Competitive Anxiety: How to avoid choke shots


Joe Waldron


            There are many reasons for playing pool. Somewhere near the top of the list is enjoyment. But what is it that we enjoy about trying to run the table, never letting the other person have a chance to shoot? Part of the fun is the uncertainty of competition: the possibility of losing. If the shots are played right and the you have a little luck, it's a win. When it is known that you will win, the game is not nearly as much fun. Most of us want to play the person who is a little better. "Maybe I can win this time?"  The "maybe," that is what makes it enjoyable and brings us back to the table time after time.

            When prestige, the player's self worth, or more money than the player can stand to lose is the outcome of the game, the fun in pitting the player's skill and lady luck against an opponent can be a source of what is known as "competitive anxiety." Those unknown factors that will lose the game, the player's suspected lack of skill hampers the shot, it gets in the way. When you concentrate too much, try too hard, your arm may tremor, concentration wavers, and that smooth stroke that worked so well at the practice table becomes choppy. When the player chokes the first time there is a feeling of dread. "Can I control it? Can I get the edge back? Is this going to be a disaster?" For the rest of the match the player battles himself, not the opponent.

            Over the next few issues this column will present what the science of psychology has to say about competitive anxiety. For some people (usually professional athletes) competitive anxiety is a good and useful thing. Hans Selye, a Canadian scientist, calls this eustress (U-stress) or healthy stress that helps some people play better and therefore makes their life better. Somewhat like a race horse, born to run and if not allowed to race in competition this type of horse has a less than enjoyable life.

            Some people play pool because they like the stress. For them,  the bet, the prestige, or their self definition as better than the next guy, needs to be laid on the line before the game is enjoyable. We have all met people who will not play unless there is money in the offing: they need to play for $.50 or $500.00 a game, something, anything, to make the game more challenging. When I meet these people I usually wonder, "Is this a race horse, a compulsive gambler, or a person who uses anxiety to prove to themselves that they are better or worse than others?"

            Competitive anxiety can be a problem, one that ruins their game. Unfortunately, it always seems to wreck your game at the wrong time. Have you noticed that getting uptight never affects you when you practice? During practice is when the player should make mistakes but it is during competition that uptightness strikes.

            Competitive anxiety seems to have the most detrimental effects in sports that require fine motor coordination and concentration. Pool players are more likely to experience the harmful effects of competitive anxiety than football players. The race horse pool player, the person who needs to make the game more challenging, even he or she is bit by the bug from time to time. Good players learn what games to stay out of, what stakes can be tolerated, and how much prestige to place on the line. Good players are like experimental jet pilots, always pushing the edge. Can he or she go a little farther, build confidence a little higher and take on the next level of competition. From novice to pro we try to take it to the limit.  Digging ditches is a sure and steady way to make a living;  for some people shooting pool is living.

            The identification of people who play for the "wrong" reasons is not too difficult. The compulsive gambler will play anybody, anytime, and nearly always loses money in the end. The person who plays to prove to himself that he is no good - he is basically a loser too, taking on a level of competition that he knows he can't win. That fellow who plays to prove he is better than others is easily picked out from the crowd: He usually doesn't play people who might beat him. People who play for self defeating reasons confuse the issue when we ask them why they play. They can argue with anyone, and most importantly with themselves, that they are not compulsive gamblers, guilt ridden individuals or egocentric personalities. Their arguments are the strongest because it is themselves they are trying to convince: It was Shakespeare who said "The lady doth protest too much" and he got it right with these types of players. The shark is probably a race horse egocentric who needs the pool table to feed some silly image of himself: The dollar bill is his measure of self worth. Like an addict, it takes more money and no matter how much he wins, there is not enough to feed an insatiable need. So much for the mystique of pool.

            One of the many challenges in the sport of pool is learning to control competitive anxiety. The player needs to be able to recognize this debilitating aspect of competition before it can be controlled or managed. This week's column is about identifying the situations that get a player uptight and the how it affects people. The next columns will present ways of controlling competitive anxiety.

            The information presented here could be used to "psych out" an opponent. Identifying the things that get him or her uptight and then using this information to wreck the opponent's game. Most of us would rather have the opponent's  best game and then beat him. Not everyone thinks like this, so let the chips fall where they may. What one does to others usually comes back doubled. A player who would use this information to unethically ruin another's chances can expect that these tactics will be returned - multiplied by at least two.

