Saturday, 8 February 2014

Facing the voice

Crippling self-doubt is an insidious enemy. A whispering voice, so persistent and pervasive it becomes invisible - like the tip of your nose, always in your field of vision but never seen.

But like your nose, if you choose to look there it is. A voice that puts a negative spin on everything.

you can't do'll embarrass yourself.... what are you doing?... what if this goes wrong?

Over the past six months of counselling I've become much more aware of that voice in my daily life. I knew negative self-image was a problem, but it took a while to see this mechanism controlling my behaviour.

As I progressed, it became apparent that although I'd broken the mold for new activities, I'd yet to improve an established negative pattern. I decided I wanted to challenge this, but I wanted to start with something fairly unimportant - something that wouldn't push me back into my shell if I failed.

My pool game seemed to fit the bill. I played for most of my life but gave away my cue a couple of years ago, telling people who asked that I'd become bored of the game. In truth I'd grown frustrated at my inability to progress.

So a couple of months ago I began popping into my old local a couple of evenings a week. I was rusty so to begin with I avoided the urge to take things seriously; concentrating on having fun and getting my cue arm into working order.

After a few weeks I started to pay attention to the internal monologue and sure enough there was a strong correlation between the quality of my shots and my state of mind - negative thoughts resulting in cueing across the white, snatching at shots, standing up before I'd finished the stroke... all the classic mistakes.

As I started to get a bit more into the flow, it was interesting to see the difference between my self-image and others perceptions; I was still getting frustrated at my lack of consistency while Paul was joking about looking forward to me leaving the country so he wouldn't have to play me.

Last week however, I felt I was cueing nicely from my first game. Chris got on the black first and tried a trick shot - normal etiquette would require I do the same, but I was only thinking of testing my striking so I set up a long straight pot and hit it hard.

Much to my satisfaction it went straight down the middle of the bag, but it riled Chris a bit and the banter he took as I won the next two didn't help. When I asked if the hat-trick meant I could take him home and put him on the mantle piece he issued a challenge: play for a drink, first to four, you get to keep your three frame head start.

Sounds easy, but Chris is a good player and very strong tactically, which makes him a hard man to beat when he's taking things seriously.

The next game was a tight, tactical battle and although Chris came out on top, I was pleased with the way I'd played it.


Another tactical affair followed and this time I engineered a good chance to clean up, but couldn't close it out.


See? You're no good under pressure, never were.... not even a friendly bet with a mate.... always bottling it when you get near the finish line... he's going to humiliate you from 3-0 up...

Game six I was first to a decent chance - easy starter pot, all my reds available, just the black tied up. I put together a solid break, potting cleanly up to the last red. I looked at the black - it was nestled between two yellows on the top cushion.

I didn't have the intended angle to disturb it off the pot, and I could see only one possibility to finish - play it off the cushion and catch the yellow to stun two feet along the rail. The balls were so close together that the margins were ridiculous.

You'll never make that, and you'll look a fool for trying... lay the red over the bag and see if Chris makes a mess of it... there's no shame if he closes out, you gave it your best shot... don't risk making an arse of yourself...

I decided to knock the red in and screw back a couple of inches to have a go at the black.

I addressed the table.

You'll never make it now, you've put yourself under pressure with that daft black idea, you won't even pot the red... how stupid are you going to look lining up an outrageous black and not even making the red...

I stood up off the shot.

Now you've done it... don't get up once you're lining the shot... if you go down again and miss you look foolish for not going through with the first attempt...

Time to interrupt.

The red is well within your repertoire. Ignore the black. Relax, pot the red, and put the white right there. That's your crux move for now, so focus on it. Nothing else. Do you know you can pot this? Good. Are you relaxed? Good. Now get down to the shot. Line it up. Relax your cue hand. Keep your head still. Push through the shot. Perfect.

Have a good look at the angles, take your time, nothing else matters. Don't be distracted by the other people in the room. Happy? Good. Repeat the drill.

The black cannoned almost perfectly and rolled down the rail. It jawed in the pocket... and stayed up.

With a wry grin on my face I stamped a foot in mock frustration as I turned away, but in truth I was happy. Whether I got back to the table or not, I'd won my first small victory in the war against that voice, and that was a lot more important that proving a point to an old friend.

Back in the pub last night the nagging was still there but it was much easier to keep it down, and I found myself taking on pots with great confidence. In one game alone I pulled three straight out of the top drawer - the last dead weight up and down the length of the full table to get out of a snooker, pot my last ball, flick the black and land perfectly on it to the same pocket. I'd have been absolutely stoked with that shot when I was playing regularly.

It's a shame I won't be hanging around long enough to have a crack at getting back in the team, and there is of course a huge difference between silencing the voice in a friendly environment and doing it under genuine pressure, but I've proven a valuable point to myself: breaking established patterns can be done.

I know that turning around a lifetime of negative thinking will be a long, hard road, but it's good to know I've taken those first baby steps.

Thanks Chris, your timing was impeccable.

Chris sinking a confident long pot.

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