Practice Like You Play

First and foremost, I’d like to apologize for any of you that really check back for updated entries to my blog. I’ve recently changed jobs and my workload has exponentially inclined more than I can explain. Suffice it to say, I’ve been a very busy old man. So, for what it’s worth, I apologize to the one or two readers who might be interested in this blog.

Secondly, I’ve been in a TERRIBLE slump lately. Everyone keeps telling me that it is in my head. I know this, I truly do. Knowing it is only a portion of the battle. Being able to pinpoint exactly what is causing the slump is the major fight. Once you can pinpoint it, then the fix should be simple.

Should be…

So while I spend the next few weeks fighting an epic war with myself on figuring out what is wrong with the vast void that I call a subconscious, I’ll talk to you guys about a motto that I think applies to the majority of the sports that get played, and might or might not apply to our beloved pass-time.

This blog entry is definitely up for discussion. To fully get the benefit of my peers’ knowledge, I’m going to call on each of you that have a thought on this subject to reply so we can collectively come together with an answer.

As a player being coached and then on to coaching, a common theme always resonated from coach to coach, and that was “Practice like you play”. I personally think that this theory applies so much more to sports like basketball, football, baseball, etc., but in billiards… I’m beginning to wonder.

If you break down the theory into different aspects of the game, then I think it applies more to some aspects then to others. For instance, I was watching a really good friend practice last night before our league match. My friend is a skill level 7 and he was practicing against a skill level 5. He decided instead of walking around the table for a better shot to just try a very long range combination. Obviously it didn’t go in, and the odds of making that shot are way too high to even count. When he walked back over to me I asked him why he took that shot and he just shrugged his shoulders. I asked him if he’d have taken that shot against me and he said “No way”.

So why would you change your game play or thought process depending on who your opponent is? Did you choose that shot because you are on a practice table or because you’re playing a lower skilled player and you know you’re going to get another chance at the table?

Does effort, laziness, desire, or any other trait like that change how you practice and how you play? What if we spent the majority of our practice time TRULY bearing down and playing our best? What would our matches be like? Would they be as stressful and intense, or would we be able to manage our stress level and intensity much better because we “practice like we play”?

How “Practice like you play” applies to billiards

I think that the theory applies much more to your mechanics and fundamentals then to your strategy. Now, don’t get me wrong here. I think you need to practice like you play when it comes to strategy, but I think the scale leans more towards mechanics and fundamentals then it does to who you are playing against and how and when you play offense, defense, etc.

I think that your practice time should include at least 3 – 4 racks of nothing but stroke drills instead of just playing for “funsies”. You must perfect your stroke so much that it becomes second nature during a match. I have always been a proponent of video during practice. If you have a means of recording your shots and stroke, you will be able to critique your shot enough to perfect it. You’ve seen thousands of professional players shoot, try to pinpoint one and mimic him/her.

I for one really enjoy watching Emily Duddy play. Ok… She’s absolutely beautiful, but that’s beside the point. If you watch her stroke, her form, her fundamental mechanics… there’s nothing more beautiful than how she shoots billiards. Her lines are almost perfectly straight, which in turn makes her shot perfectly straight. Look her up on Youtube. You’ll enjoy not only her beauty, but her form. Trust me.

When I video myself playing, the first thing I notice is how unconventional my shot and stance is, but when I’m down on my shot it seems like I’m straight as an arrow. It’s one of the things that I’ve been trying to fix for a LONG time.

Working on your technique is very important during practice time. Instead of going to the local pool hall and rounding up a few buddies for some “funsies” pool, try going alone and working on your technique. If you have the ability to video yourself playing, DO IT. I guarantee you will see something that surprises you. I’ve been doing it for a while now and I still can’t believe just how far back my bridge hand is on almost EVERY shot.

Now… if I can just figure out a way to get out of my slump…

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The “Luck” Factor

Have you ever been in a match with a lower skilled player that you’ve beaten countless times before and watched him or her pocket balls right and left?  During that time, did you say to yourself “You can’t be serious, look at how lucky he’s getting”?  Today’s topic is about how the “luck” factor applies to your pool game, and what you can do about it.

