The following chapters were selected because they were applicable to International Rules croquet. If you wish to read the other chapters in Common Sense Croquet that deal with American Rules croquet, please contact Leo Nikora.
Relaxation is the single most important factor of mastering croquet for me. For those who are naturally relaxed, something else is number one because they can take relaxation for granted. It is a gift. For the rest of us, it must be conquered early on. I hate to see a new player who is as tense as I was. I want to suggest that he abandon croquet, and take up something else. It the person is both tense and hard-headed, there is a lot of frustration ahead, and he is almost hopeless.
Deep breathing may be the most successful key to relaxation. Beer is good too, but not two. Sometimes I go to the court, and stand ready to stroke the ball, but refuse to do so until I relax. It works, but doesn't look so impressive to the casual observer.
If you have any doubt about the adverse effect of physical tension, just go fresh to the court, and put four balls down on the sideline (forty two feet from the stake), and shoot at the stake. Your first shot will be the best of the four. After the first you begin to tighten up.
Stalk the ball -- even if it is six inches in front of the wicket, and concentrate on aim. When it is right say to yourself that it is right. that does not mean saying, "I think it is right". That term may be appropriate in some sports, but i is not appropriate in the game of croquet. You must say, "The aim is perfect". Okay, now that the aim is perfect, if your stoke is right, success is bound to be the result.
To prove to yourself the necessity of separating aim from stoke, practice casually shooting wickets without aiming before the stroke. Practice stroking while still aiming. You will find that your best accuracy is obtained by seeing the mallet hit the spot on the ball after you have a picture in your mind of the ball going to its target.
Being mechanical by nature, training, and practice, I had no problem figuring out splits, cut rushes, and things like that. But I became aware that something was missing. That was my first clue that I had managed to proceed through life with a big void. I simply did not accept that there is an unexplainable relationship between the mind and body that allowed, or forced, the body to do the mind's will. It occurred when I retained on the of the best croquet professionals for a whole weekend. We played twenty four hours of croquet in two and one half days! I treasure the notes I made immediately following that weekend. It changed my game dramatically. You see I wanted to learn. I overcame the biggest obstacle to mastering croquet (and probably anything else, for that matter).
I was having difficulty getting into perfect wicket position with a take-off from behind the wicket. My professional observed, and said that he sometimes had to look up several times to see the ball going to, and stopping at, the selected spot. I did not understand, but tried it repeatedly. Then one time I looked up about six times, and saw the ball going to, and stopping at, the spot. It was an exhilarating experience, and changed my game. And what a change. I no longer fear take-offs to the wicket from the non-playing side, and find that when accurate placement is really critical, I can achieve it most of the time. I still cannot explain it, but feel no need to.
A good practice is to place a ball on the sideline, and another three feet strait away from it towards the post (short dimension of the court). The object is to hit the ball on the line to just past the other ball. Then pick up the other ball, place it on the line, and hit it just past the former ball. Continue this all the way across the court. Twenty hits is good.
After practicing that, then go to take-offs from behind the wicket to perfect wicket position. Start three feet away, then four, five, etc. on up to twenty feet. You will be quite pleasantly surprised at how accurate you have become because of relaxed visualization.
So what is the cure for looking up and not following through? After all, the hope to find the answer to that is why you are reading this instead of watch TV, isn't it? The answer will surprise you. It is not to concentrate on not looking up, nor to concentrate on following through. That doesn't work. I tried it. That simply detracts from something else -- trading a headache for an upset stomach. The answer is to execute a smooth stroke. So simple, but oh so difficult.
The natural instinct is to just punch the ball. Just look at the beginner. It is awful isn't it? I have had to pleasure of coaching people who had never hit a croquet ball before who had the desire to learn. It is simply amazing how quickly they can get it. The have nothing to unlearn, and they do not practice the wrong thing. Their progress is probably ten times faster than those who start wrong.
What is a smooth stroke? It is an unbroken motion of the mallet; beginning at the first movement of the backswing, through an uninterrupted conversion from backswing to foreswing, through the ball, and ending up with the mallet handle horizontal.
