The set-up phase of the shot process begins when your hand touches the cloth and is over a split second before you start your final back stroke. When you have developed your game to a high level and are playing your best, it is a natural, automatic, and flowing sequence. It has exquisite rhythm, timing, and smoothness. It exudes confidence and creates positive expectations even on the part of the casual observer.
Many teachers of the game maintain that the duration and movements of the set-up should vary with the difficulty of the shot. An astute examination of the top players in the sport, however, shows this to be false. At the upper levels of pool, the set-up is very close to being the same on each and every shot. The duration, or the time it takes to complete the set-up phase, is the same on a tough shot as it is on a simple shot. The number of practice strokes is roughly the same regardless of whether it is a firm shot, a light shot, or a safety. Indeed, a close look at world-class matches shows that most misses are preceded by a change or hesitation in the set-up routine.
One would think that the set-up is a complicated series of movements, but improvement is essentially an act of simplification. When you have done the necessary training and are playing confidently, it becomes a natural expression of faith in your skills and nervous system. It’s like the twelve-bar blues—simple, but compelling.
Now and then we see a professional player slip into a style where he saws away at the cue ball for a minute and a half before taking the shot. It’s agonizing to watch and is almost always a sign of someone who has recently taken a dive in the ratings or in some other way lost their courage and confidence. Instead of letting their body perform, they try to control it.
Here’s a funny story that illustrates how the set-up reveals the inner state of the player. At the 2003 Glass City Open, I drew Howard Vickery, the current Seniors Point Leader. I had recently won a match from him at one of the Nashville IPC Qualifiers and was determined to win again. He was, of course, equally (or as it turned out, even more so) determined to put me in my place. When the match was over, a colleague of mine, Randy Whitehead, pulled me aside. “Man,” he said, “I’ve never seen you like that before. You looked like you were afraid to shoot.” I paused for a second before realizing what was true about my performance. “Wow,” I blurted out, “I was!”
All that said, the only way to hone your set-up routine is to break it into the essential parts and polish each of those parts until they shine. Then you fit them together into the rhythm and sequence that works best for you and your body. You want to get to where you can trust your body to accomplish the set-up on its own, without your conscious interference. When you can do this on a regular basis, the set-up takes only a short period of time. All you do is settle the body into position, take a handful of practice strokes, make a couple of eye movements, and you’re ready to shoot.
Unfortunately, learning to do this well can take a long time.
It’s hard because it’s almost impossible to observe what you are doing when it’s working well. When you try to “grab it,” it slips through your fingers. It’s almost as if the conscious or analytical part of the mind (the observer) takes away from the body’s ability to do what works. It’s a real dilemma and is the main reason so many great players can’t coach. They can get in the “zone,” but they don’t know what they do when they get there. The most consistent players, I believe, are ones who not only can put themselves into the “zone” but also have a pretty good idea of what they are doing mechanically when they are there. They at least know enough to recognize when they begin to stray away from what works best. They are quick to regroup.
Remembering that most of the preliminary preparation takes place in the standing address, let’s look at the set-up sequence in a logical fashion and see what we can discover. It’s a lot like the scissors, rock, and paper game—something always has to be dominant. For instance, does it make any sense to confirm your final aim if you haven’t confirmed a straight and level stroke yet? Does it make any sense to take your final aim if you haven’t confirmed where the cue tip is going to strike the cue ball? Timing is set by anticipating the impending contact of the cue tip and the surface of cue ball. Can you do that before you confirm where you are going to strike the cue ball?
What about eye movements? Can you confirm where you are striking the cue ball without looking at it? Can you confirm your aim without looking at the object ball? Do you need to look directly at the shaft to guarantee a straight and level stroke or can you pick it up with your peripheral vision? Does it make any sense to try to do any of these things if your body is not fully settled into position? If you are not fully settled into your form, like wax being poured into a mold, how can you be sure you are looking and stroking from the proper perspective?
Write these questions down on paper and figure out what makes sense to you. After you have pondered them for a couple days, get on a practice table with the intention of examining them further. You will benefit from the work. As for me, that’s enough for this column, I’m starting to get dizzy! Good luck good shootin’!