Snooker as Practice for Running

There was a snooker table in my grandparents’ house when I was growing up. It was the right fit for a growing boy.

I used to play all the time.

My grandfather loved the sport. My uncle even used to play competitively. He played frames against legendary players such as Cliff Wilson, Willie Thorne and Steve Davis.

I looked forward to watching snooker on the television as well. I have fond family memories of the World Snooker Championships on the BBC every late April to early May.

My favourite player was Stephen Hendry. He was the most dominant player of the 1990s, arguably the greatest player who has ever played, and who I admired for his impressive break building, stoic mental strength and consistent match performances.

My favourite player of the modern game is Ronnie O’Sullivan, mostly because, like Hendry, on top form he is unbeatable. O’Sullivan also has a fast potting style, can play with both hands and win matches without having to play his best snooker. He’s also a runner.

I loved potting balls. My main attribute was long pots.

Although I did move up to cueing on a full-size table I never played snooker competitively. But I remain fascinated by a sport that relies so heavily on mental fortitude and inner peace.

Snooker Table Pocket

Snooker is a game of concentration, patience and consistency. Much like an endurance event, an appreciation of the challenge ahead must be balanced with appropriate decision-making in every moment.

For the past several years I have played on a slightly larger table than the one during my youth. It’s six feet long, and three feet wide. Although I only have a pool cue to use, some pocket nets are missing, room to strike the balls is limited by the walls of my lounge, and the cloth is slightly uneven I’ve enjoyed reliving one of my first sporting loves.

Snooker is a straightforward sport. Pot balls. Similar to running, the simple repetition of placing one foot in front of another, the difficulty arises from the choices that precede the execution. Every time you speed up or slow down, cut a training run short, or veer off the route you intended, you must rely on strategy. You must take intelligent actions.

The more you practice the better you become at making the right choices, quickly. That will be the difference between success and failure at the important moments in race situations.

New Advice from Neuroscience

Katwala draws on extensive research to summarise important techniques that improve sports performance. Although many studies refer to the hand-eye coordination of ball sports, the book contains relevant and interesting advice for runners.

Key Findings from Studies

Your vision must be trained as hard as your physique to fulfil your athletic potential. A major difference between amateur and elite athletes is the latter’s ability to track and act upon the slightest of movements.

Your vision is closely related to your mental strength and agility. Thus the stronger the mind, the less stress will drain your energy.

Distraction from any task at hand is better than thinking too much about it. However, visualisation in training can change your physical make-up; thinking of becoming stronger can actually make you stronger.

Sporting Advice

You must learn to transform inevitable nerves into fuel. You can do this by training under controlled self-induced pressure, such as placing an outcome on your performance (reward), adding other mental tasks during your exercise, or modifying your workouts regularly to feel more challenged. All these techniques will build your mental resilience and thus prepare you better for racing conditions.

Sport is a complex pursuit for people to master. To make sporting skills less susceptible to interference by external factors or your conscious mind you need to make actions so implicit that they become instinctual. According to Angela Lee Duckworth, by adopting a positive growth mindset and seeking different circumstances to test your abilities you will develop a strong passion for the sport. Deliberate practice sustained over a long period of time will mean you have a greater chance of success.

Running Advice

Runners give up long before they reach their metabolic and muscular limits. The reason is that they have exhausted their brain. Professor Samuele Marcora explains the ‘psychological model of endurance’, a theory that purports runners must train to reduce their perception of effort.

Tips to reduce the perception of effort include

  • not relying on your watch for every run
  • rinsing your mouth out with a carbohydrate-rich drink
  • smiling as you run and especially after work or a long day
  • controlling your breathing

Playing video games also builds mental stamina because of their repetitive nature, and improves memory and attention span.

This book supports the notion that being an expert in your sport can have its disadvantages. Sometimes having less information (or forgetting what you know) can actually aid performance by ensuring you are focusing on your natural rhythm.

4 Running Lessons from Playing Badminton

In my second year of university I joined the badminton club. Membership was cheap and Thursday evening training fit into my schedule. It also required little equipment.

1. Running in a confined space is an effective exercise.

Running around the badminton court improved my aerobic endurance.

The weekly practice sessions were four hours long. My instinct was to play as much as possible; I only rested when there were no courts available.

The continuous training matches replicated the demands of long slow distance runs. Whilst the short, sharp repeated movements in rallies supported slight progress in my anaerobic threshold.

Singles is harder than doubles as you have to rely solely on your own running to cover the court.

2. Running is a useful but limited skill in sporting success.

Running as an attribute can win you points. By running quicker and further I would sometimes keep the shuttlecock in play, and therefore force my opponent to make an extra shot (and an accompanying error).

