THE MENTAL MELTING POT OF SNOOKER
Something wasn’t right
“Something has gone wrong with Ronnie’s head….. I knew he wasn’t right before we started… I have never seen anything like that before” This is what the BBC pundit said when Ronnie O’Sullivan conceded to Stephen Hendry in the UK Championship 2008. His walking out shocked pundits and snooker fans everywhere. Out of the blue, he left the table and didn’t come back. Why? Ronnie later said “I got so annoyed I lost my patience and walked away from a game that with hindsight I should have continued. This was the start of poor time for Ronnie. In this article I will discuss what makes snooker such a high pressure sport.
In all sports, competing causes pre-competition nerves. This is perfectly normal . These can start days prior to the match or a few hours before. They are a generalised form of anxiety : the “what if I do badly” form. They are the body’s way of preparing for the challenge as they have physical reactions too.
The competing mental states in snooker
In addition to pre-competition nerves, snooker has other pressures which need to be understood so that coping measures can be put in place
Snooker has two different mental requirements. It is not just about being accurate and getting the ball in the pocket. It is also about tactics and planning in a way similar to chess. These two different mental requirements can interfere with each other unless the player has the right mental strategy to deal with them
A leading sports psychology study on why the English football team are so weak at penalty shoot outs is called “Get it out the way: the wait’s killing me’ Steve Gerrard, Michael Owen and Stuart Pearce all said it was the wait to take the penalty shot that was the most nerve racking.
So what has that to do with snooker? Well there is a hell of a-lot of waiting in snooker and this is why it is a dangerous time for players:-
1. You are watching your opponent playing. When he plays well you get that sinking feeling. If you have no mental strategy in place this can put you off your game
2. Because you are doing something passively this is the time when your mind is more open to negative thoughts ie you are not actively engaged in doing anything
3. When these negative thoughts reach a certain level your mind becomes flooded and over whelmed - this is at best uncomfortable and at worse terrifying
4. We know that stress is caused by a lack of control – whilst sitting waiting you have little control of the game. This intensifies the already stressful feelings.
The physical consequences
When you are nervous your heart races, you may start perspiring, feel light headed and your muscles will tense up. When in this state, it is difficult to think clearly. You feel overwhelmed and in times of pressure, attention goes inwards which isn’t good for performance. The optimum performance state is one without thinking, staying in the present, not analysing but trustingmuscle memory.
Why the snooker wait is different to other sports
The same waiting pressure does not apply to other sports like golf. In golf there is a long walk between holes so the players are doing something physically and they can clear their mind by thinking of other things. Snooker players do not get this mental break as they are following the game and planning responses and moves.
Snooker involves offensive and defensive tactics. It requires a clear, cool head to plan your moves in a confident way. If you are unsettled by doubts, this will affect your decision making. With other sports you can concentrate on your game and your performance whereas with snooker your attention is held by your opponent’s game. This is necessary but it doesn’t sit well with trying to zoning out distractions like your opponentwhich you would do in other sports
Snooker requires two different mental states.
There are two specific mental states which need clear boundaries. This is similar to golf where golfers do a pre-shot mental routine.
(1) The thinking state .
The first state is ‘the thinking state’ : where you are planning and thinking ahead. This is one of the few occasions in sport where you will look into the future. (Most other times you are placed firmly in the present) It is only for strategy thinking though and never for the “what if I lose” “how many do I need “ type of contemplation.
The ‘thinking state’ can be in the wait or the walk to the table where you will analyse the field of play. You will be thinking how to make the shot, where you want the cue to stop and how much force is required.
This will be the time when you will visualise the shot to take place – plot it’s route, deflection and see it go in the pocket. Once this has been done you can move onto the next state which I call ‘ the playing state’
(2) The playing state
This is where you have to hand over to your subconscious as it is where you stop analysing and assessing
When you bend over to play the shot you must stop thinking about anything. Place your full concentration on allowing your semi-automatic processes to control the shot.
We tell our semi-automatic processes what we want to accomplish and that part of the brain executes the shot -- not the rational part of our thinking.
Distractions and gamesmanship
Whilst this is not unique to snooker, it is essential to block out distractions and not get unsettled by how your opponent is playing the game. For example, Ronnie O’Sullivan has said that he found playing slow players difficult. This is something that he has successfully overcome.
There are various ‘annoyances’ like chalking the cue, toilet breaks and in the bar room snooker halls, standing over pockets, standing on squeaky floorboards , all employed at on that game changing shot. Whatever level you are playing at, you need to reframe these as “distractions to ignore” rather than let them rile you .
As a professional snooker player you will alsobe playing in different venues and therefore must not be affected by your surroundings.
The way to deal with the pressure
Because of the unique pressures of snooker, players are turning to the following mental techniques.
(1) Visualisation – all sports people from Rooney, Wilkiinson, Nicklaus used visualisation (I will do an article specifically on this as it is huge topic)
(2) Positive Self Talk
(3) Relaxation Techniques
(4) Improved mental state procedures
(5) Confidence training
(6) Resilience Strategy
The happy ending
Ronnie O’Sullivan has had his lows but with the help of Sports Psychologist Steve Peters is much better at controlling his emotions when playing. It is great to learn that arguably the most talented snooker player ever, did return to the game with aplomb saying
“you know what? I am up for this"
I am a mental skills performance coach . I have a variety of sports clients both amateur and professional including snooker players . If you want to know more about how I coach or need help with any of the issues discussed in the article please e mail me on email@example.com or call me on mobile 07870 705007 . I do free introductory mental skills taster sessions without any obligation .