FAQFAQMental Aspects in Pool and Billiards

... how to deal with and be aware of the mental side or mental game of pool.

Dr. Dave's answers to frequently-asked questions (FAQs), mostly from the AZB discussion forum


for more information, see The Compete Instructional Works of Tom Ross - Volume II: Mental Aspects
and Joe Waldron's collection of articles dealing with the mental side of pool

The book "Pleasures of Small Motions: Mastering the Mental Game of Pocket Billiards" by Bob Fancher
also provides great coverage of the mental side of the game. Important messages from the book:
- Focus on and enjoy the process, and focus less on the goal.
- Do not try to deny your fears. Acknowledge and accept them, and do your best
to address and manage them (e.g., by being awarewith and taking deap breaths).


changing bad habits

What can I do to change a bad habit I've had for years?

Here's a good article on this topic.


"choking" - how to help prevent

What advice do you have for trying to prevent choking?

Think before you shoot. Don't think when you shoot ... just focus and execute. Also: breath, especially if you are nervous ... in which case you should take several deep breaths before each shot. Also, here is a good article discussing choking and how to prevent it:

Competitive Anxiety


"dead stroke," and being in the zone

What does it mean to be in "dead stroke" or "in the zone?"

from JoeW:

The zone that most people try to describe is a state of altered consciousness more commonly known as self hypnosis in which the person is intensely focused, unaware of the environment and relaxed. For the most part they are thoroughly immersed in the topic and are non-judgmental. It is generally a very positive state in which the subconscious is directing most of the behavior.

You have been hypnotized many times. When you "get lost" in a good TV show or a good book. Someone calls your name and you don’t answer. They call your name again, louder and you say, "Sorry, I heard you but I wasn’t listening." This is self hypnosis or the zone. A rose by any other name …

Contrary to some comments, intelligent, creative people are good subjects for hypnosis. Once learned, or over learned, the person can drop into or out of the state at will. Usually a triggering mechanism such as tapping one’s non-dominant foot can be used as a trigger.

Watch Reyes or Deuel when they are in a match. Notice that each man is extremely loose and seems to be nonchalant as they walk around the table. This looseness is indicative of a person who is "lost" in the moment. Some might call it a form of the zone – lite zone if you will.

To some extent the zone is made out to be nearly a mystical state that is sought but unobtainable with intent. This is not true and you can see a light zone in these two players if you watch closely when they are on about the third ball in a run.

The trick, if there is one, is that to get in the zone one must be non-judgmental (about self) and yet have the ability to analyze a table and then allow the body / subconscious to make the shot. For most people this means coming in and out of the zone as each shot is analyzed. This can be done but requires some effort.

It is better to over learn table analysis and then allow the subconscious to conduct the analysis and never leave the zone while playing. This takes a considerable amount of "trust" in one’s self and is therefore difficult.

If you watch the pros mentioned you will also see that they usually sit quietly on the side lines waiting for their next turn. In essence they are not doing anything that will pull them from the edge of this altered state of consciousness that is so helpful to excellent play. They are not robots but are using a different way to be aware of the world.

BTW, for those who think the sub-conscious is bunk, explain how your conscious mind calculates the cue ball return. I submit that you cannot tell me what you tell your muscles to get the X power to move a ball Y distance after it hits a rail with Z amount of side spin. These calculations are made by your subconscious. Simply put, you do not know how that side of you does it, but it can do it amazing well for a part of the mind that does not use language.


from JoeW:

I was out playing awhile ago and it occurred to me (partially based on the conversation here) that I often have something like a verbal dialog in my head when I think through a shot or series of shots. I guess that some people would call it "thinking" about a shot. I decided to try and stop "thinking" at least in words and just look at the shot and the next two balls (in a 9-Ball game) then shoot.

This technique seems to help with positional play. The subconscious seemed to have more control over the process. Now I wonder if some elements of playing in the zone or in dead stroke use this non-thinking cognitive process to play.

I suspect that it is worth a try for any who are interested. Try to just look at the table and the shot with no verbal dialog in your head. I do not have a good way to describe the process. It is something like being an observer of your own actions. I was surprised, first by the better than expected position on the next shot and next by the idea that twice (in about 20 shots) I played well to a position on the table that I would not normally play.

