THE STATE OF THE GAME
by John Riches
One of the difficulties I face as a coach is that as they become older the great majority of players become more conservative in their tactical approach to the game. This would not matter so much if it were not for the fact that these older players (i.e. 'older' in terms of croquet experience, not necessarily in years) tend to then teach their conservative approach to new up-and-coming players who they coach or partner.
This is unfortunate, because it is often far from easy to convince a player that if he hopes to progress to the top it is imperative for him to maintain an aggressive approach, even if on the way up it proves unsuccessful at times because his developing technical skill is not keeping pace with his tactical knowledge. If he is constantly under pressure from well-meaning club members to play more conservatively in order to reduce the number of risks he is taking, then the coach may seem to be fighting a rear-guard action which could be doomed to failure. Experience dictates that if the player starts to give in to the pressures of conservatism and think too much about what he will give away instead of what he stands to gain, then it is almost impossible for him later to regain the aggressive approach that he has abandoned.
In recent months (first half of 1997) I have had as a coach the responsibility of assisting Wendy King, one of our leading players, in her preparation to play on the Australian Ladies Team in the Trans-Tasman series of matches against New Zealand. She has been taught to play aggressively and does so. It is noticeable that most of the leading women tend to adopt tactics which are less aggressive than our leading men, but Wendy is certainly an exception to this rule, and there is no doubt that the considerable amount of success which she enjoys is a direct result of this.
It was disappointing to hear that when Wendy played a practice game before the event and came off the lawn after winning 26-2, instead of being congratulated and encouraged, the attitude of her opponent and fellow team-member was to the effect that "I hope you are not going to play like that next week; you'll never get away with taking such risks in international play". Apart from the fact that team members should at that time have been striving to build up the confidence of fellow members instead of destroying it, this showed that in addition to a lack of sensitivity the opponent had little understanding of the correct tactical approach.
But in spite of such attempts to dissuade her, Wendy managed to maintain a reasonably aggressive approach to her games (though at times she felt she had to avoid a line of play which she believed would have given her the best chance of winning, in consideration of the criticism she knew would ensue if it happened on that occasion to fail), and her overall results in the event were excellent.
COMMON MYTHS ABOUT AGGRESSIVE PLAY
MYTH #1: "Aggressive play involves taking unnecessary risks."
In fact, the risks involved in playing aggressively are smaller than those involved in playing conservatively, but unless the player is capable of objectively assessing his tactical moves this will be far from obvious. Most players think only of the current turn - or possibly the following turn - and fail to take a long-term view when assessing the success or failure of tactical ideas. If they fail to make a hoop in the current turn, they tend to then say that the tactics were incorrect; and if the opponent fails to make a hoop, they conclude that the tactics have been successful. Such thinking is far too shallow and subjective.
A correct assessment of tactical ideas must be based not on "gut feelings" and short-term results, but on percentages considered in the overall context of the game, or better still over a series of games. You should not be thinking about what will enable you to most easily make your current hoop, but what will give you the best percentage chance of setting up a break before the opponent does so; and what will therefore ultimately maximize your chance of winning the game.
MYTH #2: "Aggressive play is only for extroverts who have a gambling instinct and love to take chances".
In fact, playing aggressively is by far the safest thing to do, because in the long term it reduces the chance that you will lose the game and correspondingly increases your chance of winning. It is axiomatic that every choice should be made according to which alternative will give you the best percentage chance of winning. Aggressive tactics should be adopted, not because they result in more attractive play, or because they will impress the spectators, but because doing anything else will involve a greater chance of losing.
If there was any likelihood that the adoption of negative "Aunt Emma" tactics would increase my chance of winning, then I would use them every time, and would be teaching them to the people I coach; but the fact is they would reduce, not increase, my chance of winning games. One does not need a great amount of advanced mathematics to perform the percentage estimations and calculations which will clearly demonstrate that in a game of croquet the odds are overwhelmingly weighted in favour of aggression.
MYTH #3: "Aggressive play may be successful against weaker opponents, but against a strong opponent you cannot afford to take such risks."
This is perhaps the most insidious of the myths, and is exactly the opposite of the truth. The stronger the opponent, the more essential it will be to play aggressively, and the more risks you should be prepared to take. Admittedly, if the risks fail to come off he is more certain to punish you that a weaker player would have been, but against a strong player it is more certain that taking the risks will be your only realistic chance of winning.
Any top player will tell you that he likes nothing better than playing a weaker opponent who refuses to take risks. Such an opponent is no threat at all. The game may be a long and boring one, but the strong player is virtually guaranteed of winning, provided only that he can maintain some level of interest in a game which presents no more challenge than taking candy from the proverbial baby. On the other hand, the weaker opponent will be seen as a real danger if he is prepared to take risks and "go for everything". Apart from the positive psychology involved in a "nothing to lose, so go for everything" approach, there is the possibility that enough of the risks taken may just happen to come off, and result in a memorable - at least for the weaker player - upset.
WHAT IS "AGGRESSIVE PLAY"?
It will be obvious that before taking this discussion any further there is a need to define more clearly exactly what we understand by "aggressive play" as it applies in a game of croquet. The three main principles of aggressive play are as follows. It is not possible here to explain each one fully, but the player must completely understand why he is using it, how it will increase his chance of winning the game, when to use it and when not to, and how to ensure that he remembers to think of it and correctly assess the percentages in the heat and tension of battle. This is all part of the coach's work in preparing the player.
There are other principles which must be learnt and understood by the player who wishes to increase his winning chances by playing aggressively. Many further ideas are covered in booklets I have published in recent years. In this short column there is room for only the three principles given above, which should be sufficient to give the reader some appreciation of what "aggressive play" is all about.
For the coach there is a further consequence of teaching aggressive tactics. He must ensure that the player knows not only how to play aggressively, but also how to effectively counter negative "safety-first" tactics which may be used by the opposition. When you encounter a skilled and canny "Aunt Emma", wouldn't it be prudent to adopt some of her tactics? No. Attempting to "play them at their own game" is an almost certain recipe for disaster, but few players have been taught exactly how to go about taking advantage an opponent's unwillingness to shoot or take reasonable risks.
This topic also involves a body of knowledge which is too great to include here, but it is doubly important because once the player understands how to take advantage of negative tactics he will be less likely to want to use them himself.
We should avoid all temptation to resort to a safety-first "Give 'em nothing" approach, and instead adopt a "Grab all you can" philosophy. This will not guarantee success every time - no tactical approach can do that - but you will be guaranteed of winning more games than if you had adopted any other approach. So if the opponent gives you any sort of chance to set up a break (as opposed to simply making your next hoop with no break in sight), then go for it!
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