Friday, August 20, 2010

Let Your Body Do the Work

The most important realization of my pool career came to me just recently. Strictly speaking, it's not an intellectual realization, though it started from reading Timothy Gallwey's The Inner Game of Tennis. (See PoolStudent's review of the book.) Timothy goes into great lengths explaining how to execute tennis shots so that the conscious mind doesn't interfere. To put it short, your conscious mind (Self 1) just needs communicate the goal, say pocketing the object ball in the case of pool billiards, to the part of the brain that actually executes the movements (Self 2). I will not try to summarize the book here, you have to read it yourself if you want to know more.

(Note: strictly speaking Self 2 refers to the parts of your brain that has to do with motor control. It is easier to think that it's the body that executes the movements, because it feels that way to us. Take walking for an example: you don't walk with conscious control, it happens automatically. The part of your brain that does it is what I call Self 2.)

The realization I had was how it felt to let my body (Self 2) to do the shot, to execute the stroke. It requires a little bit of courage to just trust your body to do what's necessary. But once you start to get a hang of it, you soon understand that this is the only way you can execute shots. This realization needs both the intellectual understanding and the actual experience of letting your body to do the work.

The best way to understand the difference is how it relates to relaxation, the relaxed stroking hand. Every single pool player will probably agree that your stroking hand needs to be relaxed. But what comes from the realization of letting your Self 2 to execute the stroke is that relaxation is a side effect of that process, not something that you need to concentrate on. If you try to consciously relax your hand, it requires conscious thought process, which is just going to make relaxing all the more difficult. But if your conscious mind only concentrates on what you want to achieve with the shot, it is the job of Self 2 to find the appropriate level of relaxation to execute it.

Of course, Self 2 does not know how to do it unless you give it a chance to learn it. And that's exactly what practice does. When practicing, you repeat this exact same process: deciding what to do and requesting it  (Self 1) from your body (Self 2). As you repeat this process over and over again, your body figures out how it can serve your conscious request. It is incredibly smart figuring out this stuff. Self 2 does things that you couldn't even imagine doing consciously. The trick is to trust your body to do all the work.

The problem with my game is that I've become too preoccupied with all the details of the execution of my stroke. The details do matter, there's no denying of that, but if I try to control the body consciously during my shot, the execution is bound to fail. If I do it the way Timothy Gallwey suggests, I can still pay attention to the details, but I can't and shouldn't control them during the shot. In fact, I'm better off thinking that there's nothing wrong with my technique in the first place, because this type of thinking makes it much more easier to let my body to execute it! If I don't judge my technique, it's easier to just let it do the job and observe it. Paradoxically, it's also easier to change mistakes in the technique through this kind of process.

I can do no more than to suggest to the reader to read the book, The Inner Game of Tennis. Gallwey explains all this better than I can. The point of my article is that after reading Gallwey's book, and after agreeing that he has a good point, you still need to experience how it feels to let your body do the work. Or to put it in another way, to not let your conscious mind to interfere with the execution. To me, it's a special kind of experience. It doesn't transform your game immediately, it doesn't make you an instant champion. But if Gallwey's right, it is going to make a huge difference if you keep doing it. That's how it feels to me right now.