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll remember an earlier topic about confidence and how it can shift to help or harm you.  In the scenario above, the confidence factor is on the side of your opponent.  There’s no doubt about it.  You’ve beaten this guy/girl several times before and you know you can beat him.  The flip side of the coin is that your opponent knows that he/she has lost to you every time as well.  They approach the table with a “nothing to lose” attitude and so do you.  The problem is that you have much more to lose than your opponent does.  You have an undefeated record to lose.  The pressure is on you to win because you’ve put the pressure there.  They don’t have the pressure so they are loose, comfortable, and relaxed.  The scenario above has nothing to do with luck at all.  It’s your mental game that’s causing you to miss, get bad rolls, lock yourself up, etc.  You have to figure out a way to remove the pressure and approach every single match like it’s your first match against that player.

The “luck” that I’m referring to in this topic is whether you rely on it or not in your game all the time, not just a particular match.

Imagine a bucket full of water.  The water in that bucket signifies your billiards “skill”.  You are the one who controls how full that bucket is when you compete.  The only problem is that you can’t just walk to the “skill” spigot on the wall at the pool hall and fill it up right before your match.  You have to fill this bucket as much as you can over the course of time.  If you consistently bring an empty bucket to the table, that’s on you.  If you want to compete at a higher level, than you must take the time to fill that bucket as much as possible.  You must work to eliminate as much “luck” from your game as possible, because you can’t control luck.  What you CAN control is your skill.

If you can control luck, please… for the love of all that’s holy, join my team and come to Vegas with us.  We’ll need you at the craps tables after our matches…

My apologies… I digress… back to the topic at hand…

If you practice pool and your practice sessions consist of just shooting 8-ball or 9-ball, then you are doing yourself a disservice.  You are not doing anything different than you would be doing in a match.  If you shoot a ball during your match and know in your heart that it was a “lucky” shot, you have to do everything in your power to remove that “luck” from your game.  Take that same shot and set it up during your “practice” time and shoot it over and over again until you remove as much “luck” from that shot as you can.  Your goal in pool should be to remove as much of the “luck” factor from your game as you can.  After your match is over, go back through all the shots you took in your head and search for the ones that you knew were lucky shots.  When you get on the practice table, shoot those same shots over and over again until you remove as much of the luck factor as you can.

Continue to do this every time you practice.  This will help you to eliminate as much “luck” from your game as you can, so you can bring a full bucket of skill with you when you play.  Add in a few drills during your practice time as well.  After you’ve done this, THEN you can apply your new skill to your game of 8-ball or 9-ball during your “practice” time with your friends.

Remember, only you can fill that bucket.  Only you can know if your shot was “lucky” or not.  If it was, put in the effort to remove as much of that luck as possible.  If you are losing a match and you blame it on your opponent’s “lucky” night, think again.  Think deeper and know that luck is not involved.  Luck doesn’t exist in your game.  You have skill and a mental game.  Figure out which one of these two is causing you to lose and fix it before it’s too late.

If you are watching your opponent shoot it’s because you made a mistake.  It has nothing to do with his “luck”.

Click on the “comments” section and let me know if this helps you or not!  I don’t mind negative comments, either.  Everything helps!

Feel free to follow me on Twitter! @shaferwr

And as always… Shoot straight and focus!

Attitude

For those people who have spent the last four or five years with me during my pool life, you should be able to verify every single word of this blog entry.  This week’s topic is very fitting for a reason, and I’ll get to that reason later on in this post.  The topic is about mentoring.

I can honestly tell you that I would not be where I am in pool without my father.  I was born in St. Petersburg, FL, and my parents divorced when I was around seven years old.  My mother, in all her infinite wisdom, moved us to Texas where she got remarried a few years later.  Her new husband was from Oklahoma so we moved there shortly after they got married.  I grew up in Oklahoma, graduated high school, after graduation I moved to Ft. Worth, Texas, met my soon-to-be wife, joined the Navy, left the Navy after my 4 year commitment, went back to Ft. Worth, and lived there up until 5 years ago.  Upon full circle, I luckily ended up back here in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area.   The reason I tell you this is although I stayed in contact with my dad all my life, it wasn’t the same as having my dad around all the time.  We both missed out in each other’s lives for 30 something years.

