If the only time you practice safety play is during a match, be assured you are going to be unprepared. And a poorly executed safety can be as troublesome as a miss, so a little experience can go a long way.
When I talk to students about working on safety play, I try to let them know how much one hour of practice can dramatically improve their overall game. Think about it this way: You can practice pocketing balls for a thousand hours, and your skill at shot-making may creep up a notch or two from its current level. Practice safeties for five hours, and you are going to see unbelievable progress.
The simple fact is that not enough players put in the time. And the reality is that executing a successful safety takes a skill set that is a bit different from ball pocketing and position play. When pocketing a ball, the speed of the object ball is usually not a large concern, while often times a safe requires you to control the speed and angle of both the object ball and cue ball.
There are three principles of safety play distance, barriers and rails. The perfect safe would include elements of all three areas, though often you are hoping to accomplish just one or two.
A common safety in 9-ball, where both players are focused on one specific object ball, is to put another ball between the cue ball and object ball. Then, your opponent is forced to play a rail-first kick, a masse or jump shot in order to make a legal shot. All of these shots are difficult and carry some risk.
The best players try to minimize unforced errors on safety plays by totally controlling the cue ball or object ball, often by stopping one of them immediately rather than attempting to control the speed and direction of two balls simultaneously.
Practice finding groups of balls where you can plant the cue ball or object ball. These groups offer built-in barriers that can protect the object ball from a direct line to the cue ball.
Another use of barriers is to land the cue ball onto the blocking ball to force the shooter to elevate the cue. This hampers power, accuracy and the possibility of applying English to the cue ball basically, making your opponent as uncomfortable as possible.
In Diagram 1 is an example of using blocking balls and a stop shot on the cue ball. You should be able to have total control of the cue ball, which will minimize the risk because of the short distance the cue ball travels.
Diagram 2 shows an example of a trio of safety concepts distance, rails and barriers. Try to make the 1 ball hit the 7 full, this will keep the 1 on the rail while the cue ball heads downtable. The cue ball should naturally go three rails to find a hiding place behind the line of blocking balls in the middle of the table.
As seen in Diagram 3, practice cutting across the 1 ball thick enough to send it to the center area of the opposite end rail, all the while hiding the cue ball behind the blocking balls. This requires practice, so work to develop the confidence of having a feel for such shots.
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