Part 1 Introduction
These are some thoughts gained from various readings, interstate tournament play, club coaching and discussions with other coaches and Golf enthusiasts.
This is not a dummies guide to croquet but rather some ideas that may benefit established players, A and B grade, to handle and compete in an interstate arena. I am noting tactics that I would use in tournament play as an aggressive/attacking and hard hitting player. These two ideas are not the same thing. Aggressive play can include but is not dependent on hard hitting. I like GC because it is a genuine duel between two players. Every shot is reactive to the previous one. It can be a game of manipulation, frustration and high concentration at the top level.
In GC there is a lot more of “playing the player” and not just “playing the balls”. AC has certain rules (“9 times out of 10”) for numerous situations that occur on the court. GC; however, can be played as simply or as tactically as you like. Each hoop/game can be played in a totally different style to another one. It all depends on who you are playing (opponent weakness/strength/experience etc), how you are feeling, what is the score, how much time is left etcetera. It is your choice what you do in each situation and there is no set rule for each hoop; it is what you are comfortable with. There are of course ideal positions for balls and higher percentage shots that can be taken, but in a mismatched game often a low percentage scoring shot is your best chance to win. The element of gamble can make for an exciting game.
I mainly use these ideas against similar and higher ranked players. If you are playing a lower ranked player they will likely make more mistakes and you can simply force them into longer “missing” turns. If you want to beat a better and more experienced opponent who is playing well then you need to play a more intensive tactical game.
My “style” although reasonably calculated, does often rely on being able to hit hard and straight fairly consistently. These tactics work if you are hitting straight and feeling confident with your play. You are well warmed up or have played several games of the tournament already. They are definitely worthwhile using against higher ranked players as a longer/defensive game will play into their hands.
The first rule of GC is very simple – 9 times out of 10 if you are first to the hoop get into a scoring position. The tactics and skill of GC are seen when you are second to the hoop, when you are trying to steal that point off of your opponent. More players are now discovering you can play tactically when you have control of the current hoop but choose not to score. Instead of making an easy point on that turn, you can slightly increase the risk of losing that hoop but massively increasing your chance on the next hoop. The skill of the game is to continually manipulate your opponent and achieve a 7-0 win. Your focus and tactics should be about getting two hoops; your current one and the next one. Once you score your focus should be on two hoops; your current one and your next one until you win.
Game Philosophy – build a base physically and mentally
In most croquet games (both AC and GC) the higher ranked player should win most of the time in a best of 3 match. The beauty and danger of GC is that anyone can win one game of 13 point Golf. Players can hit fluky shots, make impossible jumps and score hoops from the boundary. They only need a little bit of luck to get a lead and then carry that through to the end of the game. Skill and tactical pressure should win out though in longer games and longer sets of games.
People who genuinely analyse my game notice the difference in my hoop options and ball positioning from the first few rounds of a tournament to the final. Those that don’t understand will just remark about how hard I hit the ball; they have missed any subtlety or manipulation that may have occurred on each hoop.
Every shot can be critical in GC; intense concentration is needed with high frequency. AC allows you the luxury to “switch off” and compose your thoughts either as the out player or within a standard break; in GC there is little relief and nowhere to hide. You need to learn to build up your shots and your mental commitment as a tournament progresses. If you had the same intense concentration for the entire tournament you would be spent.
Some players are very reluctant to play more than two best of three matches in a day for this very reason. After potentially 6 thoughtful games they are mentally drained. You don’t have the luxury of AC where you can go into semi cruise control once you have a break established. GC is quicker and you are required to focus more intensely more often with an immediate consequence for poor shooting.
My most consistent tactic is to build up the difficulty of my shots. I don’t go for long jumps, hard clearances and tricky shots until I am comfortable with my swing and am happy that I am going to hit the ball as well as I imagine I will hit it, at least 70 % of the time. You need confidence, concentration and positive visualisation to hit difficult/impossible shots. You need to have had a little bit of success already through an easy jump shot or a long clearance that hit. Build on the confidence and excitement making those shots gave you. If you address the ball thinking “that shot is too hard” or “I can’t mess this up” you are more likely to mess the shot up. Your warm up is so critical in giving you this confidence from the outset to go for your shots. Practice success, make easy hoops, hit short stop shots and make easy jumps in your warm up. I am more likely to concede hoops and go halfway at the start of the game than at the end. When I am feeling more “in the zone” and am confident I am going to make the shot I am attempting, then I will actually attempt the difficult shots. In essence I build up to the end of the game, the end of a day, the end of a tournament etcetera. As I play further in a tournament and my confidence increases my shots get more accurate, longer and harder. I am forcing my opponents to make good shots and I am not rewarding them with an easy one because I have hit the previous shot badly.
My critical stop shots are a lot better towards the end of a game/day than they are at the start. As the day progresses the hardness and the straightness of my shots increase. Too many players, I believe, go for big shots too early when it is not necessary. They are not warmed up enough and often fail at their attempts. When you fail at your shot, whatever it may have been, you are handing power and often the point to your opponent.
The danger of wild shooting/jumping early on is not that you lose one point/hoop to your opponent, but more often than not it is actually two points. Playing a shot badly often allows your opponent a chance to jaws a hoop, get a clean hoop and run down to the next one or the ability to be first at the next one because they have just been promoted through a hoop by you. One bad shot decision might equal two hoops against you. Play the risky shots when you need to if you are behind and time, or the game is nearly finished. If you have the lead, play conservatively, and force your opponent into the risky shots.
Top players, just like in other seeded individual sports (tennis, squash etc), will build up their shots towards the finals. They do what they need to, to stay ahead of their opponent. They play it safe and take it up a notch when they need to. I know to win a game all I need to do is have first attempt at the 13th hoop. At the start of a game I will often be patient and go through the motions of hoop for hoop with my opponent and then when I feel comfortable (sometimes it is the first hoop and sometimes it is the 12th) I will then try to battle for any and every hoop to win.
Now to contradict what I have just written… If you are the lower ranked player you need to play quickly and with purpose. You don’t have the luxury of going hoop for hoop and building up your form. The more shots a better player gets to play the more likely they will win. They will work themselves into form first so take the gamble… go for the win… go for the throat early. If you are outgunned and have a shot on the hoop then take it, it may be the only chance you get. Make sure you utilise your warm up time to get your swing and your roquet working from the start – you will need it!
NEXT TIME – Harder for you is also harder for the opponent