When I moved back to Florida, we had an opportunity that doesn’t come around for everyone with an estranged parent.  We were able to “get to know” each other all over again, on a personal level.  No more phone calls once a week/month, or a letter in the mail.  Now we were able to see each other and talk every day.  He was the one who set my passion for pool in motion.  He was a member of the APA at the time, and asked me if I was interested in joining.  I joined without hesitation, simply to spend more time with him.  Once I got a taste for the competition aspect of billiards, I was hooked to say the least.

When I first started playing in the APA, I can honestly tell you that I knew nothing about the real game of pool.  Sure, I’ve played all my life, but not in competition.  I had a decent stroke and could pocket balls, but that’s not playing pool.  This is where watching all the fine players at Strokers in Palm Harbor, FL got me to thinking about setting a goal for myself.  That goal was to be an SL7 for at least one week.  That’s all I wanted.  Once I knew what my goal was, I was like a train without a conductor.  Full bore, no brakes, get out of the way or I’ll run you over type of mentality.  I had no idea about the “gentlemen’s” aspect of the game.

This is where my father came into play.  Although he spent quite a bit of time teaching me the strategies needed to win, the importance of a good stroke, the fundamentals of a pre-shot routine, etc., he also spent an unbelievable amount of time reigning in my horrible attitude.  I was a completely different person in competition than I was in my normal life.  If you only knew me at the table, you would NEVER want to know me outside of the pool hall.  I was a stick throwing, ball busting, angry individual when things didn’t go my way.  I remember in one match that I was playing, I actually tossed my stick onto the table like a spear and it bounced off the table and almost hit a friend of mine who was playing on the table next to me.  My dad took me aside, and in the most calm and steady tone, said to me “You are better than that.  When you are on the table, you are not just representing yourself, but also your team, the APA, and me.  I hope I never see that again”.  The words stuck in my head and remain there today.  I was so ashamed of myself.

Since then, I’ve worked very hard on my demeanor at the table.  SO many times I’ve wanted to pick up a ball and throw it through the glass windows at the pool hall, but refrained.  Every once in a while I do something that is reminiscent of that day, but then I muster a fake smile and apologize for my attitude.

I’ve been told more times than I care to hear about how intimidating I look all the time, I don’t want to intimidate to win.  I want to win based on my ability to think, reason, strategize, and shoot.   I want to earn the win, not have it given to me because my opponent is intimidated.  Going back to that match that I threw my stick, I was down 2-0 in a race to 4.  When I threw my stick it rattled my opponent so much that he didn’t shoot his game and I ended up winning the match 4-2 (we were both SL5’s).  Every time I think back to that match I feel so ashamed because I know I should have lost that match had I not “sharked” my opponent.  Even though I didn’t know that I was doing it, that’s what I did.  It’s not fair and it’s embarrassing to say the least.

My father is with me every time I shoot pool.  Whether or not he practices with me or just comes to support me.  He comes to tournaments across town, even though he has no plans on playing in the tournament.  He changes his schedules around to be there with me all the time.  Everyone that I know in my pool life can attest to that.  I owe him my entire existence in pool and am deeply appreciative in what he has given me over the past few years.  The lessons he’s taught me reaches so much further in just a billiards game.  My life has changed in how I act and treat other people, how I handle myself in tough situations, and how I father my own children.  He is a mentor, a father, and my best friend.

The moral to this story is to learn from our  mistakes.  Go back through this blog entry and truly look with an open mind about how you approach your pool game.  Do you intimidate your opponent unknowingly? Do you truly feel that you earn your wins based on your skills and strategy?  Are you setting a good example for newer, lower skill leveled players?  Remember, this game is and always will be a gentlemen’s (ladies) game.  Show respect to your opponent and the game.  You will feel so much better about not only your wins, but your losses as well.

Dad… thanks for being such a superb human being and for putting up with me all these years, and thanks for teaching me all that you have.  Your lessons will follow me all through my life.  I love you more than you can possibly know.

