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Maybe it’s the Shaft

Posted by insidepoolmag on August 15, 2007

This is my third column exploring the impact of the cue stick on performance. When I first started this series, I thought it would be a simple subject, maybe worthy of two columns at best. Mostly I wanted to see if switching to a 60-inch cue after playing with a 58-inch Joss for 15 years would help me play better. I’d often wondered if my long limbs and height would benefit from such a switch and wanted to settle the question once and for all.

I have since come to realize several things. Without question, my body requires a longer cue. I wish I had started with one all those years ago. If I accidentally pick up a standard-sized cue today and go to put my gripping hand on the butt, there is nothing there—just air. In other words, I have been cramped up and restricted for 15 years. It is so obvious to me now that it reminds me of the tiger cages made famous during the Vietnam War. No room to stand up, no room to lie down, no room to stretch.

I have never been what is often referred to as an “equipment junkie” and have even admired the ability of some players to play jam-up with a cue off the rack. Now I realize I was, and largely remain, ignorant of the nuances of the cue stick and the effect on advanced play. I’ve heard all the usual conversations about deflection and joint types, of course, but have appreciated them mostly from a marketing sense. I have experimented with different tips but only until I found one I liked, and even then I stayed with the same cue and the same shaft.

Which brings me to my number one insight—the importance of the shaft. The flexibility and taper of a shaft can greatly affect the way a cue plays, and it makes sense to pick a shaft that enhances the way you play. Previous to this insight, I was content in knowing that the “pro taper” my cue was built with was used by most of the top players. I didn’t know that the term was so widely used and the effect on the cue so varied. Now I understand that part of the struggle in getting used to my new 60-inch Dennis Dieckman cue is due to the shaft.

Dieckman believes in a stiff shaft with a gradual taper from the front going back and substantial thickness prior to the joint. He believes it reduces deflection and allows the cue to hit truer. I agree with the latter, but I’m not so sure of the former. I have no problem with deflection in normal, close-to-center cueing, but I’ve missed a lot of shots where I’ve had to put a lot of juice on the cue. Actually, it seems to me that the graduation in deflection from a little bit of english to maximum english is more pronounced. How much of that is from the length of the cue or other factors, I don’t know.

But there is one thing about shafts of which I am now convinced. It is harder to put english, and especially draw, on the ball with a stiffer shaft. Dieckman, when I mentioned it to him, insisted that it was a result of my technique, even though I had no problem drawing the cue ball with my Joss. Well, I thought, maybe it has to do with the extra length and the resultant shift in timing and balance.

So I checked with several other sources. Tony Simpson, a Schuler Cue representative, maintains that a more flexible shaft allows the cue tip to stay in contact, or “cling,” to the surface of the cue ball longer, hence imparting more spin. I was relieved to hear that Ray Schuler, the founder of Schuler Cues, was also an advocate of a stiffer shaft and amazed that the company has ten different shaft tapers available in their retail line and about 150 others available for custom work. I never realized that players could be so particular about their shafts.
I talked with Buddy Hall down at the U.S. Open and looked at a custom shaft that Nat Green of South East Cues had made for him. Instead of a normal 14-inch pro taper, it came a full 16 inches back from the tip without any increasing taper. Buddy slid it through his bridge hand to demonstrate how the unvarying dimension of the shaft allowed his bridge to remain constant. We took it into the practice room and hit a few balls. When I pulled the cue ball back to the rail with english, the shaft flexed like crazy, but just a touch of juice sent the ball completely down table.
Since then, as I’ve adjusted to my new cue, I’ve been able to jazz the white ball up with more and more confidence. I appreciate the finesse of a more flexible shaft, but I like the authority of the stiffer shaft. In the least, I am willing to experiment further. So was it the shaft? Was it the length? Or was it the technique? Turns out, it’s a combination of the three.
Good luck good shootin’!


