Trust me, this is not another Mosconi Cup editorial! There may be a few references to the transatlantic team tournament, but they will only offer perspective in a much larger picture.
This is about pool’s future in the United States. Events like the Mosconi Cup (that didn’t take long, did it?), the Atlantic Challenge Cup and various international competitions merely offer a measuring stick of sorts.
Much has been written about the level of play in the U.S. relative to the level of play currently being displayed in Europe and Asia. It is not a stretch to say that the U.S. is lagging behind Europe and Asia when it comes to the overall talent pool. One has only to look at the various world championships and large international tournaments to see the growing divide. Aside from Shane Van Boening, American players are rarely among the final four, or even eight, competitors.
And the chasm appears to be even greater when you look to the future. Asian and European players absolutely dominate international tournaments at the junior level. The Atlantic Cup Challenge, a team event pitting junior players from the U.S. against junior players from Europe was embarrassingly one-sided in 2016.
Okay, another disclaimer: This is not an editorial bashing young pool players in the U.S.
On the contrary, I am now of the opinion that the margin of difference in pure talent between the U.S. and the rest of the world is actually very small. The game at the junior level in the U.S. simply needs to be harnessed, organized and prioritized.
Three relatively recent experiences have me hopeful that the U.S. will soon be, at the very least, on equal footing with Europe and Asia in the pool world.
In December, then-captain Mark Wilson produced a send-off party of sorts in St. Louis for Team USA ahead of the Mosconi Cup. Prior to Team USA’s exhibition at the Ballpark Village, Wilson organized an eight-team tournament, with top prize being a trip for all five team members to the 2017 Mosconi Cup in Las Vegas. Several of the teams were stacked with talent, including former Mosconi Cup player Jeremy Jones, Robb Saez, Shane McMinn and more. One of the teams was a five-player squad of college students from Lindenwood University, which has a billiard program run by Wilson. Undaunted, these relatively no-named college kids took on one loaded team after another and sent them all home. The takeaway for me was that these kids were being properly coached in an organized and regimented environment. Fundamentals, proper competition, responsibility. The Lindenwood students are learning the game in an environment that does not measure ability by the size of your bankroll.
Meanwhile, at the annual Derby City Classic, an event that not only measures ability by bankroll size, but encourages that measuring system, some of America’s top young professional talent was on display. Skyler Woodward, Justin Bergamn, Josh Roberts and Billy Thorpe were just a few of the young hotshots testing their skills against the world’s top players. In the same tournament room, young European players were also measuring themselves against the games standards. Sixteen-year-old Russian, Fedor Gorst, posted a pair of high finishes. Other young Russians like Maxim Dudanets showed glimpses of what the future looks like at the pro level.
The young Americans, however, were never overmatched, particularly Thorpe, who stood head and shoulders above the rest, winning the One-Pocket title and barely missing out on the Master of the Table crown.
Finally, among the railbirds at Derby was Johan Ruijsink, the former Team Europe captain who had just been appointed captain of Team USA for 2017. Ruijsink is what I would refer to as a “classically trained” sports coach, whose specialty happens to be pool. He has been training the young Russians for the past few years, as he did the young Dutch players in his home country in the years prior.
When Ruijsink has handled aspiring youths in the past, he has always taken a slow and cautious approach to their development. He notices a difference in the way players in the U.S. develop.
“Players here are on the road gambling when they are 13,” he said. “I think that hurts your game. Technique and process are critical in the early stages. The early focus here is not about technique. It’s about wins. If you can only reach 80 percent of perfect in your technique, you will never achieve 100 percent in your results.”
Wilson is changing that culture with his Lindenwood program. And Ruijsink is doing it in Russia.
To me, the answer is simple. If the billiard industry could find a way to make leaders like Wilson and Ruijsink (other options also exist) full-time coaches, and they ran long, intensive camps for junior players, isn’t it likely that the level of play in the U.S. would rise dramatically?
A significant reason Europe and Asia are more successful right now is that those continents commit to full-time coaching and proper instruction. Shouldn’t that be a priority in the U.S.?
What say you, Billiard Congress of America? Isn’t it time to at least put this idea on the table for discussion?