First, a summary of why I'm qualified to write on the topic: My four most significant matches so far have been the finals of the British Men's in 2003 and 2004 and the semi-final and final of the British Open this year. I found myself having to play the two 'Gods of the game', Rob Fulford and Reg Bamford, but to the surprise of spectators, managed to give them a run for their money, with 3-0 wins and 2-3 losses to each of them. Given my aggregate of 10-6 in games (which might have been 11-4 if I'd hit a 7-yarder), a reader could naturally mistake me for their equal. At present, I am not. Every good player knows that Rob and Reg are currently in a league above mine, as likely to complete 6 peels in a turn as I am to complete 4.
Given that I am basically equipped with good shooting and a standard triple peel, the simplest theory for my wins is that I've just been lucky. To an extent, it is true - I have been lucky. They have happened to miss a few shots and I've managed to hit a few tricky ones. But never underestimate luck - be ready for it; I have seen many players play a distracted, terrible stroke just after some luck!
The two most significant changes in my game over the last couple of years have been in my improved shooting and my state of mind when playing a tough match. On shooting, I have little to say other than: 1) Wait for your mallet on the back-swing. Under pressure, many players seem to hurry moving their hands forward before the mallet is close to its natural-high point in the back-swing. Trust your body to play the shot. 2) Be lucky. Knowing you could be lucky enough to hit the long shot seems to allow your body to do it more often. Well, the thought seems to help me, anyway.
I believe the key to overcoming such blocks is to break the task down into manageable chunks. Entering a best-of-five match, trying to visualise winning 3 of the games is likely to undermine you. Each game stands in its own right, so I try to take one game at a time without thinking about the errors I made to lose the previous game, or wondering how I'm going to win the next two games.
The next step is to bear in mind how easy it is for a moderately good player to beat a great player in a single game. If you can hit one shot at some stage and take a four-ball break round, even without control of the leave you'll be able to get a ropey Old Standard Leave out and give them a 13-yard shot, which is roughly their 50/50 range. If they miss and you take your other ball round to the peg, even without any peeling, they can simply miss their second 13-yard shot to lose. So hitting in only once in a match and playing 4-ball breaks, a player has a 25% chance of beating a great player, so long as they don't break down. The pressure is really on the top player - they don't want to lose to a scratch! With that knowledge in the back of my mind, I know it's OK to win; then it's just a question of likelihood.
A couple of years ago, I had trouble with the pace of approach shots from the side of a hoop. I knew that if I hit too hard, the ball would skate across the face of the hoop, and too softly, I'd never get in front. So I found myself battling to stay on the tight-rope between the two disaster scenarios - and it was all the worse if I felt under pressure. The right approach is to first decide where you are going to aim to land, given your starting distance from the hoop, and then simply play the shot to try to stop your ball there; trust your body to play the stroke.
It sounds trivially simple, and it is. I believe other people have similar problems with take-offs to balls on a boundary; worrying about going off the lawn or not getting within range - these thoughts make you tense. Instead, decide where to try to stop (e.g. 2 yards short of the ball) and then aim to land on that spot. Don't be suckered into thinking it would be nice to be a little closer than that as you play it - pick the right spot to aim for first.
My next piece of TP improvement advice is to watch really good players play TPs and try to predict where they'll send the balls before each stroke. I expect many minus players will ignore this: "I've read Wylie, seen lots of TPs and know what I'm trying to do." I reckon most players think too vaguely when they are playing. After making Hoop 4, they rush toward Corner 3 and put the ball to Hoop 6 whilst getting a rush on partner. What if partner is still in the hoop, only half-peeled? They do the same, then doing the rush peel. (Is that what you do?) And it's all fine, usually.
To me, having broken down so often and having studied the likes of Fulford and Clarke easing their TPs round, now there's a difference in the Hoop 6 pioneer positions depending on whether the 4-back peel has completed after 3. If it has, and is rushable, I aim to put the pioneer between 6 and the peg (and slightly west), as I'll be going to that before making 6 off partner. If not, I aim to put the ball a couple of feet east of 6, in case I don't get a rush on partner (behind 4-back) after hoop 5. It's 4-yards difference in this case, and in many others it will only be a couple of yards difference, but the differences add up a lot when you're trying to become a consistent triple-peeler. Playing 'Predict Rob' is a good method of bringing Wylie's book to life.