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When to Take a Break

Posted by insidepoolmag on August 15, 2007

Pool is an addictive sport, and many people who get involved in it end up pursuing dreams of mastery and conquest. Sometimes they lead to fame and fortune, and sometimes they lead to frustration and pain.
Most often, for players who get bitten by the bug, these dreams lead to an ongoing sequence of breakdowns and breakthroughs. They become a vehicle for self-knowledge and an opportunity to experience one’s own physical, mental, and emotional limitations. Persevering in the face of these limits generates the breakdowns and breakthroughs, and when one takes place; it happens both in your game and in your experience of being a human being. You can’t separate the pool from the person. They go together.
In other words, when you create a goal associated with pool, the game becomes wrapped up and intertwined with your overall experience of yourself. Understanding that you are never dealing with a pool game independent of yourself is essential to managing your game effectively. This is specifically true when considering whether to take break or not.

Sometimes taking a vacation from playing or practicing allows what you have been working on to gel. It allows your body and mind to incorporate the changes that will let you play better in the future. Sometimes a break will relieve the tedium and let you come back to the game with a renewed passion. At other times, taking a break only keeps you stuck in the muck. When you plateau because you have run into a personal limitation, taking a break is the wrong thing to do. At these times it is essential to keep pushing forward; to press into the obstacle and experience the necessary breakdown that allows the next breakthrough.
When you set an authentic goal, you call forth everything in opposition to accomplishing it. In fact, if you never were to take on a specific goal, the obstacles to attaining it would remain unknown. It is taking a stand that brings the resistance into the foreground, and making a goal always brings up opposition. It is recognizing where you are in the process that determines whether or not it is the right time to take a break.
Every project goes through different stages. When you first consider a goal, it is in a state of formulation. You are not pinned down yet, because you actually haven’t taken a stand. If you take a break at this point, you suffer no setback, but you realize no advancement either.

When you first declare a specific goal with intention, you bring it into being as a real deal in the world. You do this by owning it within yourself, by writing it down, and by telling others. The more you define and share it, the more it becomes real. It takes on substance, and the obstacles to attaining it begin to wake up, but still, you haven’t taken any real action yet. If you take a break now, you gain nothing, but you loose credibility with yourself and others.

Once you start taking action, you may enjoy an immediate step forward, but soon the obstacles present themselves in their full potency. Your project is in a state of concentration, where a lot of energy and effort produces little results. It’s like pushing a rock up a hill. You push and push and push, but you don’t get very far. This is the worse time to take a break, because if you do, the rock will roll down the hill, and any progress you made will be wasted. This is the time to keep pushing.

When you get to the top of the hill, you enter a state of stability, and it is okay to take a break if you need one. A vacation here can renew your energy and your passion. When you come back, the rock will be sitting where you left it. You might have to get back up to speed, but you’re strong again, so that’s not a problem.
Once you start down the other side of the hill, however, you enter into a state of momentum. Every bit of effort or energy on your part pays off big! The rock is rolling down the hill, smashing through obstacles with velocity. Stay there and manage it! If you take a break, you will squander the opportunity you have worked so hard to get. Enter a lot of tournaments! Swing up to a higher level of competition! Stay in the game and enjoy it!

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The Stroke as Context

Posted by insidepoolmag on August 15, 2007

The last three “Pro Pool Workout” columns were devoted to looking at the stroke from the perspective of technique and routine. We singled out some of the major flaws and looked at ways to correct them. We looked at some training ideas and how to put them into practice. Everything we looked at, though, even when we talked about the quality of the stroke, was essentially from the perspective of parts and pieces. We broke the stroke down into separate parts just to be able to talk about it.

This was artificial in a sense, because the stroke is more than just a collection of parts. In fact, when we break it down into pieces, we essential kill it. We literally squash the life out of it. It’s okay to focus on a single aspect of the stroke during a training session, but if that’s attempted during competition for any length of time, it won’t turn out very well. High-level performance demands that we allow the stroke to come alive. We have to give it enough room to breath. It’s only when we execute with trust that we get to experience the stroke in its wholeness.

But experiencing the stroke is different than talking about it, and the only way to capture the stroke in words without reverting to a parts and pieces mentality is by looking at the context. This is a tricky concept in itself, so bear with me for a moment. Imagine a bowl of cherries. The cherries are the parts and the bowl is the context. The cherries fill a specific space that is defined by the shape of the bowl. In a more philosophical sense, it is always the context that gives rise to the content. In terms of the stroke, it is a specific philosophy of performance that gives rise to the wholeness of the stroke. The stroke takes the shape of the context that the player creates for it.