            Competitive anxiety inflicts everyone at one time or another when shooting pool. It is a situation the player identifies as a threat. Perhaps it is a situation where the player mentally says, "Danger, danger, I could lose it all right here." The definition of "it all" depends upon the person. Maybe, it is the teammates' evaluation of the player's worth to the team. Maybe it is the player's self evaluation. Perhaps, it's too much money that will blow the player's  spouse out of the water when the spouse finds out how much was lost.

            When we get in over our heads eustress turns into competitive anxiety. Anxiety is a generalized fear or dread that something bad is going to happen. Some people go through life, and a pool match, telling themselves that it won't happen to me. However, there are feelings and feedback from the player's body that will indicate that competitive anxiety has kicked in. Here is a list of things that can occur:

            Shooting pool requires fine motor coordination and an ability to analyze a shot and a situation for positional play. Practice is important: When shooting becomes semi-automatic, the game is a mind game of analysis and self discipline. Competitive anxiety destroys the ability to think the problem through and it destroys fine motor coordination. When one or more of the problems listed above are experienced the player loses self confidence. A  downward spiral is entered in which the player believes things will get worse and therefore puts a great deal of effort into getting back on their game. The automatic processes learned in practice are not available and the player chokes or loses concentration.

            Good players use offensive and defensive tactics. Part of a good defensive strategy is to destroy the other person's confidence. If this can be done the outcome is obvious. Acceptable ways of creating competitive anxiety include setting a pace that makes the player feel uncomfortable. Perhaps the opponent makes three or four stunning shots that leaves the player in doubt about the player's ability to win against such superior skill. Another tactic is to make snooker shots leaving two or three rail kicks. Playing against the opponent's weakness by leaving bank shots, length of table shots, or difficult cuts are all sound tactics used in a good defensive strategy. After missing a few of these, many players will begin to doubt themselves.

            Unethical tactics include intentional distractions such as words or movements. Another trick is to raise the wager to the point where the player is uncomfortable. If the opponent can ruin the player's concentration through jokes or anger the player's ability to concentrate is weakened and the opponent has the player battling himself. Competitive anxiety becomes the opponent's partner. The outcome is a foregone conclusion.

            For the shark, the strategy is to find the other person's emotional weakness and then exploit it as needed. Sharks attempt to determine how good you play and then find out what will ruin your game. Perhaps you can't beat a buddy. If so they will be your buddy. When they find out what irritates you through watching your reaction to various tricks they can use those tricks at the right time to instill competitive anxiety. If they can do this, you beat yourself and come back for more tomorrow, when you have more money, a refreshed self confidence and believe that you are "on your game." Naive players think that one or two tricks will ruin the other guy's game. Sometimes that works.

            The real shark knows it is a combination of little things that will eventually get to the other guy. The shark will check you out. Perhaps a loose rack, constant chatter, or an arrogant attitude will get you angry and lead to a few misses. Perhaps joking or a self effacing demeanor will get you feeling too good about yourself or the opponent's apparent weakness and thus weaken your concentration. By continuing to add irritants to the game and by small increments the player will come to doubt himself. When the player's anger directed outward or inward kicks in, the shark is well on the way. One way you can spot a shark by the variety of things he engages in when he is testing you out.

            To avoid competitive anxiety you need to know why you play, what you expect from the sport, and what irritates you. You need a realistic appraisal of how well you play. What is the average number of balls that you can run? What percentage of bank shots do you usually make? Where are your weaknesses? When you know these things about yourself, the management of competitive anxiety can reduce the number of choke shots and the number of lost matches.

            Though you understand yourself and the other guy can't get to you, competitive anxiety continues to affect the novice and the pro alike. Without the shark or the unethical player we can, and often do, get ourselves in trouble by taking on more stress than our level of play will allow. In the next issue methods developed by sport psychologists to control competitive anxiety will be discussed. It makes no difference if the game destroyer is induced by the opponent or by the player's own behavior it can be managed and controlled.

            In a Nine Ball match race to 11 the score is tied ten to ten. Your opponent has played  safe; leaving you a bank shot on the eight ball.  Would you choke on the shot, or would you feel exhilarated?  Exceptional athletes are calm and cool in these tough situations. In golf, basketball and similar sports a great deal of work has been done to find out how people can maintain peak performance in critical situations. Competitive anxiety affects everyone at one time or another. From amateur to advanced professional, learning to control the stroke destroyer is a major part of winning critical matches.

