I played a weekly tournament recently - my first of the year, and only 2nd tournament all year - and after my second loss I had a conversation with a very good player about my frustration. He said a few things that helped clear my head and refocus my efforts, and since it helped (along with a few other things) I thought I would share.
My main takeaway from our conversation - rhythm. Not stroke, aiming, hyper-focusing on fundamentals, doing drills, or even nerves - just rhythm. He mentioned several things during the conversation that I inherently knew, and teach to others, yet it's difficult to self-diagnose at times. Sort of like the crazy psychiatrist... :)
So what about rhythm is so important? I realized that I wasn't in any sort of rhythm at all, and that probably came from the lack of true competitive play. I thought I was, and had a nice preshot routine, yet my approach into my PSR was too varied. I would get down too quickly on simple shots, even get down too quickly on more difficult shots, and sometimes spend too much extra time during the routine before shooting on difficult shots as well. This was probably affecting me during my limited practice as well, yet there is no penalty for missing in practice, you set up the shot again, or worse just swipe it into the pocket thinking "I would normally make that shot". Another reason for practicing with a purpose or some sort of objective scoring, but that's a topic for another article.
I'm a very analytical person, just my nature, hardwired that way. Words like "feeling" and "visualization" don't compute. Yet I knew what he was talking about, so I watched some matches with my favorite players (lately the Ko brothers) and really watched how they moved around the table from shot to shot. I started standing behind the shot for a few extra seconds when needed, air stroking my cue and really trying to feel a connection to the shot, feeling the angle and speed needed, and then once down on the shot trusting in my pre-calculated alignment and just focusing solely on cue ball speed and spin and making a smooth stroke. I tried not to shoot until I felt truly ready for the shot, and tried as well to get up and go through my routine again if anything felt off once down.
I also did some other things along with this new focus on rhythm. A few drills to work on smoothness and straightness. 15 - 30 reps on a few specific types of shots that always come up to improve consistency. My favorite rail shot drill. Spent maybe 60 - 90 minutes total, not much, but enough to make a difference.
All of the sudden - I felt it. I was in rhythm, moving around the table effortlessly, confidence back. That night I won my match 7-0, and that weekend I won the US Amateur qualifier after losing my first match and staying focused after a 3 hour wait and 7 more matches, winning all of them while never giving up more than 3 games, and most were 0 or 1. I wasn't in dead stroke, at no point was I feeling the zone, but I focused on the shots and my cue ball speed and tried to "feel" the shots. I made good decisions, I missed very few balls, allowing me to play a solid safe (most of the time) if out of position, and maintained control of the table.
I found that I can't tackle every issue by analyzing a shot or trying to fix a technical flaw, sometimes you just need to relax and feel the rhythm and let your confidence build. If any of this resonates with you, I hope it helps you to refocus your efforts as well.