In other words, the context of the stroke is an individual thing. The stroke is formed not just by the manipulation and control of physical components but also by the personal performance philosophy of the player. If you want to know how a specific player relates to performance, look at his stroke. Conversely, if you want to play at your highest level, create a philosophy of performance that resonates with your highest nature and let the wholeness of your stroke (and everything else) spring from there.

No one can tell you what the ideal context is for your stroke. You have to discover it on your own. Fast and loose worked really well for Jimmy Reid at the height of his career, but that doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. It’s an individual thing, and even just pondering the idea seriously from time to time will put you ahead of most players.

My personal performance philosophy, at the time of this writing, is decisive flow. When I’m playing well, my stroke springs from this context. In fact, when I’m playing my best, my shot routine, decision-making, and entire demeanor at the table is sourced from this idea. If I move too fast physically, I’ll lose the decisive. If I get bogged down in decision-making, I’ll lose the flow. If I rush through my stroking pattern without being fully present, I’ll lose the decisive. If I fixate on any single aspect of the stroke, I’ll lose the flow. It’s only when I execute from the context of decisive flow that I get to experience the beauty of my stroke. It’s awesome!
Good luck good shootin’!

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Practice to Play

Posted by insidepoolmag on August 15, 2007

Most serious players know that it takes work to practice successfully. They approach each practice session with commitment and intention and view the opportunity as one where they can devote an intensified focus to specific areas of their game.

This is a productive form of practice and far more valuable than randomly hitting balls, but there are ramifications to consider. When you have your attention on technique, you are focusing on how you do a specific action. It greatly accelerates learning to see the fine distinctions between what works and what doesn’t. It helps you gain conscious understanding of your skills and is probably the best way to hone your technique into a consistent and dependable whole.

As valuable as it is, however, this type of practice is artificial. It is vastly different from playing pool, and if you tried to play this way during competition, you would get killed. When playing, you need to be focused on doing specific actions, not on watching how you do them. In practice, you can jump back and forth between being the performer and the observer, but in playing, it is essential to stay in the role of the doer. When competing, you want to stay on the court and out of the stands.

Sports psychologists tell us that when a player is under pressure, he is likely to revert to the mode of operation with which he is most familiar. If most of your practice time is spent focused on technique, then that is likely to be where your attention will go when the pressure is suddenly increased. Because of this tendency, it is wise to adopt the 60-40 rule and devote at least 60% of your practice time to practicing playing pool.

Most players who become aware of this decide to spend more time running balls. This helps train you to shoot with confidence once you get in stroke during competition, but it really doesn’t prepare you for the times when you are under pressure. Pool competition has a normal flow to it that includes waiting for the balls to get racked, breaking, and sitting in the chair when your opponent is at the table. In actual competition, even when you’re playing well, you are continually stopping and starting. In addition, you are often presented (particularly in the beginning of a rack) with table situations that will not allow you to simply run out. Between run-out players, these are the times in a match which most determine who will win and who will lose. If you only practice running balls, you may never get the opportunity to show what you have mastered.

You can look at breaking from the same perspective. Most players practice their break by racking and breaking rack after rack, but that’s not the way it happens in a real match. Even when you are stringing racks together, you only get to break every tenth shot in 9-ball, and usually it’s considerably less frequent than that. In a race to 11, which can take anywhere from one to two hours, you will only get to break about 10 times, and each break will be separated by substantial periods of shooting balls and playing safe. It makes sense to practice the same way.

The best way to practice playing pool is to do just that. Rack the balls, break them, and play it out. If you miss or decide to play safe, take a few seconds in a designated player’s chair before you come back to the table in the role of the second shooter. If you want to replay shots you missed or moves that didn’t work out like you planned, it’s okay to do so, but take a seat for a moment before you move on to the next shot. In competition, you’re coming out of the chair for every new inning, so if you duplicate this in practice it will become the familiar. If you are a strong run-out player, you may decide not to finish racks when there are only a few open balls left. Practice time for you might be better invested in working through the first few moves of each rack, as your proficiency there is more likely to determine your future win/loss ratio. Once you know you’re going to run the last few balls, let your imaginary opponent concede the rack. Then rack ‘em up again.
Good luck good shootin’!

