389-Cristina-medBetween April and August, Las Vegas (more precisely the Riviera Hotel & Casino) is a Mecca for pool. Thousands of poolplayers and industry business owners from all over the world gather to be part of these grand events. I recently returned from what felt like a never-ending two week trip to Las Vegas. It made me reminiscent of my first visit to this insane city and my first experience with pool beyond the weekly league night competition. So, in the spirit of the upcoming National Team Championships, this month’s topic is about challenging yourself.

In my early APA days, I was a skill level 4 and was dating a guy who was a skill level 7. He was scheduled to play in the U.S. Amateur Championship qualifying rounds. Since I was going to be on the trip with him, I thought I might as well play too. Much to my surprise, I was one of only TWO women that were registered for that location, so naturally, I was happy to see that I only had to beat one girl to move on. Well…easier said than done. I played a girl who was a skill level 7 and when it was all said and done, I only managed to get one game on her.

It’s obvious that I was not “ready” to compete with her skill level, and arguably was not ready to compete in a tournament of that level. Many players like to stay in levels where they are comfortable. Maybe it’s the fear of embarrassment, or maybe thinking they may not be able to play at that level of pressure. Very often I hear people use the argument that they don’t have a chance to win the event, so why bother. While the statement that you, “don’t have a chance to win,” might be true in some cases, that should never deter you from stepping up to the plate and trying. Regardless, whether you win or lose you should learn something every time you compete. You can only grow as a player if you push yourself and go beyond your boundaries.

Shortly after I became a player representative for Predator and Poison Cues, I was invited to play in the Predator International 10-Ball Championships in Las Vegas. This was an international pro event that consisted primarily of professional male players, with a handful of females. Clearly I had zero chance of winning this event with champions like Efren Reyes and Ralph Souquet on the player roster. Having only competed in very few professional women’s events by this time, I had very low expectations and would be surprised if I won even one match. Surprisingly, I almost won my first match, but scratched on a 6-10 combination in the hill-hill game and ultimately my opponent ran out with ball-in-hand. But I felt confident going into my second match. That was until I realized that my opponent would be Santos Sambajon, Jr. That tells you how competitive the tournament was when I drew a top Philippino player on the one-loss side. Santos is one of the many players that I idolized, so I was understandably nervous playing him. I had plenty of embarrassing moments like missing easy shots or not remembering when it was my turn to break. But I also had some moments where I even surprised myself. In the end, I lost 11-8 but was very happy with my play and the experience I gained. This was the first time I played in front of such large, attentive crowds and the first time I had played against a male pro player.

Many people wait until they think they are “ready” to play in a big tournament instead of just jumping feet first any chance they get. I understand the reasoning behind waiting until you feel mentally ready and feel like your skill level is there, but I think it “wastes” your real chance at doing well. Let me explain what I mean by “waste”. If you wait until your skill level is there, you are still going to have those “oh my gosh” moments when you play a well-known player, in front of a huge crowd or on TV. And inevitably, you will not play your best because you will have all these other things factoring into your mental game. But, if you throw yourself in before your skill level is there, you will get all those nervous moments over with. And the next time you play a top name or in front of a big crowd in a crucial match, it won’t be quite as big of a distraction to your mental game.

Then, when your skill level has caught up with the level of competition you are playing against, you will have that seasoning that other players new to those tournaments or situations won’t have. And you won’t be “wasting” your real shot at doing well or placing in a bigger tournament.

Qualifying boards, regionals, masters divisions and play-offs (and everything beyond that) are an entirely different animal and come with an elevated level of pressure. Pushing yourself to explore all of what APA has to offer will help you advance your game at a more rapid pace. I don’t care if you think you are straight up DONATING in a tournament and have zero shot of cashing…if you can afford to play in it, make yourself play. This will do wonders for your game on so many levels. You can always learn from top players by watching them play, but you will learn so much more about yourself and your game if you play against those top players whenever possible.

By forcing myself to play in these types of events I was able to meet many of my personal goals. After that first U.S. Amateur Championship experience where I only won one game, I later won qualifiers in my area. Ironically, I’ve also played against that same skill level 7 that handed me such a brutal loss and beat her pretty decisively in another pro event. Sure you might feel completely stupid playing in a tournament, event or league that you think is above your level, but believe me, it will cure you of all nervousness in other tournaments. Well, maybe it won’t cure you of ALL nervousness but it will definitely put things into perspective.

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