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NATE'S NOTES AND PRACTICE DRILLS
by Mike "Nate" Weimerskirch, USCA Director of Croquet


March / April Issue:

IMPROVING YOUR SUCCESS RATE

As I was returning from the holidays, I learned an important lesson from an airline that claims to have a great on-time record. The way to improve your success rate is by not setting your goals too high. Here's how the airline keeps up its on-time record: Schedule a 2-hour flight, claim the arrival time is 3 hours after the departure time, and as long as you don't waste a full hour, you succeed.

This lesson can be applied to croquet. Often we embark on a risky play, when a less ambitious play will suffice.

A simple example is approaching a wicket from close range. Say you wind up ball-in-hand on a ball that is an inch from one upright of the wicket you are for. Many players do a split shot that moves their ball closer to the wicket. The problem is that you are already very close to the wicket, hitting from the side. If you are a fraction of an inch too short or too long, you are left with an impossible angle. The wiser play is to play your ball away from the wicket to a position 9 to 12 inches in front of the hoop. Now you can miss perfect position by a few inches and still have an easy wicket shot.

The same is true when taking off from behind a wicket. Assume you are playing ball-in-hand from a ball that is three feet behind your wicket and a few inches to the side, so that your approach will head straight past the wicket. You would like to have a one-foot hoop shot if possible, but a three-foot straight shot should be no problem. "Don't guarantee a two-hour flight, when a three0-hour flight will do." If you aim for a spot one foot in front of the wicket, you may not always succeed. Instead, if you plan for a little buffer zone, and aim for two feet in front of the wicket, the worst that can happen is perhaps a three-foot shot - the same one you open the game with!

Another example: You have gone partner dead, and approach an opponent ball at wicket #4. The opponent ball sits several feet in front of the hoop and slightly to the left, while your approach winds up 3 feet away from the opponent, straight to the left, so that your straight rush will put the roqueted ball in front of the hoop, but at an uncomfortable distance. You would rather cut the ball to a position close to the hoop, and this is where we tend "to pack our flight schedule too tight." To hit the perfect cut rush, we will need to catch just a fraction of an inch of the left side of the opponent ball, and because we are making such a slight contact, we need to hit fairly strong. A slight error to the left, and we miss the ball entirely or, alternatively, on a slight miss to the right, we knock it out-of-bounds and end up as a sitting duck (a dead one, at that) on the court. The way to handle this situation is to plan for an acceptable compromise, cut the ball halfway up to the hoop. It's not the perfect position, but it will work, "on time," every time.

PRACTICE DRILL #6:
APPROACHING A HOOP WITH AN INADEQUATE RUSH

This practice drill can be applied to any part of your game when you are aware of at least two options. Experiment with the various alternatives to discover which one will yield the greatest rate of success.

Set up the situation described above. A 6-handicap player may want to start with the opponent ball about 12 feet from the hoop, three feet to the side, with the striker ball three feet further to the side. The striker should accomplish the following:

  1. Rush the opponent ball and end up in a better position
  2. Split to the wicket
  3. Score the hoop
  4. Make the roquet afterward.

A higher handicap player may wish to place the opponent ball closer to the hoop, or the striker ball closer for the rush, or make the rush straighter, or all three.

A lower handicap player may wish to place the opponent ball further from the hoop, set the hoops tighter, make the rush longer, or consider the drill successful only if a peel can be accomplished.


January - February Issue:

BUILDING A BREAK

Often when an attack goes awry, leaving three balls in close proximity on a boundary, someone comments, "Oh great, a four-ball break." More often than not, this is not the case; however, the seasoned player will know how to build a successful break from the situation presented.

When building a break, you must accomplish two things:
  1. make your wicket and
  2. formulate a plan to make your next wicket.

Sounds simple, but all too often players are more concerned with getting a good pioneer, and fail to get to their wicket, so we begin with step one.

There are two ways to make your first wicket. You may be fortunate enough to have a ball waiting there, or you may need to rush a ball there. Let's go back to the opening scenario: an attack to the #1 corner ends when the attacking ball, let's say blue, roqueted yellow out of bounds. What we are now left with are four balls near the #1 corner - red, yellow and blue on the boundary and black on the court a few feet. It's now red to play

I defy any player to transform this into an immediate four-ball break by getting a pioneer to #3, a pivot ball anywhere inside the four corner hoops, and still get a rush to #2. Remember the first rule, you must make the wicket you are currently for and, since there is no ball waiting at #2, you must get a rush to your wicket. The only ball you can reasonably rush is the black ball, so if you intend to play a break, take good care to accomplish that much. Even a 3-ball break is difficult from this position. Often, the best option is to leave blue behind for yellow and rush black to #2 to get clear, then set a three ball break for yellow by making red yellow's pioneer ball at its next wicket.

