Imagine the scene: world champion snooker player, Ronnie O’Sullivan, bends over the table and spreads his hand on the green felt. He moves his pool cue back and forth three times before hitting the ‘white’ towards a red ball. It’s a perfect shot and the red ball whizzes straight into the pocket.
The white ball keeps rolling, hits four edges of the table and stops in the perfect spot for the next shot. It all looks so easy on television, but have you ever tried it yourself? When you do, you will soon discover that looks can be deceiving.
While people like O’Sullivan can deliver various perfect shots in a row, it would have been pretty special if you landed two consecutive balls in the pockets and still placed the white ball in such a way that the next shot is child’s play. What makes snooker so difficult? What angle do you use for the next shot? How fast should the white ball roll? Should you add spin to your shot? You could be forgiven for thinking the pros are mathematical and science geniuses. Or maybe they practiced all possible shots so many times that they can do it on pure feeling? How does a snooker player think?
“Playing snooker can be compared to taking a penalty in football,” says John van der Kamp. He is a kinesiologist at the Vrije University in Amsterdam and researches the behaviour of people when they move. “A round of snooker is very much like a penalty with a purpose. In both cases it is necessary to get the ball in the net.”
The big difference with the success of a penalty is that the goalkeeper would be the biggest distraction. The rule that the goalkeeper has to stand still during a penalty was scrapped just before Liverpool and AC Milan met in the Champions League final in 2005.
Liverpool keeper Jerzy Dudek used the new rule to his full advantage by ‘dancing’ and ‘skipping’ on the goal line. His antics worked. Dudek saved two penalties and Liverpool clinched the coveted prize. According to Van der Kamp: “Football players are trained to look quickly at the goalkeeper before a penalty kick. That’s because he can possibly gauge the direction in which the shot stopper will dive. Research reveals however that penalty takers more often shoot in the same corner as to where the goalkeeper dives. Hence, it’s crucial for goalies to show their intentions.”
• State of mind
Granted, the balls on the snooker table don’t dance. The opponent is not even allowed to distract the player; he has to sit on a chair and wait his turn. Still, it is possible to completely miss the ball for the same reason as you would in a penalty shoot-out. “Cognitive training is often done to perfect a shot,” says Van der Kamp. The total movement is split up in part movements and these are studied in detail. Did the shot fail? Try and hit more at the bottom of the white ball or hit a little harder. You play with full awareness. Van der Kamp adds that there is a turning point after lots of practice.
Expert players are able to do the thinking before the shot. However, when making the actual shot, a top player will often switch off his brain and shoot purely on feeling.
• It’s a tiring game
Snooker players get plenty of time to think. Some players saunter around the table for minutes, while looking at the scoreboard and chalking their cue. Much like a game of chess, this thinking time is necessary because often there are various shots that can be played to pot a ball. Also, the next shot is just as important. After all, the aim is to gain as many points as possible. But, is the brain really disabled during a snooker match? To illustrate the point, We joined Dutch snooker champion Gerrit bij de Leij for a practice round. First, De Leij places a group of red balls in a row and pots them into the pockets. Not only are these his warm-up shots but this is good practice for making the easy shots in a match. De Leij has been playing snooker since the age of 12 and practices 4 days a week. “Snooker doesn’t seem to be a very physical sport but the mental strain is enormous. And this also makes you physically tired,” he explains. Bij de Leij continues and shoots all the balls into the pockets with seeming ease.
• Failed shot was provoked
Bij de Leij explains all the little steps that he takes to make a shot in detail. “Firstly, I circle around the table and look at the different possibilities. I usually have a shot in mind, but I check to ensure that I didn’t overlook anything.” When Bij de Leij has decided which ball to target, he has to figure out how to hit the white ball so that he can make another successful shot after this one. He also needs to think about what to leave behind for the opponent should he miss. Is this down to science? “No,” says De Leij. “I have learned that the balls react in a certain way when you hit them with effect. I can’t tell you how that would work scientifically. Before I pot a ball, I pause briefly, take a deep breath and visualize the ball going into the pocket. I am very conscious about that, hence my shots are better.” De Leij bends over, puts his hand on the table and makes a few ‘practice shots’ with his cue. What is he thinking about? “I want to hit the ball at the bottom so that it lands in the left pocket,” he explains. He shoots and misses. Normally, he wouldn’t have missed this shot. Sure, this was a faint experiment but it could confirm the theory of Van der Kamp. “Things often go wrong if you start thinking during an automatic action,” he explains. “You don’t just see that in sport but also in driving. Try and shift very consciously. You will often hear a grinding noise from your gearbox.”
• Practice makes perfect
What makes De Leij a good snooker player? He is not super knowledgeable about science, doesn’t constantly calculate and plays mainly on feeling. Practice during training sessions is mainly aimed at repeat shots. “Many shots look remarkably similar to each other,” he says. If you practice the same shot often, then you will know that a certain effect will pot a ball. However, can movements be repeated exactly? Russian Nikolai Bernstein is referred to as the founder of kinesiology. He did a lot of research about repetitive movements in the ’20s and ’30s. He analyzed, for example, the movement of an experienced carpenter when he hit down on a nail with three strikes. He deduced that movement of the hammer was never the same twice in a row.
• Are you an expert?
Darts is a repetitive sport. Players try for the majority of a game to get the dart in the same spot. But, according to Van der Kamp, no situation is the same, even in darts. The surrounding noise can be slightly different and muscles get tired. A top player is able to take into account these minimal changes in the automatic execution of an action. So, can everybody become an expert? Van der Kamp explains: “Yes, however there are exceptions. Compare it to picking up a beer and placing it back on a coaster. We couldn’t do it when we were born, but now we are pretty good at it.” Also De Leij advises beginner snooker players to keep practicing. “It takes a long time before you have reached a certain level as a beginner. This puts a lot of people off. However, if you invest some time and you get better, then there is nothing better than the sound of a ball falling into the pocket,” he concludes.