By Jenny Clark - Issue 33 (2015)
This question was posed on the Nottingham Croquet Mailing List and the following answer was given by Jenny Clarke from New Zealand, reproduced with her permission.
Having had a lot of experiences of patches of bad play (also self-inflicted from time to time by doing exciting things like changing hands due to a persistent wrist injury, and not practising for long periods), I think I can probably comment with some ideas of what might be useful.
Before we start, ask yourself the following questions, and think gently about the answers, for the most recent period when you experienced a bad patch:
- Did you have a precise aiming point?
- Had you stalked every ball from a few yards back?
- Did you see your mallet hit the ball in each shot?
- Did you follow through in the direction of your target?
- Did you play a bad shot, or series of shots at some stage and then dwell on them as the game progressed?
Having had a good bit of honest reflection, perhaps you’re remembering some things you should be doing (maybe you are doing them, but I tend to find that my bad spells don’t stand up to this sort of questioning well - J). The next thing to think about is why things went wrong: wind, “yips”, someone annoying you before the game, quality of the grass, something about your mallet – e.g. the connection between head and shaft being loose/off-centre. Great to have inventoried your excuses – now time to put them aside, as it’s not their fault!
One of the reasons I bought a very good quality mallet, and why I got a fixed-shaft one, was to ensure that the mallet was never an excuse I could fall back on. I also tend to reject helpful players who offer up excuses for me – blaming bad play on something random doesn’t fix the problem. Asking yourself the questions near the top and going back to basics does go a long way towards making you functional even during the worst bad spells though.
I’ve just run a couple of early-season coaching days where we experimented (very successfully) with some game-based approaches to create a feel for strokes. It was a bit different as we did very little with altering players’ swings (and they were predominantly really new players), but more worked on getting them to understand what a good swing – using their mallet and their style - looks, sounds and feels like.
Apart from the game-based stuff, though, we always start with going through the basics. The basics, to me, are:
- Aim. Go back about 4 yards and get in line with where you want to hit your ball to. Preferably choose a blade of grass where you want to aim, or a spot just behind a target ball if you are aiming at a ball (or a blade of grass an inch through a hoop you want to run – I find if I aim at the middle of the jaws of a hoop it too often ends up there!). It’s back 4 yards where I get ready for a shot – and this includes gripping your mallet with your hands where they’re going to be when you hit your ball. When your game is off and you’re feeling frustrated, this is one of the first things to go. One of the top Kiwi ladies will walk up to the ball from exactly 90 degrees to the line and just turn and shoot when she’s not feeling confident – not a good look!
- Stalk your ball. Walk up to it in line with where you’re aiming. Have your mallet ready to strike the ball (rather than hanging at your side), and focus on your ball and the point you’re aiming at. Starting from so far back feels strange at first, but I find the main benefit is that I more often than not arrive with my feet at the right distance from the ball. It also helps to start from a ways back to line things up accurately. Since you have already taken aim and have your grip ready, you should be relaxed and concentrating on hitting the ball by the time you arrive at your final stance. If something is wrong, or your head is full of negative thoughts, no problem – acknowledge them, set them aside, and go back to Step One.
- When you swing the most crucial point is to see your mallet hit the striker’s ball. Whenever I play a rubbish shot I try to ask myself “did you see your mallet hit the ball?”. If your answer is “I think so” – it’s probably a no! This is basically my cue where others use “keep your shoulders still” “keep your head still”, “keep your eyes over the ball”, “keep your head down”… - if you watch your mallet hit the ball, most people find their body parts stay in the right place.
- Keep your body still when hitting the ball. Of course you have to move your arms, pivoting mostly at the shoulders. Also you can have a bit of flexing at your knees, but beware too much movement as that’s something that can let you down big time when you’re feeling nervous (I speak from experience!!).
- Follow through deliberately in the direction of your aim. I told a beginner this last week – she was having wafty little shots that dribbled left or right of her target. I asked her to follow through as though her mallet was the thing that had to hit her target. She responded with three consecutive centre ball contacts! Again, feeling “off your game” can often result in more and more pokey play where you prod at the striker’s ball – learn to follow through smoothly and in the direction of your aim – if someone were to photograph you at the “end” of your swing, you’d hope that the mallet was reasonably high off the ground, and the mallet shaft and head were pointing directly at your target. I’ve done a reasonable amount of videoing of croquet players for coaching and general interest, and can tell you that a straight follow through is not as common a sight as you might expect.
So… when you’re having a bad patch, think about these 5 points: aim from 4 yards, stalk, see your mallet hit your ball, keep body relatively still, follow through in direction of aim. You might miss more than you want to, but you’ll hit a lot more than you would otherwise!
And, actually, these 5 points are all completely valid - and very important - for when you are playing croquet strokes - remembering to stalk your ball along the correct line of aim (pick that point from 4 yards back!) rather than where the balls are pointing or where your ball might go.