What is the value of doing drills, and how can it be better than practicing through normal play or just running balls?
Drills can help you efficiently use practice time to develop specific skills that can help you improve your overall game the most. Structured practice working toward specific goals can be very effective. If you look at any top professional athlete in any sport, they pretty much all do drills, working hard on developing and improving specific skills. Professional pool players (or anyone hoping to improve) should do the same.
If you just run balls, you will not work on the full range of shots that might come up in competitive game situations, and you will be spending more time on the stuff you do well rather than on the stuff that needs work.
The Video Encyclopedia of Pool Practice (VEPP) is an excellent resource, providing structured and well-designed drills to help one develop and improve every skill important in top-level pool.
See also: how to improve.
I believe there are several different ways to look at drills.
First off, I think you can look at drills as an end in themselves. Work the drills and learn variations on a standard — maybe like playing “Chop Sticks” on a piano. A drill can show you how minor riffs can produce divergent outcomes — selection of speed and spin all dramatically changing what the balls will do on any given shot — similar but different.
Second, some people need a little structure to maintain their interest while practicing. IOW, the drill is an overt tool to help maintain focus. One guy likes the treadmill, the other likes an outdoor run. One guy can practice 9ball or 14.1, the other likes drills, but they both want the benefits of the exercise. And for these folks, drills are a great little game of solitaire to strive and measure their performance against.
Personally, I think the most valuable way to look at drills is like a Zen koan. The drill is just a vehicle to get you inside your game, your mechanics, your stroke, your mind. This is also the toughest way to workout. You are not only working on the aggregate shots and required positional plays of the drill, you are also seeking to achieve a mental state wherein you can become introspective about your choices, mechanics, and stroke. There’s the real payoff.
Doing fundamental drills will “groove” your stroke. Without a repeatable, straight stroke, all else is nothing more than a crap shoot.
Doing pocketing drills will increase your confidence and ability in making balls. It will also show you which shots are low percentage for you.
Doing pocketing drills combined with positional drills will increase your confidence and abilities in pocketing and positional play.
Playing the ghost will enable you to take your individual skills and combine them. It will teach you pressure. It will teach you how shots tie in together. It will teach you the best routes to take to make things as simple as possible.
Doing drills will enable you to set up the same shot, and see exactly where you had a problem with it. Is it a shot that you feel you should make most of the time, but in reality you actually make less than 50% and didn’t even realize it?
In any case, drills, or playing the ghost, will do you little good if your goal is just to perform the drill a set number of times. The drills are to reinforce your muscles and your subconscious on how exactly to perform it. So that under pressure, you will perform as you trained. During drills, you should be paying very close attention to details. ALL the details, so you can actually learn something and improve.
To those that think drills are a waste of time – good luck with that. Don’t be surprised when in 10 years you find out you aren’t much better than you are now.