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Aye Aye, Captain

Could there be a better way to improve your game than to follow the advice of Team USA captain Johan Ruysink?
By Keith Paradise

Former professional football coach Oail "Bum" Phillips was once asked to describe the abilities of coaching adversary and Pro Football Hall of Famer, Don Shula.

"Shula can take his'n and beat your'n, or he can take your'n and beat his'n," the now-deceased Phillips said.

A similar sentiment could be uttered about world-renowned billiards coach and American Mosconi Cup captain Johan Ruysink.

He is credited with coaching Holland and Russia's billiards programs to No. 1 in Europe, and also led the Iranian team to its first-ever medal at the 2016 Asian championships. In 2007, the Dutchman captained the European Mosconi Cup squad to its first victory in five years, then won five consecutive Cups from 2010 to 2014.

As the Americans struggled over the past decade to be competitive in the event, Ruysink was named Team USA captain in 2017 with the hope that his strict training methods could improve results. When he took over he found a group of players who had an impressive level of table knowledge but very little understanding of the sport's techniques. He also discovered a native practice regimen that was not only the opposite of what European teams do, but also what most organized sports do. Rather than practicing technique and fundamentals, players simply toss the balls onto the table and begin playing.

"What I found is that American knowledge is based upon table knowledge — how to shoot a certain shot, where to leave your cue ball," Ruysink said. "So, strategically, they're very good and their table knowledge is phenomenal, probably much better than Europe. But how to build a player individually, to make sure he is his best self, I didn't find any methods to do that. And I didn't see anybody practicing in the correct way, in my opinion."

After a disastrous 11-4 defeat in 2017 — Ruysink's lone loss as a Mosconi Cup captain — the Americans returned to London's Alexandra Palace last December for the event's 25th anniversary. To the surprise of many, the U.S. squad gained a respectable lead over the first three days of competition, then held on for an 11-9 victory, America's first in the event since 2009. It was yet another line item in an impressive resume for the 53-year-old coach, who has been a key component in the success of major champions, including European superstars like Niels Feijen, Nick van den Berg, Ruslan Chinahov and, now, young Fedor Gorst.

Ruysink, who earned a Master Coach Degree from the Dutch Olympic Committee in 2000, trains and instructs players and teams in the manner that Olympic teams prepare — with a heavy emphasis on technique, fundamentals and exercises. Ruysink hosted two boot camps during the team selection process, with players given a list of drills to practice at the first camp and then evaluated on their progress at the second training session. While the player sharpens fundamentals and technique by executing shot after shot in drill after drill, both coach and player are also gaining valuable information on the player's current ability level.

"Every practice, every exercise, every drill has a certain purpose," Ruysink said. "You need to know what you're looking for, otherwise there's no use in doing the exercise or drills."

The strengths and weaknesses of each player were one thing Ruysink was examining during these exercises. After going through the trainer's complete arsenal of drills and exercises, contends Ruysink, the player has the ability to pick up on which drills are helping not just their technique, but also mental stamina and ability to relax. However, the player's technique is the primary focus, with Ruysink believing that a player's technical abilities determine where their limitations lie.

"If I would take any player without any preknowledge — just a blank player — I would build up the technique first," he said. "Because the technique decides where your ceiling is. If your technique is 80 percent, your ceiling will never be higher than 80 percent. You are hampering yourself because certain shots simply are not possible."

To aid readers who are looking to improve their own abilities, Ruysink sat down with Billiards Digest at last month's Derby City Classic to construct a "boot camp." If there's one thing the Mosconi Cup captain knows, it's drills. Ruysink estimates that he's written between 350 to 400 training exercises in his career, but only implements about 10 percent of those in his camps.

"Some worked, most didn't," he said with a laugh. "So, I'm left with a couple exercises that actually all of the players in boot camps will play and still play, and I know it will enhance their knowledge, their stroke and their skills."

The captain shared a few of those drills, as well as what information players should be gaining from each exercise.

The Mighty X
Coming off of the 2017 whitewashing, Ruysink made it a point to try and connect with the American players more — spending additional time in the U.S. throughout the year and also bringing in former U.S. Open 9-Ball champion and Mosconi Cup alum Jeremy Jones as an assistant captain. Despite the additional attention, the captain still had a limited amount of time to work on technique through exercises. Since it takes at least three months of intense training to change a player's technique, Ruysink instead worked on adjusting and expanding a player's fundamentals.

"I'm looking for consistent shot definition," Ruysink said. "Because pool is not improvising and inventing the shot, it is repetition of what you already did. Simple as that. So, I need a good basis so they can repeat when the pressure is on."