Please feel free to post your thoughts as a comment on this blog entry!

Shoot straight and focus!

Putting Confidence to Work

Do the following thoughts, or ones like them, sound familiar to you?

While you are sitting on the bar stool waiting for your match in league play, your mind starts to wander…

“I’m so tired and exhausted from work this week.  The boss is breathing down my neck about my project due date.  I’ve still got to finish three things before I can finalize this project.  My son’s basketball season is coming up and I need to get him his gear.  I still have yet to finish that honey-do list that she’s been asking me to take care of at home.  I haven’t had a chance to put in a few hours practice time on the table this week.  Thank the pool gods that I got a chance to get up here a bit early tonight to run a few racks, but I wasn’t hitting the balls well and couldn’t get a roll to save my life.  I don’t think I’m going to be able to play well tonight.  My head just isn’t in it.”

30 minutes later when it’s your turn to step up to the table for your team and you find out who your opponent is…

“Oh, great…  After the week I’ve had, now I have to play Ron.  He’s beaten me every time we’ve played.  Ron is an unbelievable pool player.  He shouldn’t even be in this league with his skills.  He can make the table stand up and dance for him if he wanted to.  Why do I always get stuck playing this guy?”

“Good luck you say to me? Damn right… I’m going to need it.”

The match starts and you both lag for the break…

“If I can win the lag, I can at least prevent him from getting a “rack-less night” patch.  Focus. Good stroke.  Breathe. Everyone’s watching”.

You hit the ball with your purse.  Not even close.

“This is going to be embarrassing…”

This exact scenario has happened to me more times than I can count.  So much so, that I’ve gone three or four weeks in a row losing every match.  I spend my entire week trying to prepare mentally for the match that I’m going to have to shoot on Thursday night.  Probably more than I should.  As a matter of fact, I’m doing it right now (it’s Thursday morning).

Like I said in my previous blog entry, you know better than anyone what you are capable of on the pool table.  You know your skill and you’ve been in the league long enough to know everyone else.  There are only four players in my league that I’ve never been able to beat.  With my competitive nature, this weighs on me heavily.  How do I fix that? How is it possible that every time I have to play one of these four players (Ron, Mello, Jose, Steve), I have a terrible night?

It’s all mental. It’s all in your head.  Confidence can either work for you or against you.  It’s all up to you on whether confidence can be your tool to win or theirs.

Think about it like this:  Confidence is like a balance scale.

scale

When the match starts, both players start out on an even keel.  As the first match begins and you start shooting well, it shows in your demeanor.  Your opponent sees that the balls are rolling well for you, the confidence in your behavior around the table, the tiny smile on your face as you make a really nice shot, etc.  As he sees your confidence level rise, his confidence level starts to fall. The balls start rolling funny for him.  He can’t get his leave, or he misses shots that he can make any other day of the week with his eyes closed. The scale of confidence is definitely on your side.

I’ve been on both sides of that coin in more matches than I care to admit to.  In the scenario above, I had beaten myself before I ever picked up my cue stick to start the match, and my performance showed it.  I second guessed my strategy, I shot timid, I would play the wrong ball in hopes that I didn’t leave him a shot WHEN I missed which would cause me to not get my run out, etc.   In each and every one of those matches against those four players mentioned above, I walked into the pool hall knowing that I was going to lose my match.  How is it possible to put a win on the board for my team if I beat myself before my opponent even gets a chance to perform?  Why is it that I am willing to give up before I ever get a chance to fight?

A pool player must be a warrior.  Warriors will fight with everything they have until they just can’t fight anymore.  A warrior just doesn’t throw his sword down in the dirt at the start of the battle, so why should you?  It’s in a warrior’s blood to defeat his opponent.  That’s what makes him a warrior.  When you step up to that table, you are a warrior… undefeatable and immortal.  That mentality will show in your demeanor and your opponent will see it.

So the next time you step up to that table, have your mind right.  Don’t worry about all that other stuff going on in your life because right then, at that moment, there is NOTHING you can do about all of it.  You are standing in that one spot for a reason, and that is to play the game you love.   So do your part, set your mind right, be the warrior that you are, and help your team get a win.

