by Jeff Soo
Croquet players tend to spend much of their practice time working on three- and four-ball breaks. This is sensible, because successful break play is one of the keys to improvement. What is not so sensible is when players practice breaks but then seem to ignore their mistakes. If they break down, they simply blip past the error and keep going. Or, at most they go back and replay the last stroke once or twice. I see many players practicing this way.
A much better exercise would be to figure out why the break failed, and then work on that part of the game. Well that’s easy—if you broke down by stuffing a hoop, then you need to practice hoop shots, right? Not necessarily. After all, most breakdowns do involve failed hoop shots. But usually there is an underlying cause that happened earlier—sometimes much earlier.
Take a closer look
Let’s look at an example in detail, because the real problem is not always obvious. Consider a player practicing a three-ball break. Things come to a clanging halt when the player misses an angled three-foot shot at the 2-back hoop. Picture this player scowling, then putting the striker’s ball back in the same lousy position and trying the hoop again. This time the ball struggles through, and with a small grunt of satisfaction the player carries on.
What a missed opportunity to learn something really useful! Clanging an angled three-footer doesn’t mean you need to spend more time practicing angled three-footers. It means you need to organize and execute your breaks better so that you aren’t faced with such difficult shots in the first place. For this you need to think back and analyze the strokes that led up to the breakdown.
Simple, yet not obvious
Let’s continue with our example and try to find out what went wrong. Looking further back, it turns out that the 2-back pioneer was pretty lousy, placed about halfway between 1-back and 2-back. Our player failed to get a good rush on this ball, and then had to play a long approach to 2-back. Actually, from that position he did well to get within three feet of the hoop. So here are already four possible problem shots: the croquet stroke after #6, sending a pioneer to 2-back, and then the three shots leading up to the hoop shot at 2-back. Any of these shots would be good practice material.
Looking even further back, it turns out that the reason for the lousy 2-back pioneer was that the 1-back pioneer was too deep, placed about halfway between 1-back and the north boundary. Faced with the deep 1-back pioneer, the best our player could manage after scoring #6 was to send a pioneer halfway down to 2-back. So a good exercise would be to go back and practice getting a better pioneer at 1-back, then continue with the break.
Already we’ve uncovered a string of shots that contributed to the breakdown. If we kept looking further back we’d probably find even more. In fact, in the real-life case from which I’ve drawn this example, the problem started twenty strokes before the miss at 2-back. That miss was merely the grisly end of a long sequence where the break gradually went from good to bad. Unfortunately for the player in our example, he apparently didn’t see any of this. This would seem to be a player doomed to repeat his mistakes.
How the good players make it look easy
There are two sides to good break play. The first is obvious: accurate execution of strokes. Use the sort of analysis shown above to find out which strokes need work. Then practice them systematically. Strive for accuracy—in croquet strokes, pick a precise location for each ball and practice until you learn how to get them there. Don’t forget to practice rushes—many players of American-rules croquet tend to overlook this.
The second aspect of good break play is more subtle: break management. That is, the decisions you make about where to place balls and what strokes to play. This is an area where many players could make big improvements. In particular, many players overlook the importance of playing controlled rushes on the reception ball immediately after scoring a hoop. I often see players run a hoop, immediately roquet the reception ball, and only then stop to look around and see what’s next. They aren’t even thinking about using that shot—the roquet on the reception ball—to make the next shot easier.
If you don’t pay some attention to break management, your execution must be flawless or you will surely break down. The effect of small inaccuracies builds up over time as the break spirals out of control. Break management (another term for this is break hygiene) is a matter of reacting to these inaccuracies before they become critical problems. Good break management will allow you to keep your breaks going even when your execution is a little off.
Think about this the next time you have the chance to watch top-level players in action. Watch the care they take with the hoop approach, not just to set up a short hoop shot but also to set up a controlled rush afterward. Notice where they play this rush, and how it depends on the location of the pioneer ball at the next hoop (and the pivot ball, if it is a four-ball break). This is break management in action.
This article was originally published in the USCA Croquet News. Copyright by the author.