The Psychology of Pool

The term “psychology” is often included in conversations about pool, probably because the sport is considered to have such a significant mental component. I’m using the term in this column, however, somewhat differently than usual. I’m not referring to the understanding of psychology that will help you psych out your opponent or take advantage of his or her mental weaknesses. I’m focusing on the internal aspect of psychology—the one that you take into competition with you.
If you have reached the point of development where you can effortlessly run a couple of racks back to back, then you have achieved a high level of skill. You should theoretically be able to do this whenever the table situation allows you a good place to start. Hopefully you do this most of the time, but what about when you don’t? What happens when you miss a high-percentage shot that you are totally capable of executing?
It can’t be a physical problem, because you have already trained your body how to perform it. You could go home and shoot it another hundred times, but that’s not training, that’s punishment. You don’t need to learn the shot—you already have. The obstacle that prevented you from doing that which you were capable of doing was not physical—it was mental, emotional, or psychological. In fact, it must be unconscious to boot, or you would have already removed or eliminated it from affecting you. If you knew what it was, you would get rid of it.
Let’s suppose you have become aware of a habit of being easily distracted. When you are running balls you do fine, but when you get into trouble, you’ve noticed that you are always fundamentally and mentally distracted by something—your opponent, a spectator, your surroundings, or something internal. So you decide to replace that bad habit with a new one. Instead of focusing on distractions, you will focus exclusively on the ball and on the pattern.
Since you are the “master of your own domain,” to steal a “Seinfeld” phrase, whatever you say will be, should come to be. But then again, the next time in competition, you get distracted by something and instead of dispassionately focusing on the ball and pattern, you focus on the distraction, get angry, and ultimately surrender the match to your opponent.
What happened? Why didn’t you do what you said you would? One possible answer can be found in the dynamics of pool competition itself. A competitive sport is not like music, where everyone is cooperating together to focus on the music. In a confrontational sport, your opponent’s goal is to defeat you. This type of interaction has the potential to fire off, or reactivate, any unresolved issues you may have concerning self-expression and personal power. Have you ever been in a situation where you were powerless, perhaps as a child? Most of us have been. Perhaps you even tried to stand up for yourself and got slapped down. If you haven’t resolved these kinds of issues, the emotional content is still there, inside your body and your psyche. It’s waiting to be pulled to the surface by any situation that remotely resembles the original. A confrontational moment at the pool table can be such a catalyst.
The goal is to transcend these events so that you are free to perform in the moment and are not being impacted by something from the past. Whenever you run into a psychological obstacle during a match (whenever you don’t perform at the level of which you are capable), find a quiet and safe place as soon as possible after the match and sit down and close your eyes. Ask yourself questions. What stopped me? What got in my way? What was affecting me? Why am I angry?
Allow whatever mental images you have to come to the surface. Don’t judge or evaluate them, but just stay with them until you get the whole picture, emotions and all. Share your insights with someone you trust, and do it with the intention of letting them go. Next time you’re in competition, maybe you’ll have a little more freedom to perform. Maybe you’ll even be able to focus on just the ball and the pattern!
Good luck good shootin’!

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