While Graeme Dott battled his way to the final of the Snooker Grand Prix with master strokes against Tom Ford, his opponent was several times credited with improvements in mentality thanks to working with a ‘mind coach’. Less spoken of is Graeme's story of struggle against depression (BBC article linked behind the image: image courtesy Wikipedia). In the game’s closing stages, Tom proved himself well able to come back and square the match until Graeme took on a difficult shot, fluked two reds and landed plum on the black to win the frame.
Snooker is unique in many respects, not least because the table plays too. Other ball games rely on straightforward laws of physics - whether you’re winding from the tee across turf or kicking a football to a team-mate, the ground doesn’t play one off against the other like the green baize does. You’ll often hear snooker commentators say that when the balls are with you, they’re with you, and when they’re against you, there’s nothing you can do. The table, as champion demigod Steve Davis has said, is very much a third player.
All ball games are psychological to some degree. Coaches have a job to do in making sure mind sets are on track to win. But generally speaking, given a possible swing in one direction, consistency comes to light in performance of a person or group throughout the game being played. Not so in snooker. A player’s capacity to win can turn from one frame of mind to the other in a matter of minutes, from elation to catastrophe in one foul swoop. Perhaps this is the reason it’s become so popular. If you can handle the silence, there’s never a dull moment.
Ali Carter (meet him here) is another player with troubled stories to tell. Battling cancer and various mental frailties to reach his present form, he’s enjoying an increasing level of well-deserved popularity in the wake of his fraught experiences. In the UK Championship final, he showed the style and merit of his talent in reaching the point where he could take back the stakes in his favour. His personality exudes quiet warmth and rooting for him is joyful, like a real fire in winter.
The thing that sets snooker apart is, for me, quantum. Mechanics come into it with angles and geometric analyses, but you don’t get down to a ball and work out the maths. As a player, I know how it feels when the object ball ‘talks’ to you, tells you exactly where to strike and how, while your job is to wait for that point of accuracy as you feather and make sure you cue the white to leave it in the right place for later. You judge an angle walking into the shot, but successful execution is as reliant on the ball telling you what to do as it is on your notion of where the pocket is. So-called ‘blind shots’ where you can’t even see the pocket show this communication system at work.
Attitude on the table also makes a big difference to how the balls will play. Flukes happen in favour of one player or the other, but rare it is to get a fluke and land yourself with the next pot when you’re just not ‘getting into’ the game. You’re much more likely to fluke and end up snookered if you’re feeling in any way fragile. This tendency for the table to play can only be optimised on a moment-by-moment basis, so whatever is going through a player’s mind is as important as what’s on the cloth at the time. That's me there, by the way, 38 years ago. Things were different then.
Mental health is big potatoes right now. We hear many stories of vulnerability and valiant journeys to success across the whole range of popular sports, so snooker is no league winner there. But the actual game, in terms of its ruthlessness in forcing you to take account of quantum law in relation both to yourself and the balls on the table, is unparalleled in potential for exploration. There are direct synergies between learning to play snooker and learning valuable tools in mentality. Like life, it’s tough - in getting proficient enough to beat the odds, you dedicate yourself to the task. But wherever you get to, it’s worth it, just as someone promised life would be.
Kathy is the author of Quantumology. She met quantum mechanics in 1997 and pledged allegiance to its sources thereafter. These are her personal thoughts and testimonies. For professional testimonials please see Programmes.