Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Drunken pool talk

I attended our local pool club's parties, which included quite a few alcohol-induced discussions about playing and practicing pool billiards. It was mostly your usual drunken discussion, with little or no practical value, but it struck me how almost all players have their own theories about practicing and playing. Normally we just don't get a chance to discuss these subjects in such a relaxed manner.

I don't particularly advocate getting yourself and your pool buddies drunk, but I feel like most players have much on their mind for which they don't have a proper channel to direct to. I'd guess most players aren't comfortable with the idea of having a public pool diary. But maybe a private training diary could serve the purpose.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Married to the flaws

It's not a secret that most pool players have flaws in their technique. Serious flaws. Even some pro players have strokes that wouldn't go past a qualified coach. It's also not a secret that you could improve your game significantly if you fixed these flaws. But I think that most players become so attached to their flaws that they don't even want to fix them.

I'm not saying that most players are happy that they have flaws in their technique. In fact, most flaws are probably somewhat oblivious to the person executing them. Deep down we do know that our stroke or stance, or both, have flaws, but we don't quite know what the flaws are and more importantly we don't know how to fix them. And even if we do know, we probably don't even try to fix the flaws.

The problem is that the vast majority of players do not get any coaching during their first months of practice. Or ever. So we develop our unique style and as years go by, we become comfortable with the technique we end up with. Which may or may not be good. Mostly not. And eventually this develops a significant barrier to change our basic technique. The idea of making major changes scares us. It would tear us off our comfort zone.

Notice that I've been using "we" and "us" and that's because I'm guilty of this same attachment. At some point I actively refused to even think about correcting the flaws in my stroke. But as I've started to take the hobby more seriously, I think I'm heading towards the right path.

In fact, I have a small success story already.

It all began by re-reading the excellent book by Bob Fancher titled Pleasures of Small Motions. I've always regarded the book highly, but this last read of the book was a little bit different. There's a section about the rhythm of your stroke, which I have read several times, but have never actually used in practice.

Fancher recommends in the book to analyze your stroke (from the preparation to the follow-through and standing up) so that you identify your natural rhythm. It's probably not perfect if you haven't consciously practiced it, but typically there's some rhythm there. Based on this analysis, you decide the structure of your stroke and then explicitly train yourself to follow the structure and the rhythm attached to it. Say you put your front foot down on one and the other foot on two and head down on three and backswing the first practice stroke on four. Then you forward stroke on one and backstroke on two and so on.

This feels somewhat uncomfortable on first several tries. You have to consciously and explicitly count the rhythm and it might distract you from your normal performance. The mere idea of doing this might feel uncomfortable. From my experience, it takes several practice sessions until it becomes somewhat natural.

But for me, it made a huge difference. First, to just have a predictable rhythm makes it so much easier to concentrate on the actual stroke. Once you have practiced the rhythm long enough, your brain learns it and you no longer have a different rhythm every time you stroke. It leaves your brain to handle other issues regarding the stroke and you don't have to worry about all the tiny aspects during the stroke. Of course, you can vary aspects of your stroke when need be. But you do this within the limits of the structure of your stroke. You can do more practice strokes, for example, but you do this within your rhythm and it's basically the same stroke.

It was not just this, for me, though. When I started to consciously practice the rhythm of my stroke, I noticed a glaring flaw in my technique. I also noticed a shocking fact about my equipment, but more about that later.

I was somewhat aware of this problem with my stroke, but I never quite realized it until I started practicing my rhythm. The problem was with where I looked at different stages of my practice strokes. Or to be more exact, it was the fact that I fixed my gaze pretty much completely on the object ball.

Fancher suggested in the book that one could divide the practice strokes such that you look at the cue ball on the forward practice stroke and on the object ball on the backward practice stroke. And on the final, actual, stroke you keep your eyes fixed on the object ball. So I started practicing my stroke based on this, counting the rhythm in my mind explicitly. It was awkward for a while, but it became easier and easier. And it was during this process that I fully realized that I've been hitting the cue ball without clearly knowing where the tip contacts the cue ball!

Before this practice, I perhaps took a quick glance at the cue ball at the start of my stroke, but then I fixed the gaze on the object ball. Therefore I didn't have a good idea where my tip was pointing at the end of my practice strokes. I did have this nagging awareness that I didn't always hit the cue ball where I wanted. Sure, I could use English in general, but sometimes when I didn't want English at all, I noticed that the cue ball was spinning sideways after the contact on the object ball. I knew that this was because I didn't hit on the center of the cue ball, but I mostly just ignored it. With a low deflection shaft, it was never too much of a problem. Or at least it seemed like that.

When I got more comfortable with my new rhythm and with my gaze going back and forth from the cue ball and the object ball, I was suddenly able to control the side spin much more effectively. Nowadays I feel like I don't get that unintentional side spin much at all. In fact, I've been using less English in most of my play. And I feel like I have a much better control over the amount of English I use. Before, it was pretty much all or nothing, but nowadays I can use all sorts of amounts of English.

It feels somewhat shocking to me that I managed to go about playing without doing anything about this flaw. And because I never really practiced those fundamental drills, like shooting the cue ball straight up and down, I was able to ignore this embarrassing flaw.

The shocking fact about my equipment was that my shaft was in fact slightly curved! It was not by much, but when I started looking at the cue ball in the practice strokes, I had a much better view on the shaft motion and it was actually pretty easy to spot the curveness of the shaft. This probably contributed to the unintentional side spins I managed to sometimes develop. Needless to say, I've bought a new cue and this one has a completely straight shaft.

The next step for me is to find personal coaching for my technique. It shouldn't be too hard or expensive to arrange and I feel like I really need some coaching. I haven't been eager to find coaching before, but with this new knowledge and courage I think I'm ready to get rid off the other flaws in my technique.

Fresh Start, or, An Introduction

So, my pool billiards background is a familiar story for many. Started playing, had fun playing, but never got around to actually practice. It's a joke how many players know and say they should be practicing more, but how few actually do it. Sometimes I get the feeling that many people regard it more honorable for a person to become a good player without practicing. It's the half-jokingly said "wisdom" that you hear so often in the pool halls: "Only the people with no talent need practice."

Sure, most people do know that you need to practice to improve your skills. But, still, somehow most of us fail to actually do anything about it.

But for me, this time it's different. I'm going to practice.

For real.

(And I already have.)

I feel nothing in particular has changed for me. I've always known the importance of practice. I think I've known this more deeply than most pool players as I have read numerous books and articles about expertise in general. The message is clear: what matters is deliberate practice. Nothing else comes even close. But to transfer this knowledge into action requires, well, actions. It's fun to make theories and to analyze stuff intellectually, but it's all in vain if you don't do the stuff. Especially with a game like pool billiards.

So for couple of months, I've managed to arrange couple of hours of practice time per week and I've been getting into the feel of practice. And it's not that unpleasant as people sometimes make it to be. I, in fact, have enjoyed practicing. Practice doesn't feel fun all the time, but I think you can teach yourself to enjoy it nevertheless. I've been doing anything from basic stroke drills to playing games like Fargo and it has not felt dull at all.

I could go on a dozen different side discussions from this short introduction, but I will leave it at this for now. I hope to write on a number of different topics about pool billiards. I'm not representing myself as a expert on this subject, but with the background knowledge that I have, I hope to give some fresh insights into the practice of this game.

If I ever manage to get someone to read this diary.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

One of these days I will start this diary.