How do we obtain it? Easy: say out loud, "one" at the top of the backswing; "two" at the moment of impact; and "three" at the end of the follow through. You will discover -- after getting the cadence -- that you had no desire to look up, and no desire to short cut the follow through, because you were concentrating on the total stroke. That is what made it smooth.
For long roquet shots (being one at a distance which you do not expect to hit it one hundred percent of the time) you should add another discipline. Before looking up to see the great hit, say out loud, "left", "right", or "center", depending upon where you think the ball went. You will find that you are nearly always correct, which tells you a lot. Think about it.
Remember, don't tell yourself to not look up. It won't work. Don't tell yourself to follow through. It won't work either. Tell yourself to execute a smooth stroke, and use the aid of cadence to achieve it.
So in spite of all the pressure, allow enough time to go through your shooting routine. As you progress you will find that your best shot execution results are achieved by having a fixed routine. Mine begins with the stalk -- and not for the reason generally given (seeing the line). I do it to enlarge my perspective, to relax, and to get my feet right. In position, I will swing the mallet over the target a couple of times, select a blade of grass -- a single blade -- where the ball will travel, wiggle my toes to obtain even weight distribution, and concentrate entirely upon stroking the ball while watching to see the mallet contact it. Yours will differ, of course, but it is important that you adopt a routine. You cannot do without it.
Review the sections on Relaxation, Visualization, Separating Aim from Stroke, and Looking Up and Not Following Through before proceeding.
If you think you are going to miss the wicket, you probably will. If you think you are going to make it, there is no urge to look up. We only look up to see if a miracle has occurred!
When you practice shooting wickets, don't just do something -- just stand there until you know it is going through. Looks ridiculous, but it works. The mind is an awful thing to waste, and we do it most of the time. Begin practicing with the ball twelve inches directly in front of the wicket. Go through your standard shot procedure, which begins twelve feet behind the ball, pick out the blade of grass, see the mallet contact the ball at a specific spot on the ball, and stroke it through. Nothing to it. However, if the ball touched either wire, or the mallet failed to hit the wicket hard with it's follow through, then do it again until this occurs.
When you clear the wicket without touching it half of the time, then move the ball about six inches to the side and stroke it through. Boy, what a bummer. It must have roll on it in order to work its way through after hitting the far wire, yet have enough power to do so. If you hit it hard it will be airborne all the way to the wicket, and will not pick up any roll. The solution is to hit it just barely hard enough to go one inch beyond the wicket. You hit hard, and you will go six inches beyond the wicket -- when you make it, which will be about a quarter of the time.
Next, move the ball back, and shoot the wicket from further away, all the while practicing your basic stroke. When I get wicketitis, I revert to my basic stroke, count "1, 2, 3", and tell myself whether the ball went right, left, or on target before looking up. I do it out loud. You have to be an acknowledged croquet junkie to do that, but it works every time.
The rush swing is the same as your normal swing. You do not want your weight to move forward, or your body to move during the stroke because either will cause the ball to jump. Follow through is necessary for accuracy, so just use your regular drive shot. For distance accuracy, it helps to pick out a spot in the distance to which your striker ball would go if the object ball were not there. You tell yourself, "Okay, if I hit my ball to that spot, on it's way it will roquet the object ball to the target". I believe that most good players put the object ball out of their minds after deciding the direction and strength for the striker ball.
Now to cut rushes. They are so easy once you understand the physics of it. To do so, align two balls to aim for a wicket. Have the balls touching. The object ball [yellow] is the one closest to the wicket, and you want to rush it to the wicket with a third (striker) ball [red] sitting three or four feet behind the other balls, and not quite in line with them. The second ball [clear] is our guide ball. It tells us that if our striker ball [red] hits the object ball [yellow] in the position that the guide ball [clear] is occupying, then the object ball is bound to go to the wicket! Now place your index finger over the center of the guide ball, pointing straight down. Remove the guide ball, and extend your finger to the ground. Do not make a mark, but pick out a blade of grass. Each blade is different, so it is easy. Now, if the center of your striker ball goes over that blade of grass, then the object ball must go towards the wicket. Remember, you are only shooting from three or four feet away, and you do that all the time shooting at wickets (even though you should be much closer), so it is no big deal. Just imagine it to be a wicket if you want. It is the same shot exactly. For the wicket shot, you picketed out a blade of grass. Same thing.
