The four stages of mind of a pool player

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Mental development, no matter what arts you approach, happens in stages. There have been four stages of thinking identified, that will gradually unfold whenever you continue to practice an art, and also continue to contemplate on what you’re doing. This article breaks down the typical stages and challenges one encounters when playing the art of balls: billiards.

Stage 1: Winning.

In the beginning, it’s all about winning. Players form hierarchies. In tournaments, there is one winner. Everybody wants to be at a top. Thinking is hierarchical, on the outside and on the inside. When external focus is given up, people speak about winning against yourself, conquering your mind, developing mental strength and willpower. But still, the metaphor is one of winning and dominance. Winning and playing good is associated with feeling good, missing and losing with feeling bad. That’s why it is all about winning in the first place. As long as emotions are tied to concepts of authority and power, your mind can tell you what it wants to, you’ll still “subconsciously” assume it’s all about winning. At least that inner struggle, however, cannot be won.

Stage 2: Percentages.

At the next stage, the game turns scientific. Emotions are tied to successful experiments. It transforms into a play of percentages, chances and risk. What’s the percentage on the next shot? The next safety? What’s your estimate on your personal form today? Who’s got this together best, will win. Isn’t it? If I practice this and this, then my percentages on some tests will go up. Except that … in an important game, for example, one which has a good reputation and you made it to the quarter finals, after a missed shot, the hierarchy kicks back in, with all its force. Its roots are still within you. It’s natural for humans that these feelings flare up in the very moment the situation is present. Life would be pale without these reactions. To get back to the scientific stage, however, the question is how quickly you get your percentage mind back on, that tells you that it’s normal to miss a shot every once in a while, even an easy one. High runs of the best players more often than not end with a missed shot. So you can let your temporary anger pass through you, regain your composure and get back into the game.

Stage 3: Harmony.

At the next stage, you may start thinking about the game as an opportunity that is placed within a greater harmony. Emotion becomes associated with the harmony in life. Everything must make sense in the greater good. The game becomes something that balances physical effort, mental aspects, skill, strategy, life, and whatever. And in the end, everything returns to harmony. Playing pool is not just about the game, it has a fixed spot in your life that transcends winning and percentages. Unless, of course, in an important game, that incredibly easy miss happens again. Back are anger, hierarchy, percentages, and whatever crap claimed to be more important than winning in the first place. If everything is about harmony, why then is your harmony disturbed by these idiotic mistakes? There has to be a greater justice that controls the harmony, and if you just spend good effort and attitude, then your harmony won’t be disturbed. And if the world was free from these idiotic opponents. Except that it isn’t like that. The harmony you’re thinking of in these situations is really winning, and transports you back to stage one. The real harmony that you need to keep up here is not to let your temper be disturbed by the ups and downs of the game. To find sense playing a stronger opponent and accepting that, most of the time, when doing that, you will lose. To harmonically place yourself in the centre of up, down, success, failure, love and hatred. But still, you will probably regard maintaining this harmony as a success, and not maintaining it as a failure. Then the pool gods are either in favour of you, or not. You’re probably contemplating why bad luck does appear to happen so incredibly often, and good luck doesn’t. It’s just not fair. From the standpoint of harmony and the previous stage of percentages, good and bad luck should cancel out, shouldn’t they?

Unfortunately, they don’t. The percentage people will tell you they will. But you’re now past that stage. The percentages only cancel out when you consider really long stretches of time, several years for example. But even considering lifetimes and given a big enough population, there will be people who are just luckier than others throughout their whole life. The smaller the timeframe or scale you consider, the more you see that everything is made up of ups and downs of different lengths, and nobody is able to predict how long those phases last. They may be over tomorrow, or in a year. Your subjective assessment will probably introduce even stronger biases.

Stage 4: Every match (every day and every minute) is different, and it is good like that.

Appreciate that harmony is fragile. It is more often absent than it is there. Things are only different because not everything is always in harmony, and temporarily throwing the harmony off produces the interesting things in life. That’s the reason why you’re alive, and not a pile of dirt. When your beloved harmony is there, then there is flow. No matter whether there is flow in a game, in a relationship, or in your whole life. Harmony returns after all those new stimuli have reintegrated into a new version of you … until there is yet another new stimulus. They do happen often. So sometimes there is flow, and sometimes there is not. Just thinking positive won’t bring you there. What really does help is to love life (or, as textbooks say, a mixture of challenge, skill and … well … situation you love). To love it means accepting it and not refusing any aspect that it shows you, be it success, failure, percentages, or even harmony itself. So those textbooks with their mix for flow really only present you something that you will lovingly subscribe to at this stage. They could write in simpler terms, “You just gotta love it!”

