Three in One
YOU CAN only improve so much at the practice table. At a certain point, you have to test yourself in high-pressure situations, whether that means playing in one of the national league systems or entering a tournament at the local poolhall.
It's at this point in your development as a player that nerves enters the equation. Whether it's your first match or the set that could send your team to Las Vegas, pressure situations negatively impact your performance.
The best advice I have for you is simple: Breathe. Just breathe. In and out, nice and slowly, focusing only on what you have to do to win. When you have a hundred thoughts racing through your mind at once, you need to keep things simple. Focus on your breathing to harness that extra energy in a positive way.
Also, and I've said this before, it's imperative that you rely on the fundamentals. I can remember one match in the Mosconi Cup when I let nerves get the better of me. Instead of reminding myself what I had done to get to that point, I got wrapped up in how nervous I was - not necessarily the best train of thought.
But now, I've trained my mind to react properly in such situations. I'm able to avoid the temptation of dwelling on the distractions, so my mind can stay focused on the task at hand.
In a broader sense, negative thoughts are always destructive, whether they creep into your head during a tense match or any old practice session. No matter how bad you're playing, as hard as it may seem, tell yourself that the past does not equal the future. If you keep focusing on how horribly the match is going instead of letting things happen naturally, you don't trust yourself.
Losing is easy. It's always just an excuse away. Allowing frustration or anger to take over, you're not only taking the easy way out, you're also relaying to your opponent that he's in total control.
It's also important to realize that, no matter what you do, sometimes it's not going to be your day. This certainly doesn't mean you should throw your hands in the air and accept defeat. Rather, use this as a reason to relax completely. Just focus on making one shot, then the next, and then the next. Try to enjoy yourself in a difficult situation. You'll be surprised how quickly you can get back in stroke when you're in "I don't give a hoot" mode.
Keep focused on the small stuff - like breathing and fundaments - and you'll only get better when the heat is on.