With the National Team Championships quickly approaching, I’ve received several questions from players asking for advice on how to prepare for a tournament of this magnitude. While the particulars of what each player should work on will differ, the one commonality between most players is their inability to differentiate between practice and play. These two things have very different objectives and should be approached in different ways.
Before the Tournament
In the weeks leading up to a competition, you should focus on practicing a variety of things. And when I say “practice” I mean just that. Playing games and meeting up with your team to play against each other is not necessarily practice. What exactly are you working on? Did you improve in that practice session? If you are simply playing against friends with no structure, just for the sake of getting some shots in, then you’re not having a very productive practice.
Many players make the mistake of focusing on several things during this practice time and expecting to play perfect all around. This will not help you address specific weaknesses in your game. During each practice session you should pick one particular thing to work on and only determine your success based on that one objective. For instance, if you notice that you have a problem staying down on the ball during your stroke, pay the most attention to that particular thing during a specific practice time—don’t worry about the other stuff quite as much. If you work on one thing at a time, you can perfect your game better. With too many variables, it’s harder to determine what you’re doing wrong.
Your practice time should be divided into two types of practice: drills and competition.
By “drills” I mean anything that you set up yourself and try to execute, rather than playing games. Many players say they don’t like drills because it’s boring. The real reason most players don’t like drills is because it shows you how inconsistent you actually are at some shots and it’s frustrating. If you’re a player that gets bored with drills, try making a game out of it by doing progressive drills. In progressive drills, you’re not simply repeating the exact same shot over and over again, you’re making a slight variation to the shot each time—begin with an easy shot and move to the most difficult variation of that shot. Start with the easy and progress to the difficult—don’t stop until you can execute each of them without missing. If you miss a shot along the way, start over. This way you’re playing a game against yourself. Some examples of good progressive drills can be found in this publication by the San Francisco Billiard Academy: http://www.sfbilliards.com/progpract.pdf.
Practicing the competition side is very important. Some people are great players when they’re playing socially, but there are very different mental factors that come into play when you’re actually in competition. Sometimes when I haven’t played in a big tournament in awhile, I’ll enter a random tournament just to get used to the pressure again. While I don’t suggest that you run out and play in every event you can before Nationals, I do suggest that you set up some practice matches against friends or other teams to follow the same tournament format you’ll be playing in Vegas. I do this quite often before WPBA events. One of my weaknesses is staying focused throughout an entire set. So, I will often play races to 9 (like the WPBA format) against different players (one weaker, one stronger and one around my level) to get myself ready for the different mindsets.
Have your team set up a scrimmage against another team and play all the matches out in the exact way you would in competition. I know this sounds very similar to a regular League night, but League nights usually have a more social tone to them. If you do this completely separate, you’ll subconsciously place a little more importance on doing well and it’ll put slightly more pressure on you than a regular League night. Sometimes it’s hard to coordinate that many people so you as a player can practice against individual players in the same format that you would play them in a tournament. For example, find other APA friends and play individual matches against them with the same handicaps that you would use during a regular APA match. This will get you used to thinking in that “race” format and help you mentally prepare for playing against different skill levels.
This article by an instructor at the Cue-Tech Pool School is a great resource that first introduced me to this concept of practice vs. play: http://www.poolschool.com/doctor1.htm.
The Day of the Tournament
The manner in which you prepare on the day of a tournament is very different than what you do in the weeks leading up to the event. The day of the tournament, you’re no longer “practicing.” This is when you’re just warming up, getting acquainted with the tables, getting your arm in stroke and mentally preparing.
One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing players spar against each other during warm-up.
You usually have to challenge the winner and the winner stays on the table. This is a rather unproductive way to warm-up for a tournament. If you miss a shot, you don’t get to try the shot over again and correct what you messed up. And most importantly, you won’t get nearly as many shots in as you would if you were shooting by yourself. But, perhaps the most negative thing shooting against someone else can do for you is hurt your mental preparation. If you aren’t winning much, it can hurt your confidence. If you’re missing a particular type of shot a lot since you weren’t able to attempt that shot again until you figured it out, that might get in your head later when that shot comes up in a match. There are many reasons why this is just not a good idea for warm-up.
Of course sometimes it’s hard to find a table that doesn’t already have someone shooting on it. So, next time you want to warm-up for a tournament, ask the person already shooting on the table to just “trade racks” with you rather than play against you. This means you each get a turn to throw the balls out on the table and run them. This will allow you to practice particular shots that you might want to set up and you can re-shoot. I suggest that the first shot you take on any day when warming up is just a long, straight stop shot over and over again. Make sure it’s set up perfectly straight and then try to stop the cue ball directly behind where your object ball was. If you find that the cue ball is squirting slightly to the left or right, then you’re not hitting center ball on the cue ball and are most likely not stroking correctly. This drill helps you get your stroke in order before you ever start shooting anything else in your warm-up. Many times at tournaments you are tired or get lazy in your stroke because you’re playing at different times than you are used to or are just not focusing as well because of the atmosphere. This will help orient your stroke and develop a good habit before you start playing. After that, you can progress from just setting up other routine shots to throwing the balls out and taking a normal run-out. Don’t hesitate to set up a shot again if you miss it rather than just continuing to shoot from where ever the cue ball ends up. This keeps you from having that mental distraction of remembering missing the shot.
For higher skill levels, I would also suggest practicing breaking on the table you are going to play on before you play. Many times, the break is a key factor in whether you have the first control of the table—for 7s, 8s and 9s, it can make a huge difference. So know where the table breaks best from and which balls are consistently going in.
I know players get very excited about competing in any of the National APA tournaments and you want to do your best while you’re out there. While playing well is important, also try to remember that you’re in one of the most exciting towns in the world and you get to go there to play a game that you love. Pool is not a matter of life and death, so be sure that you don’t lose sight of the fun aspect of the tournament in your quest to win.