There was a good debate at the AZ Billiards Forums some time back about whether pool pros shoot everything softly or whether they power through shots other than the open break shot.
Most of the knowledgeable players affirmed that pros stroke softly and with subtle amounts of english where possible. Others agreed that players try not to hit the balls any harder than they need, which on many shots is softly indeed.
In person, pros often hit the cue ball barely audibly--the sound is amplified for television viewers.
When a player is feeling tense for a big match, they can tighten a bit and then adjust their aim on the vertical axis as I suggest. For softening an otherwise firm stroke automatically, you can also shorten your bridge length, moving from your feet.
Coming up are a list of reasons why top players stroke softly where they can, and then some more tips on how to add this all-powerful technique to your game to better your efforts in all pool, billiards and snooker games.
Reasons why top players usually stroke softly/grip the cue stick gently:
1. Soft strokes don't fight against straight-inducing inertia. I've written about this extensively at this GuideSite, but Newton's first law may be paraphrased as "send your cue stick through a straight motion and if you don't squeeze, twist or yank it, it will go very straight over a very long distance."
2. You learn faster using soft strokes. Newbies and even some very fine intermediate players swing fast and hard to try to counteract the mysterious phenomenon known as "collision-induced throw". Long story short, if you shoot too fast, you cannot discern where mistakes are made, but if you shoot softly, you can quickly figure how to improve aim, stroke and stance.
3. Balls are best taken softly when near the short rails and pockets. You know those balls that lie along short rails that go in the pockets only to pinball back and forth without falling in? You're hitting them too hard and fast.
4. Soft "helps the hand feel its way". Hall of Famer Nick Varner's key swing thought? "Let my hand do its thing and make the shot." He has an unusual stroke but its grace would be compromised by lurching at the ball hard. Play like Nick and be a star with deep concentration and maximum feel at the tables.
5. Soft strokes avoid any jarring impact and let the cue stick "come through the cue ball".
6. Soft strokes require fewer moving parts for a simpler personal pool machine.
7. As the marvelous author George Fels has written, straight strokes are about not doing a lot of things. Nice and easy "doesn't" it, every time..."
8. Shorter, shallower backstrokes are required for soft strokes. If in rhythm, there is less time for a gentle stroke to go awry somewhere on the backswing.
9. Soft grips and strokes allow wrist work. Few shots should require conscious wrist action, including the dreaded force draw strokes. But tighten your hand and wrist and you lose all the lovely unconscious wrist flow for great pool.
10. Pocket speed or below is a devastating pool weapon for games like 8-Ball. Soft shots that are missed block the enemy's pockets.
11. Soft strokes spin better with longer cue ball "caress". As with my famous "deep draw secret shot" forward momentum from a hard stroke works against backspin from the spinning cue ball. Draw strokes come back straighter toward your cue stick and with less effort when struck softly. Other spin strokes benefit also.
12. Soft play drives your opponents insane. Nothing like taking off an 8-Ball, 9-Ball or Straight Pool table softly, barely touching a rail. Makes your opponent feel there's nothing they can do to shake your game!
13. Less strains, sprains and pains. You'll want gentle strokes when you're in a marathon match or practice session.
14. It's ten times easier to take a full, soft stroke than a slow stroke using a "magic length" adjuster. By that, I mean make your bridge length shorter and stand closer to the table for devastating safeties and soft plays. Patzers take a regular length stroke and stroke super-slow. Pool wizards use a very short bridge and stroke regular speed.
15. Soft grips and shots protect against repetitive motion injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome.
16. A smooth, soft flow provides maximum touch and feel with the cue ball. The less contact the surface of my stroking hand makes with the cue stick, the more likely I'm playing especially well that day and making the cue ball go where my eyes and mind send it at will.
17. This ain't the old days. Cue butts are getting narrower than they were years ago and post-space age technologies and super shafts allow us to clasp the cue lighter than our forefathers.
Tips to make pro-like soft strokes at billiards:
*Move both hands back for power or forward for soft shots, about the same distance, say, three inches and three inches, but start by moving the feet closer or further from the shot.
*Try the "" of stroking where the hand moves and the cue comes along for the ride. Or try from these several different stroke methods as long as you're stroking softly.
*Don't aim with the stroke or practice strokes but think "backwards, forwards, same as always" with a gentle shot. The "Home Again Shot" technique is key here.
*On the grip 1 to 10 scale get your numbers right. How hard do you grip on a scale of 1 to 10? Compare with my score numbers, I'm running tables all the time.
*Play catch billiards to learn how to ease up and use a shorter bridge.
*Shorten your bridge overall. Try it, you'll probably love it.
I welcome your questions on pool techniques here at About.com.