            Before discussing the techniques that will improve your control of situations that lead to competitive anxiety, consider the goal. Professor Robert Weinberg writing in the Journal of Anxiety Research (1992, pp 227-242)  describes characteristics of exceptional athletes. These people are able to keep their body loose and comfortable while increasing their concentration. In one sense it is as though their bodies were in the relaxed state that you experience just before going to sleep. At the same time, their minds are highly focused on  the task at hand. Exceptional basketball players standing at the foul line in a highly charged game are completely unaware of anything around them except the ball, the backboard, and the basket. These people can tune out the roar of the crowd, the points to be scored, and the consequences of making or missing the shot. In a very real sense, exceptional athletes are able to use an altered state of consciousness: A form of self hypnosis that is often  assisted by meditative techniques.

             It is not necessary to become a Zen master or a professional therapist to learn to control competitive anxiety. The techniques are simple and  straightforward, but they do require you to expend some effort. It is somewhat like learning to ride a bicycle: Once you learn you will not forget. You can use it years later, and you can always become better with more practice. Like learning to ride a bicycle, it does take time and your first efforts are usually not too successful. When you get the hang of it, controlling competitive anxiety is  easy and you will wonder why you haven't used it long before now.

            Professor Robert Neiss of the University of Connecticut identified two major components of  competitive anxiety in an article written for Clinical Psychology Review (1988,  pp 139-159); physical anxiety is characterized by tense muscles, shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, and clammy hands.             Cognitive anxiety includes worry, negative self talk, and inappropriate focus of attention.

             The physical components of competitive anxiety are not directly related to the cognitive components: You might not observe the physical aspects, such as rapid heart beat, however when your self talk becomes increasingly negative   this is an indication of competitive anxiety. There is a great deal of individual variation in the way  competitive anxiety affects people.  For some people in some situations, it improves their performance: for other people it causes a deterioration in performance. Competitive anxiety can affect the same person in different ways depending on the situation.

            In the article published last month I discussed the types of things that lead to competitive anxiety. By now you have identified why you play and the things that make you uptight. At this point you can probably see the choke shot coming or at least you are  aware of the types of things that lead to a deterioration in your ability to shoot in that critical match. Whether you anticipate the tenseness or find yourself in the middle of  losing your stroke you can use the techniques discussed here.

            The single most important thing that you can do is probably the easiest technique.  Learn to stop criticizing yourself. Scientific studies consistently find that negative thinking  creates anxiety. When you criticize yourself you stop focusing on the task at hand (analyzing the roll of the cue, aiming, and stroking) and focus on self appraisal. This affects your ability to concentrate. When the focus is on  fault finding, you do not have as much attention to place on the shot.

            One of the reasons that people practice pool shooting is to allow the required techniques to become semi-automatic unconscious processes. You need to allow these trained reflexes to control your shooting. When you focus on your "poor performance or inability," the use of rational thought process interferes with the semi-automatic processes.  You need to allow your brain and mind unrestricted  access to the skills that you have obtained. Whenever you  intentionally control the process your shot making ability deteriorates. Worry about your ability to make a shot, the consequences of missing the shot, and your self evaluation if you miss, all hinder your ability.

            From the perspective of psychology the ideas presented in most introductory books are sound advice: Before walking to the table, check yourself; "Is there something bothering you?" If there is, deal with it and then forget it. Walk to the table and analyze the field of play; how to make the shot, where you want the cue to stop for the second and third position, and how much force and English are required. Bend over to shoot and stop thinking about anything. Place your full concentration on allowing your semi-automatic processes to control the shot.

            For those who think that semi-automatic control is gobbledygook, consider the following ideas. You intend to play a shot into the corner and use draw to come off the ball at a 30 degree angle, hit one rail, and move the retreating cue ball approximately 13 inches. Exactly where do you hit the cue ball in terms of  inches below center and degrees off  vertical? What percentage of your power is used, and what combination of "nip" versus "follow through" is needed to execute the draw?  The point of these questions is that no one can answer them in words. Like riding a bicycle, I can show you how, but I can not tell you how to do it. The process of executing such a shot is not under logical control. It is controlled by body learning or semi-automatic processes. Most people look at the shot and say, "I need low left English and I want the ball here." While our logical mind thinks in terms of degrees, inches, and percentage of power, the semi-automatic processes are visual, and "feel" the situation. We tell our semi-automatic processes what we want to accomplish and that part of the brain executes the shot -- not the rational part of our thinking.

