If you’re really serious about your game, you must understand that practicing does not end with the actual practice session at the table. Once you call it a day at the pool room, there are things you can do to continue to improve. In this article, I’ll discuss some of these activities.

I would say, first, that the most important thing next to actually playing pool is watching it. Whether this happens as a spectator at your local billiard club or via TV or the Internet, spectatorship is imperative to your improvement. And this doesn’t stop when you become an advanced player—we must always watch the masters even if we become one ourselves.

But I don’t mean passive watching while talking with your friends or surfing the web or dozing off; I mean really studying. There is no profession on earth at which you’ll excel without serious study. This means that you’ll need to set aside time—you might require one match per day of yourself—to devote to such serious study. Internet matches are a wonderful and usually free opportunity to watching the pros, but commentary is usually lacking, and I cannot emphasize enough how important good commentary from knowledgeable players is. Commentary from Accu-Stats, for example, is usually unrivaled, and I highly recommend their matches. You will learn more than you can imagine from quality commentary.

But I digress. When you watch a match, take it seriously; replay certain shots; pause, for example, after the break and predict what pattern the player will choose as he or she runs out the rack; watch body language; learn to pick up on cues as to when a player becomes rattled or visibly shaken; when he jumps up or becomes generally less confident and steady and how the opponent responds to these strengths or weaknesses—learning to recognize cues like these can help you to win matches. Where are the players breaking from? Are they executing successful breaks? Why or why not? Ask yourself why the losing player lost—was there, for example, a turning point in the match from which the player could not recover? Or was it one or two bad safes? When a player makes an error, note it and determine how many games or points it costs. This is how you begin to learn the value of mistakes and just how costly they can be.

When you watch pool, another thing begins to happen: your brain analyzes the forms, strokes, and rhythms of other players, interprets them and then unconsciously changes the way you play. You may begin (as I do) to dream in patterns or to shoot certain shots over and over again in your sleep, using this English and that. When you play pool in your dreams, your brain is improving your game, ever honing it to sharper focus. Some players even “mentally practice,” envisioning shooting various shots and playing position from one ball to the next in their minds. I have difficulty doing this, but some are able more than others, and I’m sure it is helpful.

Finally, we can’t forget the importance of practicing form and technique at home. When I was a kid, I would occasionally set up an empty 2-liter bottle on our kitchen table, put my cue together with no pool table in sight, and practice lining up with the opening of the bottle, getting down into the shot, practicing perfect form, and then taking practice strokes and a final, shooting, stroke through the bottle’s opening, trying not to graze any part of the bottle itself. This does a few things: first, it allows you to step into the shot and move from standing into the shooting position. And from there you can practice alignment and stroke precision. It is certainly helpful because it keeps your muscle memory strong; your body remembers and executes the proper form of pool playing and then moves toward perfecting it. You might even do this in front of a mirror if possible in order to watch yourself and to fix any flaws.

This is all to say that practicing does not occur only at the pool table. To be really sharp in this game, as in any other, you have to do your homework. And if you want to win, and to be at your best, you become a student. A lifelong student. You show respect to the game and to what it demands, and you study and practice it without end and with great seriousness.