The Mechanics of Playing Pool
by BCA/PBIA Certified Instructor Chris O'Donnell
Copyright 2003-2013 Chris O'Donnell All Rights Reserved
The Stroke - A Two-Part Motion with Rhythm
It's no secret that a good stroke is the key to playing great pool. Even with excellent fundamentals, your performance will suffer without a smooth, consistent stroke. To develop one, you need good stroke mechanics and some rhythm.
Mechanically, the stroke consists of two parts, the backstroke and the forward stroke, in that order. The backstroke is powered by the triceps in the back of your upper arm, while the forward stroke is powered by the biceps in the front. Working these muscle groups separately, with minimal overlap, is the first step in keeping your stroke smooth.
Like a pendulum swinging from side to side, by fully completing the backstroke, you can begin the forward stroke smoothly. Fortunately, practice strokes give you the opportunity to get it right a few times before taking the shot.
Stroke Power and Rhythm
Practice strokes also let you adjust stroke power. Power is determined by the length and speed of the stroke. You can adjust either until you have just enough power for the shot. The backstroke can be very short (one to two inches) or full length (eight to 12 inches or more). The longer the backstroke, the more time to accelerate the forward stroke, resulting in more power.
Whatever your overall stroke speed, fast or slow, each full stroke should end in tempo (on a steady beat). The faster the beat, the more powerful the stroke. But while a steady beat helps to gauge power, it won't, by itself, result in a smooth stroke. That's where rhythm enters the picture. Fortunately, in addition to being one of the keys to a smooth stroke, it practically guarantees one.
Good stroke rhythm is easy to achieve. Just use a slower backstroke, roughly half the speed of the forward stroke, and make sure each stroke ends on a steady beat. How much slower depends upon what feels right to each player. Eventually, this will develop into an internal cadence that you can repeat on any stroke, whatever the length or speed.
Tempo involves keeping a steady beat from stroke to stroke, while cadence involves the internal timing of each individual stroke. For example, the cadence can have two beats for the backstroke and one beat for the forward stroke, like 1-2-3, 1-2-3, with each stroke ending in tempo on the count of three. A steady tempo promotes accuracy in shot making and cue ball speed. Cadence helps the forward stroke accelerate smoothly into the cue ball and beyond instead of a stabbing stroke that results in the disastrous "hit and quit."
Happily, you can use the same stroke rhythm for every shot you take. In fact, it is good stroke rhythm that helps players fall into "dead stroke" by assisting in the use of mental imagery, that is, picturing the perfect shot in its entirety before and during the stroking process. This lets your unconscious (non-verbal) thought processes, which are infinitely more precise, control your stroke to perfectly match the shot you have imagined.
The idea is to trust what you see, not what you say. Using words to communicate with yourself during the stroking process is an incomplete and ineffective process. After all, a picture's worth a thousand words. Rhythm allows you to tune into your unconscious thought processes to organize the details necessary to execute the perfect stroke for the shot, shot after shot.
Psychotherapist and pool player, Bob Fancher Ph.D., in his groundbreaking book on the mental aspects of playing pool entitled Pleasures of Small Motions, sums up just how crucial, and beneficial, rhythm is to this process:
"Rhythm is the timing device that lets the unconscious and conscious controls over your play work together, that moves the 'movie in your head' forward as you go from imagination to execution. Rhythm is the physical medium that transforms concentration into action. Rhythm is the mind-body connection in your play. Rhythm, then, is absolutely fundamental to good play."
To develop a smooth, rhythmic stroke, it really helps to have a good understanding of the three key stroke positions: The SET, the PAUSE and the FINISH. They define the stroking process from beginning to end. In addition to promoting good rhythm, understanding them helps avoid guess work when identifying and correcting mistakes in the stroking process.
Once in your stance with your cue on the target line, carefully slide your cue forward until the tip is within an inch or so of the intended stroking location on the cue ball. This is the SET position. IT IS WHERE EACH PRACTICE STROKE BEGINS AND ENDS. The closer the tip to the cue ball, the better, but be careful at first or you might inadvertently touch the cue ball, committing a foul. If you're having difficulty with this, you may get a better touch by moving your grip hand forward on the cue.
THE SET POSITION - Cue tip at a complete stop within
an inch of the cue ball at end of each practice stroke
For a good Set, bring the cue tip to A COMPLETE STOP. This requires a conscious effort to stop long enough to feel your biceps begin to relax before beginning the next backstroke. With as few as two practice strokes, the biceps will develop muscle memory that fools them into relaxing again when you take the shot, just as you contract the cue ball on the shot stroke.
This relaxation in your biceps helps you accelerate smoothly into the cue ball and beyond as you follow through. The smoother your stroke during the follow through, the easier it is to apply good spin and to feel good speed control.
A few good sets also let you check your alignment (with the target line for the shot) and your cuing (where the cue tip contacts the cue ball). When you see what you want two or three sets in a row, you can take the shot with a high level of confidence things will be the same on the shot stroke. In fact, after two good sets, you should be able to close your eyes, keep on stroking, and make the shot!