            Shooting pool is a two stage process: Use your logical mind to say exactly what you want to do then stop thinking about anything and let the semi-automatic processes concentrate on the shot.  Assume an accepting wait and see attitude, and watch the semi -automatic processes work. You should  have an accepting attitude: No matter what happens you will accept the idea that the semi-automatic processes will do the best job possible. After the shooting, try to find something right with what you have done and make suggestions to yourself concerning what may have made the shot better the next time.

            Every time your logical thinking controls the shot, you mess it up. It is like trying to think your way through balancing on a bicycle. Critical statements that you think or speak affect the semi-automatic part of your brain that executes the shot: It can't concentrate on the task at hand because you are finding fault with it. Have you noticed how it messes up some people when others watch them do something. To do something well we need to suspend judgment and allow the thing to happen. Later, you and others can analyze the result. If you criticize a great cook while she is in the middle of making dinner, she will probably mess up the dinner because she will lose her concentration and forget to include an important ingredient.  The semi-automatic processes literally cook up a shot for you and this part of your brain cannot do a good job if the other side of the brain is continually criticizing.

            When the thinking part of your brain begins to criticize or worry about things unrelated to making the shot, the unconscious processes that make the shot are affected. To stop criticizing and evaluating yourself while you are playing should not be a difficult habit to develop. Think of the semi-automatic processes as though it were another person in your mind with you. If you have a fault finding attitude and it knows that you are going to start carping as soon as it does miss, it will be nervous and unable to concentrate. The semi-automatic processes need to know that you are behind it 110% whatever  happens you know that it is doing the best that it can. When you have that type of attitude, you will begin shooting your  best. It is often said that self confidence is important when playing pool, I suspect that the root of self confidence is self acceptance. You can be the worst player in the room and beat many of the others if you accept yourself as doing the best job possible.

            A few weeks ago I went to the Ohio State Open and watched Earl Strickland play Alan Hopkins for first place. Strickland seemed to be able to incur the hostility of the crowd and it did not bother him. He used mock anger when he loudly complained  that he could no longer make a ball on the break because Hopkins supposedly racked the balls differently. Interestingly, after this mock anger outburst Strickland went on to soundly beat Hopkins while Hopkins' game seemed to deteriorate. Hopkins is, and is well known as, a polite, gracious player.

            There are two things of interest here: Strickland has probably taught himself to exhibit these sham tantrums that have no effect on his self evaluation. He does not care what others think and can use the sham anger tactics without internally criticizing himself for unsportsmanlike like conduct. You have probably played against others who openly and continually criticize themselves and yet they continue to win. I would suggest that these people do not believe what they are saying aloud. For them, it is all a sham and a technique used to rattle you. Most people I observe shooting pool who are not hustling and who begin with a good attitude that develops into a self critical attitude as they play, lose their playing ability. These people are truly criticizing themselves and this criticism affects their ability to concentrate. It is not so much what a person says or does while he is playing, it is what he truly believes. Of course, no one knows the player's beliefs except the player and I have noticed that many people do not know what they believe about themselves or change their beliefs in the course of play.

            The second interesting point about the Strickland-Hopkins Match is the idea that Strickland was able to throw Hopkins off his game. Hopkins has been playing for many years and it would seem that this type of tactic should not work. Perhaps, Hopkins goals, his reasons for playing, have changed over time. He is now the president of the MPBTA and is the spokesman for professional pool. I am sure that one of the reasons he was elected is because of his reputation as a role model for improving the image of  the sport. Undoubtedly, Hopkins is aware of this idea. To be implicitly accused of unsportsman like conduct by Strickland shifted Hopkins' focus of attention. He was probably wondering (worrying?) if the crowd saw through Strickland's obvious hustle, and this affected his game. Strickland's hustle worked on Hopkins not because it was an  implied personal insult, but because the insult may have tarnished Hopkins reputation in his role as president of the MPBTA in front of spectators. Over time our reasons for playing change, perhaps our own tactics need to change along with our goals. If Hopkins had overtly recognized the attempt to tarnish his reputation and then laughed it off,  the attempt might not have worked. Like an old time hustler, Strickland did not bring out his trick until late in the match. I wonder what would have truly gotten to Strickland.

