Snooker is a sport inextricably bound with nerve shredding tension and psychological pressure. Never is that more apparent than when a player is on the verge of victory.
Commentator Clive Everton coined the phrase ‘Clincher’s Disease’ to describe the affliction a player might suffer in those crucial moments where he is trying to close out the match. He might have performed at the peak of his ability to get to the verge of victory, but he becomes aware that if he fails to pot those last few balls, his previous efforts will count for nothing.
Devastating collapses and colossal fightbacks seem to occur more in snooker than any other sport. In a football match, if one team is 3-0 ahead with five minutes to go, they can run down the clock until time is up. But in snooker, no matter how significant a player’s lead, he still needs to win one more frame before the handshake. And that’s when anxiety can take hold, as he considers the psychological consequences of blowing his advantage.
There have been countless examples of players letting seemingly unassailable advantages slip. Ken Doherty trailed Paul Hunter 15-9 in their 2003 World Championship semi-final, but eventually emerged a 17-16 winner. Mike Hallett led Stephen Hendry 8-2 in the 1991 Masters final, before the Scot stormed back to win 9-8.
And the most famous of all: Dennis Taylor trailed Steve Davis 8-0 in the early stages of the 1985 World Championship final, before winning 18-17 on the last black in the deciding frame, as 18.5 million television viewers followed the epic drama until nearly 1am.
Davis may have buckled in the vital moments on that occasion, but for much of his career he was a ruthless finisher of matches as he accumulated 28 ranking titles including six Crucible crowns.
The key to fulfil your potential, Davis once said, is to play as if it means nothing, when in fact it means everything. To achieve that zen like state, one must avoid thoughts of what has gone before and what could be to come.
“There is a lot you have to forget and there is a lot you have to remove from your mind,” said Davis. “You have to forget about press conferences, commentators and the fact that everybody is getting ready backstage for the match to finish.
“Towards the end of a Crucible final you can sense that things are going on behind the curtain. You know they are all bunched up backstage, ready to come out on to the arena floor. Everyone is going crazy around you and you need to be the calmest one. I was naturally good at being able to do that.
“When you are one frame away from winning you are in a zone where some people are able to keep the wolves at bay and others aren’t. The key is to be able to forget any bad shots or anything that has happened in the past, that has no relevance to what you need to do now.
“Obviously this gets easier with time. The first tournament win or the first in a particular event is obviously the hardest. The bigger the prize, the more the pressure builds up. You just have to be able to climb that ladder and cope with the dizzy heights.”
Chris Henry has coached snooker greats such as Stephen Hendry and Shaun Murphy, as well as golfers Lee Westwood and Rafael Cabrera Bello. His approach is based on neural science: repetition and habit help the brain to normalise potentially difficult situations. The aim is to make the conscious act of playing a sport into a subconscious one. He also believes that a player’s subconscious psyche can be the source of negative thoughts.
“Once a player gets towards the finishing line they may start thinking about the outcome and what we call future thinking,” explained Henry. “Their emotional state changes and they start to feel different. We know snooker is a high skill sport and there is a fine line between playing great and not playing well. If you feel emotionally different then your muscles and technique react differently as well. The backswing can change and the cue ball physics are different.
“Most of these thoughts are happening subconsciously. So for the most part it is out of a player’s control. You can consciously try to override it, but that is very difficult. Repetition of thoughts can help the brain to be more prepared for when situations arise. This all goes on in an interesting part of the brain, because it doesn’t know the difference between fantasy and reality. That means that you can create memory files in preparation for something happening and aim to be a bit more comfortable.
“Stephen Hendry was phenomenal. I coached him for seven years and his levels of concentration and focus were unbelievable. He was like a cat watching the mouse. You couldn’t distract him and he was very unemotional. His emotional states were on a pretty flat line. That is perfect for sport. The more you can keep on an even keel emotionally the better. He genuinely believed he was going to win every match and through his aggressive playing style he felt superior. That also intimidated other players.”
Last season’s Shoot Out runner-up Michael Holt is among the most experienced players on the circuit, having been a professional for 23 years. Having witnessed countless personalities and characters on the tour over the years, he has learned that there is no single formula for success in pressure cooker situations. Holt feels that each player has their own unique way of handling the approach to the finish line.
He said: “Neil Robertson is a fantastic example. Away from snooker he collects his Warhammer figures and can sit painting them for hours. He is the same in the snooker arena. That is his mentality. I’m a thinker and can’t switch off. Neil has a great ability to focus on one thing and stay in the moment. Obviously he has a great technique and is very talented. But there are a lot of people like that. Mentally he is incredible.
“I’ve met a lot of the great champions. Mark Williams is one extreme. He will tell everyone he doesn’t care and isn’t bothered. We all know he is, but that is how he gets himself past the line. Whereas Peter Ebdon is very focussed and driven. People look for inspiration from the champions, but their mentality might not suit an individual, so doing that is a waste of time. You need to look inside yourself and think about what will work for you.”
Phil Yates has been working on the circuit as a commentator for over 30 years and has become accustomed to reading the signs of capitulation on the table.
Yates said: “I’m not going to mention any names, but you know the guys who are more likely to falter when they have a big lead. You know who is most susceptible as it really does tend to be a recurring pattern. Players say in press conferences that past experiences don’t impact on how they think. They do. Even if you don’t consciously think about it. That is simply human nature. There is definitely a pattern which develops over the years with players who are more likely to suffer from it.
“One of the best recent examples of overcoming that is Judd Trump. He had some really difficult defeats two seasons ago. None more so than when he led Kyren Wilson 5-2 in the Masters semi-finals and lost 6-5. I thought that would have a big impact. However, it couldn’t have been any more different. He has come back and had the best year of his life and reached the pinnacle of the sport by becoming World Champion. It just shows that even if it is difficult to do so, you can overcome potential mental scars.”
Confidence in my opinion plays a big role. Chris Henry is cited above, telling how confident Hendry was in his prime. He believed he could win every match. But those, like me, who have watched him in the last years of his career, will remember how often he started a match playing well, missed one shot and that turned the match as his game seemed to disintegrate completely.
Confidence comes with winning, but winning isn’t enough. Both Mark Selby and Ronnie are great champions, and serial winners, but aren’t naturally confident persons. Maybe in both cases, it’s linked to rather traumatic experiences during their childhood and teenagers years. Both are sensitive persons, prone to anxiety, very far from the “emotional flatness” that Chris Henry mentions about Hendry. Ronnie tends to express it in various ways, Mark tends to try to bottle it. Ronnie has grown into an ultra perfectionist who tends to run away or self-punish//sabotage when he can’t sustain the – often unrealistic – level of performance he sets for himself. Less so nowadays than in the past, but he still does. Mark tends to go into his shell, overthink and turn negative, this despite knowing full well that he plays better when he plays faster, with more freedom. It’s all the more remarkable that they have achieved so much.