Sometimes there is harmony, sometimes there is not. Sometimes there is challenge, sometimes there is not. Sometimes there is the pleasure of small motions, sometimes there is not. Sometimes there is flow, sometimes there is not. Sometimes there are streaks of bad luck that appear to dominate months. And sometimes there are not. Sometimes there is winning, sometimes there is not. The game isn’t fair. It’s operating at the brink of chaos. Let the cue ball loose and run into one other ball, you may scratch, or not see your next ball (“with an incredibly high percentage, way above what is to be expected!”). You cannot control every situation. Balls move chaotic during the break in 8-ball and rotation. And if you get kicks after breaking the rack in straight pool ending with no position on your next shot, then it just is like that. If you get a bad contact on the money ball, you lose. And if it happens in a single elimination game, then you’re out. Bummer. You’re neither a loser, nor were the odds against you, nor is there any harmony disturbed. Although your emotions may still be tied to that kind of thinking.

The hierarchy people who want to dominate, of course, don’t like that. They like racking aids to control even the breaks, and winner break to leave their opponents in the seat. Even the percentage-people usually like getting a great share of the attention of the audience, most of the price money, and 99.9% of the fame. The harmony people usually want to sweeten their own harmony with a win and find it disturbed by losing all too often. Or they want a sense of belonging to a certain team (or league). If you want to win, that’s easy. Play people who play below your level. If you want higher percentage, that’s also easy. Practice more, play easier routines, and play … people who compete below your level. Want better harmony? Practice yourself in meditation, do progressive relaxation, hatha yoga, go running, sleep on a pool table, take a ball bath, or whatever. Want less discrepancy between your performance and expectations? Easy: adjust your expectations. Haha.

But to conquer the last stage, just let life happen as it does happen, with all its ups and downs. That also goes for pool. Also accept that high expectations may be there, they are natural. But don’t get desperate because of them. Just appreciate that that’s the way you are. Also, don’t fool yourself over the downs that an up will soon arrive. You’ll get obsessed with the future and when the low will be over again. Before that, you cannot be happy, and therefore, you will never be happy. And when there is an up, don’t think it will last eternally, or at least a little bit longer than it actually does. Otherwise, the next miss will throw you back to stage one: why can’t it go right at least this time. Keep your attention in the present moment. What unfolds, unfolds. You may change your routines and every once in a while assess what they bring in the long term. And you can participate in tournaments, because without playing, nothing of that will happen. But all those short term attempts at steering are bound to push you back to hierarchy, percentage or harmony-thinking. Only if you can keep your loving happiness going, no matter how cruel the world is towards you in terms of winning or losing, high and low percentages or hunt for harmony, you can appreciate that even that loving happiness sometimes fades. And even if you do your best, put your best effort into practice, prepare, read and know everything, you cannot force life. Life produces you, not the other way round.

If your open attitude fades, you can bring it back with practice. That doesn’t mean that the triggers of the prior stages won’t tempt you. Sometimes it helps to play in a setting that is definitely not competitive at all (although people sometimes tend to make competitions out of everything). It also means that you cannot force flow. Try to produce it and it will not happen. All you can do is to refocus on the current moment and simply continue playing. Just enjoy the opportunity to play the game. Yes. Try to enjoy playing pool again after all that prior hassle. It takes practice. How often have you joked about beginners who are still able to just go to the table and enjoy shooting?

Beyond Stages.

Simply go shoot. There’s an opponent needed to do that, so appreciate the opponent too. And there’s a tournament needed to compete. So appreciate the tournament players. All of them. A third won’t make it through the first round in double elimination. Appreciate them too, also if you happen to be one of them. Appreciate yourself also when losing, and don’t forget to appreciate yourself when winning. And have fun playing. See if you can make shots instead of trying to avoid losing (your harmony). Sooner or later, you may even catch an upcoming emotional disturbance before it can get through to you, or simply not worry over the moment in that it did. There cannot be winning without losing. Only losing produces winning, and trying produces results.

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