I also noted that the subconscious is better at deciding cue tip placement than my thoughts on the matter. I am too picky about the exact spot. The subconscious seems to be more aware of muscle control and tip placement as a unified concept. If I just let it happen the position was better. The subconscious also seems to be better able to compensate for squirt and throw. I did notice that my eyes tend to look more at the table and track where the cue ball will go. Perhaps this is where the "see the nap" idea comes from. When I "think," I seem to be more focused on the lines and the angles.

In 30 minutes I have stumbled on a way to play that seems to be quite a bit better than my usual way. Of course any new technique produces an immediate good effect. This is known as the Hawthorn Effect for those who may remember from Intro to Psych class. None-the-less, the non-thinking routine does seem to enhance my game and may be a precursor to the zone.

From what I know about hypnosis, letting go of verbal dialog is definitely part of the process so it should help to set up or maybe even induce some sort of flow or zone like behavior.


knowledge can be useful, but you still need skill

What is the difference between "knowledge" and "skill," and do they go hand in hand?

To me "skills" are things like: accurate and consistent aiming and alignment, a straight and consistent stroke, accurate and consistent speed control, ability to consistently generate power and accuracy with the break shot, ability (not knowledge) to execute skill shots like jump and massé, etc.!!! Skill comes easier to some people based partly on natural abilities (good 3D perception and visualization, good eyesight and vision, good eye-hand-coordination, good fine-motor control, etc.). But "skill" comes mostly from putting in lots and table time working on drills, practicing, playing, and shooting thousands of shots. A good instructor can also help a person work on and improve their skills. "Knowledge" can help some people develop some skills "faster" because "knowledge" can help somebody practice more efficiently, and better see and understand certain trends and ball reactions. A knowledgeable instructor can also help with providing this sort of insight. Also, with knowledge, some skills can be learned the "right way," possibly helping to reduce wasted time, frustration, and loss of confidence.

To me, "knowledge" includes stuff like: knowing the recommended "best practices" for technique (e.g., stroke mechanics); understanding the basic principles of position control (90° rule, 30° rule, think 3 balls ahead, leaving angles, cheating pockets, coming into the line vs. crossing a line, etc.!!!); understanding the basic principles of english (what type of english to use on different shots, the effects of outside vs. inside english, how to use english effectively with rail cut shots, the effects of squirt/swerve/throw and how they vary with speed, angle, and spin, and when these effects can help you and knowing how to compensate for them when they can hurt you, what back-hand-english is and when it works and when it doesn't, etc.!!!); knowing about all of the creative options that exist in different situations (e.g., knowing all of the ways to play safe and when, "seeing" carom and billiards opportunities, knowing when and how to use kiss-back and double-kiss shots, etc. !!!); knowing how to aim kick and bank shots and knowing how to adjust for the effects of speed, spin, angle, distance, conditions, outside vs. inside cuts; knowing how (even if you don't have the skill or physical ability) to execute various types of "skill" shots (proper jump shot technique, how to aim massé shots, how and when to use after-collision massé, understanding when and how to use quick-draw, etc. !!!); etc. !!!

I have met some players with incredibly "skill" who didn't "know" that squirt can vary from one cue to another, or that throw exists and that it is more for a stun shot than with a follow or draw shot, or how to control the CB with a rail cut shot by hitting ball-first vs. rail first, or that maximum slow-roll CB angle-deflection occurs with close to a half-ball hit, or how to aim two-rail and three-rail kicks using the Plus-2 and Corner-5 systems, or how spin-transfer affects bank shots, or how to aim a massé shot, or how elbow-drop affects a draw shot, etc., etc., etc.!!! This is important "knowledge."

Having said all of this, "knowledge" cannot make you a better pool player if you don't put in time to develop the "skills" necessary to apply the knowledge. However, "skills" can sometimes be developed more quickly and with less frustration if a person has more knowledge. Now, once a certain level of "skill" has been achieved, knowledge can still help that person improve (e.g., by learning about advanced strategy you might not appreciate, or by learning how to make certain types of shots you still might not be aware of, or by better learning how and why you might be missing certain shots, etc. !!!).