Sometimes, when trailing late in a game, you are forced to build a break from situations such as this, so let's use the same scenario and build a break for red. We need to do two things: make wicket #2 with red, and leave a reasonable play for #3. Since a pioneer at #3 is out of the question, the next best alternative is to leave two balls close together somewhere on the court with the intent of roqueting one to get a good rush on the other to the next hoop.

Starting from the same position, red should put yellow and blue into the court as far as is safely possible, but again, make sure you are able to get a good rush with black to #2. After #2 has been cleared, return to blue and yellow, roquet one, get a rush on the other to #3, and clear.

Before doing this, though, you should have a plan to clear #4. There are several options. If you were previously able to put blue and yellow out on the court far enough, you may be able to do the long split roll from #2 with black, sending black to #4 while approaching blue and yellow. If blue and yellow are too near the boundary to do this safely, perhaps black can be rushed to #4, so that a safe take-off can gain access to blue and yellow to maintain the three-ball break. Alternatively, maybe black can be rushed to #3, thus delaying the approach to blue and yellow until you are on your way to #4. Or, black could be rushed to blue and yellow, putting all four balls together again, creating the original situation.

If you are unable to rush black anywhere safely and become ball-in-hand on black near #2, you may be able to do a thick take-off, putting black near #3, while going to blue and yellow. After rushing blue or yellow to #3, you now have two balls near #3, and after clearing, you will be able to roquet one, then get the necessary rush on the other to #4. If all else fails and you need to leave black in the middle of the lawn, try to get a rush back to black with the ball you use to clear #3.

The main thing to remember is this: if you don't have a pioneer, you need a rush; to get a rush, position two balls close together.

PRACTICE DRILL #5
GAINING A RUSH FROM A SPLIT SHOT

To help promote balls into the field of play to start a break, you will want to learn to control a split shot. Start with two balls near #6, about 3 feet apart, and play ball-in-hand from one of them. Play a drive shot or stop shot, sending the forward ball in the direction of #3, while trying to gain a rush position on the other ball to #2. It is not necessary at first to get the forward ball all the way to #3, just promote it in that direction. After the initial split shot, rush the other ball back to #2 and score the hoop.

To make the drill more difficult, start with the two balls further apart, or further from hoop #2, or both. Also, the drill will be easier with a narrow angle on the initial split . Eventually, begin concentrating on getting a good pioneer to #3.


July - August Issue:

Here are some helpful hints on how to play the new Barlow GT ball for those accustomed to playing with Jaques Balls. Beware: These are my personal observations from a not-entirely-scientific study.

COMPARING THE JACQUES "ECLIPSE" AND THE BARLOW GT

The Barlow ball, although put together in three pieces, is in essence a solid plastic ball. It tends to be near the upper limit in terms of size. Striped balls occasionally exceed the legal size. Wickets set to 3 11/16" are challenging to players at all levels.

The Jaques Ball has a composite core with a nylon cover. The ball continues to compress as it is played, causing the balls to become out of round - and sometimes smaller than the rules require.

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

My experience is that the Barlow GT and the Jaques Eclipse are very similar; most strokes react slightly differently, but the differences are subtle. (It took me far less time to get used to the Barlow GT than the Dawson 2000, from Australia, or the Vortex Ball, used in Minnesota.) The surface of the Barlow ball is softer than the Jaques, increasing its adherence to mallets, wicket uprights and other balls, accounting for the differences in ball action.

SINGLE-BALL STROKES

  • Running Wickets: Since Barlow balls are "stickier," it is harder to get through hoops. Take extra care to get to good position; direction (angle) is more important than distance. Do not abandon the basics of wicket shooting. Extra force won't help!

  • Straight Rushes: Barlow balls will rush a distance 5%-15% shorter than a Jaques ball. Hit your rush shots more firmly. Also, make sure you are not hitting down on your ball when trying to rush. This is always a bad thing, no matter which ball you play with, but particularly so with a Barlow.

