If you take your game seriously, there comes a time when you must acknowledge if you are not getting better at it. You play, you practice, but at some point everything stays the same. You don’t get better; you don’t get worse. Your game simply stalls. You’ve hit a plateau.

The human being is an incredible adapter to different environments, but when those environments become too comfortable, and when the body or mind is not being sufficiently challenged, progress ceases. In fact, it is common for players to experience several plateaus through the years—from beginner to intermediate to professional—but the goal is to push past it and get your body and mind to take that next step in your game.

Think about the process of bodybuilding. If you have never lifted weights seriously before, once you start your body will make good progress and will continue to progress until your muscles become used to the exercises you’re doing, the weights you’re using, the routine you’re completing, the same old schedule. Muscle memory takes over and remembers how much force it must use to complete the same old tasks and commands only as much effort as required. Eventually, the body reaches a stasis and stays in the shape that it’s in. In order to get bigger, things have to be changed; exercises have to be rearranged; weights have to be increased; the muscles have to get out of their comfort zone and become confused. They have to be worked differently and harder.

Your pool skills are no different: if you do not challenge yourself but instead get used to the way things are, progress slows or stops entirely. Therefore, when we sense that we are not improving, we must change things up. Luckily for your pool game, there is a great exercise to do this and to force yourself to push past your current level. It’s called playing the ghost.

Here is the drill: first, determine your level of play. Are you a beginner, a C-level player, B-level, or above? The drill works at every level, including the professional, but it is practiced differently depending on the level. Let’s say for this example that you are a B-level player.

For a B-player, throw out six balls onto the table. Take ball in hand for your first shot, and pocket the balls in numerical order. But here is the catch: play a race against the “ghost.” For example, let’s play a race to 9. In this case, if you run all of the six balls without missing, you win a game—mark it up on the score beads and be sure to keep track. Throw out six balls again; take ball in hand; run them in order. If you miss or play out of position so that you have no shot and must play a safety, you lose that game. Mark up one for the ghost. The score would now be 1-1. Throw out another six balls, take ball in hand for your first shot, and try to run them in order again. And on and on until the set is complete and someone wins.

The beauty of this drill is that it measures your ability and places continual pressure on you. You are in essence playing a match. A very unforgiving match. If you play, say, three races to 9 and lose all of them badly, reduce the number of balls to five and try again. If you win the six-ball race easily, adjust upward and place seven balls on the table, or eight, and so on, until you are adequately challenged.

For the professional, it is common to break a rack of nine- or ten-ball, not take ball in hand, and play a race with the ghost this way. My recommendations for how many balls you should use depending on your skill level are the following.

If you are:
D-level, or beginner: 3 balls
C to C+: 4 or 5 balls
B to B+: 6 or 7 balls
A to A+: 8 or 9 balls
Open or Professional: 9 or 10 balls, from the break.

Playing the ghost presents such a challenge and applies such pressure if you take it seriously that you will see your game advance past the plateau you’re caught in within a short time. You will find that your tournament and league matches also become easier because you will be used to practicing harder and practicing under pressure.

Take my advice and try it. Don’t allow yourself to stagnate for years at a time. You can get better.