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Shark Attack 202

Posted by insidepoolmag on August 15, 2007

In the last column, which I called “Shark Attack 101,” we looked at the insidiousness of intentional sharking. We saw that sharking is a matter of degree and that anyone can be sharked under the right conditions. I left you to ponder several questions in the search for viable strategies to handle such occasions: What can you do when you are being sharked? How can you deal with the situation effectively? What strategies have you used in the past to stop shark attacks? I asked you to email me with ideas, but I forgot about the lag time between columns, so I’m writing this second part before you even got to see the first part. While I’m waiting for your ideas, let’s look at a few suggestions I’ve received from others. Welcome to “Shark Attack 202!”
I asked the following questions: What do you do when your opponent intentionally sharks you by moving his cue suddenly just as you go down onto the shot? How do you handle it? I presented these questions to people at different competitive levels and explained that I wasn’t looking for the usual knee-jerk answers such as “be mentally tough,” “just focus on the ball,” or “just ignore it.” I wanted them to remember when they had been distracted by an offending player and how they put a stop to it. I ran this scenario past experienced tournament and stake players, nationally ranked players and champions. Here are some of their responses:

Jim Cherry, a friend of mine and a tough match player, says he uses a humorous approach. He doesn’t confront his opponent directly but turns the tables on them with remarks such as “What’s the matter? Did you forget to take your medication today?” His tactic is to acknowledge the shark move and let his opponent know it wasn’t going to work on him. Cornbread Red once told me a similar response. After the opponent made his move, Red would say to him, “That ain’t gonna help you none.”

Another friend and experienced competitor, Cass Marchinowski, is more likely to take a confrontational approach. Like several others I talked with, he’ll ask the offending player nicely, one time, to settle down and play fair. “Then I let him know, in no uncertain terms, that this is not going to continue.” I never did ask Cass what would happen if it continued, but I imagine one of his options was to involve the tournament director. That can work sometimes, at least in professional events. Tournament director Scott Smith told me, “All you have to do is come and get me. If your opponent is intentionally trying to distract you, I will tell him to stop. If he continues, I can even call a forfeit on his match.” He went on to caution me, though, that all perceived sharking isn’t real. “One time,” he said, “I got all upset because I thought my opponent was trying to shark me, but it turned out he just had a nervous condition. He wasn’t moving on me intentionally.”
Grady Mathews, in his instructional video “Killer One-Pocket,” said that when your opponent is moving on you or “pouncing out of his chair” when it’s your inning, you must make him stop. Otherwise, he will destroy your tempo and concentration. In a recent conversation with him, I realized I was focused on the wrong thing in these situations. I was focusing on what I wanted to stop, not on what I wanted to have. Grady shared two words with me that made a difference. One was “still,” and the other was “behave.” He told me he walks over to the guy and asks politely, “Will you please be still while I’m shooting?” If it’s a gambling match and the player refuses to compete fairly, he’d find the room owner and ask if he can get the player to behave. “Most of the time, the owner of a place will make a player either play fair or quit.”

Anyhow, all of this reminds me of the basic premise I mentioned last month: You are not mentally weak if you can be sharked. You are not a wimp if you can be distracted by an opponent who will stoop to sharking to get his way. In the next column, I’ll wrap this subject up with some of your e-mails and also a few things I learned from Jose Parica and Danny Diliberto. Danny’s life story, by the way, is featured in the new book Road Player, which could practically be a text book on this subject matter. If fact, consider it required reading for Shark Attack 202!
Good luck good shootin’!

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Another Look at Control

Posted by insidepoolmag on August 14, 2007

It has been said that the winner of a match is often determined before a single shot is even taken. Most serious players, if they are honest about their losses, will agree, at least partially, with that statement. Obviously, if one player is vastly superior in skill and execution over the other, he will win. If both are equally skilled but one has more experience, then he will win in most cases. If both players are close in skill and experience, then the one who has the greatest intention to win is the favored player.

The front part of a match and the front part of each game are the main battlefields for advanced players. Good players know how to keep control of the table if they get it and that makes the front game a fight for control. The very worst mistake to make in the beginning of a contest is to try something that fails and gives control of the table to your opponent. If you are playing a weaker player, the penalty is not as severe—you will get another chance because your opponent doesn’t know how to keep control of the playing field. He will eventually attempt something and fail.

