Thursday, September 15, 2011

PoolSynergy: My Practice Principles

Welcome to the September 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 the father of PoolSynergy John Biddle, is Practice: What Works For You.

This topic made me reflect on a few things: (a) do I practice? (b) does anything actually work for me? (c) is it worth writing about? I got a hat trick of yes's with the answers, but realized that my practice varies so much that I'd be better off writing about the underlying principles guiding my practice sessions rather than going in depth about any specific drills I do. Up until this point I haven't had a written list of these principles, but it didn't take long to pound out a quick dozen of them.

Schedule Your Practice
Regular practice is a great habit to be in, and the best way to develop and stick to this habit is to have set days and times during the week set aside for practice. Life happens, of course, and you have to be flexible... but don't flex too much! You'll likely find that you can keep on your schedule if it's realistic in the first place and you make it a priority in your life. It doesn't have to be the top priority (and probably shouldn't be), but it needs to be a genuine priority. Assuming you want to improve, that is. If you're satisfied with the level of suckage in your game, that's perfectly alright with me.

Keep a Record
The amount of detail will vary from person to person, but it's generally a good idea to keep track of what you're doing during your practice sessions. I know some people who like to record things in excruciating detail, and I know people who don't record anything at all. Since this post is about what works for me, I'll say that I fall somewhere near the middle of the two extremes. I keep general notes of what I'm practicing and what I want to practice in the near future. I track some types of drills in more detail so I can get an idea of progress I'm making, but I intentionally avoid overdoing it. My personal feeling is that I'm there to practice, not administrate. The paperwork shouldn't be so onerous that it's a distraction.

Mix it Up
Variety is the spice of life. Yes, you're going to be concentrating on certain things from time to time, and that's fine... but I always prefer to mix it up a bit to keep it interesting and also to exercise different parts of your game in a balanced manner.

Look Ahead in Your Calendar
When planning out my practice sessions, I generally look two or three months ahead on the calendar to help decide what I should be working on. If I know there's a 10-ball tournament coming up in a couple of months I'll make a point of spending some time on 10-ball breaks since that's not something I do on a regular basis, for example.

Work On Your Weaknesses
We all have them, some worse than others. And I've found that sometimes weaknesses come, go, and come back again! Shooting a ball down the rail is a common weakness for many newer players, for example. Or long straight in shots. Or draw. Be honest with yourself on these - identify and eliminate them! From time to time, ask others what they perceive your weaknesses to be, and listen with an open mind. Their answers might uncover something you haven't even considered!

Work On Things You Don't Like
Don't like shooting a cue ball that's close or frozen to the rail? Practice it! Don't like bridging over other balls? Practice it! Don't like using the mechanical bridge? Practice it! These are all common weaknesses in the average player's game that tend to be game changers - one way or the other. Avoiding these things in practice simply because you don't like doing them is a common (and deadly) mistake.

Work On Important Aspects of the Game
Most people practice shot making... and that's important of course, but beyond that there are some extremely important aspects of the game that often do not get the attention they deserve. Break shots, for example are huge and yet rarely get the attention they deserve (amongst amateurs, at least). I remember watching Shane Van Boening work his way through four or five straight racks in a local 9-ball tournament when a fellow railbird remarked "hell, he's getting really easy table layouts... even I could run the table with layouts like that" and yeah, that's exactly the point. He was getting good layouts because he's invested hundreds or thousands of hours on his break. A good break can keep you at the table more often than not... it can occasionally win the game outright for you... and it makes subsequent run outs much easier as well. Safeties are another aspect of the game that usually don't get the attention they deserve.

Use Proven Practice Methods and Drills
No need to reinvent the wheel - look to others for practice methods that might fill your needs. There are some incredibly effective drills floating around out there in books, videos, and other sources - take advantage of them! Many pool books have chapters or sections dedicated to practice drills. At least one book is completely dedicated to practice: Phil Cappelle's Practicing Pool. You'll find that some of the 'tried and true' practice drills are incredibly effective at working on common weaknesses... probably more so than the majority of things you'd come up with on your own.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
Build that muscle memory! Studies have shown that practicing the same thing over and over again prompts biological changes that actually improve the body's ability to perform that action. It's more than just a matter of "the more you practice, the better you get"... you're actually programming your body to get better at the task. Therefore, it makes sense to dedicate at least a portion of your practice to highly repetitive tasks such as shooting the same exact shot over and over again. Mark the initial locations of the cue ball and object ball(s) so you can quickly set them up again and shoot 25 of them. Or 50. Or even 100.

Practice Under Realistic Game Conditions
Do you have some sort of fancy collared shirt from a sponsor that you only wear in tournaments? Wear it during practice at least a few times to make sure you're used to it and it doesn't cause any unforeseen problems. Sometimes the oddest things can cause a distraction, such as the way a shirt sleeve catches your elbow mid-stroke. Wear the shoes you normally compete in. Use the equipment you normally use (including chalk holders, etc).

Practice Alone
I've noticed many people get together with others and make it a bit of a social event to 'practice' and sure, there's something to be said for that... but I don't personally think that's the best way to practice. It generally turns into a string of casual games mixed in with a lot of chatting and drinking, etc. It's all good, of course, and probably helpful to some extent... but keep in mind it's not optimal practice. In my opinion, you really need to be alone in order to tune in and get the most out of your practice sessions. If you've got a friend or partner who really wants to be involved, put them to work setting up repetitious shots or something so they enhance your practice experience rather than distract from it. If your partner is also a pool player, rotate back and forth with them between shooting and setting.

Something is Better than Nothing
Yeah, I get it... most people lead busy lives and maybe they don't have a solid two hours to practice at a given time on a given day. Fine, at least try to squeeze in 10-15 minutes on your favorite drill or simply run a couple of racks or something. I often run a rack while commercials are on TV or I'm waiting for a delicious gourmet meal to finish in the microwave. Don't have a pool table at home? Fine. Practice your stroke and bridges on the kitchen table. It's not perfect, but at least it's something.

Happy practicing!

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