When I practice, my performance level is almost always better than my play in tournaments. Obviously, the desire to do well when it counts—for myself and my team—creates that tiny bit of tension that gets in the way of playing to my abilities. I would suspect that I’m not alone with this problem. Now we (in the APA) are just out there having fun. You have competed at the highest level, playing against the best in the world, for your livelihood. How did you deal with the pressure and what advice do you have for us? Thanks. Cliff — San Diego APA Chapter
Tina’s Reply . . .
Thanks for the question, Cliff! Getting rid of nervousness mostly is accomplished from good old fashioned seasoning, just playing a lot of matches and as many tournaments as you can. That is why my playing on a semi-pro regional tour first, for as long as I did, really helped me. There is just no getting around good old-fashioned time spent in the heat of battle to get used to what that feels like. It was a combination of just playing a lot of matches and a few realizations I made along the way that ushered me along the path of getting to the point of pretty much not being nervous at all. I will share some of those realizations here with you today, and some general tips in the moment for dealing with nervousness.
Going to the bathroom!
This is the good old standby most will advise you to do when they notice you being nervous. Okay, that is all fine and well, I guess, and in my earliest days I did go try to “take a breather.” I would sit in the stall, trying to breathe, get my heart rate down. I’m not sure that this method helped me a good percentage of the time. It was what I learned later after the realizations I was having that allowed me to think about what I should be thinking to help me overcome my nervousness. I found that just going in there to get my heart rate down was fleeting, but once I was back at the table with the cue in my hands, it would invariably go back up again. This is a good place to start, but do not to stop just here.
Mental exercises during a match . . .
Do what you can while in a match to not get worked up. As I have said to some of my students, the way to play is to “not grieve over the missed shots, and not rejoice on the great ones.” What this means, especially if you watch me during League play, is that I stay as emotionally even as I can the entire match. I do sometimes “ham it up” with my opponent during APA League play, because when I play in this arena I am simply trying to have a good time. But mostly, you will see me adhering to my old practices when I was playing in the semi-pro and professional tournaments. When you miss [a shot], do not get mad or curse.
Indulge me as I veer off on a tangent for a moment and give this piece of advice: Use that opportunity while you are sitting down to go over in your head the true reason why you missed [that shot]. If you are a SL2 or SL3 and sometimes a SL4, the reason you miss most of the time is because you just aren’t good at making balls yet. But any person above that rating really needs to use the time after a miss to think about why you missed it. I just had this conversation with Jason Yeagst (SL6 in 8-Ball) at the Library a week or so ago. He was telling me how he lost his match after missing a straight in ball and gave the match away.
“What made you miss the ball?” I asked him, and he replied, “Oh, I don’t know, I just missed it.”
And I said, “No really, what were you thinking about when you were addressing the ball?” and he replied, “I don’t know.” I asked, “Did you make sure you got in line and addressed the ball properly?” and he said, “Yes.” So I let it go, and I started talking with someone else. About 5 minutes later Jason turned to me and said, “You’re right!” And I said, “Yes, of course!” “What about?” Jason went on to say, “I was thinking about something on the straight in shot. I was thinking about how I didn’t get the position I wanted to get on the next ball, so being a little angry about that, I just got down and shot it. I mean, it was straight in!” I smiled, “Hallelujah!”
A SL6 who missed a straight in shot. Should he have missed the straight shot? No. Let’s explore why he did, and why higher skilled players will miss these balls from time to time. So the tangent part (that we are still on) is that he missed because he was thinking of something other than just pocketing the ball. When you are standing before a shot, before you get down on it, you need to make all of your decisions about what you are going to do. What english to use or not, and visualize the path the cue ball is going to take to get to that destination. What happens is that sometimes we’ll get down on shots we aren’t sure of, such as you are not sure if after you hit the ball, trying to get position, if your cue ball will really hit the rail between those two balls to get position over there. You are afraid you will not draw the ball enough, or anything else that you have doubts about. Again, before you shoot the ball while you are standing, you have to have made a concrete decision before you get down. Fully commit to a plan that you are going to execute as you are standing. Do not make these decisions when you are down on the ball, because it was straight in. Indecision is what causes people to miss. Thinking of anything other than the shot at hand will make you miss. Make sure that when you are down, that shot is literally your world.
So even though I could write a couple of more thoughts about this, I will go back to the spirit of the post and off the tangent—the mental side of that shot.
Now, still on the Jason example, there is another reason he missed that shot. He was angry. He was perturbed he didn’t get the perfect angle he was aiming for. He has the ability to put spin on this ball and get there another way, that isn’t the problem. He could have gotten that same perfect shape on the next ball for sure! He missed this ball and the match because he was angry, and he took it for granted.
Keeping “even” as I was writing above is really exemplified by my conversation with Jason. If you do not allow yourself to get angry, you do not make the mistake Jason did. You will notice if you ever watch me play that when I miss, even if it is the case 8, that I just simply go sit down and wait for my turn. While I am sitting, I ask myself why I missed that ball. Sometimes it’s because I adjusted when I was down, because I didn’t think I was cutting it enough. So next time, I know that I will trust my fundamentals when I get down in line with the shot, that I am seeing it right, and not to second guess myself. I teach all my students how to address a ball properly, walk into a shot properly, and that there should only be the need to make the slightest adjustments while you are down. If you have to make more than just the slightest [adjustment], then you need to get back up and readdress [the shot]. Although I do this well, I am prone to some bad decisions myself at times. Because I take the time to constructively ask myself, “Why?” when I miss, instead of getting angry (which doesn’t help you at all), I am reminded next time to get up and readdress, instead of potentially developing a bad habit.