  • Cut Rushes: Barlow balls will tend to go straighter than the Jaques, by as much as 10%-20%. Be more cautious with cut rushes; the effect is twofold - a more severe angle, requiring more power, coupled with the previously described effect, makes this shot the one you will want to practice most.

CROQUET STROKES

  • Drive Shot: The forward ball, Barlow or Jaques, will travel about the same. The back ball will travel up to 15% less with a Barlow GT compared to a Jaques. The difference is smaller on longer shots.

  • Half-Roll: Same as drive shot.
  • Full-Roll: As far as I can tell, Barlow and Jaques react the same.
  • Split-Shots: Barlow balls will draw off line more than Jaques. Allow for twice as much draw as you would ordinarily.
  • Take-offs: Again, in my observations, I can't detect a difference.

PRACTICE DRILL #3
LEARNING "TOUCH"

When getting used to a new setting, be it different balls, a "foreign" court, or a new mallet, you will want to learn the "feel" or "touch" necessary to hit certain strokes. The following drills are designed to help you develop this enigmatic skill.

  1. Run a one ball break. Place a ball in the starting position in front of #1 and run the first hoop. Continue around the court with this ball until you have run all twelve wickets and staked out. 30 strokes is excellent. A 7 handicap player should be able to run the course in 36 strokes (3 per wicket).
  2. Shoot across court, from one boundary to the other, attempting to get as close as possible to the far boundary, without going out. This is a good exercise for tournaments, if you are not allowed to warm up on the court, but are allowed to practice on the apron.
  3. Attempt to roquet a ball on the boundary from 3 feet away. Gradually increase the distance.
  4. Combine (B) and (C) by taking off from a ball in the #1 corner to attack a ball in the #4 corner.
  5. Attempt to leave a ball in the jaws of a hoop from 3 feet away. Gradually increase the distance.

May - June Issue:

"CROQUET? OH, IT'S REALLY VERY SIMPLE."

An outsider to the sport of croquet happens by a court and asks you about the game; how do you respond? Typically, we leave the newcomer with the impression that croquet is very complicated.

If this was your response, I would like to encourage you to develop a new way of thinking about the game, one that will allow you to say, "Croquet? Oh, it's really very simple."

A lot of players make the game harder than it really is. We want to accomplish too much, too quickly, and wind up thinking about too many things - and concentrating on nothing. When faced with a wicket shot, are you concentrating on shooting straight, or thinking about how to attack the opponent after making the wicket? Unless you concentrate on the first, you won't get a chance to do the second.

The split shot is the one area where most players struggle, because it seems complicated. In fact to an outsider, a split shot is mind-boggling - one ball flying across court near a distant wicket, while the other rolls neatly up to a third ball for an easy roquet. How could a player possibly judge four things - the direction of the forward ball, direction of the striker ball, distance of the forward ball, and distance of the striker ball, and then execute all four in a single shot?

Actually, it's very simple. There is a step-by-step procedure for a split shot that covers the four components listed above.

  1. Direction of the forward ball.
    Line up your striker ball directly behind the roqueted ball. No matter how you swing, the forward ball will travel on the line that connects the centers of the two balls.
  2. Direction of the back ball.
    Figure out where you want your ball to travel, envision that line, envision the line of travel of the forward ball in step 1, then cut that angle in half. Envision this line of swing, then stalk this line as you would a single-ball shot.
  3. Distance of the forward ball.
    Figure out whether you need a drive shot, half-roll, etc. Position your hands accordingly. Then STOP.
These three steps need to occur before you even begin to think about hitting the ball. The reason a split shot can be simple is that these three steps can be decided, set in stone, without performing the task of striking the ball. Now when when you approach the ball, you are concentrating on one thing only: how much backswing to take so that your striker ball travels the proper distance.

When I hit a long split roll, my focus is so complete, that I don't even see the forward ball. I trust in the laws of physics. Step One guarantees the direction, Step three the distance, with no need to think any further. Just get your ball where you want it.

The key to keeping a split shot and the whole game of croquet simple, is to figure out the one (and only one) thing you need to concentrate on. Then focus!

