There’s an old saying which goes something like this: “If you are going to twist a tiger’s tail, you’d better have a plan for dealing with his teeth.” I was reminded of this saying last weekend during the U.S. Amateur Championship tournament. I started out the tournament very cold and seriously thought I was going to pull a two and out. In my first match I got lucky and escaped with a 7-6 victory on a position error and missed shot by my opponent. I felt like I didn’t deserve the win, but hey, that’s the way it goes sometimes! My frosty condition continued through the second match and I was quickly dispatched to the left side by a competitor from San Diego. Then I got to my third match.
During the third match I continued to make unforced error after unforced error. I was running the cue ball too long on most shots and literally could not put together more than a two ball run. At that point I was convinced my exit from the tournament was imminent. But I was okay with that… I already had a great excuse for my bad performance… other than my Wednesday night APA team play and an occasional 14.1 league match, I had not put in any serious practice in the two months leading up to the tournament. I was just too busy doing some other things. Oh well. The only thing going in my favor was the fact that my third round opponent had a bad habit of playing perfect position for five or six balls, then would miss a shot and leave the cue ball in great position for me to run two balls and out. Yes, it was Christmas in September! Although I was playing horrifically, I somehow managed to win two of the first four games in our race to seven match. And then it happened – my opponent said something to me very loudly and full of genuine spite…
“GEEZE! I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU ARE HANGING WITH ME! I’M A MUCH BETTER PLAYER! I SHOULD BE KILLING YOU!”
I stood at the head of the table and said nothing as I watched him hurriedly throw balls in the rack and line them up. Did I hear that correctly? Did he really just say that?!! I was so stunned at his lack of discretion I couldn’t even get mad. Hey, I’ve lost many matches even when I thought I was the better player, but I never said anything out loud…especially not right in my opponent’s face! Was he genuinely that upset and just lost his ability to contain his frustration? Or maybe he was simply trying to shark me? In retrospect, I really don’t know what his intentions were. Regardless, the result was the same: he opened his mouth and out came the garbage. Did it upset me? Did it hurt my feelings? Did it intimidate me?
Come on…are you kidding me?
I would like to dedicate my tournament victory this weekend to that competitor who shall remain nameless. If not for his severe lack of discretion, I probably would have lost my match to him. The percentages eventually would have caught up with me and I undoubtedly would have lost if he had said nothing, but he had inadvertently tapped into a dark place… that little ‘underdog should win good guys shouldn’t finish last don’t try to bully me or I’ll kick your ass’ part of my psyche that absolutely will not tolerate a loss. I mentally flogged myself with a cat of nine tails, forcing my mind to turn inward and develop a thousand yard stare…that state of mind where even an attack by a dozen nunchaku wielding pointed star throwing teenage mutant ninja turtles couldn’t have broken my concentration. From that point on, I treated every single shot like it was the game winning shot. He went down 7-4. For the remainder of the tournament, my focus just got tighter and tighter and tighter. My remaining match scores (as best I can remember) were 7-3, 7-4, 7-1, 7-4, and I concluded with an 11-3 victory in the title match.
What’s the moral of this story? This will undoubtedly sound cliché, but control your emotions – don’t let them control you. And don’t try to shark your opponents – it may have the unintended effect of motivating them to take their game to a whole new level…at your expense.
I just have to comment on this article because I have had a very similar experience which leads me to a question. First, let me explain. I have read many of your blogs and articles and I know you have a scientific approach to the development of motor skills through the development of myelin around the proper circuits in the brain and I totally agree with that. I follow the same understanding in my own practice. Having said that, there is something else and it has to do with proper arousal. My team was in the championship final match to win our city finals and the trip to vegas. We won the first match 14-6, lost the second 14-6, lost the third 18-2. Then the heckling started from the opposing team. My team literally drafted me to play the fourth match. This was 9-ball and they put a SL 5 up and were whooping it up as to how bad I was going to lose. Suddenly I wasn’t nervous. I was a little angry I admit it, but in my anger I found energy and absolute focus without fear and doubt. I was totally geared and won 18-2. I played as good as I ever have. I have thought about what happened to me ever since. I understand now that it is not enough to simply have the skill. Your mind must be in the proper state of arousal for those skills to fully come out. Maybe that is what happened to you. Maybe a little anger is not always a bad thing. What do you think?
Ray, I TOTALLY AGREE! I’ve been thinking about this exact same phenomena. I was doing the best I could do (putting in my best effort) in the first two rounds, but I simply could not get anything going. Immediately after “the incident”, my performance jumped up a notch or two during my match with him, and continued accelerating all night…I shot better and better and better…whatever it was, it kept feeding on itself. When I reached the final match I was completely in dead stroke and wasn’t missing anything… I shot the best I’ve ever shot in my entire life. It was really weird! Obviously it is motivation and mental focus – I was completely ‘in the zone’ after that match. What I’m trying to figure out now is: How do I replicate this phenomena at my next tournament? How do I get warmed up (the physical part) before a match and then how do I get myself into that frame of mind again? This may sound very zen-like, but I’m going to experiement with some type of mental imagery before my next tournament to see if I can put myself into that mode again.
Congrats I am going to need your eye of the Tiger for next weekend!!! Congrats again and way to go on all your work man its paying off for you!
Thanks John, and good luck in Atlanta!
I recognize this quality in many great players … all ass kissing aside.
I have a regular pool buddy who has this gene too, and I warn others not to shark him because he turns up the heat broiling hot. Know this, and respecting this I try to behave the same with good success, when the sharks are circling … you have to rise above it.
Agreed. Mental focus is a HUGE factor in this game, especially when there are distractions around you.