Do everything you can to make sure that scale of confidence STAYS on your side.

Remember… You are a warrior, play like one… even if you are playing against me.

Click on the comments icon above and tell me your story.  I’d love to hear it.

Shoot straight and focus!

Offense vs. Defense: Probability vs. Payoff

Knowing when to play offensively and when to play defensively can be the deciding factor on whether you win or lose, even if you are playing someone who you know is much better than you are.  The common misconception with lower skilled players is that they think they must pocket as many balls as they possibly can, even though the probability of a shot is so low that they will likely miss, without thinking about where the cue ball will end up.  If you are about to take a shot that the probability is miniscule, AND you don’t know where the cue ball ends up, then you are setting yourself up for a loss… plain and simple.

There is a hard fast rule that I try to stick by every time I play, even though I’m a SL7.  The rule is “90% or better, or safe”.  There are two portions to this rule.  Let me explain:

The first portion of this rule goes like this:  You as a pool player know your abilities better than any team-mate or coach in the world.  You know that if the shot you have chosen can be pocketed or not.  Granted, every shot can be made at some point in time if you shoot it enough.  I can set up a 85 degree cut shot anywhere on the table and make it.  That’s not a problem at all.  The problem is “how many attempts I give myself to make it”.  I guarantee that if I set up that 85 degree cut shot, EVENTUALLY I will make it.  What I’m trying to achieve here is if I set up that shot 100 times, I have to be able to make it at least 90 times before I can confidently say that it’s a shot worth taking in competition.  If you can’t be confident that you’ll make this shot 90% of the time, you should start looking to play defense and try to hide the cue ball somewhere.

The second portion of this rule is the part that most people don’t give enough credit to.  You must be confident that you can pocket the ball 90% of the time, AND get decent leave on your next shot.  This is just as important as making the ball. If you are 90% confident that you can make the ball, but you KNOW you won’t get position on your next shot, then you MUST look for a defensive alternative.  If you play pool in competition AT ALL, then you know that the worst part of making a ball is not getting position on your next shot, or accidentally blocking yourself.  I personally would rather NOT take the original shot and look for a defensive shot so I could block my opponent and hopefully get ball in hand.  Now, I know you don’t have a crystal ball, but if you spend just a little portion of your thought process on each shot on whether you’re going to have position on your next shot, then you can turn the tide in your favor.  You can do this just by using the “90% or better” rule.

So remember, the bottom line in playing pool is two things.  Pocketing balls and getting position.  If at any point you are not 90% confident on EITHER one of these two things, then you should start looking for a defensive alternative.  Sometimes you have to miss a shot on purpose to win the game.

Shoot straight and focus!

About the APA

For my second blog entry, I will explain a little about the APA (American Poolplayers Association), since the majority of my blogs will contain APA rules, strategy, and skill levels.  For a short history on the APA, you can follow this link: http://www.poolplayers.com/history/

The APA is a handicap league where anyone from beginning to advanced level players can play and be competitive.  The skill based system is the key to being able to enjoy and be competitive as a pool player, no matter how well you play.  There are six skill levels in 8-ball starting from skill level 2 all the way to skill level 7.  Skill level 2 is where the lowest skilled players are and skill level 7 is the most advanced players.  There are nine skill levels in 9-ball ranging from 1-9 that fall within the same correlation as 8-ball.  Skill level one is the lowest skill level and skill level 9 is the highest.  When a new player signs up for the league, you are assigned a skill level based on your gender.  Gentlemen start out as a skill level 4 and ladies start at skill level 3.  As you progress throughout the weeks, your skill level will either go up or down depending on how you perform.  From here on out, I will reference APA skill levels as “SL” with the number associated.  So if I say SL7, that means skill level 7, and SL4 will be skill level 4 and so on.

