To become a World Champion, you have to practise like one. “It’s a bit like being in Tron,” Steve Davis says. “You are completely at one with the game.”
Davis: “In my 20s, I’d go on long walks in the build up to Sheffield, the same way Ronnie goes on runs now. I’d lose half a stone during the tournament.”
The six-time world champion is describing the closing moments of a final. A soon-to-be champion playing the snooker of his life as hours of hard work culminate in near-perfect play; unbound by fear or doubt, he clears the table in auto pilot mode, as though angles are imprinted on the brain, the balls now unmissable. But how has he come to be this way?
Snooker, by its very nature, is a sport which demands obsessive levels of repetition and practice. The World Championship is snooker’s marathon, with triumph in Sheffield requiring 71 frame wins over the course of 17 days. That a player is in better technical shape at the end of a tournament than at the start few can doubt, but is such proficiency simply the outcome of match play, or the result of things unseen?
“Practice is not only something a player must do, it is something he must want to do,” explains Davis, who dominated the sport in the 1980s, and closed the curtain on a 30-year world championship career with a quarter final appearance in 2010. “Certainly, in the early years, it’s something you’re excited about. Later in your career, it’s work between tournaments, which are the icing on the cake.”
The environment in which a player first picks up a cue often helps define his approach to practice. Equally as crucial is the degree of natural talent possessed by a player. While three-time world champion Mark Williams would “just play other people” growing up in South Wales, London-raised Davis would look to improve his technique systematically and alone, the social element removed.
“I grew up in an area where there weren’t many great players, which meant I opted for solo practice,” Davis continues. “It was the only way I knew.
“A player must balance solo sessions with sparring though, and that balance is often predetermined by style. If a player is more technically minded, they will seek solo practice. If they are more of a natural player, it’s more likely they’ll pursue sparring.
“We have to be careful when talking about natural talent. When asked to name the naturally gifted, people will immediately say Jimmy (White) and Ronnie (O’Sullivan), Alex (Higgins) of course. They’d be on my list, but Cliff Thorburn would be too. Natural talent isn’t just about being quick.
“I always considered myself a very natural player, with the ability to play faster in exhibitions, but in match situations I wanted to prepare for every shot. Of course, that’s less entertaining but it doesn’t mean you are any less naturally gifted.”
Natural talent myth dispelled, it’s the going above and beyond that unites the best. Not so much the what and the how, but the when and the why. When some lack inspiration, the crème de la crème find unlimited supply. All players dream of winning the world title, but those who go on to achieve the ultimate feat have envisaged the moment on repeat every time they open their cue case on the baulk rail of the practice table.
“The motivation comes from within,” Davis says. “At my absolute peak as a kid, I was probably in the club for eight hours every day. If you want to become a success, you naturally gravitate towards doing lots of hours.
“Of course, you have to find ways to make practice entertaining. That might come from challenging players to an exhibition, and beating people doesn’t do you any harm.
“When it comes to the World Championship, it’s like training for a marathon. In my 20s, I’d go on long walks in the build up, the same way Ronnie goes on runs now. I’d lose half a stone during the tournament.”
Extending the marathon metaphor, there are three common mantras employed by the runner. ‘Running just enough’ is the first, and it’s easier to apply for some than others. Feeling ‘eager’ for the challenge ahead is as important as feeling ‘trained’ for it. Being ‘ready’ is not just about hours of graft. Obsessing about peaking at the right time can be counter-productive.
Reigning world champion Mark Selby adheres to this approach, underlining the importance of rest and general wellbeing as he builds towards the biggest challenge of the season.
“Form comes and goes, so – unless you have something deeply technically wrong – you just need to have a positive frame of mind,” Selby said. “We’re travelling a lot now and being mentally in a good place is the key.
“I still practise a lot, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t cheat the game. It’s about resting and not worrying too much. Years ago, I’d really step up my practice for the Crucible but we have so many tournaments now that, by April, you’re in good shape.”
The importance of feeling fresh, particular as you get older, is acknowledged by four-time world champion John Higgins, runner-up at the Crucible in each of the last two seasons. After progressing through round two of the Scottish Open in December, Higgins revealed that his entire preparation for the tournament had come in an hour’s session on his home table the previous day. Hardly the Davis formula. But it proved effective, as he comprehensively overcame Jack Lisowski and Scott Donaldson, and eventually beat Ronnie O’Sullivan on his way to the last four.
“Sometimes when you put the cue away, you come back and feel quite fresh,” Higgins said.
Last season, the success of Higgins, O’Sullivan and Williams was remarkable; the trio won 12 tournaments between them. All three have methods of ‘keeping fresh’. While O’Sullivan focuses on balancing snooker with healthy living, Williams benefits from practising with young, enthusiastic up-and-comers.
Williams: “I’ve never practised too much on my own. I just play people.”
He said: “Last season I was in the club playing with Jackson Page and Duane Jones from 9am until 3pm, but they’ll often be there until 7pm. The youngsters have the appetite and it has rubbed off on me.”
What Williams is unconsciously completing is Marathon Training, Part 2: ‘Do Your Long Runs.’ Preparing for the slog by practising the slog. Like runners, snooker players competing for the world title need to be on their feet for more than four hours a session, and there are no corners to be cut in preparation for succeeding in the endurance department.
According to Davis, players “search for a balance of solo sessions and sparring” but, while Williams is getting plenty of the latter, solo sessions are something he has openly neglected from the get-go.
“I never do solo sessions,” Williams said. “I’ve never gone in and practised too much on my own. I class myself as one of the best rest players, and I never practise with the rest. It’s the same with safety. I just play people.”
The natural instinct to play with others stems from Williams’ social introduction into the game; early experiences of snooker were in a social environment in which tables were shared. The thrill of engaging in battle with an opponent was there from the start. While Davis alludes to the dangers of constant sparring, suggesting “bad habits can creep in if you’re chasing your opponent around the table”, Williams firmly argues that his rhythm cannot be affected, by anyone.
“I could play the quickest or slowest player on tour and not change my style,” the Welshman said.
Finally, the marathon runner’s mantra of “recover, recover, recover” refers to the ever-present jeopardy of overtraining. But does this fear exist in snooker – a practice-makes-perfect discipline? Few have pushed snooker’s training boundaries like Davis, whose daily routine consisted of repetitive drills, commencing with running the cue ball up and down the spots. “I think I over-practised,” he admits.
During the World Championship, players use the practice tables backstage at the Crucible in half hour slots, and no more, to “get their arm going” – a phrase Davis, Selby and Williams use as though they have exchanged notes. Training – at least in its regimented form – is left at the Crucible’s stage door, woven into the psyche and ready to be unleashed on the other side of the curtain, in front of 980 anticipant spectators. Cerebral health becomes the focus. Producing the goods rests on clarity of mind. Practice slots become no more than “a comfort blanket”, according to Davis.
“You’ll often see a player go straight on the practice table at the mid-session interval,” he said. “It’s about making your cue action so automatic that you don’t have to think about it.
“In the most memorable moments, you’re instinctive, unconscious almost. It feels like you’re playing down the club – you’re relaxed and enjoying it, but you’re playing in front of the Crucible crowd.
“It’s a magical moment, knocking those final colours in.”
In the build up to the World Championship, balance is key. Belief is essential. Enjoyment is beneficial. At the sound of the starting pistol, it’s every man for himself and the hours of labour on the practice table not only aid the player’s heightened technical and physical demands, but perhaps more importantly usher aside his psychological doubts. Practice makes proficient, and the more regularly a player practises the more likely he will be able to enter a Tron-like state at Sheffield’s Theatre of Dreams.