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THE HILDITCH REPORT #1
(London, October 1996)

Why aren't there more top
women croquet players?
by Richard Hilditch

A PROFILE OF THE WRITER

By "top players" I am referring to those within a couple of bisques of the best player within their country. Although this question might seem to be of only academic interest, I hope to demonstrate that in trying to answer it we can learn a bit more about the nature of our sport.

At the risk of being apologetic, I must say that this article would be more authoritative if it were written by a top woman player. I refer readers to the comments of Debbie Cornelius on competitive croquet in her courtside interview.

MEN AND WOMEN IN OTHER SPORTS
Clearly croquet is not an activity where a man has an inherent advantage over a woman by virtue of being bigger or stronger. (I exclude the case of lawns that are too slow to play on without excessive force.) Indeed, I believe that the psychologists tell us that a woman is better at delicate tasks by virtue of having smaller hands; so women have an advantage in some cases, such as playing close hoop positions. Obviously there are few other physical sports where this is true (I exclude here games like bridge and chess which require no physical effort at all, although there may be endurance factors to consider). Other such sports include:
  • Lawn bowls
  • Ten-pin bowling
  • Shooting.
  • Pool or snooker.
  • Darts.

These sports share with croquet:
  • No direct interaction with the opponent (unlike, say, tennis or football).
  • Skill rather than strength being required.

Since all of these other sports are also dominated at the top level by men, we may be looking for a common trend (several of these sports are typically played as single sex, but the performance of men is consistently higher than women).

THE HISTORY OF MEN AND WOMEN IN CROQUET
In the croquet history books we read of men and women sharing in the early social croquet scene. Prichard (in "The History of Croquet") reproduces several early prints showing mixed games. Tellingly, he also reproduces a photo (page 42) showing the players at the British Open Championships in 1870, there are no women in the photo.

It is true that in the Victorian and Edwardian eras women had to contend with at least two significant hurdles before they could become any good at croquet:
  • Their clothing only allowed them to play golf style, with the mallet leaning away from the body. This style does not allow the sort of accuracy needed for croquet (although golfers seem to cope in their sport!)
  • Male domination in society.

We have now overcome the first of these hurdles, and hopefully the second is of lesser effect (although no doubt still true).

"What about some of the legendary figures of the past?" I hear you cry. There have been a few women who have equaled and dominated their fellow male players at times - such as Lily Gower (later Mrs Beaton) and D.D. Steel.

These players, however, great though they must have been, represent an exception. Look at these figures taken from Prichard's book ("The History of Croquet") for the percentage of women playing in the top invitation event in Britain (now called the President's Cup):
  • 1901-1914    9%
  • 1929-1938  18%
  • 1946-1965  23%
  • 1966-1985    1% (one lone entry from a New Zealander)

The percentages are of course on the up again, with Debbie Cornelius a clearly established President's cup player. But she is alone at the top, with no other current female player close to her status.

POSSIBLE EXPLANATIONS
Is the problem that there are very few good women because there are very few women in croquet? Clearly not. Many clubs have more women players than men. Indeed, when I was in Australia I was told that earlier in the century, clubs were often organized for women only (with men playing in single-sex bowls clubs). Even now women dominate the administration of the sport in Australia and New Zealand, but the top players there are mostly men.

Is the problem that women are simply not good at sport?

I don't think that this is the answer. If we look at the examples of tennis, golf, athletics and swimming (all sports not in the category of croquet as defined above) we see excellence being achieved often in a professional environment.

MY OWN OPINIONS
Having eliminated many possible reasons, I shall now propose two principle reasons to explain the imbalance in achievement levels between the sexes at the top levels of croquet:

(1) Croquet is a sport for nerds
I use the American term 'nerd' as it probably fits better than the terms we have used previously - such as 'character' or 'eccentric'. One of the central tenets of Nick Smith's book ("Queen of Sports: The History of Croquet) is that croquet attracts such 'nerds'. The thinly veiled title "Sport of Queens" (sic.) points out another social connection that is, perhaps, best left unexplored. Since nerds are (almost by definition) male, it's easy to see, if one accepts the premise, why there are very few good players who are women.

(2) Women do not like to think while participating in sport.
Croquet is clearly a sport that requires thinking as well as the other elements that sports require (physical control, concentration, etc.). I do not mean that women are in any way weaker than men intellectually, but that women prefer to use their intellect on more important things. To see this effect, consider how men take a huge interest in the statistics of sports they are watching on TV (baseball is the best example). I suspect that this leaves most women cold. I suspect that the thinking element of our game is what puts off most beginners - but that it is also what attracts the key future players (who will be, in the main, male nerds).

Those of you who have been following my train of thought will spot that these two reasons do not apparently apply to the other "similar" sports that I identified above. Do these sports have problems of their own (e.g. darts requires large quantities of beer to play) or have I missed the point?

WHAT CAN WE DO TO RECTIFY THIS
I can see two immediate ideas that may allow us to work towards a more equitable sex balance at the top:
  • - Focus recruitment on the intellectual class. I believe that the correct time to get people into croquet is at University (graduate school would be the US equivalent). The key is to get mixed sex peer groups interested. Obviously a local club trying to get players this way will struggle with the turnover, but in the long term there will be more players nationwide.
  • - Switch to a less intellectual version of the game such as golf croquet. I hasten to say that I do not advocate this myself. It would be interesting to see the number of women playing in Egypt where virtually all croquet is golf croquet. I believe that the Egyptian players at the recent World Championships were all men.

OTHER "REASONS" - BEER GUTS AND WIGGLING HIPS
The following two suggestions come from some of the players I asked at a recent tournament.

  1. Women are no good at croquet because they do not have the beer guts required by the modern test player (see pictures of the Great Britain team). The theory is that the beer gut forces the arms into a good stroke. Since men are far more likely to have beer guts, they are far more likely to excel at croquet. In order to test this hypothesis we need to get information from pregnant women playing croquet, or perhaps to run a 'pillow tournament' where players can wear pillows under their shirts if they need to match up to the better endowed!

  2. Women are no good at croquet because when they walk their hips wiggle, which makes it impossible to stalk to the ball properly.

On that absurd note, I leave this analysis and hope to widen my opinion poll to include you and other readers. Why aren't there more top women croquet players? E-mail your best opinions and observations on the subject to the editor: bobalman@aol.com.


 
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