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Straight Stroking

by Deno J. Andrews


Deno J. Andrews

I believe that most serious amateurs spend all their time tying to figure out things "to do" to make their stroke better. What they should be doing IMO is spending the time to figure out what to eliminate. Basically, this is what I mean about changing the way you need to think about your stroke. When the stroke goes bad, it means that there is too much, rather than not enough. Here are my thoughts regarding stroke, actually, there are many old thoughts I dug up on deja that are still exactly what I think about stroke:

The stroke is the single most important controllable factor or variable in the game. Therefore it should be worked on constantly, but not always consciously. I will explain later. Until a player finds his stroke, what he has is connected to the stance, grip, and head alignment. When a stroke is found or perfected, it will be the one constant, and the cue placement will dictate where everything else comes to rest. When we first learn to hit the balls, we learn to lay the cue down on the table aiming pretty much at the final aim spot. From there, we are instructed to walk into the shot by placing the feet (in almost every book) and head, and bridge hand according to where the cue stick is. I think we forget this from time to time and place the body first, then the cue stick. Well, at that point, of course the stroke is going to be crooked because parts of the body are "in the way" or contributing to inward or outward swings in the back and front strokes.

So point one is IMO:

Aim the cue before going down on the shot. It doesn't have to be perfect, but let the cue establish its space first and foremost. To re learn this might take some time and maybe some embarrassing moments at the pool room lining up like a beginner. But remember there is a reason that in just about every great instructional book, the cue stick line is established before anything else happens. Many stroke problems may automatically disappear if a player who was having trouble would just go back to this for a while. To bring this back to the stroke trainer issue, imagine that you are using this trainer to train your muscles how to deliver the cue in a straight line. Well, if the body placement isn't perfect, you are training your muscles to make minute adjustment to and away from the body, to keep it straight. Going back to stance and alignment, allowing the cue to have its space first, it has nowhere it "has" to go because nothing will be in its way. This will not solve all the problems, but it is a core competency that I think many ignore or forget about.

Next, I try to think of the stroke as this- letting the speed, and direction, of the cues mass (including the mass of all that is connected to it (part of the weight of the arm) work without too much interference. With that said, how do we get the cue moving back and forth in a straight line? After step one, isolate the muscles that are good for the stroke and think about them. Hold your elbow up in the air so that you are pretending to stroke to and away from your body. Reach your bridge hand over and lay it on the triceps. As you pull away (backswing), what do you feel? What you feel is the only muscle that should be doing any noticeable work. Now, put your hand underneath and feel the biceps on the front swing. You may not feel anything except for at the end of the front swing, at which point the biceps will flex a lot. Do you get the point? One muscle on the way back and one on the way to the ball.Limited variables.a minimalist approach. But how do you get to the point where only those are working? And don't worry, the writs and hand and fingers are coming. Now pretend that you are going to swing for real; actually stand up and make the form without the cue stick. Pin your elbow up in space and let your arm dangle from there, completely relaxed. Many people have a hard time relaxing their arm so that it hangs perfectly down. Your fingers will be slightly curved if your arm is truly relaxed. Once relaxed totally, and unless your arm has been disfigured somehow, you should be able to see a line perpendicular from the floor going through the pocket between the thumb and first finger (which consequently is where the center of the cue stick goes!), through the middle of the lower arm, and finally through the elbow. If this is not the case, you have more relaxin' to do. So where are we.oh yeah, Step 2:

After doing step one, stack on this step- move into the shot so that you grip the cue (later) with the line of your grip, elbow, and forearm perfectly perpendicular to the ground.

Now we have this situation- the cue is frozen in space, as well as your grip, your lower arm, and your elbow. Try to imagine your stance and bridge arm still able to move around, while everything else is frozen. The next thing is the stance, isn't it? Stance.while I am firm about there being a "right" way to stand, all that means is a way that is consistent. But the two important things about the stance are this: 1) DO NOT GET IN THE WAY of the stroke and 2) be balanced and comfortable. What I mean by #1 is that if you stand too close to the cue, doesn't your arm want to move away from the body? And if you stand too far, won't the arm want to come back to the body? If you stand the right distance, there will not be any extraneous influence on the stroke arm. What is the distance? It differs for everyone. The easiest way to find out is to practice a little with steps one and two in mind. This is the point where a little Tai Chi practice comes in handy. Most of us practice the stroke full speed, or sometimes just a little slower. To find out about the influence of the body on the stroke, move the cue stick so damn slow back and the point it will take about 45 seconds to reach the ball. Do this while perfectly relaxed. In this exercise, you will see how badly the other muscles want to get involved in the stroke, and how much influence they have if you let them. Whenever you feel the cue getting off path, relax. After a few tries, your arm should be able to relax enough to do this without interference. If the body is in the way, a crooked stroke will be inevitable. If the body is out of the way, the cue will travel along a very straight line using only the needed muscles for back and forth swings. Find the location where your feet go and remember it! It may feel uncomfortable at first.but so does medium-heavy starch on the tux shirt; just get used to it quick. What's left?

Oh yeah, head placement and bridge placement. You all know where the bridge goes, so put it there. The bridge should have no influence on the stroke. It is only there to keep the front of the cue from going away. The head then should be placed in a location that is comfortable and consistent. Some players place it under the dominant eye. Some under the chin. I advocate under the chin, but not because it will make you any better. Placing the cue under the dominant eye makes it difficult to check if the placement is consistent if things are not going well. If the cue is under your chin, it is easy to check. Also, I like both eyes to be equidistant from the focus point. If the cue aim line is under one eye, and the head perpendicular to the aim line, the other eye is focusing on the hypotenuse. Do I think that means that a player will be less accurate? No. But I think that over long periods of time, it can lead to tired or stressed eyes. I have had some conversations with an ophthalmologist billiard student of mine, and he thinks it is also likely, but didn't know for sure if there is any truth to it. So anyway, if you are a dominant eye placement kind of guy, and find that after long periods of play that your eyes get way tired, maybe try a center placement and see if there is any change. And if so, let me know. What about head elevation? I don't think it matters much as long as it is consistent. On shots where I need to see the angle, I stand more upright. On shots where the hit is what makes the shot for me, I get down a little more. It is possible that I am doing myself a disservice by doing this, and maybe I should stay in the same place all the time. I am still thinking about this part.but really believe that a player can learn to play well at any altitude.

