Four Steps to a Stronger Mental Game
In a game where fractions of a millimeter can be the difference between a world championship, and going home broke, mental agility and focus is at the forefront of a competitor's arsenal. We have all heard the terms "bearing down" or "showing heart", but what exactly does that mean? And how does someone actually take steps to improve their mental game?
As I alluded to in my biography, I wouldn't say my mental game is an overall strength. In fact, I would say that it is one of the weakest points of my game. Given that, you may be wondering what credibility I have on this topic. I assure you - I don't have much. But since I have seen some improvement, I would like to share some tidbits of information I have picked up along the way, and, perhaps, they will help you out as well. Oh yeah - and I do have a psychology degree… that might count for something…
Healthy Body, Healthy Mind
When a game is being played in a smoke-filled bar with alcohol flowing at 3am, the last word that comes to mind is "healthy". We have all seen the 400 pound drunk win tournaments, even on a consistent basis. I'm not going to sit here and argue that an unhealthy person cannot be a good pool player. I will, however, argue that said person will become a better pool player the healthier they become.
People like to refer to the mind and the body as if they are two holistic entities, but in reality, the two cannot be separated. What you eat, how much sleep you get, your exercise regimen - all these factors will impact your mental game, and for many different reasons. According to an article by WebMD, lack of sleep not only impairs your decision-making, but it actually makes you dumber. Additionally, there are actually foods that you can eat that will help you concentrate…so on the flip side, there must be foods out there that will hurt your concentration, among other things.
Finally we get to exercise…there are definitely players out there that like to think exercise will hurt their game…and the truth is, it will …at first…your body is going to get sore (with the proper nutrients, the impact can be subsided, though), and it will be difficult to move, nonetheless play pool. But over time, your body will adjust…you will get stronger and your game will improve.
Practice/ Pattern Play
It is not a fluke that Shane Van Boening is one of the best pool players in the world. Beyond the fact that he was seemingly born to play pool, he puts in the time. He worked his butt off to get where he is, and continues to put the time in day in and day out. It really is that simple sometimes…things add up in life…If you are 400 pounds, and start working out and eating right, you will see results because 1 + 1 = 2…
Practice helps your mental game in multiple ways. First of all, you are teaching your mind how to execute on a consistent basis. Second, you are learning new patterns or position play. Third, you will actually become a better pool player, which you will KNOW mentally. The more you practice, the more this information is ingrained in your mind so that when it comes time to perform, you don't have to think and you can execute with confidence. And that's really what it comes down to - getting in a competition, and slipping into the "zone". You don't want to worry about calculating kick angles, and trying to figure out where to hit the cue ball or how hard you should hit to get the proper position…you don't want to think at all…
No Drinking or Drugs
When I first started competing, I was told that the main advantage most of the professionals had over me was this random thing called "seasoning". I didn't really understand what oregano had to do with me winning…and I'm definitely sure that eating before a match kills my energy level…so I just stored that piece of information in the back of my brain and continued to play.
I've always been a nervous player, to the point where I'm physically shaking…which is not exactly conducive to a fluid, smooth stroke. The good news is there is a cure-all for nerves…and considering pool is generally played in bars, there is usually plenty of cure-all available for those nerves…I've actually had players tell me that I look so stiff when I'm shooting - that I should have a drink or two before I play. And I tell you what - they are right. Alcohol will smooth the nerves out of anybody's stroke! For pretty much the first decade of my competitive "career", I wouldn't even step up to the table without a drink in my hand.
I remember the first "big" tournament I won. It was the Sunday "APA player only" event during the Richard Sweet Memorial tournament. All the big guns were there (Johnny, Shawn, TK) - vying for the main title. I had managed to make it all the way through to the hot seat - and then I found out I would be playing in the main area, next to the big guns…just us lowly APA players, playing alongside Hall of Famers and World Beaters…it was too much…right before the final, I took a shot…and destroyed my opponent. But I didn't really win…
In psychology class, we learned about a thing called "state-dependent learning", which means that your brain can most easily retrieve a memory when it is in the same state as it was when it learned it. Essentially, if you study for a test drunk, you'll do best if you take the test drunk. So let's move this analogy over to pool - if I spent the majority of my competitive life drunk, then, in order to play my best, I would have to be drunk. On the flipside, I wasn't exactly doing my sober self any favors by competing drunk…I was denying myself the seasoning that I so desperately needed to step up to the next level…
The first time I heard this term, I thought it was so clever. Poolitics, or office politics in a pool room…I really don't have any advice as to how to avoid them…because a pool room is full of people…and unless you live your life as a recluse, you will have to deal with people…whether it's that girl who broke your heart, or that guy who's heart you broke, an ex-best friend or somebody who never really was…everybody has a story…and while you are supposed to play the table and not your opponent…that never really happens…and people are probably the most destructive force for your mental game…if you let them be…
As I said, I don't really have any advice on how to avoid poolitics…and I'm not sure that you necessarily can or should…because while spotting the leering eyes of an ex while you're shooting can destroy your focus, learning to focus with that going on around you will help your mental game…the one thing you can't control on the pool table is other people…learning to shut everything out, though…that is well within your control…and the one thing that will truly make you a champion…
You may also want to check out AzBilliards' forum topics:
Mental Game Help and Relaxing During a Match
Amy ChenGood article, Daners! "Alcohol will smooth the nerves out of anybody's stroke!" ... and kill Amy. x_x
Dana AftAmy Chen is my hero! ;-)
J. Alanawesome write up Dana! You're the best! :)
John HogeVery good article and reading this left me with some thoughts I can apply to my approach to my game! I especially liked the poolitics explanation! I would have to say the most disappointing aspect of pool for me is playing in atmospheres of smoking and drinking! I don't do either and I can avoid the drinking part, but smoke just overtakes the place! It's hard to avoid the drinkers/drunks though! Other sports venues like basketball and football have tons of distractions so I guess it is just something that requires real mental focus! Thanks for the article!