In summary, everybody can benefit from "knowledge," regardless of their "skill" level, if they are open-minded and appreciate the value of the knowledge. However, some people will always have the mentality: "If you don't play 'better' than me right now, how can you teach me anything?" These people probably can't benefit from new knowledge, because they think they already know everything.


general advice

What is some good general advice about miscelaneous pool and billiards topics?

See general advice.


learning mental control

How can I learn to improve my mental control?

Articles from Joe Waldron related to this topic can be found here.


learning vs. intuition

Are "intuition" and "knowledge" related?

from Patrick Johnson:

Your intuition (your "feel") doesn't just appear magically, you have to build it - and building it by learning and applying knowledge during practice (infusing experience with knowledge) is the most efficient and effective way.

from mikepage:

Some people insist they learn only by practice (repetition) and feel they are doing something fundamentally different from someone else who practices and also tries overtly to understand what is going on. I believe they are not doing something fundamentally different.

Here is my view of how we learn things. When you say to yourself, 'ah, I remember this shot,' or 'I know how to hit this,' or 'I need to hit this shot hard on this table to get around three rails,' think about where this 'intuitive' knowledge comes from. It comes from experience for sure. It comes from remembering things that have happened before in similar situations. But how do you go about 'remembering' the right things?

When you hit a ball and get a certain result (say the cueball rolls a certain distance) just what is it that you remember about the experience. I'm not talking about a conscious remembering, I'm talking about the development of intuition. Do you remember what you were wearing? Do you remember the day of the week? Do you remember who you're
playing? Do you remember what music was playing? Do you remember who's at the table next to you? Do you remember whether your shoes feel tight? Do you remember whether you're thirsty? Do you remember whether the balls are shiny? Do you remember whether you got to bed early the night before? .... There are countless potential pieces of information to catalog when you shoot that shot, and somehow in time we start to catalog many of the right things.

This process of learning *what* to catalog is about building a model of the situation. To separate the reams of (possibly) useless information from the useful information, we must create models of the world around us. This is not just what the analytical types do, this is what *everyone* does. It's the way we establish our world view, our concept of reality. When we get a feeling a table plays fast, there are definite characteristics of a physical model that are implied. It's implied that there is a "table speed" that is characteristic of all shots on that table that day. It's implied that soft-hit shots and hard-hit shots are both affected similarly. It's implied that the "speed" across the table is the same as the "speed" up and down the table. It's implied that if the cueball rolls fast, the object balls roll fast too, and on and on.

Some of these models we develop on our own; others we get from other people. A model can be wrong and still be useful in a practical sense. The model that the earth is flat is useful for compiling information and developing intuition so long as we don't travel too far. In pool, the model that to get draw, you have to accelerate through the ball or have a long follow through are for the most part useful--or at least not harmful.

The difficulty comes when you try to extend your knowledge to new situations. If your model is not consistent with the results, you won't catalog the right things, and learning will be retarded.

Here is an analogy: Take someone who has never driven a car
before--someone from a remote jungle tribe who had never even heard of a car. Give him a rear-wheel drive vehicle and let him drive in the snow and ice for thousands of hours. Don't let him see the car from the outside at all or even know it has wheels, let alone how many. In time he will get very good at not getting stuck and at figuring out what he can get away with and what he can't. He will learn how to steer when he starts to skid in order to best regain control. He will learn by doing and develop an intuition. He also will, necessarily, have developed models that go along with this intuition. And those models will fit his experience pretty well.

Now, give this jungle tribesperson a *front wheel drive* vehicle. The person will have a hell of a time. Things won't seem to work right, but it won't make any sense. Thing'll just seem all screwed up. His models will be useless. Learning about the new situation will be very difficult.

*IF* however, his model of the situation--from the beginning-- involved understanding the first car was rear-wheel drive, and that steering involved the front wheels, and if the person had this context while developing intuition and skills in the first place, then it will be much easier for him to extend his intuition to the front-wheel drive situation, where you have to steer in a different direction and do different things when you start to skid.

This is my long winded way to say that learning things about the physics of pool and about squirt and swerve, etc--for those of us who like to do it--just contribute for us to the development of our models that are inextricably linked to the development of our intuition. You can learn to play pool very well without making any overt effort to understand what's going on. [Stay inside the car if you want to] But all else being equal, you will be better off the more effort you put into understanding what is going on.

physics "understanding" sometimes provides useful insight

How can physics analysis and understanding help my pool game?

