CROQUET:  How to Improve Your Game

The top players we interviewed were all members of the American or British international teams in 1997.  They suggest that mastery of the greensward is achieved with a serious attitude, concentration, and a sense of perspective.  Their responses to our question boil down to three categories: preparing your mental game: practicing your physical game; and - for American players - using International Rules in practice games.

 Prepare Your Mental Game

Anyone who's ever missed an "easy" two-foot roquet in a tournament knows that croquet is a mind game.  Successful players have developed strategies to deal with the nerves and distractions that are a part of tournament play.  Without developing similar tools, you may be losing games before you even step on the lawn.

Apply "Controlled Stress" in Practice

"In practice, you've got to try and get to a situation where you're feeling like you do in a game.  And so you can try and make your practice something where you might get a bit nervous rather than just 'play' practice when you don't really have anything at stake."

- David Openshaw (England)

"I play pickup games that could be considered practice, but I take them very seriously.  I want to win those games as much as a tournament game which can make me just as nervous.  Dealing with the nervousness is good practice."

- John Taves (Washington state)

Establish a Pre-Shot Routine

A pre-shot routine is a great technique to help you settle down and focus.  While mentally checking off each item of a pre-shot routine you focus on those details rather than any internal or external distractions. The shot, then, becomes routine.  The details of the routine are up to you.

"I think back to when I played basketball that when I would take a shot, especially a free throw, the shot would begin with my toes, and would come up through my body and go out through my hands.  I do the same thing with croquet. When I am stalking a ball, I have a whole routine I go through.  Stalking the ball, taking my stance, starting from my feet going up through my body and out, finally, into my hands, and then I concentrate on the swing and just let the mallet do the work and not move my body at all."

- Erv Peterson (Northern California)

Be Kind to Yourself

You've just missed a vital hit-in or banged off of hoop #1.  Don't beat yourself up, your opponent will do that.  If you make a bad shot, forgive yourself, put it behind you, and concentrate on the next shot.

"I used to play with a terrific amount of intensity.  I felt like I needed to have tremendous intensity to play well.  Now I try to keep that concentration a little more under control.  I try to stay focused but not with that kind of emotional and physical upheaval.  I'm a great believer in Zen kind of stuff. Wanting it without wanting it.  Doing it without trying."

- Charlie Smith (Northern California)

Practice the Physical Game

You may think you don't have time to practice.  But take fifteen minutes before pick-up games to work on one or two weak parts of your game. Your game will improve.

"Croquet yields to practice."

- Charlie Smith

Be Honest About Your Game

In practice and in play, we all have strengths and weaknesses.  Be honest with yourself about both.  Practice to correct weaknesses and reinforce strengths.

"I find it instructive to analyse why I break down, but you need to be honest with yourself.  It is rarely the last shot you played - the reason you clanged the hoop is because you approached it from a poor position, which you got into by being on the wrong side of the pivot, and so on.  The point to really concentrate is when a nice tidy break is starting to getting ragged - get it back under control before it collapses completely."

-Steve Comish

"Be honest.  For example someone once told me they were 95% likely to successfully roquet a boundary ball when taking off to get it from halfway across the lawn or greater.  They failed to do just that twice in a game against me, but they still believed that they were 95% likely to succeed.

I suspect that when the ball curves off and misses the boundary ball they blame the lawn and don't add that event to their computation of their success rate.  There were other plays that they could have done instead of the takeoff attack to the boundary, but they didn't think of them because they were so sure that they would succeed."

- John Taves

Take Practice Seriously

Practice for precision and know when to quit.

"Practice with intensity.  Always try to put the balls to specific spots.  Don't get sloppy because it's 'just practice'. Concentrate the whole time.  But if I practice too long, I get to a point where it's no longer on any value.  I think you need to limit your practice to the point where you realize your concentration and intensity are fading.  Then quit, because you can just frustrate yourself."

- Phil Arnold (Northern California)

"Don't just go out there and hit balls.  Have some sort of plan, what you want to practice.  There's a lot of times I might go out and just hit balls and I'm not getting any better.  But when I play seriously and I put pressure on myself to practice something, then that's when I get better."

- Jacques Fournier (Arizona)

Set Achievable Goals

As your skills improve what you practice will change, but be realistic. Have a plan.  Challenge yourself.  But don't practice a sextuple if you can't run a three ball break.

"You are rarely going to get much out of a practice session if you just mess around.  I normally practice one of three things: shooting, approaching hoops from corners (e.g.  1 from corner I with roll or stop shot, 2 from corner II with roll or stop shot, etc) or just general break play to avoid getting rusty (mostly triples from standard positions).

For hoop approaches you can aim to do better than (say) 3 out of 5.  For shooting I normally get 8 balls and put 4 on the yard line and the other 4 six yards away.  I take four shots; if I hit 0 or 1, I move a yard closer; hit 2, and I stay where I am; hit 3 or 4, and I go back a yard.  Then have another four shots.  Starting at 6 yards I aim to get to 13 yards in practice session."

- Steve Comish

"You've got to practice with a particular motive in mind. Practice particular shots.  Break things down.  Practice parts of a triple, so that you practice doing the last two peels, or practice the four back peel and do the few shots that lead up to that.  And practice that again and again four or five times rather than practice the whole triple.

Or practice parts of a leave three or four times so that you just get a feeling of what small differences there are in terms of where the balls are when you do it four or five times in quick succession.  Or just even if you're just starting the game, getting rushes after hoops where you want them to go.  Just keep practicing that bit for ten or fifteen minutes."

- David Openshaw

American Rules players should play International Rules

The American Rules game is much more a game of strategy than the Association (International) Rules game.  Some players love American rules.  Others hate it.  The concept of "deadness," absent from the Association game, can render a side totally helpless, forcing it to retreat into the corners turn after turn.  With such a penalty, many American rules players never risk the aggressiveness needed to build and run breaks.

>From the Croquet World Online interview with Robert Fulford:

"One of the most important pieces of information I think some people in American don't get is...basically, just to tell them to try and play breaks.

The object of the game, REALLY, is to learn to score several hoops in one turn.  That's how you get started, as far as I'm concerned.  That's basically the first think I knew about the game.  We didn't know very much about the ending, but we DID know that you were supposed to start off playing breaks."

- Robert Fulford (England)

The Association Game is a game of shots and breaks.  Hiding is not an option.  You learn to rush, to build breaks, and to attack.  All things that will make you a stronger American Rules player.

"Play more Association Rules.  You get to play more of the game.  You get to run breaks.  You don't get dead and go hide.  You learn how to make all the shots work, how to play them."

- Jerry Stark (Northern California)

"Play the association game more because you have a chance to develop all your skills without any problems if you don't succeed, without any deadness."

- Mik Mehas (Southern California)