We’ve all done it.  Finally made it through the field of players to at last face your own personal quest opponent.  This opponent is stronger than you, wiser than you and the well known favorite to win by a landslide.  You talk yourself up to the table for the first break. Focus on the break, you want to deliver a thunderbolt, letting your opponent know you’re there for a reason and that they should be scared.  You pull back and fire off your canon…. *tink* the cue ball goes flying across the entire pool arena and everyone is now staring, snickering and shaking their heads all wondering just how in the world you ended up in the finals.

Okay, so maybe we all haven’t done that, but the story is the same: we find ourselves in a high-pressure situation and as we focus on every little thing to ensure our game is at it’s absolute best, we produce some of the lowest quality playing we’ve ever seen.

“We call such failures ‘choking’, if only because a person frayed by pressure might as well not have oxygen.”1

I stumbled across a group of three articles this morning all of which reference the same study and each has its own extra little input which makes reading all of them that much more valuable.

1) How Science Can Save You From Choking

2) The SuperStar Effect

3) How to Think Under Pressure

The bottom line that is most important is that pressure will natually force us to focus on the small details during our performance, which in turn will degrade our performance.  It’s contradictory actually.  One would think that focusing on the small details that make a perfect stroke (pool or golf) would enhance our performance.  And in beginners, it does, but in advanced players, such detail-oriented thinking interrupts our own muscle memory and derails our body’s now-natural performance; thereby causing a slice or miscue upon stroke delivery.

The answer: don’t focus on mechanics, instead use a key word.

Remember the movie Tin Cup? Kevin Costner’s character actually did this.  Just before his swing he said “Dolla Bills”.  That was his brain’s keyword to start the muscle sequence he had ingrained into his body for all the years of his training. 

There’s a semi-regular at one of the halls I frequent that also has an audible keyword.  Upon every stroke of every ball this man makes a kissing/sucking noise, as if he’s working on a lemon-drop candy.  He’s a very good shooter, but I would imagine his method would drive some of opponents crazy.

I have a tournament in 10 days and I’m very happy to have found this article as I was beginning to worry about how I would handle these situations, since I can feel my brain start to focus on mechanics under pressure, which leads to missed shots (see my previous entry The Elusive 8-Ball for a perfect example of this).

I’ve heard time and time again that when things aren’t going right, “focus on your fundamentals” – but this article suggests that’s the wrong thing to do.  I’m hoping that during the next week I can sort out when to go back to basics and when to ignore them.  I also need to come up with a ‘cue word’.