A short while ago, I made a 30 break.

Big deal, eh? Well, it was to me. In fact, it was enough to make me jump around like a teenager, and I’ve just turned 60. The satisfaction of watching those 8 balls drop into the pockets, red, black, red, pink, red, black, red and pink once more is a feeling I want to have again. As often as possible.

I was 58 when I started to learn how to play snooker properly. These are the stages I’ve gone through on the way to that joyous 30 break. The middle two are really tough.

1. Starting to learn how to play snooker

Snooker’s glory years happened when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Every town had a snooker hall, and me and my mates all thought we were Hurricane Higgins.

We would skip college lectures or bunk off work to fritter our afternoons away smoking, drinking and clattering balls around the cheap tables at our local club. The beery banter was as important as the snooker, and every now and again a lucky shot would reinforce our misguided belief that we knew what we were doing. To our Carling-soaked minds it was a sign that we were getting the hang of the game. Soon we would be the alpha male, cock-of-the-walk at the tables.

The only trouble was (speaking for myself but probably for my mates too), that, apart from the sitters, I had absolutely no idea why some shots worked and others didn’t.

There’s a phrase for that. It’s called unconscious incompetence. In everyday language, I was clueless, but I didn’t know it. I was blissfully ignorant of the fact that I wasn’t actually another Hurricane waiting to blow in.

Unconscious incompetence is the first, unavoidable stage in learning anything. Even Alex Higgins will have been completely clueless at some point.

2. When the penny drops

I got my first job in 1986, just after Joe Johnson stunned everyone by becoming World Champion (see…anyone can play snooker!) Life took over for the next 32 years and, except for the occasional frame in a social club somewhere, snooker very much took a back seat to family and career.

A few years ago an early retirement offer became more attractive than staying in the rat-race and I found myself with time on my hands. I remembered how much I had enjoyed playing the game in the 1980s and reckoned it would be fun to polish up my skills.

So I bought a Ronnie O’Sullivan cue from Argos (yes, really) and headed down to my local social club. Check out our post on what you should know before you buy a snooker cue.

I was so much worse than I remembered!

Naturally, I blamed everything apart from my own ability. The fact that I couldn’t screw back? Well, that was because I was using the wrong chalk. A £17 piece of Taom chalk didn’t fix that, so I blamed the cloth. It must have been worn out (here’s the truth about which snooker cloth is best). Still, neither the chalk, nor the cloth could explain my inability to predict where the cue ball was going.

The painful truth was dawning on me. I began to realise that I was clueless. This is the first of the two challenging stages in learning called conscious incompetence. In other words, it’s when you admit to yourself that you’re not very good at whatever it is you’re trying to master.

You won't learn to play snooker quickly without help

3. Deciding to learn how to play snooker properly

It was my persistent and, to my mind, baffling inability to generate any kind of spin on the cue ball that led me to seek out the services of snooker coach “Cyclone” Brian Cox. That was a good move.

Within 30 minutes of our first session, Brian identified several problems with my technique. I was leading with my left leg and shoulder, jabbing at the cue ball and, when I finally let go, my shots were like a right-hook. More Rocky Balboa than Alex Higgins. In fact on Brian’s list of the 10 most common snooker mistakes, I had’em all. No wonder, then, that I needed to learn how to play snooker properly.

It’s been 18 months since my first lesson. Under Brian’s tutelage I’ve managed to fix the worst of my technical issues. Now, on a good day, I can make breaks of twenty or more quite often. I’m beginning to understand what’s happening, and why. But, boy, do I have to concentrate hard to get anywhere!

This third stage in the learning process is called conscious competence. It’s the stage when you leave cluelessness behind and begin to develop some proper ability. I’m just moving into this stage. I can’t afford to relax though. The minute I drop my concentration the old bad habits rush back in. That’s why it’s such a tough stage. You have to think about what you’ve learned, all the time.

4. Into the zone

The final stage in the learning process is called unconscious competence. You might know it better as “being in the zone”. It’s when you can perform what you’ve learned to a high standard without even thinking about it. When you see Ronnie O’Sullivan effortlessly blowing an opponent away, you can bet he’s in the zone. Technically, he’s experiencing “flow”.

At 60 I’ll have to accept that I’ll probably never get there with snooker. There’s not enough time left. Some research suggests that it takes at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill. Assuming I practice for an hour a day (unlikely), I’ll need twenty-seven years to clock up that many hours.

And that ignores the genetic component of mastery that the best players are born with. What we call talent. When it comes to snooker, some people are born with better physical coordination and spatial awareness than others. Of course, it also helps to learn how to play snooker properly at sixteen rather than sixty.

Here’s a graphic representation of the four stages of learning.

You learn to play snooker in four stages

I hope I have a few moments of flow ahead of me, but that’s not really why I play. I just enjoy the game for itself, and that’s as is should be.

As for my frustrating inability to screw back, did Brian’s expert coaching fix that? Take a look…


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