The Mental Game

Searching for Your Inner Mr. Miyagi

After 4 years of 2nd place finishes, I recently qualified to play in the U.S. Amateur Championships in Tampa, Florida. I was extremely excited, and was determined to be completely prepared. I bought a new shaft for my cue stick, I practiced 9-ball on our Ernesto Dominguez-prepared tables at my local poolroom (3.9 inch pockets!), and I was sure to get plenty of rest before my flight.

NOTHING was going to make me lose focus. I was Rocky, preparing for the big fight!

Unfortunately, the universe had other plans.

In the interest of saving space for this article, and to spare you the boring details, here is a summary: My flight was diverted due to hydraulic problems. The delay made me late for my connection, so the airline made other arrangements for me. Problems with the flaps on our new plane (seriously? 2 in-air problems???) caused us to land 30 minutes late, and I had to run to the next gate to catch my connection.

I made it, but my luggage (including my cue sticks) did not. I had to buy new clothes at Walmart at 1 am, and then got about 5 hours of sleep before I had to be up and out the door to make it to the venue. Fortunately, a friend loaned me his sticks (thanks, Dan!), and I was able to play.

My first match was at noon, and I did everything I could to mentally prepare for it. The players at this event were no slouches – they were 107 of the best amateur players from around the country, and I needed my head in the game.

Unfortunately, as prepared as I tried to be, the deck was stacked against me. 5 hours of sleep, itchy new clothing, and stress about whether my bags would arrive soon were just a few of the factors causing me to lose my focus in the game. And those of you who know me (personally, or through my other articles) know how susceptible I am to a meltdown under these conditions.

Somehow, I held my composure, even after falling down 6-2. My opponent was on the hill, and the last thing I needed was to lose my cool now. I had to focus.

And I did… for a bit. I ran out rack 9, 10, and 11. I was only down 6-5 now, and if I simply made the 1-9 combo I ended up with after the break, I would be breaking for the win! Then, I heard a whisper in the back of my mind:

“I just hope my sticks make it for my next match at 6pm! Will I be able to take a nap before then? I wonder if the food is any good at this place, I have heard the shrimp dish is excellent (it was). Oh, jeez, I’m losing focus. Come on, Michael, just make this shot. I know we’re tired, but we just have a little bit more to go. Just don’t miss, because then he’ll have an easy combo for the win.”

Crap. I missed.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I take full responsibility for losing my matches. There are many things that, in hindsight, I might have done to improve my chances. I could have taken an earlier flight. I could have sent my sticks via UPS or FedEx to the hotel. However, the bottom line is that I did not have the focus I needed in order to perform my best.

Pool is a very demanding game, especially in tournament format. It’s not just about being good enough to make balls and make the cue ball obey your every whim. Playing in a tournament is a marathon. You must somehow learn to focus yourself, to get into the zone as quickly and as often as possible, and stay there. You cannot let stray thoughts come in and disrupt you. When they do you must step back, clear the cobwebs, and get back into the game.

I wish I knew the secret to this. Even if I did, what works for me may not work for you. Next time you have one of those nights where you just could not miss, and everyone around you was in awe of your incredible mastery of the table (“dude, I can’t believe the rolls you were getting!”), try to remember your state of mind. What were you doing at the time? What did you eat? Whom did you talk to? What was on your mind?

Try to do that again. Baseball players and other professionals have a reputation for being superstitious, with their crazy rituals before games. For most of them, it is not about belief in the supernatural. It is a means for them to get into the zone, and gain laser-like focus.

I sincerely hope that you will be able to figu – hey look! A squirrel!

Good luck.

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