Monday, August 15, 2011

PoolSynergy: 10 Ways to Quiet the Mind

Welcome to the August edition of:
PoolSynergy is a blog carnival where several pool bloggers collaborate each month to write about a common topic.

This month's topic, brought to you by Samm Vidal Claramunt (aka Samm Diep), is 10 Things. Umm, ten of what things you ask? Well, ten of anything pool related said Samm - so I chose to write about 10 Ways to Quiet the Mind... something I've personally been focusing on lately.

If you're not familiar with the term, perhaps you've heard similar terms such as "Zen State" or "Inner Peace" as described in this short clip from Kung Fu Panda 2:

In the movie, Master Shifu goes on to demonstrate what can be done when a state of Inner Peace has been achieved: he delicately catches a falling drop of water... but instead of it splashing on him, he's able to magically keep it intact as it rolls over his hand and arms until he deposits it on a flower while Po watches in amazement. Later in the movie, Po discovers inner peace... duplicating the exercise with a raindrop. Toward the end of the movie, Po harnesses this new-found mastery of Inner Peace to defeat the evil Lord Shen.

That was a fictional (and animated) dramatization, of course, but it's not all fiction. Top performing athletes and artists have discovered that they have to 'let go' of conscious thought controlling their actions in order to achieve their full potential. Consider a lead guitarist performing an intricate solo, for example:

Watch the quickness and accuracy of his fingering as he literally shreds through dozens if not hundreds of perfectly timed hammer-ons and pull-offs in rapid succession. Not a single "buzz" of a miss-fretted string, not a single missed note.

Would this be remotely possible if he was consciously thinking of each individual action he had to do? Of course not. He's on autopilot. He's disengaged his conscious thought from his actions, letting his subconscious mind and body perform.

Watch the expression on his face around the 1:33 mark in the video clip. That, my friends, is Inner Peace.

The same principles apply to many different sports, especially sports that require split-second reactions such as table tennis (aka ping pong):

OK, I slipped some more fiction in here from the movie Forrest Gump, but 'real' table tennis is similar - the mind has to react quickly to recognize the speed and direction of the opponent's volley, anticipate effects of spin on both the path of the ball in air and bounce on the table... then coordinate with the body to properly position the paddle to return the shot - taking into account all the factors such as speed, spin, angle of paddle and so on to get the ball back to the opponent's side of the table.

Again, this is not something that can be achieved with step-by-step instructions from the conscious brain.

Consider another high-speed sport such as tennis:

Here, Federer returns a 140 mph serve from Roddick with precision for an easy win. Those of you who have not played tennis may not fully appreciate what he accomplished. A tennis court is 78 feet long. A tennis ball going 140 mph covers that distance in slightly more than one-third of one second. That means Federer had that much time to recognize the shot, calculate its trajectory, where it would bounce, where it would be when it got to him, position his racket (and body) for a return... and not just any return, but one perfectly aimed at Roddick's feet for a win.

"Immortal" the announcer said... but no, it was very mortal... just Federer harnessing the power of the subconscious mind by quieting his conscious mind. Inner Peace. Zen State.

In the movie Top Gun, one of the many lines that made an impression on me occurred during a classroom review of the pilots' performance earlier in the day. Viper, the Zen-master of the Top Gun school was critical of Maverick's (Tom Cruise) choices during a dogfight. He turned the review over to Charlie (Kelly McGinnis), who continued to question his actions:

"Aircraft one performs a split S? That's the last thing you should do. The MiG has you in his gun sight, what were you thinking?"

Maverick replies "You don't have time to think up there. If you think, you're dead."

And he's right, of course. I can't say so from personal experience (unless you count computer simulators), but I can certainly appreciate the split-second reactions that would have to be made during a dogfight in which two or more jet fighters are performing intricate maneuvers at hundreds of miles per hour.

I can't relate to rolling raindrops down my arm or returning cannon balls like Po did in Kung Fu Panda either, but, being a musician and athlete, I can relate to some of the other examples given above. I lettered on the tennis team in high school, and engaged in rapid-fire net volley sessions on several occasions.

