Today I was at the pool hall and I bumped into some awesome people and had some good discussions about some various topics. One topic that came up was "how should I aim the cue ball?" I basically explained a method where you can use the cue to help you line up the direction to aim which was very similar to the system explained in this video. I said I'd make a blog post about it so here it is.
Aiming in pool is one of the best examples of a concept that benefits from visualization. So much so that I'm making a billiards simulator program to help create learning aids for visualizing aiming amongst other things. That project isn't in a state where I can pull anything out of it so I hope to come back later and edit in anything related to aiming techniques created there.
There are a variety of ways in which you can go about lining up a shot. The most important thing is finding a method that is consistent that works well for you.
Where the balls are at the point of contact
An important starting point is knowing where the balls need to be at the point of contact in order to make a pot. Whatever aiming method you choose eventually has to be with the explicit aim of getting the cue ball to contact the object ball in teh desired location. You might be wondering, where is that location?
This is where the ghost ball concept comes in. The ghost ball is just the place that cue ball is at when the impact with the object ball happens.
The line that runs through the center of the ghost ball and the object ball points in the direction that the object ball will travel. So lining up the ghost ball in such a way that the line points to a pocket will give you a way of finding out how to pot the object ball into that pocket. Some people aim by imagining that they are aiming at the spot where the ghost ball is. Many people have a lot of trouble aiming with this method so don't be worried if it doesn't work for you, there's tons of other methods out there.
Some other methods include:
And there's many more at the billiards.colostate.edu aiming methods page. Try a few and see which ones work best for you.
Coming up with a repeatable method is very important
One of the biggest things with any aiming system is that it needs to be consistent. Consistency is the biggest part of skill in all the cue sports. How you aim is the biggest part of this, you need a way that you can consistently aim. If your aiming method is not consistent then you will miss shots unnecessarily and worse the variance that is induced by this inconsistency will make adjusting much harder.
One of the biggest parts of making shots is being very comfortable with where you need to aim the ball. Much of this comfort comes from consistently making the shots.
There's a few main areas that contribute to your aiming consistency:
Consistency in the aiming method itself. Having one aiming method and sticking with it is so incredibly important. If you go back and forward with different mental models for aiming it can really get in the way even if those ways of thinking about it work together well. If those ways of thinking about the aim conflict when you are taking shots it will most likely lead to huge frustration. Pick one aiming method for your shot before you take it and resolve to think of no other aiming method until after that shot is complete. Going to this effort helps a lot because anything to cut out brutal second-guessing is a huge win in this game. Even if you are experimenting with using different aiming methods on a given day make sure that you don't get in the habit of using more than one system in any particular shot. I made that mistake a while back and it led to the most frustrating time of my entire pool playing experience.
Consistency in execution. This includes the following:
- Having the same general stance on each shot.
- Having the same bridge (when possible).
- Having a consistent cue action. The last backswing when feathering is especially important, the more controlled the final backswing is the more accurate you will be. Hold the cue with the same amount of pressure and try to not "death grip" it. 
- Having a consistent eye movement pattern. This is a bit more advanced, but the general gist of it is that you want to be looking at the same place just before the cue impacts the ball. For me I pause slightly on the last backswing to give my eyes enough time to focus on the object ball I'm aiming at. 
|||try to hold the cue as softly as you can, holding it too tight will causes a ton of problems. If you suffer from this affliction like I did then you'll be really surprised by just how lightly you can grip the cue and still execute solid shots without losing the grip on the cue.|
|||There's a bunch of papers about this from the golfing world. They refer to this as "Quiet eyes". The concept is remarkably powerful for reasons I don't fully understand.|
Consistency and focus are so huge, if you can get these together it will transform your game.
Get comfortable with your aiming system
Whatever your choice of aiming system is, getting comfortable with it is extremely important. If you are new to the game or new to a aiming system don't be too concerned, this does take time. However the objective is to develop that comfort level with your aiming system. Having the confidence in being able to rely on your aiming system marks a significant milestone in a players development.
Coming up with a good heuristic method for aiming and also for understanding the resulting paths of the balls gives you the ability to greatly relieve the mental load while not giving up much in the way of potting effectiveness. The mental space that is freed allows you to focus on any number of other aspects of the game that are important like the cue motion and getting focused on the shots. In activities requiring precise aim and focus having too much mental clutter significantly gets in the way of the highest levels of performance. In a very much Zen like way you don't want to think too much when executing the shot. In this way it's more important that you get comfortable with your aiming method than it is to agonize over finding the "perfect" aiming method.
Figuring out the exact path of all the balls on the table is very computationally intensive and unnatural. When you are actually playing you don't have the time to think through all the variables and more importantly it's not a natural mode of thinking. If too much mental energy is devoted to thinking about the aim then other parts of your technique will suffer. You can see a really good example of this when professional players miss what's otherwise a very easy shot for them because they are so focused on doing something very specific with the placement of the balls.
When you are actually in a game being able to consciously elucidate why you are aiming in a certain way isn't the most important thing. It can even be detrimental. You just need to feel comfortable at the time of hitting the shot in order to maximize your chances of hitting the shot.