I lose at snooker quite often. Too often perhaps. No excuses, but let’s put things in context. I’m 61, with a dodgy right eye, and I’ve only been playing seriously for 4 years. Losing at snooker shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

Yet, recently a good friend of mine, who plays off the same handicap, beat me and I didn’t win a single frame. That hurt! Especially as I had just won in the same way against someone with a lower handicap. In the last frame of those two hours of torture, I had a moment when I could have snapped my cue over my knee and given the game up. I’m guessing you’ve been there too.

Driving home, thinking about why I was feeling so bad over that particular defeat, I mulled over some of the things I learned during my business career. There were two things I had been forgetting about: my mindset and the Chimp that lives in my head.

1. Do you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset?

Losing at snooker feels very different depending on whether you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

Someone with a fixed mindset believes that people are either good at something, or they’re not. When they’re losing, they say things to themselves like “I’m no good at snooker. Somebody up there doesn’t like me. That guy gets all the luck!” With a fixed mindset, losing feels like a judgment on their adequacy. It demands that they prove yourself to others because, well, you’ve either got it or you haven’t. Failure has to be explained away by something external, like bad luck, in order to save face.

Someone with a growth mindset sees the world quite differently. For them, every experience is a challenge that can be learned from. When they are losing at snooker, they’ll say “I haven’t got the hang of this yet. What can I do to perform better? What can I learn from this guy?” For someone with a growth mindset, it’s all about self-development rather than comparing themselves to others. They know that they are the cause of their own performance.

A fixed mindset grows out of hearing the wrong things. If someone has always been told how good they are, or how smart, they come to believe that their worth is measured by what they can do. When failure comes along, as it almost always does, they interpret it as a reflection on their worth as a person. Compare that to someone who hears and believes that it’s effort and attitude that define them. When they hear that they are admired for the way they approach things, failures put a much smaller dent in their self-worth.

A growth mindset can be developed by learning to value the process as much as the result. All of us who play snooker for enjoyment are somewhere on the learning curve from incompetence to mastery. I’ve written about the learning process in another blog post. It’s helpful to know where you are but if you want to encourage a growth mindset it’s even more important to banish judgment from your thought process.

Any time you go into a snooker match having pre-judged yourself against your opponent, you’re betraying a fixed mindset and risking failure. It’s why the saying that football’s F.A. Cup is a “great leveller” is so true. So many times the big teams go into the match thinking it’s already won and get a painful reality-check. It’s one reason it hurt so much when my friend beat me recently. I’d approached my match with him on the back of a good win and overestimated myself.

Maintaining a growth mindset becomes easier when you can see your efforts paying off, but it can also be a fragile thing. If you’re playing in an environment where people are always judging or taking the mickey out of each other, you will find it hard to develop. That’s why we are so hot on our values of courtesy and respect at Surrey Snooker Academy. We want all of our members to be able to develop a growth mindset.

Of course, these paragraphs can only provide a glimpse into the work that has been done on mindsets. If you want to learn more, the book by Dr Carol Dweck is an accessible read and widely available. The chapter on sports is particularly relevant and tells how Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan developed their growth mindsets. There is also a good Google podcast on Spotify.


2. Losing at snooker upsets your Chimp

Inside your head there lives a large Chimp. It hates losing at snooker.

Thankfully, there is also a human being who has a computer. With the right training the human can use the computer to keep the Chimp under control.

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This metaphor is the way Professor Steve Peters explains our emotional response to situations and gives us techniques to manage them. His name should be familiar to all snooker fans, since Ronnie O’Sullivan has had a long professional relationship with Peters. Any time you hear Ronnie saying how winning isn’t important to him, that’s a Chimp management tactic learned from Peters.

The Chimp is our primitive brain, which evolved to respond to threats in our ancient environment. It is responsible for our fight or flight response, which was very necessary when there were creatures out there that wanted to eat us. It’s a big, powerful part of our brain that responds before the rest of our brain has a chance to react. These days, for most of us, there are fewer dangerous things in our environments. The Chimp doesn’t sleep though. It just turns its attention to other things that it doesn’t like.

Let’s go back to that painful match with my friend to see the Chimp in action. The first few frames had been frustrating but reasonably close. He was blocking me effectively, leaving very few chances and picking me off. Without a frame on the board, I just wanted to win the last one for pride’s sake. There were only 5 balls left on the table. The green was safe. The other balls were each close to a pocket. Whoever potted the green would win. Then, playing a safety, he fluked it and cleared up.

My Chimp, agitated but so far under control, started to beat its chest and rage to be let out of its box. I had a full-on fixed-mindset response to that fluked green. Sometimes you hear the expression “his head has gone”. That was me. I’m glad the match ended with that clearance. I couldn’t wait to put my cue away. My human must have been having the afternoon off, because he should have been helping me from the moment the match began.

The human is the rational part of the brain that uses reason to work out what’s going on. It’s slower to respond than the Chimp because it has to think before it can offer you any advice. Sometimes it has to stop everything else so that it can process the necessary information. Try asking someone a difficult question whilst they are walking and watch them stop in their tracks.

My human could have advised me about luck that afternoon. It would have told me that everyone is lucky sometimes. It would have reminded me that, thanks to something called loss aversion, I don’t remember my own good luck as much as I remember the good luck an opponent has against me. Unfortunately, the human is easily overpowered by the Chimp. To properly box the Chimp in requires the computer.

The computer is your operating system. It contains your core beliefs. The things you believe to be true. When the human can lean on these core beliefs, the Chimp can be beaten. That brings us back to the fixed and growth mindsets. When the Chimp wanted me to snap my cue over my knee that afternoon, it was because my human wasn’t able to access a growth mindset in my computer. Instead the computer had a Gremlin in its hard drive called the fixed mindset. If your computer has a strong operating system in the form of a growth mindset your Chimp will be docile.

In the world of snooker, Mark Williams probably has the most zen Chimp of anyone who makes their living from the game. In the 2018 World Championship final against John Higgins, Mark was standing on the brink of victory but twitched on the pink. John cleared the table with a 65 break – enough to send most people’s Chimp into a fit. Not Williams, though. He brushed it aside as if it never happened and won the next frame to lift the title. Williams sets a standard to aspire to.

Steve Peters’ book, The Chimp Paradox, has been a massive hit. It can help with every walk of life. Again, it is accessible and widely available.

Chimp 2

I must offer the disclaimer that I have never been a psychologist, and I urge you to read the books if the topic has piqued your interest, but I’ve used both theories successfully in business.

Did remembering this stuff help me any..? Yes, and how! In my next match I had a clean sweep victory over a player who is significantly better than me. I forgot about winning and focussed on the things I’d been coached to do. My Chimp stayed in his box all afternoon, even when my opponent enjoyed a fluke or two.

If there is anything in this blog post that helps you deal with losing at snooker, I’ve spent my time well.

I’d love to hear your comments.

2 responses

  1. Great read Steve , we all start with the fixed mindset and eventually move to the growth mindset as it’s our only alternative, I don’t mind losing to anyone as long as I play half decent and will address my own shortcomings , if I should play terribly, I’ll analyse and hit the practice table

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