I've also played quite a bit of table-tennis, and even had the pleasure (if you can call it that) of playing against a nationally-ranked player on a fairly regular basis. He worked for me as a software engineer when I lived in Colorado Springs, and regularly hung out with some of the athletes a few blocks away at the U.S. Olympic Training Center during his free time. He kicked my butt 99.5% of the time, but I steadily improved and got to the point where I could return some of his hardest shots by pure reaction... again, by "letting go" and quieting my conscious mind.

Please understand I'm not relating these experiences to say "look at me"... but rather in an effort to endorse books and other materials that discuss this subject. I'm trying to say "I get it," "I've experienced it" and "there's really something to this."

One of my favorite books on the subject is The Inner Game of Tennis. In this book, the author talks about Self 1 and Self 2, with Self 2 being the subconscious part of the mind responsible for peak athletic performance. It's the brash, egotistical Self 1 that needs to be "quieted" in order to let Self 2 perform.

So what does all of this have to do with billiards, anyway? Pool is certainly not a game of quick reactions like most of my examples so far... but it turns out that the part of the brain responsible for peak high-speed athletic performance (Self 2) is the very same part of the brain that's ideally suited to handle the identification and calculation of the myriad of factors involved in shooting pool.

Applying the principles of "Quieting the Mind" will enable a pool player to achieve much higher levels of performance. Is it a magic bullet? No, not really... as with other sports the mechanics, knowledge, and strategy need to be sound - and the muscle memory needs to be put in place through hours and hours of practice... but once you have a handle on those things, successfully quieting the mind will raise your game to a whole new level.

Please understand that I'm not saying that only advanced players should work on this. It absolutely makes sense for beginners and/or intermediate players to be working on it as well. For one thing, it's not as easy as it sounds to master. It takes practice. If you begin working on it now, you'll have a better handle on it when your muscle memory catches up. Also, several of the tips result in an increased awareness... which in turn gives Self 2 more "inputs" related to each shot as your internal catalog and muscle memory is being built.

So... ten tips for quieting the mind...

1. Make final decisions on all aspects of the shot before getting down into your final shooting stance. You'll run across this nugget of advice often and for good reason. Once you're down in your shooting stance, you ideally need to completely surrender the completion of your shot to Self 2, the subconscious mind. Things that you consciously thought about before the shot: where you want the object ball to go, where you want the cue ball to end up, what path the cue ball needs to take, and so on, need to be settled.

2. Focus intently on the object ball as you make your final stroke. Most people go through some eye patterns during the practice strokes... shifting the eyes between the cue ball and the object ball. That's perfectly normal. When it's time to make the final stroke, however, you should be focused intently on the object ball. Exactly where on the object ball might vary a bit from person to person depending on how they aim and so on, but for purposes of quieting the mind, the key is to be focusing intently on the ball. Why? Frankly, part of the reason is it gives Self 1 something to do that's not destructive. It's like redirecting a child to another acceptable activity rather than simply telling them not to do something that's not acceptable.

3. If distracted while in your shooting stance, get back up and regroup. Do not continue with the shot. Get up, deal with the distraction, then go back through your pre-shot routine before getting back into your shooting stance. Perhaps stating the obvious, but it's a good idea to eliminate as many potential distractions as possible before even starting the match. Make sure you're not hungry, thirsty, or need to go to the bathroom. Wrap up text conversations, turn off your phone if possible and so on.

4. Let go of the ego. Remove all judgement from your shooting. All of it. Ego and judgement come from Self 1. If you make a bad shot, there's no need for Self 1 to reinforce that it was a bad shot by scolding yourself or trying to consciously analyze what you did wrong. There's equally no purpose in telling your opponent, your friends, or other rail birds what you did wrong. Self 2 already knows it was a bad shot and just as likely knows what you did wrong - probably better than you do. Perhaps surprisingly, the same advice applies to good shots. How many times have you seen someone fluff a simple shot right after dropping a really tough shot? It's a good bet Self 1 was still in the game doing high 5's, fist pumps, and chest bumps. Note that there's a fine line between judgement and simple acknowledgement. Acknowledgement is OK.

