Thursday, September 22, 2011

Unfinished Thoughts About My Pool Stroke

This blog entry, I'm afraid, won't make much sense to most people, but I feel I have to write it to myself. If you don't know what the hell I'm talking about, feel free to skip this. This topic is something that I find difficult to describe to myself, let alone others. I will publish this thinking that maybe someone has struggled with similar issues and finds comfort in my words.

I find it harder and harder to verbalize what I've learned about my pool stroke. Looking outside, my technique isn't perhaps too pretty and might improve from number of changes. Setting that aside, I've had to make a long and painful journey into the inner side of my pool stroke. This was originally inspired by reading Timothy Gallwey's Inner Game of Tennis. For some reason, I've found it amazingly difficult to let my unconscious completely control the execution of my shots. I believe that's how I should do it, but it's not easy to do just that in practice.

When I am able to sidestep conscious thought from the execution, everything becomes much easier, much more fluid and consistent. My arm feels relaxed in a way it never does. This seems like an exaggeration, but that's how I think every time I'm able to reach this state. Nowadays I think the parts of my pool stroke execution are there to serve this purpose: for me to be able to be execute it without conscious deliberation. I don't pull my arm back slowly because someone says that you should do so. I do it because that's how it's easier for me to let my motor control execute it.

For an example, I "aim" at the trajectory of the object ball. The very last thing I focus on is the trajectory of the object ball (assuming it's not a kick shot). I don't try to find a specific point in the object ball to aim to. When I'm able to do this, and nowadays it's easier than it was a year ago, the aiming is most of the time "easy" for me. Obviously I can't make every possible cut and I'm not a flawless potter anyhow. But when the stroke feels good, I just know I will make the ball most of the time.

Note that this isn't an aiming system as such. The only thing I rely on is that my unconscious eventually figures out whether I'm on the right line of aim. I trust that if I'm able to let my unconscious to execute the shot, then it eventually will figure out the aiming line.

The other key aspect of the execution is something that has been on my mind on and off for months now. It's even harder to verbalize than my "aiming method." Yesterday, as I was practicing, I once again noticed that it makes as much of a difference as my aiming method. This "thing" is a feeling of sharp or crisp stroke. As opposed to my arm "just moving." I guess it relates to how my muscles contract during the execution. I have no good mechanical description of the difference of such stroke compared to how I have felt. In my notes, I have repeatedly written down something like "hit the trajectory," trying to emphasize how the "correct" stroke feels to me.

The amazing thing is that if I'm able to find this mode, my arm quickly starts to feel much more fluid and relaxed. As I've said before, to myself and to others: the relaxed feeling is the consequence of an execution that happens unconsciously, not the other way around. Of course, I need to keep my arm relaxed during practice strokes. But the relaxed feeling of the stroke is a balance of the muscle contractions that only my motor cortex is able to figure out.

Obviously I have to ingrain this knowledge through repeated practice so that I don't need any verbal instructions to myself. Partly I have been able to do so already, but it seems it takes a lot of time. And sometimes I lose my pool stroke anyhow and I have to need remind myself how to get into this zone again.

I'm beginning to think that most things about pool stroke technique should be there to serve a particular purpose. Sure, you can give 20 item checklist about the stroke, but if you use them only because someone said you should do that, I'm afraid they are of no particular use. I'm trying to incorporate things into my stroke if they have a specific purpose. That's a bit of a simplification, but that's the general feeling I now have.

Thinking all of this, I feel like I have a design flaw in me. It shouldn't be this hard to just let the body do the work and ignore the conscious mind. But that seems to be the case and I need these complicated ways to reach a simple goal. In fact, the late David Foster Wallace postulated that maybe the best athletes are built the way that they aren't distracted by the conscious mind all the time. I feel like this is my biggest obstacle at the moment. That said, if I can "win" the battle of focus in my mind, it only means that the journey has begun.  I would still need to learn the skills proper.