With creditable candour, Mark Selby has admitted on his personal blog that he can be too negative in matches.
Selby lost 9-7 to Mark Williams in the final of the German Masters last weekend.
It was only his fourth ranking tournament final, his only title coming three years ago at the Welsh Open, although he has also won two Wembley Masters titles.
Selby said: “Other than the final, and against Graeme Dott in the semis, I had a good, quick start in all my matches and led from the front. But more often than not I am a slow starter, and sometimes that can cost me. I can be over-cautious, trying to be too careful and not make any errors. Sometimes I play not to lose, rather than play to win, and that stops me from performing to the best of my ability. You can’t lose a match in first two or three frames, so I need to start off more relaxed and get myself into a commanding position, rather than playing catch-up.”
I noticed this caution when Selby played Dott in the World Championship semi-finals last season. After experiencing the high of his comeback win over Ronnie O’Sullivan in the quarter-finals, Selby seemed too anxious not to lose to Dott rather than attempt to take command of the match.
He was playing well enough to have given Neil Robertson a tough test in the final but lost 17-14.
There is nothing wrong with Selby’s game. He is a heavy scorer – with 37 centuries this season, more than anyone else – and has a watertight tactical game.
The problem is knowing when to attack and when to defend or, more particularly, not being dragged into playing either game without due regard for the other.
Snooker is a sport that does not require sustained physical prowess but mental strength is a must.
A positive outlook is crucial and if doubts cloud the mind then players find it hard to think clearly. Even great players have made wrong shot choices under pressure.
Steve Davis was the ultimate all round player and John Higgins has assumed this mantle: knowing the right shot and playing it, assessing the wider picture of the match, the state of mind of the opponent and the percentages of playing in a particular way.
The other side of that coin can be painful to watch. How many times have you seen a player under pressure look at the right shot, then walk around the table and start considering other possibilities?
If you look long enough for problems you are sure to find them.
Davis’s mantra was that the key to being successful at top level professional snooker was to play as if it meant nothing when, in fact, it meant everything.
In other words: approach every frame the same way. Easy to say, not so easy to do.
Stephen Hendry at his peak always raised his game when he was under the cosh. His inner belief, whether innate or formed from his relentless reign of success, meant that he always felt positive, that he could do it, that he would do it.
I remember the 2003 Irish Masters final, an excellent contest between O’Sullivan and Higgins. It reached a decider. Early on, O’Sullivan potted a long red, playing the cue ball back to baulk.
Most players would have rolled up behind a baulk colour but O’Sullivan blasted the brown into a middle pocket, went down for the reds and won 10-9.
Was that the right shot? Some would argue not but the point is that, for O’Sullivan, it was because he absolutely believed he would get it. There wasn’t a flicker of doubt in his mind.
Selby’s problem is intensified by the feeling that he has underperformed in ranking events. It’s easy to say that he will start winning plenty of them soon but people said the same of Matthew Stevens after he captured the 2003 UK Championship and he is yet to add to his haul.
I sometimes describe Selby as a ‘master of brinkmanship’ – which he often has been – but this may not always be construed as a compliment.
Winning matches comfortably means there is more mental energy left in the tank. Against Dott in Berlin he got involved in a right old scrap while Mark Williams was chilling out, ready for the final.
My advice to Selby is to have a chat about it to an experienced hand who knows what he is going through, a former player.
In 2004, O’Sullivan’s game and general approach was galvanised through advice from Ray Reardon.
When he was at his best, John Parrott received advice from the late John Spencer, Reardon’s great rival of the 1970s.
Top level sport is a microcosm of life itself: it’s all about highs and lows, success and disappointment, taking your chance or letting it slip away.
Selby is a good lad, a professional on and off the table and if he can find the recipe to cut out the negativity he has every chance to become one of the sport’s greats.
The next few years will determine whether he can clear his mind of all the doubts often enough to do just that.