Joe Waldron

The science of psychology has been studying how people learn for over 100 years. There are several theories about different types of learning and the principles involved. Pocket billiards is a complex sport that requires learning fine motor coordination, mental analysis of the configuration of balls, and the ability to concentrate. I hear players talk about various ways to learn to play. Some people believe that one must play for extended periods of time each day, often 6 – 10 hours. Others believe that one must play for money to truly learn the sport. Still other rely on the expert teacher. Possibly each of these have some utility for an individual. However, there are some specific guidelines from the science of psychology that could be useful if put into practice.

Regardless of what your friends tell you, the fine motor coordination required to aim and stroke a cue ball is best learn in short (30 minute to one hour sessions) broken up over no more than two to three periods in one day. The individual should not become fatigued and 90 percent of the shots are pocketed as intended. The player needs to setup easy shots and consistently make these three to five times in succession before proceeding to the next, more difficult cut shot. After 45 minutes the player should take a break for at least one hour before practicing again.

Spending more than 45 minutes tuning your fine motor coordination is a waste of time and can produce the reverse effect. Too much time at the practice table can damage your game. In a good training session you concentrate fully on developing coordination and aim. After 45 minutes have elapsed the player’s attention wanders and he or she begins to use sloppy technique. Long sessions lead the player to bang balls to get to the more interesting next shot. In addition, consistent training is often not used: The player begins to practice or use English, the rails, and hard or soft touches. All of the player’s concentration on every shot should be on aiming and stroking and not on any other aspect of the game.

The various aspects of the game need to be broken into components. There are bank shot, the use of English, controlling the roll of the cue ball, and other similar components. Make your own list of the important elements and tell yourself that you will spend 30 -45 minutes placing full concentration on only that aspect of the game. Do not let yourself be distracted by “interesting” bank shots when you are practicing the use of English.

Psychologists know that complex learning must be broken into small easily mastered tasks. Start your banking practice with easy banks, play the shot until it seems like second nature, then change the angle and practice again. Thirty minutes is sufficient. Any longer and your mind becomes fatigued and one of the first signs is that the practice is no longer interesting. When this happens, stop playing, take a break for thirty minutes. Let your mind rest and let that natural body learning distill and store the information learned. If you move immediately to another aspect of the game your mind does not have time to adequately integrate what it has learned into your memory banks.

Learning is best accomplished when the learner is comfortable and sufficiently aroused to be interested in the activity. Too much arousal only serves to add noise to the system and the mind cannot adequately benefit from the exercise. Playing for money and the distraction of playing with another person is not good: Learning is not nearly as efficient. As much as 75% of what could have been learned is lost through the interference of distracting stimuli. Have you ever heard of a professional sports player who learned to shoot baskets or hit baseballs by betting on each swing. The batter goes to a batting cage and learns in non pressure situations.

Learning to deal with pressure is indeed a part of the sport. It should be learned as a topic in itself, not as the way to learn to make cuts, banks, or position play. You will find that you will learn much more about pool and will improve your ability, if you predict your performance on each shot, analyze why the shot did not work, and then make the same shot five or more times. Pocketing the ball and sending the cue ball to within six inches of the predicted position on a repetitive basis is the way that you learn to control the cue ball. This type of learning is not possible under game situations where a shot cannot be re-played several times until it is made correctly. You haven’t learned to shoot the shot until you can place it in the pocket on five successive shots and you know that ball will be pocketed and the cue ball will stop at the location specified. Only then will you be comfortable enough with your own ability to try it under the pressure of a game situation.

If you enjoy the game so much that you like to play for four or five hours at a stretch then practice for an hour (two different drills), take a half hour break, play with a friend in a race to some specified number of games, take another break, then practice again for one hour.

It is your time and your ability. You can accelerate the learning curve by consistent, short practice sessions or you can bang the balls around on the table losing to some one willing to take your money.

Those who desire to truly improve their game will seek out books and other materials that contain specific training suggestions. Develop a list of favorites and stick with them until they are thoroughly mastered. Develop new drills that are interesting and always make sure that you make the ball 90 percent of the time. You learn the most from your successes, not from your failures.