Joe Waldron

Playing the game in your head is one of the best ways to improve your pool playing ability! A rather amazing statement isn’t it. You have heard from several people that pool is a “head” game. It  involves mental discipline of several types, from emotional control to the skilled rehearsal of relaxed concentration. Studies from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke, a unit in the National Institute of Health has some real news for you. Studies from NIH are of particular interest and show how flexible the brain can be.

The latest technology in brain research allows scientists to construct maps of how the brain functions in different situations. For instance,  in one study it was demonstrated that the brain responds with astonishing speed to illness or damage. In simulations of brain damage conducted by cutting off the blood supply to the lower part of the arm it was found that the brain reroutes signals “within minutes.”

In another study researchers electrically stimulated the fingertips of blind and sighted people. The researchers then constructed maps of the brain signals. It was found that the part of the brain governing the Braille reading finger in blind individuals grew significantly larger than in their sighted counterpart.

What do these studies mean to the pool player? Apparently you should be able to teach your brain new shots, to play left handed, to calculate banks, and to learn many of the other elements of pool playing in a relatively short period of time. The key is to figure out exactly what is to be done and to practice the exactly correct way to do it. Of particular interest is the idea that, the more you play, the more of your brain you use. If  there is a large capacity for storing the brain control mechanisms for pool playing, it will easier to learn new elements of the game. Let me put it another way.

Probably one of the worst things we do when playing pool is to bang the balls around on the table. Recent studies suggest that  learning to play right is far more important than the number of hours at the table. The idea is to teach the brain new elements and then to practice these elements until they are second nature.

When banging balls we learn bad habits that actually make your game deteriorate. Every time you go to the table you should play as well as possible and concentrate on what was done right. The purpose of practice is to improve the brain’s ability to calculate the shot and resulting position. When you miss a shot, set it up again until you can make it flawlessly.  One of the functions of practice should be to find out which shots you do not calculate right and then to teach your brain to do it right. When you do find the “right” way for you to shoot, congratulate yourself, pause for a moment and bask in the self satisfaction of doing it right. You will be more likely to remember what to do right the next time if you remember what pleased you about what was done right.

One of the more astonishing findings in the area of brain research is the role of imagery. Pascual-Leone, a member of the same research group at NIH taught a five finger piano exercise to people who never played the piano. One group practiced daily for five days. Another group used the piano without training: They just tickled the keys for the same amount of time for five days. A third special control group was allowed to rehearse mentally, but could not touch the piano. The findings were astonishing.

Those who practiced the exercise and those who imagined the exercise had brain maps that were three times larger than those who simply tickled the ivories aimlessly. “The same cell networks involved in executing a difficult exercise are used in imagining it.” Mental tennis, mental chess, and mental pool playing are as effective as actual play.

These finding defy conventional wisdom in which we believe that practice makes perfect. No one ever says that imaginal practice makes perfect — but it does.

I suspect that an individual who took a few weeks to learn the exact physical movements involved in a pool stroke, aim, and follow through could actually play a better game after using imaginal practice than after real practice. The basis of this conjecture is that in the imaginal practice we do it right every time. In reality we do not pay attention to the correct things that we do: We look for mistakes.

This leads to a suggestion that is quite old in the psychology of learning but takes on increased importance in pool playing. To get to the point where one plays excellent pool it is more important to do things right than to do things wrong. We need practice sessions in which 90 percent of the shots are correctly pocketed. Set up your practice sessions in such a way that your brain knows what is right because you did it right nine out of ten times. The issue here is not confidence it is brain learning. I think that learning to play pool well is a multi-stage process.

Obviously one must be able to play well in order to compete and the first stage is teaching the brain what playing well is all about. We proceed from making balls, to banking balls, to learning speed control, to calculating angles of return. When the fundamentals are learned the next stage is entered — learning to control one’s emotions and to compete in stressful circumstances.

Recent research indicates that in the first part of your game the emphasis should be on learning techniques the brain can use at will. Surprisingly, the techniques can, and should, be practiced in your imagination. Imagining the correct way to play is just as important as actually playing at the table.

If you would like to accelerate your ability to play, set aside time to play in your head. Practice the shots and practice your emotional reactions, staying cool, not getting angry at yourself or the or the opponent. See yourself playing cool pool. Perhaps we could call it virtual pool. The nice part about this system is that you always win.