Taking and keeping control of a match is almost entirely a function of shot selection, skill of execution, and self-knowledge. When you bet everything on a shot that you don’t make, you’re operating from false confidence, arrogance, and failing to consider the ramifications of missing. It takes honesty to listen to yourself about a specific shot and to accept and act on that feedback. Proceeding ahead with disregard when you have doubts is never an act of courage. It’s an act of surrendering to the psychological pressure of competition.

In pool, competition is between two people. It can look many different ways, but it is essentially a confrontational experience. Although many purists wish it to be, it is not simply an unadulterated contest of skill. You have to rely on your skills, of course, but the effectiveness of how you employ them is greatly determined by the tenacity and will you put behind it. If you really mean to win when you draw a strong player, you will not attempt shots in the front game where you cannot guarantee the outcome. The penalty is just too great.

Although we can always see the final outcome on the table in terms of shots made and missed, the actual measuring of one’s intention happens in the psychological grabbling between two competitors. When two advanced players meet on the playing field, one player, at some point, concedes defeat to the other.
At the Derby City, I watched a 9-ball match between Earl Strickland and Derek Pogirski of Ann Arbor, MI. Pogirski was not the favored player, but he had a two- or three-game lead and was fully in control of the momentum of the match. Strickland went into his famous “angry and intense” mode and scattered the last three balls of the rack, conceding the game, which was a foul under the rules of the tournament. To my surprise, Pogirski did not call the foul and take the extra game, even though it would have put him on the hill.

I mentioned it to a friend, and he said sarcastically, “Those rules don’t apply to Earl.” I realized that in the moment of not holding his opponent to the rules of the tournament, Pogirski had deferred to him and, at some level, had conceded the match. Sure enough, Strickland took control and went on to win, at which point I turned to my friend and said, “If he ever does that with me, I’m gonna call the foul on him.”
Ah, but the human mind is such an insidious thing. A few minutes later, I got called to a match with Danny “Kid Delicious” Basavich. He challenged the rack repeatedly, and I re-racked more than I should have. Instead of telling him to accept it or get a referee, I allowed him to rack his own. At one point he moved to tap the balls into place, and before the cue ball landed, I said strongly, “Don’t tap those balls!”

He tapped three or four into place, removed the rack, and went to the head of the table. Even though tapping balls was a foul under tournament rules, I didn’t call the foul and take the one-game penalty. I never even realized, until several minutes after the match was over and after a painful walk in the parking lot, that I had conceded the match to him in that moment. Like they say, sometimes the winner of a contest is determined long before the game is over.

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Killer Instinct

Posted by insidepoolmag on August 14, 2007

“Killer instinct” is a term tossed around fairly regularly in pool room conversations. It is applied to some players and found absent in others. “He’s got the killer instinct…she doesn’t have a killer instinct,” etc. What, exactly does this term mean? How do you know if you have it or not? Is it a good thing to have, or is it a dinosaur left over from the smoke-filled, trouble-in-River-City poolrooms of the hustlers’ era?

For sure, pool is a one-on-one sport. Two players go into a match, and only one comes out a winner. Only one player gets to move forward on the tournament chart. You could say that the other player, in terms of a pool match, gets killed off, and that points to the essential aspect of competition. Everybody can’t win. If your opponent really wants to win and you really want to win, one of you has to be denied. And that denial, no matter how many mistakes you make, is ultimately delivered by the hand of your opponent. In that respect, pool requires the winner to land a killing blow. He has to squash the other player’s intention and kill off his hope.

There are people who appreciate the beauty and camaraderie of pool and cringe at killer allegory. They would prefer to pretty it up. No killers here, thank you. To them, the outcome of any particular match is just a matter of the best player winning. If one player plays a better game, then he wins; if the other player plays better, then he wins. It’s not a personal thing, for goodness’ sake.

If we were talking about boxing, this issue would be easy to resolve. After all, somebody is likely to get knocked out, maybe even hospitalized. Having a clear and focused killer instinct in a boxing match is clearly a genuine advantage. Only a fool would be there without one. But is boxing so different from pool? Pool players can’t physically touch each other, but aren’t they up to the same thing?