One of the key exercises used to not only develop technique but also generate information on each player was the Mighty X. To create the drill, a ball is placed by the second diamond near the corner pocket and a cue ball is set up in the opposite corner — setting up a diagonal corner pocket shot. The mirror image of the shot is lined up for the opposite corner, so that an "X" begins forming on the cloth in the center of the table after an hour or so of shot execution. With stroke dynamics being evaluated, the shot must be set up to be completely straight. Players then shoot three different variations of this exercise over time — one with follow that pockets the cue ball directly behind the object ball, one with stun to stop the ball and another with draw.

Since the shot is straight in and not all that difficult for most professionals — who could even shoot the object ball with their eyes closed — the focus of the Mighty X isn't in aiming, but in the player learning and understanding their stroke. The simple act of winding up during a pre-shot routine can give both player and coach valuable information about the arm's mechanisms during the backswing, balance and relaxation of the grip. With such a routine shot set up, a player can focus internally on the process of their own stroke instead of worrying about intricacies such as strategy or spin needed.

Learning how the mechanics of a proper stroke feels is crucial for competition since it then allows the player to know where adjustments must be made when their stroke isn't performing properly in pressure situations.

"It's all kind of difficult if you don't understand it," Ruysink said. "If you don't understand how your wrist should feel when you should be relaxed, then things just happen coincidentally during a match and you will be very inconsistent."

Once stroke and technique have been evaluated and tweaked through exercises like Mighty X, Ruysink begins working on what are referred to as "single dynamic shots," meaning that the object ball or cue ball are in a slightly different place each time. The player now begins adding a bit of calculation into the mix as a certain type of spin and speed are needed to achieve the necessary results.

An example of one of the common drills Ruysink used to train his team is the "In-Out" drill, essentially meaning the cue ball will travel into a certain area and then back out again towards a predetermined position. In the provided example, the 1 ball is arranged two diamonds away from the corner pocket and slightly off of the nearest long rail. The cue ball is then placed as shown, with the objective being to pocket the 1 ball and bring the cue ball back into the middle of the table. This particular shot will require the proper amount of stun or stun combined with sidespin. After several attempts, move the cue ball a foot or so laterally (C-1) and move the object ball (2 ball) closer to the rail. Attempt to land in the same area as in the first shot.

"The stroke is no different, the feeling of the stroke is different," Ruysink said. "Aiming is a little bit different, so now suddenly there's a bit of external focus because there's a difference and now it's not about internal focus anymore."

Additional dynamic shots in the Dutchman's arsenal require different tip angles or English, but the general theme of each exercise remains consistent. For example, Ruysink will set up a dynamic shot exercise that will only require a series of stun shots or draw shots if shot correctly.
"So, single shots and single dynamic shots," he said. "And if you have a good set of dynamic exercise then you actually go through all of the shots that you need in pool."

Center Line
With stroke, spin control and techniques now exercised and perfected, Ruysink adds additional analytics to a player's training.

One of Ruysink's favorite exercise designs involves using all balls on the table as both cue balls and object balls, meaning that the cue ball on one shot immediately becomes the object ball in the subsequent shot. During these drills, the player is not only required to concentrate on technique but also strategy — as they map out a game plan for which pattern of cue balls is best to use while setting the cue balls as the next shot's object ball. It can be complicated and confusing, and thought is as essential as execution.

With the Center Line exercise, eight balls are placed on the head string and an object ball is placed in the center of the table. The player has the option of using any of the eight balls as his cue ball and shooting the object ball into either corner pocket. However, the player must leave the "cue ball" in the center area marked by the dotted lines to be used as the next object ball.

"In the beginning it's easy because you have a lot of options," Ruysink said. "There's eight balls on the line of cue balls. After you've pocketed four balls the options become limited."
Once a player has finished the drill from the head string the eight cue balls are then moved back a diamond.

These shots will not only test a player's technique but also their ability to recover after failing to secure the proper positioning on a shot.
"If you play this perfectly in speed control, it's all the same shot — it's all stun to the side," Ruysink said. "But as soon as you overrun a position, then suddenly you have to execute a correction shot and then it becomes a different shot."

Alexander the Great
Ruysink concedes that many times, while setting up and explaining a drill, students will sometimes question if he was under the influence of something when he created these exercises.

The Dutchman's "Alexander the Great" drill certainly fits the criteria.

Also called the "Christmas Tree" drill by Feijen, all 15 balls are arranged on the table in a large triangle — or tree — and a cue ball is placed on the head string in the middle of the table. In this drill, the cue ball is actually the first object ball to be pocketed. Once again, the player can use any ball on the table as their cue ball on the opening shot and the cue ball instantly becomes the next object ball. The object of the drill is to pocket the object ball in Area B's corner pocket while leaving cue ball in Area A. On the next shot, the objective is to pocket the new object ball in Area A's pocket while leaving the cue ball in Area B. (See the example in the diagram.)

If "Center Line" exhibits a player's ability to use stun or stun combined with some side spin, the "Alexander the Great" exercise will test a player's ability to use follow or draw.