The important thing to remember is that in the APA, all you have to have is an interest in playing pool.  You do NOT have to be a professional pool player.  The common misconception that people have when I talk to them about pool and the APA is that they have to be some type of expert in pool to be competitive.  With the APA and their handicap system, even beginning players are not just necessary, but REQUIRED on a team.  As a matter of fact, SL2’s and SL3’s are more highly sought after than SL6’s and SL7’s.  The reason for the required lower level players is because there is a “23 point system” for each league night.  This is how it works:

Every team that plays in the APA will have a maximum of 8 players.  Every league night will have a total of 5 matches, where 3 of the team members will not be able to play.  This works out well because not everyone can be at league night every week.  This enables the players to not have to absolutely dedicate EVERY single league night to pool.  If for some reason you can’t make it to league night, just let your team captain know and they’ll be able to backfill your spot with someone else on the team.  If every team only has 5 players maximum, then if someone can’t make league night the team has to forfeit.  With 8 players, a forfeit rarely happens.

A team can only play 23 points per league night.  The points come from the player’s skill level.  If you are a SL7 then you contribute 7 points to the 23 point maximum.  If you are a SL2 then you contribute 2 points, and so on.  This prevents teams from having and playing 5 SL7’s per night.  This is the main reason why SL2’s and SL3’s are so important.  Rarely will a team be able to play more than one SL7 per night.  For this very reason, strategy is of the utmost importance if you want to be competitive week after week.

The way the handicap system works in 8-ball is in the amount of games you must win to “beat” your opponent.  In 9-ball, each SL must reach a set total number of points to win.  To limit information “redundancy”, you can follow this link for a good read on the 8-ball and 9-ball handicap system: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Poolplayers_Association

In conclusion, if you have any questions about the APA, Google is always your friend.  There are hundreds of local APA chapters all over the country.  Just Google your city name and “APA” and you should easily find a local chapter for inquiries.  Trust me when I tell you that ANYONE can play in the APA and EVERYONE can win.  That is the motto for the APA.  Hopefully I’ll see you in Vegas!

And as always…

Shoot straight and focus!

Billiards – Introduction and Proper Technique

This is the first of what I hope to be many blogs on my experiences in Billiards.

First off, I’ve spent the majority of my adult life as a basketball coach teaching the youth of my community the proper techniques and fundamentals of basketball.  I truly believe that if you learn the proper technique of any sport, you can prevent seriously bad habits before they begin to form.

Throughout the beginning stages of my billiards transition, I’ve tried to apply those same philosophies to my billiards game.  I’ve been playing pool since I was about 15.  I’m currently 43 and have been playing pool competitively for the last 5 years.  Until then, I only played in pool halls and bars when the opportunities arose.  I enjoyed the game, and I thought I was pretty decent at it, until I began to compete in leagues and tournaments.  That is when I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about the intricacies of this wonderfully challenging game.

Throughout the course of my blogs, I will correlate my coaching philosophies that I’ve picked up over the years with basketball and bring them over to pool.  Although the two games are very different, the fundamentals and technical theories are very applicable. This blog entry is about why you need the proper technique, not how to form it.

The first and most important point that I want to emphasize is how proper stance and shooting technique can be the difference between becoming an excellent pool player and becoming so frustrated with missing shots that you give up and stop playing altogether.  Many beginning players can “see” the proper angle for a shot, but because their technique is wrong they end up missing the shot, even though their angle was correct.  This in turn creates the illusion to the shooter that their angle was wrong.  While practicing the same shot, they begin to compensate or adjust what they thought was the right angle, all the while not knowing that it was their shooting technique that was wrong, and not the angle of the shot.  I know, you’re probably thinking “What did he just say?”… Go back and read that again starting from “Many beginning players”.

The bottom line is this:  You MUST practice and drill on proper shooting technique BEFORE you start practicing shooting balls into the pockets.  It does not matter how many balls you make or miss while you drill, the only thing that matters is concentrating on your technique.

You can find many instructional videos on drills and technique on youtube, so I won’t go into “my” version of the proper technique.

I hope this blog has helped you see how important having the proper fundamentals and technique can improve your game.  If you’ve never practiced on technique drills, do so now, so you can break any bad habits you’ve formed.  At some point you will reach a glass ceiling in your game, until your shooting technique has been mastered.

Shoot straight and focus!