The truth probably leans toward the killer instinct, even though some will not admit it. To such a player, resistance to the phrase killer instinct comes from associating it with undesirable traits such as hatefulness, evil, and disrespect. That player wants to see himself as a good person, intent on pursuing his own goals and not someone who is focused on actively killing off another person’s hopes and dreams. But that perspective denies the real truth of competition. You have to eliminate the other player to claim victory.
There is nothing wrong with having a killer instinct, expressing it in competition, or talking about it in a mature fashion. It’s not something bad. Having a killer instinct doesn’t mean you have to hate your opponent or be mean and surly, and it certainly doesn’t necessitate poor sportsmanship. In fact, the greatest killers in competitive pool are often the most jovial, friendly people you will ever meet. The killer instinct is not demonstrated and revealed by mannerisms but by the underlying intention of the player.

You can like or dislike a particular player, but if you want to play well against them, it’s essential to respect them. Allison Fisher once said it was the most important thing. It’s also natural to feel love and camaraderie for people like yourself who have found a passion for playing pool. None of this, however, needs to interfere with the killer instinct coming to the surface once your match is called. It’s what competition is about, and if you didn’t have it in you, you would not be playing competitively.

All competitive players, in other words, possess a killer instinct, even if they can’t express it powerfully. One has to acknowledge and accept it to express it effectively. Think about yourself as a competitive player and look for it inside. Don’t worry, pool isn’t an existential activity. No one is really going to die. Even if your opponent tells you he needs to win to feed his family, that’s just a bunch of baloney. It’s still your responsibility as a competitor to kill him off as soon as you can. You’re not taking anything away from him, because if he’s not qualified to win, he doesn’t deserve it. He can get a job just like anyone else.
Good luck good shootin’!

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Posted by insidepoolmag on August 14, 2007

In flying a Cessna 172, there’s one crucial split second where everything changes. At one moment, you are in the confines of a four-dimensional environment and subject to the laws of that universe. You can go to the left, to the right, and forward and even backwards. But you can’t go up or down unless you run it into a ditch or over a curb. In addition, you can use the brakes to control your speed, and if you decide to change your mind about flying, you can do so immediately.

On the other side of that split second, however, you enter a five-dimensional world, and things that didn’t matter a second before quickly become important. All of a sudden, the wind, for instance, takes on a whole different role. Instead of pushing against the airplane, with you adjusting surfaces to keep from blowing over, the wind is now carrying you along with it. No matter what else you do with the engine and the controls, you are simultaneously traveling with the wind. If you don’t compensate, you’re liable to run out of fuel over Lake Michigan instead of landing in Chicago. It’s that important.

This transition is called rotation, the split second upon take-off when the wheels separate from the concrete. One second you’re accelerating down the strip at an awkward 62 miles per hour, pulling back on the yoke, and in the next second you’re flying like a graceful bird. Now you can go up and down at will, but backwards is completely out of the question. The brakes no longer work, and if you want to change your mind about flying, it’s too late.

There is a similar transition in the shot process. One moment, you are in the standing address, planning and visualizing your shot, seeing it from a standing perspective, and remaining physically separate from it. In the next moment, you are down on the table, physically engaged and seeing it from a completely different perspective.

This transition is also an extremely crucial moment. You are moving your body from a standing attitude to a lowered attitude, but you are also “passing the ball” of your intention from the mental to the physical. It’s an easy place to fumble or get distracted.

Think back to the last time you were sharked by a crafty opponent. When did the sharker raise his arm suddenly to draw on a cigarette? When did he or she suddenly squirm in the player’s chair or call out to a spectator? Didn’t they make their move just as you began to move down on the shot? Why? Because in this moment of transition, most players are vulnerable.

The reason for this vulnerability is a combination of ignorance, lack of training, and the natural curiosity of the mind. Most players have not trained themselves to concentrate during this section of the shot process because they don’t know where the focus is supposed to be, which leaves the mind undisciplined and vulnerable. When you are in stroke and everything is going smooth and natural, the process works fine, but when the “wind” of competition blows unexpectedly, it knocks you off course. The only solution is to discover how to compensate – to learn the crucial focus of the transition and train your mind to hold it.
We can demonstrate this by looking at another important aspect of flying. At some point, in every flight, you have to bring the aircraft back to earth. You have to land it. To accomplish this, every airport has a particular flight pattern around it, and the last leg of this pattern is called the final. The major focus during this phase is to keep the plane directly lined up with the runway. If you veer to the left or the right, you are in danger of losing the runway.