Any ball can be used as a cue ball in the subsequent shots, but Ruysink said the position of the object ball helps to dictate which cue balls are most beneficial to use. The clearest shots in the early stages will be in the front rows of balls, as players work their way backward within the tree.

As is also customary with Ruysink's dynamic shot drills, there are two variations — one which makes the end rail mandatory and another where it is prohibited.

The "Alexander the Great" drill can also be played using only one line of "cue balls"; for example only the four balls lined up at the second diamond (X). After a player has successfully completed the drill, the player can move the balls to the last diamond (Y) and start again.

As he expounded on his training methods, Ruysink stated that the biggest difference between recreational and professional players is the amount of commitment devoted to drills such as these. In Ruysink's opinion, a professional player aspiring to reach the highest levels must commit to a frequent ritual of working on exercises in order to have a complete toolbox of the necessary shots and strokes. Meanwhile, a recreational player has the option of discretion.

"A recreational player can actually cherry pick what kinds of exercise he likes and then do it whenever he likes and for how long he likes to do it," Ruysink said. "A top player needs to play a certain amount of shots at a certain time for championship preparation."

Ruysink, now in his fourth decade in billiards, sees enormous potential in the U.S. and thinks his training methods could help American players regain their rightful position as the most powerful pool-playing nation in the world.

"I'm not saying that I have the Holy Grail of knowledge or the Holy Grail of practice, but I do think it's that much different than the American way of practicing that it's important that the knowledge gets over here. Then they can make a choice," Ruysink said. "In the end, the reason for me to believe in my system is the results."

How Team USA Prepared

When Johan Ruysink was captain of the European Mosconi Cup squad a decade ago he would occasionally walk past the practice room of his American opponents, usually as a means to scout the competition. On occasion, the Dutchman would overhear conversations during team meetings that shocked him and sometimes gave him some sympathy for his fellow competitors.

"I was just sometimes flabbergasted about the way they prepared, about their knowledge, about their practice methods," Ruysink said. "Sometimes you walked by their practice room and you heard them discussing the break or the breaking format and I was just kind of surprised they didn't know what to do with it. Everybody had different solutions on the team. There was no real leader."

If Ruysink was going to be the leader he felt the United States team needed — and that Matchroom Sport had hired him to be — he would need to implement his own instructional methods. So he established two boot camps during the season to evaluate potential team members while also building skills. The five-day training sessions, which started with 14 players, included exercises as well as simulated games and was an opportunity for the coach to learn just as much as his potential players did.

Ruysink used a carefully constructed five-day camp to prepare and assess Team USA players.

Ruysink did the bulk of his training on the camp's first day by working with his players using technique exercises based on single shots. He referred to his opening day of camp as "the fitness room of pool," which provided a twofold purpose. First, Ruysink wanted to teach the drills and have his players working on the exercises while they were fresh. Additionally, he wanted his pupils to be tired after the first day of instruction.

After working on single dynamics on the second day and dynamic exercises on the third, Ruysink introduced playing formats to the curriculum. The team played variations of standard pool games, such as requiring players to only pocket balls on one side of the table, as a way of adding another level of thinking to the competition. These slight rules modifications prevented the players from simply going into automatic pilot mode, requiring them to instead think out their strategy and then shoot.

"Most players mix that up, especially recreational players," Ruysink said. "They go down on a shot and they're still thinking. That doesn't work. So, they have to think first, close that process down, decide stroke, connect with the stroke and then make the shot."

Ruysink staged the games both individually and in Scotch doubles format, allowing his players to gain insight and information about the strengths and weaknesses of their partner. It also provided some friendly competition for the campers. Additionally, as Ruysink evaluated who was finishing exercises quickly and who wasn't, he was able to assess which players could work well together as future doubles partners.

Ruysink also utilized straight pool. Although the game is still used in competition throughout Europe, it's all but vanished in America. In addition to fine-tuning their skills and techniques, Ruysink used straight pool because of the complex problems that the discipline possesses, with frozen balls and clusters commonplace throughout a match.

"You need to be smart. You need to be precise," Ruysink said. "Often, it's not a big precision move with the cue ball. It's a small move but it's very precise because you need the correct angle to get into your problems."

The final day of the training week was reserved for sparring, with the players using the exact Mosconi Cup format —breaking restrictions, race length and rack position. By this point, the players were into their fifth consecutive day of training. They had spent a week working on technique, spent hours completing complex drills and exercises and tested their technical and intellectual capacities with straight pool and Ruysink's devised games. With many of players feeling fatigued, Ruysink used the opportunity to observe the physical and mental stamina of his players.

"I was able to recognize the guys who were more physically fit and who used the least amount of mental energy to get through the stages," Ruysink said.

Did he make the right choices?

The proof, as they say, was in the pudding.