One of the most common questions I get, besides "When is the movie coming out?", is "How can I improve my game?". The real answer is a bit long winded, so I usually find myself using the lazy answer of, "Practice.", but now I'm going to write out the complete answer so next time someone asks me, I can just redirect them to this post.
I'm not lying when I say practice makes you better...of course it does, but it's how you practice that makes the biggest difference. If you find yourself mindlessly banging balls around, you aren't practicing. All practice should have a purpose. Whether it's working on mechanics or patterns, the common denominator should be that every moment at the table is spent trying to make your weaknesses become strengths. That will create a never ending cycle of things to work on.
2. Study The Game
One of the best, and most ignored ways to improve, is to study the game. Reading books and watching videos are shortcuts through the years someone else spent at the table. Find a favorite player (mine is Ralf Souquet), and watch them play. Try to anticipate their next move. If its the same as yours, good going, but if not, try to analyze why they played it differently. I can assure you, pro's always have a reason for their choices.
3. Find A Mentor
One of my other stock answers for improving is to find a mentor. In every pool room there is a decent player who probably knows more than you. Ask them questions, play sets against them and get a good critique of your game. Once you know your weaknesses, you know what to practice.
4. Develop a Solid Pre Shot Routine
Not enough can be said about this step. If you have a repeatable stroke it will make you a deadly player, even if your knowledge is lacking. Your pre shot should consist of 4 or 5 steps that you can go back and analyze on any missed shot. My personal pre shot is this:
1. Visualize the lines of aim while standing.
2. Step into the shot and set my feet. Once they're planted, they don't move.
3. Bend in half and coordinate my practice strokes while my eyes go from the cueball to the object ball, focusing on the smallest possible target on the object ball on the final stroke.
4. Follow straight through without decelerating.
If I miss, I can always go back to one of those steps that I forgot to do.
Now that you're practicing with a purpose, improving your knowledge, working with a mentor and using a repeatable stroke, it's time to take your skills for a spin. Competition is one of the best and most humbling ways to improve your game. You'll learn a lot about your game, and even more about yourself the more often you put yourself in the frying pan.
Good luck out there!