Beat People with a Stick
By Tom Simpson
Doin’ the Backstroke
Most players don’t give much thought to their backswing. Their focus is primarily on hitting the ball. But to hit the ball with good quality, you have to have a good backswing. To be clear, I’m talking about the backswing on the final stoke, pulling back to hit the cue ball (not your warm-up strokes).
Let’s begin by looking at the idea of “quality” and the idea of “hitting” the ball. To me, the whole point of good fundamentals of stroke, form, and alignment is to learn to deliver consistent, precise, fluid strokes. We have to be able to send that cue ball down the target line with extreme precision, with our intended spin (or lack of spin), and with exactly the speed we planned. Stroke quality is the degree to which we produce that all-important consistency, precision, and fluidity straight down the target line.
The idea of “hitting” the cue ball is part of the problem for many players. If you’re thinking, “Hit the cue ball,” you’ll tend to stop the stick somewhere close to where the tip touched the ball. In other words, you’re likely to stop the tip inside the space previously occupied by the cue ball and not follow through naturally. This is a POKE! You were slowing down on the way to the ball! With a poke, how can you hope to be consistent?
The very idea of hitting is part of the problem. When you hit a baseball, do you stop at the ball? How about when you hit a golf ball? Of course not. You swing through the ball. Obviously, the productive idea here is you want to execute a high-quality swing- period. If you do it correctly, the ball lies right in the path of that swing and the bat/club/cue stick flies through the ball as if it weren’t there. The ball just “gets in the way” of the stick. Your “swing thought” should not be “Hit the ball.” It should be “Hit my swing finish.” Move the stick well, and intend to finish the swing.
So why are we talking about the backswing? In golf, we learn (hopefully) to take the club back along the same plane in which we will then swing forward. This gives us a higher-quality hit, since it is simpler to do than a swing that loops at the back and comes forward in a new direction. The backstroke sets up the hit stroke. If the backstroke is quick, jerky, or out of alignment, what are the chances the hit stroke will be good?
In practice, try taking very slow, very smooth backswings. Pause at the back of the back swing. Feel how the muscles that pulled the stick back naturally release and your hit swing muscles get ready to go. You may be surprised to find you can still hit at whatever speed you intend, directly from this pause. It’s as if the backswing is stretching something, building potential energy that wants to release and fly forward.
An image I find helpful for this is from archery-drawing the bow. The archer pulls the string straight back, slowly, precisely, not doing anything that might pull the arrow off the target line. In the famous little book Zen and the Art of Archery, the author relates the image the master gave him when he asked how to release the arrow. The master told him releasing it “on purpose” would be “doing something” and would interfere with the body’s perfect aim and poise. Instead, he suggested that the string releases through the archer’s fingers in the same way as snow piling up on a pine bough reaches the natural moment when the branch bends and the snow slides off.
From a practical, physical perspective, I suggest you practice the slow, smooth, straight backswing, carefully noticing how you start it, pull it back, and stop it. If your backstroke pulls your stick a little off the aim line, it’s probably going to return and hit down that new, wrong line. Really focus in and find your wobbles, jerkiness, effort, and imperfections. Expand your awareness of your stroke arm, wrist, and hand alignments.
Tiny changes here can be felt in the backswing and lead to big improvements in the hit swing. It’s hard to deliver a great hit stroke without a great backstroke.
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