The other day I mentioned having trouble with holding focus during a match. I might have found a way, but I’m not sure I should happy with it. First, a little backstory.

I’ve been playing the same person on Fridays for a little piece of change over races 7 for a few months now. In the beginning I was up, but then we got even and then I found myself down by a bit. After last Friday’s matchup I joked about how we should just place a race to 21 for the amount I was down (lifetime total). She agreed. So we set to play the next day. We ended up cutting the race down (and the cash) to preserve time, race to 13 for half. We got started late and neither of us were playing well, so actually couldn’t finish the set. We were kicked out with a score 12-11, with her on the hill. Next week comes and since we couldn’t really decide what to do since neither of us wanted to play 1 or 2 racks for the dough, we decided to play a race to 9 for the same amount.

It’s important to note that just 30 mins prior I had lost my normal Friday league match pretty heavily; after being up 4-0 on my opponent, I lost 6-9. I wasn’t feeling terribly confident, but I couldn’t back down now. I had already made plans for us to settle this tonight. So we get started and I get the first game, then either she is totally not there or I’m just getting every roll there is (not slopping balls in, but just good bumps) and somehow find myself up 6-1 rather quickly. I end up winning the first set 9-2. After a little break, we decide to play a second set. After all, the worst I could is break even at this point; but I would LOVE to get even in 2 sets (considering it took me 6 sets to lose it).


She’s working hard this set and I’m starting to sense the ebb and flow of momentum swing in her direction. It’s hammered home when she gets up 4-1 on me. At this point, there has been a lot of youngsters on the jukebox and while I normally don’t mind whatever is being played, after a few hours of a particular style of music I don’t like, it gets under my skin. I decide to try something. I just that day received a new pair of earbuds and had only tried them out once to make sure they work. I haven’t ever practiced or played with earbuds before, so I was a little nervous about it. I put them in and the “noise cancellation” affect is brought immediately home. Suddenly, I hear nothing from the jukebox and of course, no outside conversations – nothing other than the surprisingly immense booming of my voice and the music being pumped into my ear canals (Tool mostly, with some Devin Townsend Band; satisfying both my creative and calming brains).

I make sure my opponent knows to signal me if there’s something they need to ask or tell me, and whenever she looks at me I pull out an ear to see if she needs anything. A few racks of this and I can really tell the difference in my mental game. Even when things aren’t going my way, I don’t lose my cool. For example, she gifted me a rack by missing the 9, but did leave it tough. I thin-sliced it down the rail but got a bad bump off the 10 and it sent my cueball 1 rail into the side pocket. Normally, I’d have lost it, instead I just stood there a few seconds and walked to the end rail to start racking.

This trend of being even keel continues and it starts to pay off. Soon it’s tied at 5, then I’m in the lead 7-6, then 8-6 then 8-7 and I finally win 9-7! I WON! Of course, I’m absolutely ecstatic, but also a bit sad on the inside. I have forever preached that players shouldn’t play with headphones, that I wouldn’t practice with headphones, that dealing with the noise in the pool room is part of the game, part of the mental training, etc. But here I am, resorting to headphones when I really need to concentrate – and having it work. I’d almost rather it didn’t, so I couldn’t be so tempted to pull them out again when things are going rough for me.

Still, it did. And it felt good. The thing I liked about it is the absolute separation from everything else. It forced me to play the table and ONLY the table. Not the opponent, not the old guys bitching a few tables down about everything and nothing. Not the youngsters jumping balls off the table, not the overheard commentary from the railbirds – just the table. And even when I wasn’t shooting, I was watching the game, focused entirely on the game, the table, the layout – watching her every move to make sure I don’t miss anything. Not being able to hear, I can’t afford to turn my head to another table and wait for the click of the balls to trigger me to turn around to see what happened. Then when I was at the table, I couldn’t be distracted by someone suddenly yelling, or hearing some complain about a roll or the latest news story or sports team failure. All I had in my head was the game in front of me.

THIS is the focus I’ve been after. This is the focus I need to bring my game up. While it didn’t magically gift me my “A” game, it allowed me to maintain my average “B” game even when I would’ve normally been giving my frustrated “C” game. Why am I unhappy with this as I said in the onset of this post? Because it forces me to rely on something other than my own mental strength. I don’t like that. I want to be able to focus like this because I say to myself “It’s time to focus on this match; let’s do this!” When I do that, it only works for a short time and I find myself questioning how intensely I’m focusing on the match. Trying to manually control how much I care, how emtionally invested I get. Trying to ride that distance between too much and not enough. Have fun but shoot the smart shot. That only works if I’m in the lead, I’ve noticed. If I’m down early, I have a hard time remembering that “have fun” part and instead just focus on how I need to play near perfect if I wish to get out of this set on the plus side. Which I recognize is not the best mental train of thought either. Thus begins the teeter-totter of hyper-focus and complete lack of focus; leading inevitibly to my demise.

So, what am I to do from here? Keep them as a last resort? I can’t wear them in most league matches, nor would I want to. Wear them during tournaments? Most tournaments around here don’t care if players wear them, but I wouldn’t want to miss a call of push-out or being told any number of important things because of them. Still, if I can find a way to help myself deal with all of the outside distractions, then why not use them? Most everyone else does these days anyway. I really wanted to be able to do this on my own.

Perhaps this is a stepping stone all players go through? When I play(ed) by myself frequently, I could really get into stroke and I played really well. Maybe the next step to learning focus is to learn how to separate myself from the environment however I can. Which would imply the next step is learning how to control that focus by exposure, leading [hopefully] to being able to call upon it without aid (aka headphones). I think I will keep them in my bag and see how the trend goes.