I've had some health issues recently - really for the past 6 months or so - and spent way too much time sitting at home and in bed. Through all of this I still managed to go undefeated and win my American Rotation league (great game by the way!), earning me a spot in Vegas for the national finals. Only 25 or so people were invited, and a number of professional players were included. Would have been a great experience, unfortunately I had to miss it. I couldn't really put in the required practice time, and I didn't want to get out there and end up feeling bad and not play my best or worse not be able to play at all. Hopefully I'll feel better soon and be able to pull out a victory in one of the next sessions and make it to the national finals again and can report on that.
But on to the point of this post. I played in a regional tournament a month or so ago, only the second for me this year. They typically draw many of the top players in Florida and surrounding areas, and I was actually feeling pretty good that day so no excuses. I played horrible! I warmed up okay and had been playing well leading up to it. My first match was against a tough seasoned top player, but I was winning in the early part of the match. Then I made a mistake, and another, and it's like my concentration just left me. After losing and not playing to my potential at all, I was toast the next match as well and out of the tourney. Very rare for me to go two and out, but of course it has to happen to a quarter of the field and with a tough board sometimes you play two very good players back to back.
I don't mind losing, especially to a better player, just prefer to not give them so much help through my own poor play and excessive mistakes. I left thinking I just "played bad". I didn't feel nervous, I wasn't tired, I wasn't hungry, I wasn't distracted. Yet I didn't feel like I was fully present.
This past month, I happened upon some recorded streams from previous larger events here in Florida. I've heard the names before, and see them on top of the charts often, but because I don't play in a lot of regional events I hadn't seen many of these players play in person. While watching the matches, I noticed something, and sort of had a "ah-hah" moment. What was it? The answer below...
As I watched, I saw that most of these top amateur players had flaws in their game. Especially as an instructor, I tend to notice these things. Sure there are some notable pros that also have some very unique strokes, but a majority of the pros have great fundamentals. I saw crooked alignments, pumping arms, twisting, swerving, jumping up, excessive use of spin or speed, and the list goes on. Many things that I have tried to eliminate from my own game. Yet I also saw that they were intensely focused on putting the ball in the hole and gaining position for the next shot. I know this sounds simple, yet there was something intriguing about it to me.
I've been playing 25+ years, and I am still "tinkering" with my stroke. I belong in TA - Tinkerers Anonymous. I've done it with bowling, tennis, golf, and definitely pool. Just 2 years ago I revamped my game - different grip, changed my stance, changed to mostly using an open bridge, altered my preshot routine, fixed a slight swerve I had in my stroke, etc. All in the name of improvement, trying to hit that next level of consistency. And while my fundamentals and knowledge are better, and everything looks pretty decent on camera, I haven't been able to go deep in one of these larger events. Sure I win local tournaments when I play, even in consecutive weeks when I've been able to do that. But stepping into the regional or national events increases the level of competition, and your game has to be on for long periods of time against guys (and gals) that will really make you pay for your mistakes. Part of this is lack of playing time - I might play 10 hours a week and attend 10 tournaments a year, many of these guys are in constant action and play 10 or more tournaments in a month. Yet many people have told me that I play as well as these guys, enough now to where I actually might start to believe it myself.
The difference that I think I discovered, aside from the obvious experience in big tournaments - is this. I'm still "practicing" while I'm competing, and they are just competing. I'm thinking about some change I recently made, making sure my stroke is straight, transitions are smooth, etc. - they are 100% focused on putting the ball in the hole. I'm mechanical and studious in my approach - they are free flowing, confident in their approach, and intent on running out. I actually start to feel bad and let up a little if beating someone badly - they crush their opponents. I start to get worn out and tired as the night drags on - they grind it out and keep going.
I think some of this is mental toughness or experience for sure, but I think a big component for me is the practice vs. play idea. I just haven't taken the time to finally be happy with my fundamentals and just focus on the table when competing, to be able to switch from practice to play. Probably due in part to my ratio of practice to play, which is 95/5 right now, probably the complete opposite of my fellow competitors.
So.... When is enough enough? When should you be satisfied with your fundamentals and just get out there and play? When should you take a good honest look at your game, or invest in your game by seeing an instructor, and make those necessary changes that could mean weeks or months of struggle, yet emerge on the other side a better player? It's easy for me to see this in my students, harder to see it in myself. For me, I think enough may be enough, I just need to get out and play as life permits and learn to switch gears from practice to play. For many players though, the answer is to make some changes and increase their knowledge in order to hit the next level. For my students, I only try to radically change what they are doing if their fundamentals really need changing to improve, and if they have the time to devote to the change. Usually I'm able to make small tweaks that offer the biggest improvement quickly, and then focus on other critical areas such as stroke speed consistency, shot selection and position play. But many players are in denial about their own shortcomings, and try to improve their game by buying new equipment or just playing more, which only reinforces the bad habits that are holding them back.
Hopefully I feel better soon and am able to hit the practice table and work on letting loose a bit more, then hit some upcoming tournaments and prove my theory about my own game. I'll post my findings good or bad so you can learn from my experience. As always, feel free to comment on this or any other article, and call or email with any questions you may have with your own game or to set up lessons.