The stroke itself is a non issue, really. Just pull back, push forward, with a nice relaxed pendulum. (the rest of this paragraph is from a 1998 post of mine to Ken) Try this...go down in your stance and set up to hit a ball. Have a friend stand perpendicular to you and put his/her hand on your wrist as you are stroking. Then have this person pull your arm slowly away from you...if there is resistance, you are using too much muscle to control the straightness of the cue. If you are loose, your friend will be able to pull your arm off course. This is what is needed to have a dead straight stroke...slight muscle going back and forth...and emptyness sideways...let gravity keep your arm and cue in a straight line. For more practice at this, try to swing the cue in a circular motion parallel to the ground so your stroke hand is making an imaginary circle on the floor. Loosen the muscles in your arm and the cue will straighten out until your swing becomes dead straight...then hit the ball. Sometimes when I am not hitting my point, I will do this in a game and it straightens me out very quickly and I find through being tight...I was trying too hard to control the cue. Phil Jackson(coach of the Bulls) said it best...the best control is not having to control.

Is it possible to have a straight stroke using muscles to "keep it straight" instead of the emptiness? Heck yes, I just think it is too hard and unreliable to try and manufacture it.

If you want to pause at the end of your final backswing, fine. I think that for people who struggle with stroke, this should not be a part of the routine for this reason- if you are constantly worried about delivering a good straight stroke, pausing at the end of the final backswing gives you time to think about all those things you could do to mess it up. Rather, what you should be focused on is the aim point. If you can pause and stay focused without worrying about the delivery, great. I happen to like the no pause theory.and in the game, if it happens to pause, it is subconscious and ok. If you are consciously pausing, I think you are finding a way to screw up the stroke. Maybe you wont, but maybe you will.

The grip I like is this- the cue rests on the middle finger (my delivery finger) mostly, with the first finger slightly touching the cue. The thumb points straight down and basically locks the cue in place in that sweet pocket. Sometimes the thumb slightly bends under, but it is subtle. I think the wrist should be as relaxed as possible during the stroke. Many players cock the wrist back and forward to keep the cue stick level. I think that is too much and creates more variables than needed. If the wrist is relaxed, it will look to others like you are "using" it. That is because it looks different than most, not because it is true. At the point of contact, the hand naturally must grip the cue to keep it from sliding in the hand. Gripping too early can crook the stroke. Gripping too late means usually not what you expected to deliver. Obviously the timing has to be good. I suggest shooting a few times without gripping at contact to see just how far you can go before contacting the ball; it is farther than many think. This last minute timing I think is responsible for a large percentage of mess-ups.

In your practice regimen, be sure to include several "stroke" shots. That does not mean fast, but instead quality. Some of those shots should be very very light shots, like straight rail shots.moving into medium shots.and finally into strong shots. Do it from small to large like golfers to (going from wedge to driver in their practice) so that you can work your way into the stroke. There are tons of great shots in Daly's Billiard Book for under $10. You can test how straight your stroke is by hitting center ball up and down the table so that the cue ball comes back to strike the cue tip. I know this is old fashioned, but there is no better way of knowing one way or another if you can deliver a straight stroke. Do this until you can do it almost all the time..and relax, relax, relax, during that process.

In conclusion, the best strokes are those "without" rather than "with." Those strokes with the least variables are the easiest to control. That is not to say that a stroke with a lot of variables wont work (ala Efren and Sang Lee types), for they obviously do. But I bet those players spent much more time tweaking their strokes than they had to. Imagine how great they play imagine how great they could play if their strokes were even more consistent than they are now. These are my thoughts on stroke. I probably forgot a few things since this is sort of off the cuff. So if I forgot anything, please let me know and I will try to comment. I know this post was long, I am sorry. I was in the mood to get this typed some time soon, and this was a good opportunity to do so. I think I am pretty flexible when it comes to individual style. Remember, that while I think there is an easy way and a hard way.and I like the easy way (having tried to learn the hard way for about five years and then relearning the easy way) over the rest.each person must develop their own special stroke. But that development should be in eliminating the variables rather than adding to them. When it comes to stroke trainers, I think it is altogether possible that while on the surface a stroke trainer is a good thing (because a straight one is good), really, it may be contributing greatly to a bad stroke.maybe not across the board, but you are training "all" those muscles to "make" the cue "go" straight. Whereas, you could be letting gravity "ensure" a straight stroke by eliminating all those variables that could possibly contribute to a crooked stroke. I thought about the possibility of using both my theory and a stroke trainer hand-in-hand, but it is just not always have the up and down shot- it doesn't lie much at all. I think if anyone were to try what I have said, they would find that a straight stroke is free of cost, and free of obstacles.and most free to test without having to bring any contraptions to the table.

When I first gave this advice to Ken through RSB, his response was very favorable, but included that which I have said a few posts ago about learning something new and Ken's trend (since the late 90s):

"The trouble with most changes is that they work for a little while, as we know, then the bad stuff creeps back. Hopefully not this time..." The real trouble is that when we get lazy about working things out in our game, we look for the next "fix." Well, that usually adds to the problems, where the real answer is in taking away the variables.

I'm tired. Go cubbies!

Deno J. Andrews