Practice to Play

Most serious players know that it takes work to practice successfully. They approach each practice session with commitment and intention and view the opportunity as one where they can devote an intensified focus to specific areas of their game.

This is a productive form of practice and far more valuable than randomly hitting balls, but there are ramifications to consider. When you have your attention on technique, you are focusing on how you do a specific action. It greatly accelerates learning to see the fine distinctions between what works and what doesn’t. It helps you gain conscious understanding of your skills and is probably the best way to hone your technique into a consistent and dependable whole.

As valuable as it is, however, this type of practice is artificial. It is vastly different from playing pool, and if you tried to play this way during competition, you would get killed. When playing, you need to be focused on doing specific actions, not on watching how you do them. In practice, you can jump back and forth between being the performer and the observer, but in playing, it is essential to stay in the role of the doer. When competing, you want to stay on the court and out of the stands.

Sports psychologists tell us that when a player is under pressure, he is likely to revert to the mode of operation with which he is most familiar. If most of your practice time is spent focused on technique, then that is likely to be where your attention will go when the pressure is suddenly increased. Because of this tendency, it is wise to adopt the 60-40 rule and devote at least 60% of your practice time to practicing playing pool.

Most players who become aware of this decide to spend more time running balls. This helps train you to shoot with confidence once you get in stroke during competition, but it really doesn’t prepare you for the times when you are under pressure. Pool competition has a normal flow to it that includes waiting for the balls to get racked, breaking, and sitting in the chair when your opponent is at the table. In actual competition, even when you’re playing well, you are continually stopping and starting. In addition, you are often presented (particularly in the beginning of a rack) with table situations that will not allow you to simply run out. Between run-out players, these are the times in a match which most determine who will win and who will lose. If you only practice running balls, you may never get the opportunity to show what you have mastered.

You can look at breaking from the same perspective. Most players practice their break by racking and breaking rack after rack, but that’s not the way it happens in a real match. Even when you are stringing racks together, you only get to break every tenth shot in 9-ball, and usually it’s considerably less frequent than that. In a race to 11, which can take anywhere from one to two hours, you will only get to break about 10 times, and each break will be separated by substantial periods of shooting balls and playing safe. It makes sense to practice the same way.

The best way to practice playing pool is to do just that. Rack the balls, break them, and play it out. If you miss or decide to play safe, take a few seconds in a designated player’s chair before you come back to the table in the role of the second shooter. If you want to replay shots you missed or moves that didn’t work out like you planned, it’s okay to do so, but take a seat for a moment before you move on to the next shot. In competition, you’re coming out of the chair for every new inning, so if you duplicate this in practice it will become the familiar. If you are a strong run-out player, you may decide not to finish racks when there are only a few open balls left. Practice time for you might be better invested in working through the first few moves of each rack, as your proficiency there is more likely to determine your future win/loss ratio. Once you know you’re going to run the last few balls, let your imaginary opponent concede the rack. Then rack ‘em up again.
Good luck good shootin’!

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