The purpose of the physics analyses and discussions isn't always just to help make your game better. Often, it is just to help develop a better understanding of what is going on with the physics. Now, sometimes that improved understanding can help lead to insight and technique advice that can help at the table. Two good examples are the 30° rule and squirt, swerve, and throw effects. In both of these cases, the insight gained from the physics can go a long way to helping people develop and improve faster. Also, for some people, understanding can help improve confidence. Anytime one can back up intuition with understanding, one will usually have more confidence. That way, when one gets down in the stance, one can better focus on confidently executing the shot, without having to subconsciously doubt one's intuition.

Now, top players who have perfect intuition don't need to "understand" the 30° rule peace-sign technique, or how to achieve maximum throw, or the effects of inside vs. outside english, or rail cut-shot physics, because they instinctively know all of this stuff based on intuition and confidence built from years and years of successful practice and play. They "just know" where the balls will go on every shot. However, for everybody else, a little knowledge, understanding, and insight can help one improve faster and have more confidence.

Regardless, nothing beats endless hours of purposeful practice and successful experience. And even with knowledge and understanding, lots of practice time is still required to create the intuition and feel necessary to apply the knowledge and understanding. However, this doesn't mean that knowledge and understanding is a bad thing. For the many people who don't have the desire or ability to dedicate a large percentage of their life to table time, the knowledge and understanding can help them progress faster and be more efficient with their limited practice time. For the few people who are able to dedicate enormous amounts of time at the table, the knowledge and understanding aren't as important because they will develop an intuitive feel for everything as the Game teaches them, assuming they don't have extreme technique flaws and/or gross misunderstandings that limit or dramatically slow their development.

Another important point is that knowledge and understanding should not cause you to over think a shot. More importantly, one should definitely not be thinking during a shot. However, it can sometimes help a lot to think before a shot. Intuition and feel created by countless hours of purposeful practice and successful experience also helps.


Is there anything wrong with not understanding pool physics?

No, but sometimes it can cause misconceptions and lead to many pool myths. Here are some classic examples where people sometimes have "physically incorrect" thinking but get the desired results anyway:

1.) "On a break shot, aim and hit the CB below center to squat the rock." To park the CB in the center of the table on a power break shot, the tip must actually hit the CB slightly above center; although, with elbow drop common with a power break, one must aim below center so the tip will end up hitting slightly above center (see BU break advice video).

2.) "To get good draw action on a straight shot, you need to elevate the cue." This is completely wrong, but it might help some people get more draw. One reason is that some people don't aim low enough on the CB, or they drop their elbow during the stroke into the ball. By elevating, they might be getting a lower effective tip position due to the downward angle of the cue (see cue elevation tip offset illustration), and the elevated stroke might change the timing of their elbow drop. For more info, see the cue elevation effects resource page.

3.) "The type of stroke directly affects the action of a shot." In reality, all the CB "cares" about is the hit (cue speed, tip contact point, and the direction of the cue at contact with the CB). For more info, see the stroke "type" and "quality" resource page.


Good shooters don't think about phsyics when they play. Why should I try to learn or understand this stuff?

Does a good shooter:
- hit low on the CB when you want to draw it back?
- roll the CB when you want it to follow forward at the natural angle?
- stun the CB when you want it to head in the tangent-line direction (e.g., for a carom shot)?
- use sidespin to throw the OB of the line of centers when necessary?
- cut frozen combos in different directions to throw the 2nd ball in a wide range of directions as necessary?
- elevate the cue to jump or massé the CB?
- adjust your aim for throw when necessary (e.g., with a slow stun shot, or with a slow, extreme outside english shot)?
- use inside, outside, natural, and reverse english when it is most appropriate for a given shot?
- etc!!!

If so, then he or she is "considering" physics. One might not be considering it consciously or thinking about the math behind it (which would be silly at the table), but one does make decisions based on an intuitive and experience-based understanding of all of the physics (whether one admits or is aware of it or not).

Now, one should not be doing any of this thinking or decision making while one is down on a shot, ready to shoot. If one does this, one probably won't be an effective or consistent shooter:

Think before your shoot ... not during.

