We all know that drills are one of the best ways to improve your game. I’ve seen countless forum posts asking how to improve and the answer is always “Do some drills”. However, different drills serve different purposes, and two of the most commonly performed drills don’t really serve the purpose you might think. So we’re going to look at the difference between drills that test how well you are playing, or how straight you are stroking, and drills that actually make you improve as you run them. There’s a big difference, and it’s important to understand this and plan your practice routine accordingly.
If you’re a snooker player, you’ve undoubtedly run The Line Up many times in practice sessions, searching for a new high run. I’ve certainly spent long stretches where it seems that’s the only thing I’m doing. But is this really making you a better player?
Basically, if all you are doing is lining all 15 reds up and constantly trying to set a new high run and missing halfway through, I don’t think you are improving as quickly as you could be (if at all). I have seen many players whose practice is basically just this, and their progress is slow, or sometimes non-existent.
This is because the line up doesn’t really isolate any part of your game. It presents a very wide array of shots, you can pick any colour, you can play position on 15 different reds, so you must use all of your skills at once. This makes it an excellent test. A player with a high break of 120 in the line-up is probably a better player than the one who has only made a 55. But when it comes to improving that number, just the line-up is probably not going to be enough. If you get a B on a test, just taking the test over and over again probably won’t improve your score.
That being said, sometimes you are at a stage, due to putting in your time with other drills usually, where you are rapidly improving and constantly setting a new personal best in the line up. In this case there is nothing wrong with riding that wave until you come to a plateau. It’s important to get used to making higher and higher breaks. But if you haven’t set a new record in many sessions, it’s time for another plan of attack.
The pool equivalent of banging your head against the line up is The Ghost. The ghost is an excellent part of a practice routine, but too often it is used as an excuse to just bang balls. Just the same as the line up, the ghost forces you to use every single part of your game in order to succeed. You need to make shots from every angle, play every positional route you know, and hit every part of the cue ball. This is great because it forces you to use everything you know. At the same time, it’s terrible for practicing any specific part of your game, because as soon as you miss a low inside cut shot, you’re re-racking and never dedicating the time to master the shot that you missed.
This is why the ghost is a great test of your ability, you only get one shot (and if you’re not re-racking and marking a loss after every miss you are not playing the ghost). It effectively simulates a real match. So if you miss a bank, better luck next time. But it’s not ideal for improving. That one tricky 3 rail route you’re bad at? You’ll avoid it and never get any better at it, same as every other weakness you have. So what should we do so that the next time we test ourselves against the ghost we do better?
I like to look to the world of fitness for ideas on how to structure practice. Imagine every single time you go to the gym, you just load the bar up as heavy as you can and try to squat the most you ever have. Is this making you stronger? You might set a couple of personal bests but it won’t last long. To get stronger you do more reps with lighter weights, work on your weak spots and sticking points, and perfect your form. Then when it comes time to peak and test, you all of a sudden can lift more than you did 2 weeks or a month ago.
The billiard equivalent is using drills that target specific parts of your game, like one rail positional shots, or stroke drills and doing a lot of them. Then use larger drills such as the line up and the ghost as a way to put those skills into action. So if you’re a pool player, before you lose to the 9 ball ghost again, why not schedule in time to practice moving up and down the table? This shot is going to come up many times during your next match against the ghost, and it’s much more efficient to practice it in isolation a hundred times in a row than to rely on improving it one shot at a time while trying to run a rack. You could also spend some time working on the Wagon Wheel to tighten up your cue ball control. Anything that lets you take a specific part of your game, isolate it, track it, and make progress.
For snooker players, you can use The Zipper to tighten up your play around the black. You can even just do specific parts of the line instead of the whole thing. Try two reds on either side of the blue. Without the other reds as a backup, you are forced to focus on one single aspect of positional play and spend some focused time improving on it. This way, the next time you’re on a 60 break and end up on the blue you will know for sure you can score an easy 24 points and continue on. Break the drill down into smaller parts that you can actually complete, and then string them all together in the full line.
One final way that players tend to test when they should be training is with individual shots, especially Stroke Drills. If you are practicing your draw, it’s going to be a lot more effective to spend 5 minutes practicing drawing one diamond, then a diamond and a half, then two, instead of always trying to put maximum draw or follow on the ball just to test how big your stroke is. This applies to everything. If you set up this shot,
it might show you that your stroke isn’t straight, but it won’t really help in making it better. Try for shots you can make 50-80% of the time and only test the huge stroke shots when you want to show off to your buddies.
Make Time to Test and Train
These types of tests, both drills and tough shots, certainly have their place. I wouldn’t have them on the site if I didn’t think they were useful. But they should not be the only, or even the majority, of what you do when you’re at the table alone. Use them to assess your skills and discover your weaknesses. Then use smaller, focused isolation drills to get better at those things. You’ll progress much faster and when it comes time to test, you’ll feel accomplished at setting a new personal best instead of frustrated by failing in the same spot.