Take a few practice strokes until you get two in a row that you think will do the job, then take the shot. Don't take too many. It's difficult to keep a steady rhythm when you do. If things still don't look or feel right after six or seven practice strokes, stand up and start over. It only takes a moment. Then you can begin again with a better idea of the aim and stroke speed required for the shot.
This is where the backstroke transitions into the forward stroke. There is no stop. Simply allow the cue to fully complete the backstroke before starting forward, much like a pendulum getting all the way to one side before it starts swinging back in the other direction. This allows the triceps to stop working before the biceps begin, avoiding any overlap of the two.
The Pause - On a full stroke, back
swing brings ferrule to front of bridge
The SET and PAUSE are the only stroke positions involved in the practice strokes. A series of practice strokes goes like this: SET--PAUSE--SET--PAUSE--SET, etc.
NOTE: You don't have to take a "full" backstroke (as depicted above) on every shot. Some shots require a backstroke of no more than a few inches. However, you don't need to move your bridge much closer, if at all, to the cue ball. Try to keep roughly the same bridging distance on all your shots, simply shortening the backstroke when appropriate.
On those shots that require a backstroke that is no more than a few inches, move your grip all the way up on the wrap and stroke mostly with your wrist, keeping your elbow as still as possible. This will help you make good sets with confidence that you won't hit the cue ball prematurely. If your wrist is loose enough, you can make a backstroke and follow through that are each just a few inches long, yet very effective at keeping the shot on line and controlling the position of the cue ball.
When the practice strokes feel and look right, you are ready to take the shot. Don't change a thing! Just keep stroking like its another practice stroke. After the same backstroke, begin the forward swing just like another practice stroke. Instead of slowing down into another set, just continue accelerating as steadily as possible into the cue ball, following through until the cue slows to a stop. This is the FINISH position.
The FINISH - Follow through beyond cue ball. then freeze
Freeze in the FINISH for a few seconds and watch the entire shot until the balls come to rest. This will help you stay down through the entire shot, and will also help you recognize the cause and effect of your mistakes, giving you time to observe the reaction of the balls to your stroke and cuing location. This will help greatly in correcting any errors. Most players get up too quickly, failing to avail themselves of this valuable learning opportunity.
Many amateurs over-accelerate the forward swing, punching the ball instead of stroking it. Some do it right from the PAUSE position, others cut the backstroke short they're in such a hurry to punch the cue ball. Many others decelerate the stroke too early, quitting on the follow through. These mistakes usually result in a downward stroke, hitting the cue ball lower than intended, putting unintended backspin and english on the cue ball. Take a full stroke, starting the forward stroke the same on the shot stroke as on the last practice stroke, accelerating into the cue ball and following through into the FINISH position.
Also, don't double check your aim at the expense of your rhythm. Aiming should occur as you line up the shot and as you get into your stance and place the cue tip in the SET position. You can also confirm your aim during the first few practice strokes. However, once you start the backstroke on the shot stroke, trust those efforts and keep your rhythm at all costs. Late aim checks almost always cause a slower than normal backstroke and, ironically, the loss of rhythm (and timing) so crucial to accuracy. Once you're taking the shot, just keep your rhythm going, look up at the target point and stroke the cue ball on time. You'll make more balls.
Your rhythm is the glue that holds the stroking process together. Many good players fail to understand that good fundamentals don't count for much if your stroke loses its rhythm, getting too quick or too slow at some point during the shot stroke. Good rhythm, on the other hand, helps to overcome fundamentals that are less than perfect.
One way to improve stroke rhythm is to take pendulum-like practice strokes. Before taking any practice strokes, pull the cue tip back half the distance of the backstroke you intend to take. Then, adjust the location of your grip on the cue so your forearm is pointing straight down (vertical). Then, move the cue back to the SET position and begin your practice strokes. This assures that your grip is on the upswing on contact with the cue ball, which helps to make for good cue ball contact and a smooth, level follow through.
Forearm and grip act like a pendulum swinging
from fixed elbow, point straight down halfway
between Set and Pause positions
NOTE: Disrupting your rhythm can make you jump up during the shot stroke. You may think that jumping up caused you to stroke poorly, although it is often the other way around, jumping upon sensing the loss of your rhythm. From now on you'll recognize the difference when this happens.
Again, it's easy to achieve a rhythmic stroke. Keep your backstroke about half the speed of the forward stroke and finish each practice stroke in tempo with a complete stop in the SET position. If you're having trouble, try counting off to yourself each time you stop in the SET position, then say "through" as you stroke the cue ball on the shot stroke. This helps you stroke the cue ball on time, while reminding you to follow through into the FINISH position.
Keep in mind that this isn't the only way to stroke a pool cue with some rhythm. Many top professionals make what others consider stroking errors quite intentionally and still manage to play extremely well. For example, some players don't come to a stop in the SET position and manage to keep good rhythm with a stroking style called "the classic." The short backstroke and the long pause, when refined through practice, are called "the poke" and "the hesitation" respectively. The overly slow (lazy) backstroke is called "the drawstring."
When it comes to idiosyncratic stroking styles, hall of fame billiards author Robert Byrnes points out that "there are professionals in every sport with peculiar styles. Talent, years of heavy practice, and a fanatic will to win can compensate for any number of flaws in technique."
Remember, practice makes perfect. Good luck!