            In summary, the scientific literature supports the idea that in sports like pool, thought processes can be a major detriment to one's playing ability. Skilled pool shooting is a semi-automatic right brain activity. Left brain or critical thought processes can distract and severely impair the tuned fine motor coordination learned at the practice table. Conscious control of one's pool shooting is likely to impair the shot. When we get uptight, we are more likely to try to take control of the pool shooting instead of letting the semi-automatic processes play. The solution at this point is to get rid of self evaluation during a match. Use conscious processes to analyze the table. When you begin shooting, screen out all thoughts and focus on letting your semi-automatic processes make the shot.

            There are several ways to train yourself to become a more focused player. It is common to read that all great players were raised in pool halls. It may be true, but it is not a requirement. The key is learning to concentrate, stay relaxed, and allow the semi-automatic processes a sufficient amount of time to learn.  When you know what you are doing, this training does not have to take years to learn, it can be acquired over a period of weeks or months of practice in which you know the goal.

            Initially, it is best to practice alone. Decide that regardless of how you play,  you will not become angry or find fault with yourself. Each mistake is something from which you can learn and you know that you can not learn the fine details when you are angry or fault finding with yourself.  During the practice emphasize the ability to screen out all irrelevant information. Place your full concentration on letting the semi-automatic processes learn. Practice in a quiet room observing how you can completely concentrate on the shot. Positional play results from the analyses you made before bending over the table.  You may have to re-think the roll of the ball when you start to shoot, realize you are doing this and stop aiming while you think the situation through. When you are done thinking and have stated exactly what you want to do and have looked at the exact spot where you want the cue to stop, then stop thinking and allow the semi-automatic processes to have complete control over aiming and stroking.

            After completing a shot do not criticize yourself. Think of what was needed to improve the shot. We seem to learn best when others (including the thinking side of our own brain) likes us, understands that we are doing the best we can, and gently offers' suggestions for improvement.

             After you master attitude and concentration, increase the amount of distractions and learn to ignore these potential problems. When you have mastered screening out irrelevant distractions and you know how many balls you can pocket in one inning, you are ready to take on the next level of competition. Consider why you are playing and attempt to keep the competition; the other fellow's skill, the bet, and the prestige within your comfort zone.

            Regardless of the training techniques you use, competitive anxiety will affect your game. The Strickland-Hopkins match is a good example. There are ways that you can keep your body loose and comfortable and thus improve your concentration. These techniques also require practice and are similar to learning to ride a bicycle. I discuss Deep Muscle Relaxation, the use of imagery, self hypnosis, and meditation in the next columns. Of course, we are only interested in techniques that really do work, so I'll leave the mystical stuff to the Zen masters. The techniques discussed next will be based on techniques professional athletes and their trainers pay large fees to learn.

      In the middle of a pool match your hands begin to tremble, your palms are sweating, and you can feel that you are putting too much effort into controlling the shot. You need to relax and let the semi-automatic processes shoot. It seems that no matter what you do, your aim, your stroke, and the roll of the cue are wrong.  You say to yourself, "This is not my day.  This match is a lost cause." None-the-less, you will fight to the end, and at least walk away knowing that you did the best you could.

      Wait -- Can you recover? Can you get back on your stroke? Is it possible to get your game under control and shoot up to your potential?  Yes, the answer is "yes" to all of these questions. Some fellow said a long time ago, "There is no free lunch."  It will cost you to learn how to get back on your game in a matter on minutes. The price is the time and effort required to learn the techniques.

      The management of competitive anxiety can be broken down into several components. To effectively control it you should be able to identify competitive anxiety, you need to practice focused attention in a positive frame of mind, and you must be able to relax on command. It all sounds easy enough, but few people take the time to truly learn a new technique. To relax on command seems like a simple task, and most people think they can do it when needed. Can you tell me how to balance on a bicycle? I would bet that you cannot. Balance is "body learning" and not something that can be put into words very well. The way to learn balance is to try to balance! Your body will find and remember the solution. How many times have you heard someone say "relax" and the other person says, "I am relaxing." However, you can tell by looking at them that they are uptight.

       In this article the techniques used to learn how to relax on command are presented. There are several components to the technique.  However, you already know most of them. The new elements involve small distinct steps used to build a reaction pattern that is called when needed. Somewhat like  learning to ride a bicycle, after you have spent enough time practicing, you merely get on the bike and ride away. When someone asks how you do that, the answer is, "It's easy, just get on the bicycle, balance, and push the pedals."