5. Increase awareness of your stroke. Heighten your senses of all aspects of your stroke in a non-judgmental way. This may at first seem counter-intuitive, but it can be done. Again, like #2 above, you're trying to engage Self 1 in helpful activities. Gathering more information for Self 2 is helpful. Trying to judge and/or consciously correct what's going on during the stroke is not helpful. Increase the awareness of your grip and how the butt of the cue stick pivots on your fingers with each practice stroke. Feel the shaft of your cue slide through your bridge. With most bridges, even a closed bridge, a V is formed. Focus on the weight of the shaft in that V... does the weight equally balance between each side of the V and stay balanced throughout your stroke? Yes, it sounds like I'm asking for a judgement here, but that's not the intent. I asked the question to indicate the level of awareness you should be trying to achieve. With the right amount of awareness, you should be able to answer that question, but don't do so in a judgmental way (again, simple acknowledgement is OK). Trust Self 2 to make the necessary course corrections. Similarly, you should be acutely aware of as many other aspects of your stroke as possible including what it felt like when the tip hit the cue ball all the way through your follow through.

6. Increase awareness of your stance. Repeat the previous exercise, only focusing on your stance. Feel the weight on your feet. Is your weight equally distributed between your feet? Your awareness should be such that you can answer that question. Is your stance relaxed and balanced? Is your whole body relaxed? While writing this step, I realized this is an area where conscious adjustment sometimes takes place when first getting into the shooting stance - you're down... you realize your aim is slightly off, so you shift a little bit... which in turn causes an imbalance on your feet. Go ahead and move your feet to correct this! I consider this adjustment to still be "getting into the shooting stance"... and therefore appropriate and necessary. Once you've made any such adjustments, lock them in, fade Self 1 out and let Self 2 take over.

7. Observe your stroke on a regular basis. This departs from some of the other steps in that it's not something you generally do while you're shooting. With some sports it may be possible to watch aspects of your motions in a mirror or something, but I've found that to be difficult to do with pool. The best thing to do is record yourself with a video camera. The most convenient time to do this, of course, is during practice sessions, but make an effort to record yourself during competition as well because you may find you do things differently! Again, the goal here is to observe in a non-judgmental way. Don't rip yourself up with negative declarations like "I've got horrible practice strokes." Observe, acknowledge, correct.

8. Trust Self 2. Once you're down in your stance and turned things over to Self 2, you absolutely must trust that Self 2 is going to come through for you and do the right thing. Any second-guessing or last minute corrections by Self 1 will likely screw things up. If you feel yourself doing this, stand back up and start over.

9. Let the shot happen. Don't make it happen, let it happen. Trying to make it happen is something Self 1 would do. You shouldn't be in conscious control at this point. Self 1 is the control freak. If it seems like Self 1 is still fighting for control (and it will, trust me) beat it back with a stick by keeping it busy doing other things like focusing even more intently on the object ball as previously mentioned. Be like Forrest Gump - "never, ever, take your eye off the ball."

10. Observe the results. Simple acknowledgments, non-judgmental. Did the object ball go where it was supposed to go? Did the cue ball go where it was supposed to go? This is an essential part of the process of feeding Self 2's data banks for future use. Self 2 took in all of the inputs you gave through increased awareness and if something was mechanically amiss, it probably caught it and stored that info away as well.

The Self 2 of an experienced player may very well be capable of resolving the reasons for any variances between actual and expected on its own in most cases. Keep in mind this might not be the case with a beginner because the beginner simply doesn't have the knowledge and experience necessary to explain an unexpected behavior... but that will improve over time as knowledge improves through experimentation.

Good luck beating Self 1 into submission!

Be sure to check out all of the other great PoolSynergy articles listed here.


  1. The only thing I can say is: Outstanding! I took the liberty of copying this and sending it to my students in hopes that those up-and-comers will take it to heart.

  2. Totally original and EXACTLY the kind of creativity I was hoping for! Thank you!!!

  3. This is such a great compilation of really powerful concepts. I use music and sports analogies all the time in my lessons and you've taught me some great ones that I'm going to borrow. Well done!

  4. Awesome, I've been exploring the same theme through reading the same book.

  5. @cmbwsu & @billiardcoach... Thanks, and I'm very pleased to hear you find the info useful. Borrow away by all means!

    @Samm - thanks as always for being such a great hostess!

    @Jarno - great book, eh? Very applicable to billards as well as many other things beyond tennis. My daughter recently 'borrowed' my copy in hopes it will help her with guitar.