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Darren Appleton

Instruction Articles:
Hocus, Focus
December 2016

Itís not trick; maintaining focus is the key to consistent play.

Not surprisingly, many of the lessons I try to share are based on personal experience. And to be honest, 2016 hasnít been my best year at the table. Iíve played well in patches, but I always seemed to follow a good spell with a bad spell. There are a number of reasons my play has been so inconsistent this year, and I hope that a little self-evaluation can offer insight into how your game can improve from my mistakes.

For starters, how good do you want to become? What level of play do you want to achieve? Have you reached a level at which you are satisfied? Proficiency at pool is not much different than other achievements: It is all goal oriented. If you want to reach a certain level, you have to know about all the factors that come into reaching that level. Me? I want to be the best player in the world. For several years my level of play was right at the top, as good as any player out there.

So, what happened this year? I certainly didnít forget how to make shots or run the table.

I believe that the number one reason Iíve been inconsistent this year is that my concentration and focus have been lacking. I just havenít been able to maintain focus for long periods of time. Instead of staying in the moment, my mind has wandered too much. That may not seem like a big deal, but lapses in focus cost you games and matches, and that is true at any level of play. Ironically, the most frequent lapses in focus happen when you are playing well. There were many matches this year in which I got off to a solid lead. Suddenly, instead of keeping my attention totally zeroed in on the next shot, I started thinking about how well I was playing. I would lose my way and make a silly mistake. And most of the time, a silly mistake ends up costing you several games. Now, instead of maintaining a comfortable lead, unnecessary pressure gets added to the equation.

Pool is such a mental challenge. In the past, my mental game has been one of my strengths. This year it has been a weakness.

If Iím honest with myself, the main reason Iíve lost concentration this year is that I havenít put the work in that I have in the past. I havenít practiced enough and I havenít played in enough events. The players who play all the time are sharper and more match-ready, and that affects your frame of mind because you start thinking you donít deserve to win. Confidence is low and that affects your mind too. The key for amateur players is to never take anything for granted. When you do, your game starts to slip. Overconfidence is a big contributor to these slip-ups.

There are a few games and drills that will help you maintain focus. I still think the best game for concentration is straight pool because you donít want to miss. If you miss playing 9-ball against the ghost, it doesnít really matter. You just lose that rack. But if you miss at 50 or 60 playing straight pool, it is mentally very difficult to restart from zero.

Because there are upcoming tournaments for both 8-ball and 9-ball, I recently developed my own little practice game. It was quite accidental, but Iíve found that it really helps me focus. I rack the balls for 8-ball and break. I run through all the stripes or solids. Then, when shooting the 8 ball, I play shape for the lowest-numbered ball remaining on the table and run the rest of the balls in rotation. It is like playing two disciplines in one rack. It has really helped me keep my head in the game because of the different patterns shifting from one game to the other. It is a fun drill, and it is easier to maintain focus when practice is fun.

As for playing matches, maintaining good focus comes in stages. During a tournament, I have always tried to stick to a routine. About 20 minutes before my match, I try to be alone and get my mind straight. I donít talk to anyone. I just think about how I expect to play. If you just get dressed, grab your cue and walk to the table, you canít really be ready to play. Not surprisingly, I have not stuck to that routine this year. Thinking back on it, I remember chatting with friends and fans and other players in the arena right before I have played. I could not have been ready mentally.

Again, this depends on how much you want to succeed. Some players might not have the luxury of that kind of time before going from work to league night at the local bar. There are still ways you can mentally prepare yourself to play. Take a few minutes in your car before you go in. Or use the restroom and try to get some focus.

The beginning of a match is also critical. If you are not focused and ready, you will fall behind quickly. You end up chasing the game right from the start. Be prepared. If you are focused and get off to a good start, the game is so much easier.

We all make mistakes, and there is a pretty good chance you are going to make a silly mistake during a match due to lack of focus. When you miss a ball and donít understand how you missed it, it is hard to let go and not dwell on it. You have to forget the mistake and move on, or it will cost you much more than one game. Iím sure there are players in your league who have a good temperament. Watch them to see how they get over mistakes. You can learn a lot by watching others.

Stay in the moment. It will allow you to recover from your mistakes much more quickly.