To begin the exercise, place some objects (such as clips) at the quarter and half points between two wickets. Let's use wickets #1 and #2 because they are 42 feet apart, which is a good practice distance. Place both balls at wicket #1 aligned towards wicket #2. Now hit a stop shot intended to put the object ball to wicket #2, and see where the striker ball stops. When executing the shot, concentrate only upon the object ball. Your mind must be focused exclusively upon the distance of the object ball. The mind cannot focus upon but one ball at a time. You will find that the striker ball will travel from ten to twenty percent of the distance of the object ball. If the object ball did not go to its proper place at wicket #2, stop and redo it until it does.
Next, do the same thing with a drive shot (which is a quarter roll), then half roll, then three-quarter roll, then full roll, and then pass roll. The drive shot should put the striker ball about one-fourth the distance of the object ball; the half roll, be definition, should see the striker ball going about half the distance of the object ball; etc. Remember to focus entirely upon the object ball at impact, while seeing the mallet strike the striker ball. The reason the markers or clips are placed there is to give you measure. These shots vary by placement of the feet, or location of the hands upon the mallet, or both. You may find it advantageous to have the feet in the same position (distance from the ball) in all shots except the stop shot, because that way you eliminate one variable, and the sole remaining variable is the placement of the hands upon the mallet shaft.
After you get good at it, which should require no more than an hour, you will have certain set positions upon the mallet for each of the respective shots. The shaft of my mallet is probably the shabbiest in the game of croquet because I have little marks on it that remind me where to put my hands for each of those respective shots. Very simple, and there is a lesson there, which is that croquet is not inherently a difficult game. It is we who make it difficult, particularly by practicing the wrong thing.
Now, let's advance to the next stage of split shots. You will find that if the shots are not straight away, which is to say the striker ball and object ball are not going in approximately the same direction, then the striker ball in inclined to go further relative to the distance of the object ball than it would if the intended paths were straight away. The physical explanation is that when the intended paths are not the same, or nearly the same, more of the mallet's energy will be transferred to the striker ball. Try it, and you will see. No problem; we can adjust for that.
The way to adjust is to align the balls so that the object ball will go in its desired direction (alignment solely determines the direction of the object ball). Now point the mallet toward the point where you want the striker ball to go, and look at the sight line on top of the mallet. If the sight line, while pointed toward the striker ball's intended direction, passes outside the entire object ball, then you must adjust your shot selection. The adjustment is easy: you simply deduct one shot. For instance, if the distances desired for a straight away shot would indicate a half roll, then drop back to a quarter roll (drive shot). It is that simple. Try it.
Similarly, if the whole mallet passes outside the object ball, then back down two strokes. In the example given, the proper shot would be a stop shot, which is two shots less than a half roll. Frequently, we must interpolate between these quarters to get to eighths, which is also quite easy if you know the hand positions for your shots. These hand positions will not be the same for each player, so you determine your own. Also, as you get more proficient you will relax more and the hands will move up the mallet a bit, but this process is very gradual, and very gratifying.
[You do the sighting described above with the mallet aligned in the direction you want striker ball to travel. This is not the alignment of the mallet for stroking, which is along the half angle between the direction the object ball and the direction the striker ball will travel.]
The object of the foregoing is that split shot ratios are not difficult, are quite explainable, and quite predictable.
Two things generally occur simultaneously to create the turf plow shot. Your weight moves forward to your toes, and your shoulders move forward -- the result of trying to put too much body power into the shot. The croquet shot is a stroke. It is not a hit that occurs while your body is in motion. You must let the mallet do the work. Take a bigger backswing, whatever, but don't hit it on the run.
