, we stop thing about the shots and our execution. Instead of thinking, "I need to be careful about hitting this shot too hard and may have to apply a bit more english to compensate coming off the rail" we're still thinking about the last shot we blew. Think about the bad stuff after the match, not during.
So here's the thing: Playing good pool is hard. Real hard. Playing good pool under pressure is even harder. To compete successfully in the arena, you have to set into the arena as often as you can until it becomes your second home. And, you need to have a realistic set of expectations about yourself and your game. Playing good pool demands perfect, consistent precision -- not just once or twice, but on every shot. And to do that, you must have developed a body of knowledge and muscle memory that takes years of play to achieve. It's hard work, concentration, study, experimentation, and hitting thousands upon thousands of balls. And lastly, you have to have your head on straight and a clear thinking mind..
It's not a question of two years. For some of us, it's more like two decades. For others two lifetimes. But then, nobody said it'd be easy :-)