Practice and Preparation
To maximise your improvement in the competitive arena (whether in competition against your friend, in a local league match, at amateur representative level or in the professional game), your practice and preparation needs to be utilised in a way that will allow you to reach your full potential.
In my experience in the game, which amounts to in excess of 40 years, I have come across very few players who get everything possible from their practice and preparation. This is a worrying factor when you consider that the vast majority of your snooker playing time is spent on the practice table and not the match table!
In this area of practice and preparation, snooker lags a long way behind sports such as swimming, athletics and golf. There is no reason why this should continue to be the case.
Introducing some simple rules to your practice and preparation can offer significant improvement to your all round game.
Common faults for practice and preparation
Shown below are some of the faults I see when dealing with a player's practice and preparation. A suggested correction is shown underneath each common fault:
Fault Not getting the right balance between solo practice and competitive practice.
I would advocate approx. 30% of your total practice time should be solo practice. This may increase if you are working on technical changes following a visit to a coach. During your solo play you should be keeping things simple to work on your technical changes or using structured routines that help to build on your strengths and eliminate your weaknesses.
Fault Not getting a good 'mix' of competitive practice partners.
Your competitive practice (practice where you are playing against another player) needs careful consideration. You should seek to split your practice between players that are of a lower standard (use a handicapping system to keep motivation levels high if required), a similar or competitive standard and of a higher standard (to bring your game on through 'watch and learn'). A good mix of standards amongst your practice partners gives you the best chance to maximise your improvement.
Fault Not keeping a snooker diary.
The benefits of keeping a snooker diary can be far reaching. Writing down your thoughts on what went well or went wrong (in a practice session or match) for example, can help you to focus on the areas of game you need to work on in your next solo practice session. Another advantage could be that you are looking to find out why you have lost some form. Referring back to your diary over the last 6 months may pinpoint an area of your game that gives you a clue to what may be going wrong.
Diligently keep a snooker diary that captures your key thoughts and feedback from each match or practice session. There are no strict rules as to what you should record in your diary. It is a personal decision, but one that you should take with improving your game as the key driver. Use this diary to structure your future practice and make sure you are working on the areas of your game that will give you the greatest benefit.
Fault Not structuring your practice.
If you are preparing properly, you should turn up for your practice session knowing exactly what you will do and what you are hoping to achieve. This preparation should be carried out in conjunction with your snooker diary. For example, if a diary entry following a match highlights a poor performance in break building, then in preparation for your next solo session you should select a routine that you can work on to overcome this weakness. Your solo practice session should always be planned in advance.
Fault Not setting structured targets to increase motivation.
Using performance targets or 'goal-setting' can help to focus attention, help maintain effort and motivation, aid in setting action plans, can help people control their anxiety, will build self confidence and will allow player and coach to monitor progress and provide feedback. To get the most from objective or goal-setting you must follow some basic rules. Objectives must be SPECIFIC, MEASURABLE, AGREED, REALISTIC, TIMED, ENJOYABLE, REVIEWED (think S.M.A.R.T.E.R). Having the goal 'I want to become a better break builder' does not tick the boxes. The goal would be better for the pupil if it stated 'I will make a 70+ break in a competitive match before the end of January, 2008'. Once the objectives are set you can start to work on an action plan that will facilitate delivery of your objective.
Fault Poor concentration during practice sessions.
Like all disciplines, concentration can be improved with practice. There are many exercises you can do away from the table to improve your concentration, but as a serious snooker player you should not throw away the opportunity to practice your concentration afforded to you during your practice sessions. To get the most out of your practice sessions you must give them full concentration - as you would in a match. Failure to concentrate in practice will not prepare you properly for a match and it is during these periods of poor concentration that bad habits will creep in to your game. One hour of well structured practice with good concentration is better than 5 hours of unstructured practice with poor concentration.
Fault Not taking the same disciplines in to your practice that you will try to use in matchplay.
Ask yourself some questions about your practice. If you are truthful with yourself, you will learn a lot through this process. Is the saying 'practice makes perfect' actually true - or should it read 'practice makes permanent'? Do you prepare for your practice in exactly the same way as you prepare for a match? Do you concentrate in practice as you do in a match? Do you adopt exactly the same routine and habits in practice as you do in a match? Do you play your practice session with exactly the same tempo and rhythm as you do in a match? Ask yourself these and other similar questions and then answer this last question - why do you practice? This last question may take a few more 'why' questions to get to the inevitable answer - we practice to improve our play in the competitive arena (whatever that arena maybe - the local club or The Crucible). If we are practicing to improve our competitive matchplay, what do we think we can gain from doing one thing in practice and a different thing in a match?
Keep your practice and matchplay as close to identical as is feasible.
Fault Not making your practice realistic, i.e. not introducing consequence and pressure to your practice sessions.
Weall know that practice at times can seem a lot easier than matchplay. There are good reasons for this - namely, consequence and pressure. The consequence of missing in solo practice is usually negligible - you can just carry on regardless. In competitive practice there is also little consequence as the practice game does not really mean that much (to most people!). However, once you come to a match you are (or should be) desperate to win. All of a sudden the consequence of a mistake looms large. This introduces pressure which in turn affects your mind and, whether you like it or not, your technique - has your practice prepared for this?
It is not easy to bring these pressures to the practice table (there is no real substitute for match practice), but there are things you can do to help. In solo play when using routines you must discipline yourself to start an exercise again as soon as you make a mistake. This may not seem like much, but when you miss and have to start again and set everything up from the start it can become frustrating. This in itself can introduce consequence and pressure. Using objectives can also help. As you approach your target on a given routine you will start to feel pressure. This gives you the chance to learn how to handle it on the practice table before you get to the match table. For some people beating or losing to someone in competitive practice can be pressure enough. For others you have to think of some way to introduce consequence and pressure to these practice matches (forfeits for the loser for example).
Fault Not preparing for any instance that may occur during a match.
In readiness for a match you must be mentally prepared for whatever may get thrown at you. Opponents form (good or bad), luck (good or bad), conditions, distractions, the referee, your confidence, changes in strategy, two frames behind, two frames in front, you miss the first red by a country mile etc. - all these scenarios (and any other unforeseen circumstances) have to be faced at one time or another - and you must be prepared for them. The preparation you have will again be a personal choice. One key thing to remember is that a number of the examples I give above are not within your control. Learn to accept this and you will have learned a valuable lesson. Good preparation should mean that any given event is not going to divert your mind from your goal of winning the match in whatever fashion is required. Lose your mind and losing the match usually follows as sure as night follows day!
Aim to replace your faults with some of the suggestions I have outlined above and you will almost certainly see improvements in your all round play (match and practice).