PRACTICE DRILL #2
SPLIT SHOTS

For beginners who always take off to score wickets:

Start "ball in hand" three feet in front of a wicket and one foot to the side. Perform a split shot trying to get the forward ball directly behind the wicket, about 3-6 feet on the other side. On the continuation stroke, run the wicket, and finally after running the wicket, make the roquet.

Consider the drill successful if you can make the roquet after scoring the wicket. This is an improvement over taking off.

As always, practice for success. Execute a drill successfully 80% of the time before making it more difficult.

Advanced Variations:

  1. Change the initial starting position. A variety of angles will help you visualize how much split is necessary. Increasing the distance will force you to practice a variety of roll shots.
  2. Consider the drill successful only if you can rush the ball you split forward after scoring the wicket. For example, start at wicket #5, score wicket #5, then rush the split ball at least past the post.
  3. Run a two-ball break for as many hoops as possible. Run the Rover hoop in the "unnatural" (opposite) direction, and head to #1 after Rover if you can run the break all the way around.
I have heard "fish" stories as to how many hoops certain players have run. I would be interested in hearing actual accounts of the longest two-ball breaks players have run on properly set hoops.


March - April Issue:

The ad agencies fill the screen with images of Michael Jordan soaring through the air in one gravity-defying move after another. It's no surprise that the playgrounds are filled with 8-year-olds dreaming that they could "be like Mike." They practice dribbling between their legs, behind-the-back passes and 360-degree spins in an effort to become a basketball legend. The reality, however, is that basketball legends are sculpted from a different kind of practice.

Croquet players have the same tendency. We like to practice 60-foot wicket shots and cross-court hit-ins, because these are the miraculous plays that stand out in our minds as having won championships. The reality, however, is that most championships are won not with last-minute heroics, but with consistent, error-free play that makes the opponent pray for a miracle. The ultimate compliment to a player is to say, "They make it look so easy." Practice should be designed with this in mind; the shots you want to take in a game should be easy shots.

I have two keys to good practice:

  1. Practice shots that you can execute at least 60% of the time and work until you have achieved at least 80% proficiency. Your muscles remember the shots you hit repeatedly. If you fail more often than you succeed, your muscles are remembering failure. Attempting roquets from 21 feet is something I practice often. It is a shot I can execute over 90% of the time, and that quite often is necessary during the course of a match. The shot is a lot less nerve-racking in competition if you have established confidence in making the shot through routine practice.

  2. Get enough practice. You hit more shots in half an hour of practice than in a game that lasts an hour and a half. Not only that, but many game situation shots are routine. On the other hand, the most crucial shot in the sport, running a wicket, ideally would only be attempted 24 times during the course of a match (and you may not be that fortunate!). Five minutes of practicing wickets before playing a pickup game will more than double your experience at this task.
Another basketball story stresses one last point: the key to performing any task well in game play is repeated practice. A few years ago, USC's women's basketball team sought help in shooting free throws through a variety of visual cues, mental imagery, videotape analysis, even hypnosis, with no real improvement. Michigan State led the country in free throw shooting that year. When asked the reason for her team's success, coach Karen Langeland had a simple answer: "We practice them a lot."


PRACTICE DRILL #1

Start with two balls about one foot apart, on the north boundary, directly in front of wicket #3. Have the first ball set a rush for #3. The second ball should then execute this sequence of strokes:
  1. rush the first ball to #3,
  2. split the first ball behind the wicket while taking position to run the wicket,
  3. run the wicket, and
  4. make the roquet on the first ball.
As you get better at this drill, you should begin to get a down-court rush when you make the final roquet.

It is suggested that you execute the simple drill properly 80% of the time before increasing the difficulty.


ADVANCED VARIATIONS

  1. Change the direction of the approach to the wicket (e.g. #3 from the east boundary) or change the direction you run the wicket from (4-back from the north boundary).
  2. Approach a more distant wicket. (Penultimate from the north boundary, or #4 from the north boundary, or all the way across court from the #2 corner to 3-back.)
  3. Start with the balls 5 feet apart, or 15 feet apart, to make setting the initial rush more difficult.
  4. Use a line rush instead of setting an on-court rush. For instance, put the two balls together on the north boundary by #2, then do a cut-rush to #3.
  5. Skip the rush entirely, and execute the split shot from the boundary.
NOTE: Special thanks to the San Francisco Croquet Club, whose work-in progress on a PRACTICE AND DRILL MANUAL was helpful in preparation of this piece.


 
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