Setting out on your career, whatever your occupation, can be a daunting experience. However, attempting to catapult yourself from the amateur echelons of sport into the professional elite is as tricky as any career path.
All aspiring snooker players dream of making it on the World Snooker Tour. There has never been a more prosperous era for the circuit, with 25 tournaments and £14 million in prize money for the 2018/19 season. Despite this, clinching a place at snooker’s top table is just the beginning of the journey. Debutants must hit the ground running and have just two years to build up as much prize money as possible and earn a spot in the world’s top 64, or risk relegation from the professional ranks.
Joe O’Connor is starting his rookie season on the World Snooker Tour. The 22-year-old from Leicester had already established himself as one of the most prominent players in the amateur setup, having finished top of the 2017/18 EASB rankings and winning the prestigious English Amateur Championship earlier this year.
In his younger years O’Connor was more accustomed to the smaller table. He conquered the junior ranks in eight-ball pool, having been crowned Under-18 World Champion and Under-18 European Champion. At the age of 15, he began to take the idea of a career in cue sports more seriously and turned his attention to snooker. O’Connor admits that the early days of the switch were a steep learning curve
O’Connor said: “Going from winning almost everything to not winning anything was a bit of a shock. You have to learn to lose before you can win. Now the mentality is coming back. I think winning four out of the six amateur tour events last season and the English Amateur Championship has shown people that I am a winner. I can get the job done on more than one occasion.”
O’Connor had made several appearances on the tour prior to turning pro, competing as an amateur top up. He admits that this has helped his transition to becoming a fully-fledged professional.
“It is definitely different from the amateur circuit. All of the seasoned professionals have that aura about them. You don’t really get that on the amateur scene. It can be a little bit intimidating but at the end of the day you are there to play snooker.
“The experience of being a top up definitely helped me. Looking back, that is the best thing that I could have done. Getting the experience without the extra pressure of having to win matches to stay on the tour. I would have liked to get on the tour a few years ago but I wasn’t really good enough. Now I know what it takes and I am comfortable.
“Being from Leicester, Mark Selby gives me a few tips every now and then when I see him. I used to play a little bit slower than I do now. I played him at the 2015 UK Championship and even in the mid-session he came up to me and gave me a little bit of advice. Not everyone would do that, so it was really nice. He is the person I look up to and am inspired by on the tour.”
Former Masters champion Alan McManus has enjoyed a highly successful professional career which extends across 29 seasons so far. The Scot hit the ground running back in 1990, winning the Masters qualifying event as well as reaching the UK Championship semi-finals in his rookie year.
When looking at the modern era’s upcoming stars, McManus now believes that the introduction of more advanced technology and social media to society has created a gap in the market for any potential newcomers to expose.
“The world was a different place when I turned professional. All people like Ken Doherty, Peter Ebdon and myself ever did was play snooker, period. That was it. There wasn’t anything else to do. I’ve seen it with some young players nowadays, they are more interested in their phones than putting the hours in,” said the three-time ranking event winner. “I’ve always thought that if I was a young player I would watch what other people were doing and pick up on the fact that these days everybody is so busy on their phones. I’d get my head down and take advantage of the fact that a lot of people have their eye off the ball. It’s not easy, but life isn’t easy. That is what you have to do.
“You basically have to dedicate your life to the game as a young player. Especially with the tour being as competitive as it is now. I wrote a piece about Kyren Wilson a few years ago. I mentioned that I was very impressed with the way he practised when he was coming through. He has completely dedicated himself to snooker.”
McManus’s opinion on Kyren Wilson’s work ethic is vindicated by the rocky nature of his climb to snooker’s elite. The Englishman enjoyed one of his prominent seasons on tour last term, appearing in his maiden Triple Crown final at the Masters and reaching the semi-finals of the World Championship for the first time. However, Wilson’s early days on the circuit proved to be far from straightforward. He was relegated from the tour after his first season in 2010/11, but this came in the middle of a realisation that he needed to adapt his approach.
Wilson said: “For me a lot of it was technique. I certainly changed things after qualifying for the tour initially. I was getting away with what I was doing as an amateur because I was playing on club tables and getting more chances. Against the professionals you are playing in really nice conditions and if your game isn’t quite there then you have no chance. I made a few changes and when I got back on tour a few years later I could see the difference. Those changes are standing me in good stead now and I am getting the results.”
Simon Lichtenberg recently gained his place on tour by winning the European Under-21 Championship. That makes him the second current German professional after Lukas Kleckers, who came through Q School last year. Lichtenberg hopes that if he and Kleckers can be successful, they can inspire German followers of the sport.
“The fans really come out in force in Germany. The German Masters is one of the biggest venues on the tour and it sells out in the latter stages. If you play as a German competitor then everyone will be watching so that is something I really want to try and be a part of,” said the Berlin cueist. “One of the things I really hope comes from this is that Lukas and I can perform well and young people will see it and get inspired to think they can achieve things as well. It would be superb if we could spark a young generation from Germany.”
There are many aspects to joining the tour beyond simply competing on the table that players must contend with. This year a new Challenge Tour has been set up, which will see amateur players get the chance to compete in professional conditions with the aim of getting them ready for the step up to the main circuit.
Once they get there, the now global tour requires players to travel all over the world to ply their trade and although competitors are living out their dreams, the mental rigours of being a professional sportsman can take their toll. WPBSA Chairman Jason Ferguson believes it is vital to help young players find their way.
Ferguson said: “I do think it is really important for a player to set off on the right track. This year we are doing one to one inductions for new players and making sure they know everything they need to. One of the biggest things is travelling. When you are heading to countries where you don’t know the language and you need to sort out travel, it can be quite a daunting task.
“The other side is mental health. Professional snooker can be a lonely life. When you are out there performing in front of thousands of people, you are actually on your own. The attention is on you and it can do funny things with your head. We are always keen to keep an eye on the welfare of our players. Alongside our partner Talking Solutions we have given players access to a dedicated number and a network of support if they ever feel they need it. Hopefully players come in and enjoy the experience, it is what you have always dreamed about and these are the things you work for. However, we always need to keep an eye on people and their mental health.”