For people who don't yet have complete understanding from countless years of successful practice and experience, improved understanding and knowledge can help speed the learning process, limit frustration, and improve effectiveness at the table.

Many examples of how phsyics-based knowledge and/or understanding can be useful at the table can be found on the Top 100 Tips, Tricks, "Secrets," and "Gems" resource page. Many of the techniques on this page are based on "physics." Do you need to take a physics class or learn complicated math to use this stuff at a table? No! But a little "understanding" and/or "intuition" can go a long way. You also need the skill necessary to apply your knowledge (see knowledge can be useful, but you still need skill).


from Poolplaya9 (in AZB PM):

Your arguments for the benefit of the correct physics knowledge seems to essentially be that it can shorten the learning curve and improve confidence. As food for thought, I think there are a couple of other benefits which I can't recall having seen addressed anywhere.

We know that our subconscious figures most of the physics out (given enough experience) even if our conscious mind doesn't know the physics, otherwise we would miss a lot more. But I strongly suspect/believe that whenever the knowledge that your subconscious has is in conflict with the beliefs of your conscious, it will lead to more errors. The subconscious is certainly "dominant" and overrules the conscious belief the vast majority of the time, but the conscious creates enough "static" or "interference" or has enough influence to overrule or hinder or disrupt the ability of your subconscious to do its job enough to cause it to fail more often than it otherwise would have if you had the correct conscious beliefs it wasn't having to deal with this conflict in knowledge. I'm writing this quickly so hopefully that made enough sense.

In others words, using made up but illustrative figures, your subconscious is going to do the correct physics calculations for a shot 98.5% of the time even when you have incorrect beliefs about the physics involved in the shot, but when your beliefs about the physics involved are correct your subconscious will make the correct calculations 99.8% of the time because there is no conflict that can interfere with or muddy the waters of your subconscious. I believe this premise likely holds true at all levels, including pro, and think this may be one of most important advantages of knowing the correct physics.

While not nearly as certain, I also think it may be the case that certain physics involved in the game may never be fully and adequately learned by your subconscious, with one of the reasons being that the specific physics involved were never isolated enough for the brain to fully recognize and comprehend their impact due to the complexity of all the other variables involved.

So I think it may be possible that your subconscious will never learn certain things quite as well as it would if you had the correct conscious knowledge of the physics involved, and am more certain that your subconscious (which is most responsible for how we execute shots) will be more prone to error when it has to deal with conscious beliefs which are in conflict with what it has determined. Again, hope that all made enough sense the way I quickly typed it out. It is mostly just food for thought in case you feel there could be anything to it and hadn't considered it before (highly unlikely and it could be that one or both of these are part of what you are talking about when you refer to the potential benefit from increased confidence), but I also welcome comment if you feel any comments are in order.


technical knowledge is not enough

Can knowledge alone make somebody a great player?

Obviously not. Knowledge alone is not usually a deciding factor in a match between two really good players. They already know what they need to know to be top players (i.e., they already have lots of "knowledge"). Knowledge doesn't make somebody a good player, but it can dramatically speed up the learning process for many beginner to intermediate players. For example, if someone learns the 30°-rule peace-sign technique, he or she will immediately know where the CB will go for many shots. The alternative is to spend years building intuition to serve as a substitute for the knowledge. Most top players "just know" where the CB will go; but most beginner and intermediate players don't know, and they can benefit from the knowledge.

I remember when I first started using english many many years ago, every once in a while I would miss a shot even though I was sure I hit where I was aiming, and I would be shocked that I missed the shot. In hindsight, I think I missed many of those shots because I didn't fully understanding or have good intuition of the effects of squirt, swerve, and throw (especially throw, when playing on bar tables where the ball conditions were less than ideal), or I wasn't experienced enough to make better decisions concerning when and how english should be used. I personally think many players (at all levels) can benefit from improving their knowledge and understanding of the game.

Now, to get to the point where you can consistently run racks, you need to have lots of skills that can come only with lots of practice and play. To consistently run racks, one needs a repeatable stroke, great visualization and aiming, great speed control, good planning, good judgment, good mental focus, determination, etc! "Knowledge" and "understanding" alone do not provide these things.


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