When I first started playing pool (billiards), I considered myself an average player. I could never be sure if I would make the next shot, and running two or three balls in a row was a big achievement for me. I read books on aiming systems like the ghost ball system, and tried different practice drills to improve my game. However I still saw a clear difference between “easy” and “difficult” shots and trying advanced things like position play would make me miss my shot.
This is the story of my journey. How I discovered the art of “Aiming without Aiming”. If you have played pool for a while, chances are you will identify with this or at least recognize what I describe. If you have played only some pool, I suggest you read with an open mind – understanding this might change your game.
If you don’t play pool yet, but would like to start, then you can learn how to play pool well in under 30 minutes. If you already understand the basics, but would like to develop the ability to run the table, you should look at my article series on the basics of cue ball position control.
Some time back I heard the term “subconscious-competence” and about the subconscious mind. This is the same thing that allows us to walk without having to logically plan every muscle that needs to be raised to take each step – We just look at where we want to go, decide we want to go there, and then automatically end up there. It is also responsible for the times when we might get distracted while driving, thinking about all kinds of other stuff, and suddenly realize that we have reached home without remembering any of the turns, traffic lights or other cars on the road.
I don’t think that we were ever really meant to be conscious learners. The conscious mind can handle about 5-9 things at a time after which it zones out. The subconscious mind can apparently keep track of EVERYTHING, including things the conscious mind wouldn’t even dare try.
The only thing the unconscious mind really needs is
1. The initial desire or thought from the conscious mind – Creating the goal
2. Trusting signals from the subconscious mind – following your instincts
3. Allowing the subconscious mind to learn and train itself for the goal – Allowing mistakes to happen without labeling or judging them and not getting frustrated by them
4. Getting out of your own way – Letting the subconscious mind do everything instead of trying to take over the wheel while it is doing its work.
Three months ago, I wrote down in my notebook, a thought addressed to my subconscious mind – “I refuse to aim. You do it otherwise we both miss”. For three whole months, I did not aim. I just looked at the pocket I wanted the ball to go, and just shot the cue ball without aiming with any system… Talk about a crazy, unrealistic, leap of faith…
A few days after I began, when the first difficult shot went in without aiming, I was pleasantly surprised. I assumed it was just luck. Over the next few days as more and more people started noticing my consistent shooting “luck”. This was actually working.
During this time, I still had to keep reminding myself to not try to aim. However as I started making tougher and tougher shots effortlessly, I started getting an ego. I started getting addicted to the idea of always making the shot. When I did miss, I forgot rule 3 and used to get angry at myself. I didn’t realize that when I missed, it wasn’t that my plan wasn’t working, it was just that my subconscious mind hadn’t trained itself for that particular shot yet. It took several days just to accept any misses and not try to control with my conscious mind.
With time, however, I learned to let go of outcome dependence while shooting and just play one shot at a time.
Now days every shot is “easy”. I spend exactly 0 seconds planning the shot. I just look at the pocket, look at the ball, wait for that “YES” signal in my head, and shoot. It goes in on its own. I don’t aim or shoot. My subconscious mind does. I don’t take credit for the shots since it wasn’t me who really shot them. I saw my subconscious mind shooting some amazing shots which blew my mind. It was almost like my subconscious mind was a different person, who was shooting through me.
And as it overtook me with its skills, it earned my trust and respect. I no longer dared to compete with it or try to take over the steering wheel again. I knew, that as long as I stayed out of it’s way, it would do the job better than I could have ever hoped to.
But this wasn’t the real shock. Now that I could shoot without aiming, I wanted to see how far I could take this idea of trusting my subconscious mind, and what limits my mind had. My next goal was to run a table (run all 7 balls, and the 8 ball in one go without giving my opponent a turn).
Again, I wouldn’t plan it or think about it, just make a goal and trust my subconscious to do whatever was needed. Over the next few days, I found myself wanting to shoot one particular ball versus another, without any logical reason. I would just look at the table, see a particular ball and think to myself- “I like that one, that is what I will shoot next”. Trying to logically decide which was the best ball to shoot actually messed things up.
One week later, I broke and ran the entire table when playing with my team captain – or rather my subconscious mind did. Now days, running 4-5 balls is almost a regular occurrence. Three months ago, I would have laughed at that possibility.
The funny thing is, I don’t even have to be paying attention to the table while I am shooting. I can be thinking about taxes or some movie I watched. In fact, anything OTHER than trying to aim the shot. The balls just go in on their own. I seem to get so zoned out, I lose track of time and place. I can now play entire pool games and not remember shooting even a single shot. Sometimes I don’t even remember the face of the person I was shooting with. It’s almost like I am a spectator in a dream like state watching someone else playing.
I think some people call it being in the zone. Some people call it instinct. Some people call it muscle memory. Some call it trusting a higher power. Whatever you choose to call it, trusting your subconscious mind can let you live life the way it was always meant to be – effortless.
If you enjoyed this article, continue on to the next article in this series, Aiming without Aiming Part II – How I really aim a billiards shot.
PS: Based on a lot of feedback that I received, I wrote a follow up article – Aiming without Aiming Part II – How I really aim a billiards shot. For people who think that “this aiming thing can’t work” or would like more details on aiming technique, the extra explanation might help.
PPS: Almost a year after I started my experiments with aiming without aiming and the subconscious mind, I discovered the book The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey. This book talks about the same concepts of subconscious learning applied to the game of tennis and is without doubt one of the best descriptions of how to achieve subconscious competence. I found myself agreeing with almost everything the author said, and was amazed by the new ideas that I would have probably taken a long time to discover on my own. I guess there had to be a reason this book is already consider a bible for inner game and has sold millions of copies worldwide. If you found this article interesting and would like a more detailed explanation of the principles, I would strongly recommend taking a look at this book. You will find that the concepts can be applied to any game or sport that you wish to.
Of course, aiming without aiming isn’t a magic pill solution to billiards mastery. This is just one teeny piece of the puzzle. Obviously ‘Aiming without Aiming’ or subconscious competence only comes after developing conscious competence – Learning good pool fundamentals, following a simple aiming system, practicing with drills to build muscle memory. Even after that, aiming is just a part of the puzzle. You also need to learn to control cue ball position.
The next big piece is working on the inner game of pool, learning to bounce back from bad nights and using your emotions to win under pressure.
Since I improved my aiming, I find myself spending almost as much time on “inner game” as on “outer game”. I am still trying to figure it all out. But every time I discover another piece of the puzzle, I try to share it.