Other questions may include, “Did I feel out of line, and shot anyway?” or “Did that waitress that walked right in front of me distract me, and I shot anyway?” or “Was I worried that I was taking the wrong shot, but did not make a concrete decision to shoot it, no matter the outcome?”
I used to be an angry player. When I missed, I made sure that whoever was watching on the rail saw the frustration. It was like I was playing for them, that they needed to know missing that [shot] doesn’t happen that often (when it did!), and they should know I was frustrated about it. Phooey!! I learned over the years what those people watching think of you is fleeting, and will change day by day. I quit playing to impress the people after that. I was inspired to change this initially by watching now pro player, Louis Ulrich, play over 12 years ago. Even when he was a teenager, when he was playing, you could never tell whether he was winning or losing. If he was stuck 5K or up 5K, he looked the same sitting in the chair, during his match, gambling or otherwise. I recognized that is what it took to be a champion. It took me about two weeks to get out of the bad habit to wanting to make some sort of face either in anger or to the audience. I did it though, and it truly was transforming.
No rejoicing, either. What?!!
To stay even, you must also not get too happy when you make great shots. Many times people have watched me play and have seen me jump balls in during my match. It was a skill I learned out of necessity when playing in tournaments, and have been useful in a few of my APA matches. Those same people will also attest that they do not see me pumping my fist, or smiling or shouting a “woo hoo!” I shoot that shot, and then shoot the next shot. That is all. During a match, if you make a great shot, just keep shooting as if you made a ball straight in 4 inches from the pocket, and when you miss, sit down and calmly wait until your next shot, if you get one. If you lost the game because you missed a shot, own that, and go rack the balls. Remember it. Practice it later so it will not be a reason that you lose a game again. You do not want to be in a game situation in the next week of play and that same shot that you missed (the game clincher!) comes up again. I am not saying that every time you miss it’s because of something mental; sometimes you just miss. But if it was a truly easy shot [that you shouldn’t have missed], you need to ask yourself why. After a match is over, be really excited over a well executed shot and talk it over with your teammates—but only when the match is over!
Some realizations . . .
Nervousness, like any emotion, can be cultivated. When you realize you are nervous about something, you can either do all you know to squash it, or you can make it worse. Here are some ways to make it worse:
These are just a few of the ways that you can “cultivate” nervousness. If you sit and think to yourself how nervous you are, or talk to other people on your team while you are playing, you are not defeating it, but allowing it to take hold of you. Stop! Do not sit and think to yourself if you win this match you will win MVP, or your team will take over first, etc. This puts pressure on you to play when your whole perception of the situation should be different.
What I do is play the best I can shot after shot. If playing my best results in a win, then I win the match. I do not have the goal set in my mind that I want to “win this match.” I just approach the table and each and every shot the best way I know how, and execute it to the best of my ability. I have lost matches when I really played the best I could, and that is okay! I wholeheartedly congratulate [my opponent] on a job well done.
One of my pet peeves, when I am playing, is if someone is sitting in my line of sight as I am getting down to shoot either the 8 or 9-ball, and that person gets up and moves. Stay there!! What someone is doing is assigning value of a greater importance to those balls. To me, and to other higher level players, if I miss the 4 in the beginning of the game, I assume I have lost already. I always play—no matter who I am playing—if I miss, I lose. Moreover, when you are shooting (whatever level you are) and you say to yourself, “OMG, it’s the 8; God, I better make this!” you are creating or making worse the nervousness! Don’t do this! Treat shooting the 8-ball as calmly as when you shot the first stripe that started your inning.
I have had a lot of people say to me (especially my students) that I make them nervous when I watch them play. They are always wondering if they are taking the right shot, if I would approve, etc. First, I am usually not really watching you play. A lot of times I am just watching balls roll around and not judging anything. Even if I, or any other player/person you respect, were watching, you can’t be nervous here either.
It’s like a nightmare, isn’t it . . .
I used to get nervous when players that I respected a lot watched me play/practice when I was in the poolroom. One of the realizations I made is that I knew playing nervous didn’t help me. I sat there and just reasoned with myself. I knew I was missing balls that I would never miss because I was intimidated by them. I ended up just saying to myself, “This isn’t helping me. I am going to play like I know how, and in the end, I will play right, how I am supposed to. No more letting how I feel get in the way. Stop it now, and play through it.”
So I did, and it worked! I remember one of the first times this thinking worked for me. Keith McCready still lived in LA at the time, and I was playing at Hardtimes, LA’s premier poolroom. I was just warming up for one of their weekly tournaments, and he was sitting there talking to my friend near the table where I was shooting. I ended up breaking and running that rack before he walked away. He said to me, “I hope I don’t have to play you!” Boy, I can tell you the feeling I had hearing that from a legend was better than letting that nervousness get the best of me!
Lastly, before this article becomes a full length novel, I leave you with this. The last kind of epiphany I have had while playing this game came about 6 months ago. It was when I fully realized that I was missing some shots because of some sort of lingering doubt I had when I went to shoot them. This doubt could be either caused from nervousness, or indecision. I declared to myself when I felt any inkling of this at all, “Remove all doubt, and shoot this ball. Remove all doubt, and do it clearly.” I knew in all my years of experience how many times I missed because of these things, and I knew what they felt like even before a shot. Instead of now continuing to shoot it, I wait, take a deep breath, and shoot it as clear of mind as possible.
Please email me with your questions! I am happy to help you with any issues you may be having with the game or general questions.