      Most people have forgotten that it took several days, with training wheels, to learn to ride. Because the process is "body learning," words were not used to specify the small steps needed to learn the process. Like learning to ride a bicycle or learning to swim, when you know how, it seems natural, easy, and something that anyone can do. Indeed, it is not an awesome task, if you take the time to become proficient.  Learning to calm down your body so that your semi-automatic processes can control the pool shooting is not forbidding. A few people have become experts in this process on their own. The rest of us have to spend some time acquiring this habit.

       Psychologists and others use a technique called "Deep Muscle Relaxation" to teach people to relax their body on command. The rudiments of the technique are described below but note that any psychologist, given a few hours, could teach the skill with much better attention to detail.  Deep Muscle Relaxation is also a  therapeutic tool used in the treatment of medical problems. If you are taking medication, or have a physical problem such as heart dysfunction, epilepsy, diabetes, or a thyroid problem, you should not used these techniques until after you have consulted with your physician or therapist.

      The first thing you need to learn is how to breathe in a special way.   Lie on your living room floor on your back with your legs uncrossed and your arms at your side. Inhale slowly through your nose and take a long slow deep breath. Let your abdomen swell as you inhale: It is somewhat like blowing up a balloon. When your lungs are as full as you can reasonably get them, hold the air in your lungs for a few heart beats.

      Say the word "Relax" and exhale the air from your lungs slowly, allowing your belly (abdomen) to sink all the way to your back bone. Try to expel as much air as possible. When your lungs begin to empty, you will need to gently force the air out of your lungs. Continue expelling air from your lungs until it seems it is not possible to expel any more, then push a little harder. When you have expelled all of the air, stop breathing for a few heart beats and begin the inhalation process again. Do this ten times.

      After the tenth time, notice what your body feels like and become aware of the difference between what your body felt like before the exercise and what it feels like after breathing slowly and deeply. You will find that you feel warm and comfortable. Your body is beginning to relax. More importantly, your body is learning how to initiate the relaxation response. Now that you know what deep breathing is, we can proceed to muscle relaxation.

      Continue breathing as indicated above and tighten your right hand into a fist. Slowly continue to increase the pressure in your squeeze until it becomes uncomfortable. When the muscle strain is unpleasant hold that pressure and become aware of what your hand feels like when it is "tight." Notice the tension across your knuckles and the way the muscles pull. Allow your consciousness to experience these feelings for about 20 seconds. The next phase is critical. As you begin to exhale, say the word "Relax" and slowly release the pressure in the squeeze while exhaling. Become very aware of what it feels like to let go of the strain. It is at this point that your body is learning what it feels like to intentionally relax. Pay close attention to these feelings of letting go.

      When you stop exhaling, maintain the tension in your hand until you are ready to exhale again. Say the word "Relax," begin to exhale, and slowly release more tension from your hand. It will take two exhalations to release all of the pressure from your hand. When it feels as if your hand is as limp as it can get,  let your hand become even more relaxed by just letting it go completely.

       Paying attention to what it feels like to completely "let go" as you breathe deeply is when your body is learning to relax on command. The idea is to focus on the feelings of relaxation. This is what you want to do when you choose to. Using the word "Relax" is the signal your conscious mind will use and saying the word aloud associates the word with the relaxation response. Incidentally, you could use any simple one syllable word such as "calm" or "easy."

      In the next 30 to 40 minutes tense and relax all of the major muscle groups in your body. When working with one group it is important to let the other groups remain as relaxed as possible. This differential relaxation allows your body to learn how to successively relax your whole body. The major muscle groups and the order in which you should work on them are as follows: Work with your hand, forearm, and upper arm as individual muscle groups. Then work with the opposite limb. Tighten and relax your head, this includes forehead muscles (try to pull your hair line foreword by wrinkling your forehead); jaw muscles (grimace or smile for upper muscles, gently tighten back teeth for lower facial muscles); back of the neck (stretch your head forward to strain these muscles). Work with the large muscles in your, back (round your shoulder to the front); buttock (squeeze cheeks together). Next, move to the front of your body. Tighten and relax your stomach (abdomen). Finally work with your legs, upper leg (thigh), lower leg (calf muscle), and feet (pull toes toward your chin, then push toes toward your heel).

      The best way to learn to systematically relax is to use and audio tape to gently guide you through each major muscle group. You can make a tape from the information presented here. Tapes can be purchased  commercially. 

