Performance Thinking: Closing Time

Posted 1 May 2016 to Tactics, The Game by Jeff Soo

Preface: This article is part of a series on the psychology of athletic performance, which the author calls “performance thinking”, and which is otherwise known as the “inner game” or “mental game”. Most players spend little if any effort developing effective performance thinking, and simply wonder why they can’t play in tournaments like they play in pick-up games. As Yogi Berra said about baseball, the game “is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.”

“Most games are won or lost in the final minutes.” Like many truisms, this misleads and yet contains an essential truth. Misleading is the implication that those final minutes are more important than the much longer portion of the game that came first. If you fail a potentially game-winning play in the final minutes it is almost always the case that you also failed at many other opportunities earlier in the game, any of which might have put you in a better position at the end. The essential truth is that we do tend to play differently in the end-game, sometimes in ways that allow us to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but more often in ways that have the opposite effect. What is it about closing out a match that seems so difficult? We’ll look at three aspects of this: the mental game, tactics, and time management. The focus will be on American Six-Wicket Croquet, where most games end on time and where the end-game is especially important.

Time management

Managing your time — and your time-outs — in the final minutes of a game can give you an extra turn or two before time is called, and this can make the difference between a realistic game-winning scenario and a desperate chance (or no chance).

In American Six-Wicket Croquet there are player time-outs (three per game for each side), time-outs while balls are being replaced in bounds (only in the last 15 minutes), referee time-outs, and interference time-outs (for the last two, check with the TD as to when these are allowed). If you are behind, time-outs effectively add time to the game clock. Know how to use each type of time-out. The first two can only be taken during your side’s turn. Even when you have the lead, using your time-outs gives you more time to think through your tactics for closing out the game.

Time-outs aren’t usually allowed in Association Croquet, so your only tool for time management is speeding up your play to fit in extra turns before time is called.

End-game tactics

Which side will make the last significant play before time is called? Whether for offense or defense, you want it to be your side. Sitting on a lead and “playing safe” gives the opponent the chance to make that big play. Conversely, if you are behind, be willing to take on a difficult play. Waiting for something better to come along gives the opponent another chance to make a defensive attack. You have to guess when the opponent is likely to go for it and balance that against your own prospects.

In American Six-Wicket Croquet, the croquet-out is a potent end-game weapon. As with the other attack sequences, it can be used for offense or for defense. If you are trailing you need to be ready to make use of it if a good opportunity arises. If you are leading you need to guard against it, and also be ready to use it yourself as a defensive attack. The croquet-out allows you to place your partner ball and the spent ball together on the boundary, by deliberately croqueting one of them out of bounds next to the other. With the offensive croquet-out the striker ball goes to the partner ball’s wicket. In the defensive version the striker ball is also sent out of bounds. Of course there’s no continuation shot, so the striker ball needs to be placed correctly on the croquet shot.

In the offensive croquet-out the partner ball must be alive on the spent ball and, in most cases, on your ball as well. If the partner ball is dead on the hot ball, do your best to get partner ball and spent ball close together, to guard against the opponent shooting between them. A defensive croquet-out can be effective if the partner ball is alive on either one of the opponent balls. The setup for a croquet-out is when the opponent balls are widely separated (or when the hot ball is dead both on its partner and your partner). In the offensive version the most favorable position is when the croquet-out will be near your partner’s wicket, but if you are capable of full-court roll shots it can be done anywhere. If you have a lead and decide to “play safe” by placing your balls in different corners, if the opponent balls are alive and joined and you play to the corner nearest the spent ball’s wicket, you’ve just given the opponent a golden opportunity.

Conventional attacks (rushing or taking off to the opponent balls) are also useful, of course. Players outside the Championship level are rightly wary of attacking, because of the resulting deadness. But in the end-game that deadness may not matter. All American Six-Wicket players should learn to attack, for use in the end-game if nothing else.

The mental game

Mistakes seem more costly in the end-game. They aren’t really (see the opening paragraph), but knowing that you probably won’t get a chance to recover from a mistake at this point adds to the pressure. A sound pre-shot routine gives you the best chance of performing well under this pressure.

If you have a routine play to win the game (e.g., a three-ball break), stick to your routine as much as possible. If you repeatedly check the score and waffle over whether to continue the break or make a defensive leave, you make it harder to maintain a flow and stay committed to your play. Have a game plan and stick to it. You don’t “deserve to win” just because you have a lead late in the game. Be willing to take some risk to close out the game decisively.

If you’re facing long odds, play as though you have nothing to lose. That attitude is why players so often do pull off the unexpected to come from behind at the end of a game. Never give up! Enjoy the challenge of figuring out the best way to win, no matter how difficult it seems.

Last modified on 5 June 2016