I realized after playing croquet for a couple of years that advancing age would preclude my accurately executing full-court shots because the stroke I was using did not provide enough leverage. It was simple enough to observe that golfers do not hold one hand at the top of the shaft and the other half way down, so there must be a reason. They cannot hit a ball very far that way. Instead, they place both hands at the top of the shaft, and obtain three feet of leverage instead of eighteen inches. It required two months of time for me to convert, but by then I could hit a ball further than the length of two courts. I had nearly doubled my distance, and with more accuracy and reliability. My right [bottom] hand just rides along as a guide. The right [bottom] palm is not even touching the handle! I believe I can hit a croquet ball as far as anyone thirty years younger using a split grip. I still do not welcome old age, but am better equipped to deal with it; and after all, it is better than the alternative, isn't it?
Getting back to moving the weight and body forward. The first is simple. Just wiggle your toes before your stroke. You cannot wiggle your toes if your weight is forward. I don't know how to avoid occasionally shifting my body forward. I am still studying it, and will eventually master it.
One result of the approach is that I consistently come across people, some with handicaps as low as six, who simply do not know or appreciate the magnitude of the part that the mind plays in various shots. For instance, a player will have difficulty placing his ball in exactly proper position for his partner to have a rush, even though the shot may be less than twelve inches! I see it all the time. Invariably the player having that difficulty truly believes that if he will just try harder, he will get it. That is going in exactly the wrong direction for the reason that the accuracy of that shot is dependent largely upon the mind, not muscle memory difficulty. The muscle memory is there, if you will simply relax and let it out. Additionally, the distance accuracy of that shot is achieved by letting the mallet do all the work. That means no energy in the hands at the moment of impact, but instead complete relaxation, letting the natural swing of the mallet determine how far the ball is to travel. If it needs to travel only a short distance, take a short back swing. If a long distance, a long backswing. And let the mallet flow through. Don't stop. You cannot achieve accuracy in these important position shots with a stop shot. The follow through controls the distance. Try it both ways, and you will immediately be convinced.
Take another example which we have addressed elsewhere: the split shot. In doing it, you must focus your mind on only one of the balls, not both. I can watch a split shot executed, and tell you whether the striker focused on either of the balls or both, and you can too.
These two examples illustrate the dominance of the mind in the shot, but maybe the most telling instance is when you take off from behind the wicket to get into position to score it on your continuation stroke. If you have difficulty with that, then go out alone, set up the shot, and prepare to execute it; but do not do so until you visualize in your mind the ball going exactly to, and stopping on, that spot. I do not know what it is in the relationship of the mind to the body that causes the body to achieve the mind's visualization, but it does. You may have to try it ten or twenty times before you see the picture, but it will happen. It takes a lot of concentration and faith, but it works. It will continue to require a lot of concentration (but not faith) even after the reality of it has dawned upon you, but it gets easier with time. I no longer even think of how hard to hit the ball on that shot. I only think of visualizing the ball going to, and stopping on, the blade of grass I select. I am a true believer.
The purpose of this is to impress upon you to not think that you need to master the shot physically, which is the natural instinct. Instead, you must master the mental process first, then the shot will come along, and will be consistent.
Frequently when explaining this to someone, and they are all up tight, the say, "okay for you, but you don't know the tension I'm under." I can provide you expert testimony to the fact that I am one of the most naturally tense croquet players who ever came down the pike. I fight it constantly, and have had to find ways to deal with it effectively, as the foregoing illustrates.
I suggest for starters that you take two balls and split them around
the wicket, not further than two feet either side, and put both balls
where you want them. Always get the striker ball within one foot
of the wicket, and straight in front of it, so that you have a
wicket stroke. Concentrate on letting the mallet do all the
After all, with even a very small back stroke, there is more than
energy in the mallet to accomplish a two-foot split shot. Relax
doing it. If you cannot relax while doing that, then take up
more to your liking like driving in heavy traffic on a rainy night with
a carload of hungry children.