It’s the same in pool. You set your eyes and body to the shot line during the standing address, and you keep your attention during the transition on coming directly down that shot line. You don’t want your body, and particularly your eyes, moving all over as you come down. If you do, you are in danger of “losing” the shot. There is a huge advantage in “seeing” the shot from a standing perspective, but if you lose it on the way down, then you’re starting over after you’re already on the ground, so to speak, which might be too late.
Once you commit yourself to a specific alignment that seems congruent with your mental image of making the shot, you don’t want to change anything except to bring your body directly down on to the shot. Don’t change your head and eye alignment, and don’t change your mental image on the way down. Just touch down. Enjoy Chicago.
Good luck good shootin’!

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Posted by insidepoolmag on August 14, 2007

In my last column, I made two suggestions about the execution phase of the shot process. One was that it is the only part of the process that really counts, and two was that doing it successfully has more to do with what you don’t do than with what you do.

The first suggestion refers to the fact that the rest of the shot process is simply preparation for the execution. The second refers to the fact that unsuccessful shots—if the preparation was thorough and complete—are always a result of some type of interference. You can call it doubt, fear, hesitation, or whatever, but left alone, your well-trained nervous system will always produce what you request of it. Since proper preparation includes choosing an action you are physically capable of producing, if you don’t produce it, then you can only blame it on some kind of mental or psychological interference.

All that said, you can’t count on your execution phase unless you have trained your body to produce it with a high degree of effectiveness and consistency. So let’s break it down into components and take a look at it.
By definition, the execution phase begins with the final back stroke and ends with the completion of the final forward stroke. In addition, there are two other main components, both of which are widely misunderstood by students and teachers. These are the pause and the follow-through.

The confusion lies in thinking of these two parts of the stroke as “things to do.” They are not. If you only focused on the back stroke and the delivery stroke and did both fully, you wouldn’t ever need to be concerned about the pause or the follow-through. They would happen naturally. In fact, it would take a concerted effort on your part to interfere with that natural unfolding.

Let’s look at the pause. One group of muscles in your arm pulls the cue stick back during the final back stroke. Then an entirely different group propels the cue stick forward. To get from one action to the other requires a releasing, or cessation, of the first group and an engagement of the second group. There has to be a pause there just to make it happen. It might be of very short duration, and you may decide to train yourself to lengthen it, but really, aren’t you just training yourself to produce the back and forward strokes as independent actions? It’s just like backing your car out of a driveway. At some point you have to shift from reverse to drive, and if you do it while you’re still rolling backward, you won’t get a smooth transition of power. Eventually you’re going to buy new U-joints. If you come to a full stop, however, and then shift gears, and then apply the power, you will have a smoother transition and better control.

The follow-through, in a similar fashion, is just the natural completion of taking a full stroke. In other words, if you don’t have a follow-through, you are not taking a complete stroke. You are stopping it.
Jerry Briesath once told me that the stroke was essentially a throwing motion. If you look at it from that point of view, it is easy to see how follow-through is a natural part of the stroke. Think of throwing a baseball, or a rock, or even a spitball. See how unnatural it would be if your throwing arm only when part of the way?

There’s another secondary action that takes place in the final stroke that many players are trying to either consciously do or stop doing. That is the dropping of the stroking shoulder. Many instructors teach their students to keep the shoulder rigidly in place so that the tip of the cue stick is forced down into the cloth by the upward movement of the hand as it completes its rotation from the elbow. “Never drop the shoulder!” they say.

This is proper advice if we’re talking about not forcing the shoulder to drop, but it’s wrong if we’re talking about restraining a natural movement of the shoulder that occurs when producing a straight stroke. Theory aside, I spent about three hours at one tournament watching all the best players in the world, and all of them, without exception, let the shoulder drop slightly to keep the cue stick on plane as it finishes through the cue ball. The more powerful the stroke, the more pronounced the drop.

Speaking of dropping, it’s time for me to move on, so here’s the close. Train yourself to produce an independent backstroke and a confident forward stroke. Keep it natural. Good luck good shootin’!

