Ten commandments for practicing
1. Do not practise on your own for hours at a time. A half-hour practice two or three times a week is far better than two hours all at once.
2. Do not simply practise the things you can already do.
3. Practise one shot at a time, e.g. if you want to improve your hoop approaches, concentrate fully on that. Do not run the hoop each time.
4. Before practising a particular stroke, make sure you find out the right way to do it, otherwise you will be simply re-inforcing bad habits which can be very difficult to eradicate later on. Enlist the services of a good coach for at least long enough to check your stance, grip, swing, etc., for the one shot you intend to work on.
5. Do not practise failure. If you try to roquet the peg from the border you are likely to miss far more often than you hit. It is better to build confidence (rather than destroy it) by practising roquets at a distance of, say, 6-7 yards where you can expect to hit at least 50%. When the percentage reaches 80% move on to a longer distance.
6. Set yourself simple goals, e.g. play a 4-ball break with the goal of loading each hoop within one yard of the hoop; or play the next three rushes without once tightening your grip during the swing.
7. Try to put yourself under pressure by telling yourself things such as, "This is my final turn and I need to make one more hoop to win the club (or state or world) championship". [See #6, "Practise Playing Seriously.] Then, when you actually get into such a situation you will be less nervous because you will feel that you have been there many times before.
8. Do not forget to practise things like cannons and hampered shots which only occur now and again, but can make a big difference in a game.
9. Also practise breaks (4-ball and especially 3-ball); picking up the 4th ball from various positions and bringing it into your break; wiring; ending a break with a particular well-thought-out leave. Also put both opponent balls out of play (e.g. in corners) and practise either getting them into an immediate break, or "manoeuvering" your way to a break after two or more turns in which the opponent is never given a "safe" shot - that is, the only chances he gets are long roquets, any of which if attempted and missed will give you an immediate simple break.
10. Vary your practice exercises and beware of possible dangers. For example, some players like to start every practice session by taking one ball around through all the hoops and pegging it out in as few strokes as they can manage. This teaches good control of distance and the ability to run long hoops, but has the disadvantage that the player is also practising running most of the hoops fairly hard, and may find it difficult to resist the urge to do the same in game situations, when gentle control is more often needed.
I would say without hesitation that the fourth of the above "commandments" is the most important.
Train your own coach
I have often stressed the point that every serious competitive player should have a personal coach. [See the fourth "commandment" above.] In no other sport would one expect to remain consistently competitive at the very top level without a personal coach; but in croquet, for some reason, many of us adopt the attitude that only beginners need to be coached. Try telling that to Greg Norman or any of our Olympic atheltes!
However, many players do not find it easy to secure the regular services of a competent coach, especially in the more remote country areas. If you are in this situation, then you should make every effort to obtain intensive coaching whenever you visit a place where an accredited coach is available; but you can also use the other option of training your own coach!
This option will obviously be second-best, but it is far better than doing without any sort of coaching at all. First you must find someone who is interested in finding out the right way to do things, and is willing to work with you. The person need not be a top player, and may well be a weaker player than you are. After all, Pete Sampras's coach would not be able to play tennis as well as Pete can.
You and your coach should together make use of good coaching books (since modesty is not one of my vices, I will recommend some at the end of this article) and get the "coach" to watch and see whether you are doing things the way the books recommend. The importance of the coach lies in the fact that we cannot watch ourselves. It is so easy to tell ourselves that we are keeping our shoulders still, using a long, slow backswing, etc., when in fact we are not.
If you encouter problems that you cannot find answers to, then why not write to an accredited coach - or to me - for further advice on a particular problem? There are various books available with useful coaching ideas, but the ones published more recently are likely to have more up-to-date advice. Croquet coaching methods are developed and improved over the years, as in every other sport.
[John Riches is the author of a number of coaching booklets, including "Croquet Technique", "Croquet Coaching: Error Correction", "Croquet: Lessons in Tactics", "Croquet: Next Break Strategy", " Croquet: The Mental Approach", and "Croquet: Finer Points".]
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