But running only served to cover up a lack of sport-specific skills, such as shot selection and tactical execution.

After a year I realised that without more dedication and knowledge I was unlikely to develop.

3. Running in all directions challenges your legs in new ways.

Movement around a badminton court is quicker than in tennis. The need to run sideways, backwards and forwards in fast sequences exercises different muscles in the legs.

For example, you jump more often for smashes and the repetitive strain on your dominant arm requires careful management. Although sore when I first played, I quickly adapted to the physical stresses.

4. Running can give you a mental edge.

During university I played many matches with friends, club members and even students from other universities. I lost more matches than I won but I learnt a valuable lesson about how my running affects my enjoyment and the score.

Despite my relative inexperience my ability to chase every point meant most sets were decided by a small margin. I also felt better if I never stopped running, as it meant I was burning more calories and working my muscles harder.

I am proud that I represented my university in the Men’s Third Team in British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) league matches. My opponents often praised me for my doggedness, an essential characteristic for all runners.

What Tennis taught me about Running

Growing up I played tennis in my back garden. I hit the ball against the back wall of the utility room and downstairs bathroom. I left the wall cracked, patchy and dirty. I accidentally broke a window too.

I used the wall as my opponent.

I served from the end of the lawn, then ran forward to use half the lawn as the court. The patio path surrounding the grass was deemed out of bounds.

I played with my neighbour, volleying the ball to each other over the dividing fence that made up the net.

I also played on grass courts as a teenager with a school friend. We were evenly matched, although he took the sport more seriously than me. In 2005 we entered the Essex Junior Lawn Tennis Championship held in Southend-on-Sea as a doubles team. We failed to progress.

At university I was a member of the tennis team and in the try-out session I was designated an ‘advanced player’. I never represented the university in matches but I enjoyed playing on the outside hard courts at the sports centre. I had success against numerous colleagues and friends.

My greatest achievement was when I won a men’s singles tournament at my university in May 2011. Although I lost to the two best students, both tall with fast serves, I beat a stubborn player to take home the plate trophy. I later partnered with him to become runners’ up in the men’s doubles tournament.

I also discovered singles and doubles short tennis, which is played with smaller rackets and a spongy ball on an indoor badminton court. It is so quick that there is little time to think. Plus it encourages players to hit the ball as hard as possible, which made it exciting.

As I developed I learnt how to serve with more speed, use topspin, grip a two-handed backhand and hit the ball deeper and into the corners.

But most of all tennis taught me the importance of foot placementTennis relies on control of the racket and ball, which is only possible with strong posture and a well-balanced position on the court. Tennis further developed my ability to extend my swing and react quickly, usually as the lawn in my garden was uneven and the bounce unreliable.

Unsurprisingly, I loved running for the ball from one side of the court to the other, or to the net and back. Unbeknown to me at the time, tennis was an effective fitness routine.

What High School Basketball taught me about Running

When I played basketball in high school I was best known for steals and scoring on the fast break.

To win the ball back I would hassle the opposing team’s ball carrier. This meant I would get as close to the ball as I could without touching (fouling) the player. When the opponent passed to a team-mate I would sprint to follow the ball, even when this was not the coach’s instructions or in the best interest of my team’s formation. I would also dive on the hard court in an attempt to reclaim the ball or intercept a pass. At times I would be reminded by players and coaches of my role to defend only one player.

This never deterred me from prioritising running, as I was an effective scorer when my team had the ball and I would sprint the length of the court to receive a long pass close to the basket. This was only possible because of my fast speed and sharp reactions.

Basketball taught me the importance of sprint endurance. Basketball relies on repeated short bursts of high intensity running. There were times that I would exhaust myself within minutes of playing but as I often played half the game time this skill allowed me to be a more influential bench player.

Although I enjoyed the thrill (and to a lesser extent the pressure) of handling, passing and scoring the basketball, my attributes as a player stemmed from running. I played so I could sprint all over the court for as long as my fitness would allow. It became a personal challenge.

However, I admit that I am not best suited for basketball and a future in that sport was unlikely. I tried out for the basketball team in my first year at university. I am five feet, six inches tall and, despite the hours of practice before, during and after school in the sports hall and in my back garden, I was never a confident ball carrier or convincing long-range shooter. My best attribute was never giving up on retrieving the ball from the opposition. That was never going to be enough to get me into an ambitious senior team.

I first played basketball when I was twelve years old and represented my high school for the five years I studied there. I amassed a total of 40 games, over 220 points and won three borough championships.

Although not often a starter, I look back at the sport as an unexpected achievement. This proves that energy and commitment can take a sportsman surprisingly far.