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Rise of the Machine: An Interview With World Champion Billy Stubbs

Billy Stubbs is a 39-year-old creative director based out of Chicago, Illinois. He started playing air hockey seriously in 1993 while living in Georgia, trekking up to Atlanta every weekend to play with eleven-time world champion Jesse Douty. After finishing 48th in his first national tournament, he decided he needed to practice even harder and dedicated himself to systematic, rapid improvement. The following year he placed fifth, a result that raised eyebrows, and in 1995 he came out of nowhere and rolled through a deep field—beating champions Tim Weissman, Jesse Douty, and Wil Upchurch en route to his first national championship. He was twenty years and six months old, the third youngest champion of all time. Although some predicted that youthful Stubbs’ disciplined, analytical approach would deliver him several championships in the 1990s, he went seventeen years without winning another one. In 2012, at the tender age of 37, he finally became world champion again, prevailing first in Las Vegas and later in Houston that year. He won his fourth world championship in 2014.

Stubbs plays an unflashy, rational style of air hockey—some call it “robotic”—which has earned him the nickname “The Machine.”

WOTP: It took you seventeen years to win another championship. What happened?

STUBBS: I think that after I won that first one I had a motivational lapse and didn’t take it as seriously. Maybe I took it for granted—being young and winning. And thinking I could win by just staying at the same skill level I was at. I went to tournaments the next few years and started dropping down to 7 and 8 finishes, not horrible but not contending either. And then some time passed where I didn’t play but once or twice a year and it really showed in my results. In the next seventeen years a lot of other good players came up as well.

WOTP: So what changed for you?

STUBBS: Well, in 2009 a couple of guys here in Chicago, Dan Meyer and Brian Quezada, came out of nowhere. These guys took air hockey really seriously and wanted to play all the time and learn. And I was happy to have them being so passionate and dragging me out to play two to three times a week. That was great. After playing regularly with them for a couple of years I made the decision that I was either going to quit air hockey or make a big push to be as good as I could be. I realized that I’d played this game recreationally for almost two decades and Father Time was kicking in. Also, just being in my late thirties gave me a reason to want to be healthier and be in better shape, and using air hockey as a tool for those things was perfect. So I lost 42 lbs in 2011. I got in great shape, started playing every day, had better practice players with Brian and Dan, and took the game more seriously.

WOTP: Did you have regular workouts? What was your plan?

STUBBS: What I did was model my training regimen—which is 5 days a week, 2.5 hours a day on the table, plus cross training and video study—after the U.S. Olympic table tennis team. I was looking at how pro tennis players and pro basketball players did it. And I took a big look at MLB players and table tennis players to see what their training regimens were like and what would happen if I applied that same training to air hockey. I think the one that worked best was the one I just described—the U.S. table tennis team regimen—and the results show.

Also, I always have a three-month calendar of what I want to work on—regardless of whether a tournament is coming up or not. I think that the biggest difference is before a tournament the calendar gets a lot more granular. There’s a lot more detail on it because I’m making a bigger and more focused push. That’s the way I get my head around staying in air hockey—I give myself small milestones that are laid out weeks to months in advance.

WOTP: So you’re winning just because you’re outtraining everybody.

STUBBS: That’s exactly right! The reason I’m winning because I’m outtraining everybody! I think you see that in everything across life. The people who are successful are, by and large, not the people that have the natural talent. The people who are successful in business or sports or whatever are the people who put in long hours. Look at Roger Federer: He practices tennis eight hours a day on the court and video studies for two hours a day and he sleeps for twelve hours a day. So his life is tennis and you see that in the results. He is the greatest tennis player of all time.

WOTP: Applied toward air hockey, this approach seems both highly rational and totally crazy!

STUBBS: Yeah! When I was younger I loved playing air hockey but I was always aware of the public perception of it as a kid’s game—not something to be taken seriously. That was something that was always in the back of my mind, maybe on a subconscious level. But as I grew older I became more comfortable in my own skin and realized that air hockey makes me happy and I love playing it, so I’m going to make this push and I no longer care what anybody thinks. And I’m happy that I did it because it’s something that I’m really proud of.

WOTP: But how much of this good feeling is results based? If you were finishing in fifth or sixth place would you still train like this?

STUBBS: That would be really tough. I wouldn’t feel the same for sure, because I’d realize I was outpracticing everybody by a large margin. And if I’m still doing that and Danny [Hynes] is beating me when he plays once a week for an hour a day, it’d be tough to come to terms with!

WOTP: As a creative director and marketing expert do you have any opinions on how to increase involvement in the sport?

STUBBS: Right now we’re in such bad shape and I think it’s obvious. We need to improve our brand image; we need to get a website presence that is decent. We need to do a few other very basic blocking and tackling things—just very basic things that anybody else in business would do to help make their business grow. The problem is we just don’t have people willing to put in the time to do these things. These things take man-hours and we just don’t have people willing to put in that time.

I’ve said that if I win five tournaments I’m going to step away from playing fourteen hours a week. I’ll dial it down to about an hour a week and then I’m going to turn my attention more to marketing and promotion of the sport. So I’ll take those twenty hours a week that I’m dedicating to air hockey practice and flip them over to marketing and trying to help us grow. But right now I just don’t have time to practice and promote at the same time—that’s asking a lot of people.

WOTP: Do you ever feel any resentment? I mean, why does it have to be you who does this?

STUBBS: I don’t feel resentment because I haven’t done it yet either. I’ve never invested twenty hours a week into marketing air hockey, so how could I ask other people to do it too? No, not resentment, just disappointment.

WOTP: Any final comments?

STUBBS: Just get out there and try hard at something and take it seriously and get good at it. Simple story, you hear it all the time; people don’t do it. And I’m guilty of not doing it in my day job and other things in my life. But if you are committed to something you’ll see results.

Practice makes perfect. I heard it in band all the time when I was kid!

Billy has written dozens of insightful articles about air hockey tactics, mechanics, and training methodologies at his blog, Say AH. It’s a gold mine for anyone seriously interested in improving at air hockey.

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