      Most people concentrate tension in one or more parts of their body. They get tight shoulders, or their jaw tightens up. You will probably notice that one area of your body seems to hurt more than another area as you increase the strain. This is where you localize tension. Pay special attention to these areas when learning to relax.

      When you have  tightened and relaxed all of the large muscle groups,  relax your whole body on each breath exhalation. Do this ten times. With each exhalation you should become more relaxed. It is especially important to become aware of what your body feels like in the relaxed state. When you are as relaxed as you can possibly be, lie still, breathe slowly and normally allowing your body to experience the pleasant sensation of complete relaxation while you are fully aware of all that is going on around you. Be aware of what it feels like to "let go" of tension. The whole session should take 40 - 60 minutes.   You will find that with each succeeding session you can become more relaxed than in the previous session.

      After completing the session, get up slowly. First, sit up and allow your muscles to slightly tighten. Take your time standing up. You might become dizzy and disoriented. Usually 30 seconds to one minute is  needed to allow your body to reset the appropriate tension levels. Coming out of the relaxed state is somewhat like getting up in the morning. It takes a minute to get your body together.  You will find that the whole procedure is enjoyable. Your body feels warm, comfortable and relaxed. Deep Muscle Relaxation is similar to the process used to go to sleep each night: Relaxing muscle groups is a form of body rest. The important difference is that in this practice your body is becoming extremely aware of what it feels like to let go of tension. In addition, the word "Relax" is becoming a word that your body understands: It knows what to do when you use the word aloud or say it to yourself.

      Like balancing on that bicycle, your body does not learn how to control the process the first time. That is why we had training wheels for two weeks or more when we were kids. It did not matter how badly you wanted to learn and trying harder did not seem to help. The way that you learned to ride the bicycle was through continual practice and having fun while you were practicing. Learning to relax on command is a similar process. You need to practice at least twice a day for two weeks. You can make a third  repetition in bed before going to sleep. People who have trouble falling asleep will find that deep muscle relaxation  will put them to sleep. After  the first week, you will get a feel for what it means to relax on command.

      The problem now is to be able to use the relaxation response when it is needed, on command. There are several ways to do this. The idea is to use it at random times during the day. The technique I like best is to use it at red lights. When driving an automobile, we usually go through intersections where there are stop lights. These traffic control systems are frustrating and irritating. They are road blocks that stop us from getting where we want to go. Red lights are extraordinary places to practice the relaxation process. Red lights occur almost unexpectedly and they are minor irritations. Exactly the type of situation that is needed. In addition, every time you tell yourself to relax at a red light you will find that you are less irritable when the light turns green. There is an additional benefit: Your mood is better and you are less likely to become angry with all of the other drivers on the road: You know, the idiot in front who drives to slow and the maniac behind who drives to fast.

      When you pull up to a light and it is red,  take a deep breath (normal type) and in your mind say the word "Relax" as you exhale. Try to have your body completely let go as you watch the traffic, and may even talk to someone else in your automobile. Continue breathing deeply and letting go for as long as the light remains red. Notice that you can practice this technique alone or when someone else is present. It is a subtle technique and others will not know that you are using it.

       The nice thing about stop lights is that you will be there for a minute or two and this is a sufficient amount of time for the relaxation process to kick in. In the initial stages of learning this technique the relaxation response does not manifest itself in a few seconds.  It takes at least three months of practice before your body can relax itself this quickly. You will need the additional time at the red light to let your body get used to relaxing while you are sitting and thinking about the things associated with driving an automobile.

      The other place to learn to relax on command is at the practice table. There are two methods I would recommend. First, scatter some balls on the table. Focus primarily on relaxing  and shoot several easy shots for ten to fifteen minutes. Use the word "Relax" and keep yourself as loose as possible. Remember,  making balls is not the objective. The intent is to stay  loose and focused.

      In the second practice method you need to create some tension and practice relaxing when you are uptight. I recommend using Olympic Nine Ball. See the accompanying article for details. This game can be played alone or in competition with others. In Olympic Nine Ball you attempt to make as many balls as possible in one inning and every shot is important. The competition is with yourself and you are continually trying to better your last performance.  The better you play, the more tense the game becomes. When you can play this game well, and can handle competing with yourself, you can compete with anyone.

      In the next column I will discuss the use of imagery as a technique for improving your game. It is another of those techniques that reduces competitive anxiety through focused attention and thus improves yours shooting ability.

other articles by Joe Waldron