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The Set-Up

Posted by insidepoolmag on August 14, 2007

The set-up phase of the shot process begins when your hand touches the cloth and is over a split second before you start your final back stroke. When you have developed your game to a high level and are playing your best, it is a natural, automatic, and flowing sequence. It has exquisite rhythm, timing, and smoothness. It exudes confidence and creates positive expectations even on the part of the casual observer.

Many teachers of the game maintain that the duration and movements of the set-up should vary with the difficulty of the shot. An astute examination of the top players in the sport, however, shows this to be false. At the upper levels of pool, the set-up is very close to being the same on each and every shot. The duration, or the time it takes to complete the set-up phase, is the same on a tough shot as it is on a simple shot. The number of practice strokes is roughly the same regardless of whether it is a firm shot, a light shot, or a safety. Indeed, a close look at world-class matches shows that most misses are preceded by a change or hesitation in the set-up routine.

One would think that the set-up is a complicated series of movements, but improvement is essentially an act of simplification. When you have done the necessary training and are playing confidently, it becomes a natural expression of faith in your skills and nervous system. It’s like the twelve-bar blues—simple, but compelling.

Now and then we see a professional player slip into a style where he saws away at the cue ball for a minute and a half before taking the shot. It’s agonizing to watch and is almost always a sign of someone who has recently taken a dive in the ratings or in some other way lost their courage and confidence. Instead of letting their body perform, they try to control it.

Here’s a funny story that illustrates how the set-up reveals the inner state of the player. At the 2003 Glass City Open, I drew Howard Vickery, the current Seniors Point Leader. I had recently won a match from him at one of the Nashville IPC Qualifiers and was determined to win again. He was, of course, equally (or as it turned out, even more so) determined to put me in my place. When the match was over, a colleague of mine, Randy Whitehead, pulled me aside. “Man,” he said, “I’ve never seen you like that before. You looked like you were afraid to shoot.” I paused for a second before realizing what was true about my performance. “Wow,” I blurted out, “I was!”

All that said, the only way to hone your set-up routine is to break it into the essential parts and polish each of those parts until they shine. Then you fit them together into the rhythm and sequence that works best for you and your body. You want to get to where you can trust your body to accomplish the set-up on its own, without your conscious interference. When you can do this on a regular basis, the set-up takes only a short period of time. All you do is settle the body into position, take a handful of practice strokes, make a couple of eye movements, and you’re ready to shoot.

Unfortunately, learning to do this well can take a long time.

It’s hard because it’s almost impossible to observe what you are doing when it’s working well. When you try to “grab it,” it slips through your fingers. It’s almost as if the conscious or analytical part of the mind (the observer) takes away from the body’s ability to do what works. It’s a real dilemma and is the main reason so many great players can’t coach. They can get in the “zone,” but they don’t know what they do when they get there. The most consistent players, I believe, are ones who not only can put themselves into the “zone” but also have a pretty good idea of what they are doing mechanically when they are there. They at least know enough to recognize when they begin to stray away from what works best. They are quick to regroup.
Remembering that most of the preliminary preparation takes place in the standing address, let’s look at the set-up sequence in a logical fashion and see what we can discover. It’s a lot like the scissors, rock, and paper game—something always has to be dominant. For instance, does it make any sense to confirm your final aim if you haven’t confirmed a straight and level stroke yet? Does it make any sense to take your final aim if you haven’t confirmed where the cue tip is going to strike the cue ball? Timing is set by anticipating the impending contact of the cue tip and the surface of cue ball. Can you do that before you confirm where you are going to strike the cue ball?

What about eye movements? Can you confirm where you are striking the cue ball without looking at it? Can you confirm your aim without looking at the object ball? Do you need to look directly at the shaft to guarantee a straight and level stroke or can you pick it up with your peripheral vision? Does it make any sense to try to do any of these things if your body is not fully settled into position? If you are not fully settled into your form, like wax being poured into a mold, how can you be sure you are looking and stroking from the proper perspective?

Write these questions down on paper and figure out what makes sense to you. After you have pondered them for a couple days, get on a practice table with the intention of examining them further. You will benefit from the work. As for me, that’s enough for this column, I’m starting to get dizzy! Good luck good shootin’!

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