Monday, June 7, 2010

There Just Might Be A Future In Defense

I'm at the stage of my game where I'm having to pay more attention to defense. Instead of just "sinking balls faster than the opponent does" or "oh my gosh I missed, but I'm not playing against someone who can run out" I'm having to work defense into my game more and more.

I knew the time would come... and thanks to my voracious appetite in reading, I have a pretty good handle on strategy and defensive theory but I've often fallen short on the execution side. Of course, many defensive shots are very difficult to pull off... often more difficult than a typical offensive shot because you need the softest of touch at times, or very VERY fine control of cue ball position because there's such a small window in which to hide it. And, as I'm sure many of you out there know, bungling a defensive shot sucks. Sucks really bad. When I choose a defensive shot over an offensive shot that I felt I had a 50% chance of making and then screw up the defensive shot I find myself regretting the choice even if it was "the right thing to do." The answer of course is practice, but how many people spend much time specifically on defensive shots? How much time do you spend on defensive shots?

Up until recently, I admit I have spent very little time on my defensive skills. Sure, like I said earlier, I study the theory... and I'll try defensive shots in practice games... but as hinted at before, I've often shied away from taking a defensive shot in an important match when I probably should have because the confidence simply wasn't there. Give me a tough offensive shot with a true 30% chance of making versus a semi-tough defensive shot and I tend to bite on the offensive shot more often than I should. Why? Well, there's the whole confidence factor in defensive shots because I haven't been practicing them until recently... but I've also been guilty of being over-confident on my chances of making the offensive shot. See, most of us tend to inflate our chances of making a tough shot because we haven't actually documented past results on paper and we're better at remembering our successes on similar shots than our failures. It's human nature. How many times have you said to yourself "I know I can make this shot - I've made it before!" when it's some kind of crazy kick-off-the-tip-of-the-pocket-corner kind of shot? Never mind the twenty times you missed it... you remember making it that one time so you know you can make it! So the 30% shot I mentioned a bit ago was maybe built up as a 60% shot in my mind because I didn't know any better... the odds seemed decent, so I took the shot... and missed. Don't get me wrong, confidence is good... and I'm definitely not suggesting that you should drive yourself crazy ruminating over whether you can make a given shot. It is possible to be confident in knowing "I can make that shot 40% of the time" because you've tested it and you know that's your percentage. If that's the best shot you have, by all means give it your all. If there's another option with a better percentage, consider taking it (depending on other consequences such as position and so on).

What should we take away from this?

1. Build your confidence in defensive shots by dedicating quality practice time to them. Set up common defensive scenarios and patterns and work on them! If you see a good defensive shot in a match on ESPN or YouTube or whatever, try setting up the initial conditions and duplicating the shot. The more confidence you have in your defensive abilities, the more likely you'll use them when you SHOULD use them.

2. Know your shot percentages. I mean, really know them. Set up some of the more difficult shot scenarios like a tough cut or kick or whatever - try it several times and record the results. Having an honest idea of your percentages will help you make better choices in the heat of a match (and it'll allow you to track progress as you improve over time).

This topic came to mind for me today because I have been thinking about and practicing defensive shots more lately, and I actually had a few defensive successes this morning. I was in two tournaments - one was a qualifier for 8-ball Doubles at APA Team Nationals this August, and the other was a qualifier for 8-ball Regionals (leading into APA Singles Nationals next year). I/we didn't qualify for either, unfortunately... but I was extremely pleased with a few of the defensive shots I made today, which is something new for me! In the past, killer offensive shots were always in the headlines of the "highlight reel" bouncing around in my brain after a match... but today, although I did make a few very good offensive shots, I'll have to say the defensive shots made the headlines. In fact, my doubles partner commented on one of my defensive shots as being "an ESPN shot" - and that has definitely never happened with me before! It was a tricky shot with a small window for success and I nailed it! I even intentionally chose the defense over an offensive option - so there's hope for me yet!

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