The Role Of The Coach
Snooker is a craft of precision, timing and execution, but for many years professionals honed their metronomic motions alone. It is now increasingly common for top players to turn to coaches in their quest for perfection.
The art of delivering a cue through the ball in a straight line is far more complex than it sounds. Snooker is a sport where both mental demons and technical glitches loom large.
The 1979 World Champion, Terry Griffiths, has established himself as one of the top coaches on the World Snooker Tour and works with eight players, including Ding Junhui and Mark Allen. In his generation, coaches were few and far between, but Griffiths admits that he would have benefited from one during his playing career.
Griffiths said: “I always think that I would have loved to have a coach when I was playing. I know I would have performed better. I think as long as the player bonds with their coach then they will always do better with one than without one.
“Whatever situation the players find themselves in, I will have been through a similar one myself. That helps. If I hadn’t been a player, then I wouldn’t be the coach I am now. I don’t show emotions to my players really. I tell them that whatever I do, it will always be for them. If I am giving them a mouthful it is because I think they deserve it and it will improve them.”
Griffiths takes his belief that emotions are unhelpful in the coaching environment to the extent that he doesn’t want to become too familiar with his players. The Welshman spent several years working with Northern Ireland’s Allen before parting ways during the 2016/17 season. During their time apart, Allen won his maiden Triple Crown title at the 2018 Masters, but he has now returned to working with Griffiths, with great success.
Griffiths said: “I was with Mark for eight years then I left him alone for a while thinking he would benefit from it, and he won the Masters. I have a good idea when players are becoming more of a friend than just someone I am working with, because at that stage it isn’t helping them anymore. I stopped working with Barry Hawkins, Mark Davis and Michael Holt last season and I have to say they were very good about it. They all said we could work together again in the future.”
Allen admits he is delighted to be back alongside Griffiths. However, he doesn’t quite share the belief that he has benefited from their time apart.
“It is something I feel I needed. I’d have liked to stay with Terry the whole way through,” said Allen, who has won the International Championship and Scottish Open this season. “Even though I won the Masters, who is to say I might not have won more with him? I am happy with what I have in the sport, but I would like to think I’ve got a lot more tournaments to get under my belt in the future.
“Snooker is a lot to do with what is going on between the ears and that is what Terry and I have done well. He has been there and done it, so it is easy to trust what he is saying.”
While the mental side of snooker is crucial for certain players, others might look to change their technique in a bid to improve results. Mark Williams credits his snooker renaissance to adopting the SightRight method and believes it was a key factor in winning his first world title in 15 years back in May. Coach Steve Feeney, who created the technique, is also working with five-time Crucible king Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Arguably the best player of all time, O’Sullivan enjoyed one of his best seasons in 2017/18, winning five ranking titles. He first worked with Feeney towards the end of last season, and started the current campaign in the same winning groove, taking the Shanghai Masters, Champion of Champions and UK Championship titles. Feeney himself believes that we will only see the result of the change in the long-term.
He said: “Nick Faldo made a change to his swing over two years to make sure he could achieve what he wanted to. This is kind of where we are with Ronnie. To make those changes can be huge work.
“Faldo got horrendous criticism at the time, but he knew by doing that, he could go on to achieve what he wanted. I tend to think I know what I can do, I know what Ronnie can do and I can see what he is doing. I can put people on a line of aim for a shot that they can’t see for themselves. Any angle from anywhere. When you can start showing that to a player of Ronnie’s class, then the belief just automatically comes in. You develop the trust because you prove what can be done and they see what can be done.”
Chris Henry has worked alongside giants of the baize such as Stephen Hendry and Shaun Murphy, as well as some of golf’s top players, including former Ryder Cup stars Lee Westwood and Rafael Cabrera Bello. Henry’s biggest area of expertise is the mental implementation of habit and repetition and he uses that to link into the technical realm. Henry’s method is based in neural science, which aims to make the act of playing a sport into a subconscious one, much like riding a bike or driving a car.
“The key is to have very sound mechanical habits,” said Henry. “This is interesting because to see by habit we actually go through the visual cortex of our brain and not our eyes. This is why sometimes we aren’t seeing what we think we are. A player can believe they are addressing the ball in a certain way, but they aren’t. It is my job to identify if they are doing anything wrong and get them back on track with things.
“Once a player reaches a certain level in golf or snooker, then the mental side becomes more important. There are two sides to everything. There is competence and there is confidence, allowing yourself to be able to do what you need to do. Once you have that competence then it becomes confidence, self-belief, self-esteem and self-image. These are the kind of things we work on to help a player feel comfortable in match situations.”
Former World Champion Murphy has worked with both Henry and Feeney and he believes that the evolution of any sport sees competitors seeking to employ coaches in different areas of expertise, in order to find that edge on their opponents.
“If you don’t work with anybody and you are just a standalone guy, then what you are saying is that you know everything,” said Murphy. “You don’t need anyone’s help. I don’t know any champions, in any sport, who have succeeded that way. There are people out there with more knowledge than me. I think it is good to go to coaches. They have their own speciality. Steve’s speciality is sighting and alignment. Chris’s speciality is cueball deflection and the mental side of the game.
“It is wise to have somebody in your corner. A lot of the top golfers have a nutritionist, a swing coach, a mental coach and a manager. Snooker is starting to go that way, it is getting so big at the top of the game that the guys are looking at how they can improve their performance.”
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