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Dr Ian Plummer

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Technical
Aiming

A number of players describe their procedures for aiming in croquet.

Martin French started the ball rolling …

We've had previous threads regarding shooting and the probability of hitting multiple targets. All about maths and probabilities. What I would have thought was more interesting would be to get a discussion going about how to improve your shooting.

To be a good shot, consistently, I think you need to develop a fair degree of self-awareness and the ability to analyse what you're doing at the technical level during the stroke. Things that I have found helped me (but of course may not work for others with different styles):

  • Stand as square on to the line of aim as possible - avoid having one foot ahead of the other because then sometimes I roll around the front foot stand still. I also try to stand as upright as I can, rather than bent-over

  • Keep your head down even after the ball has left really focus your gaze on your ball as you strike - and on the object ball when you aim. In the days of Jaques balls, I used to be able to focus on the paint blemishes and scuffs on an object ball at 20+ yards, and that seemed to make a real difference. Now with Dawsons and worse eyesight that is no longer possible but my shooting is still pretty good. Don't just look in the general direction of the object, or vaguely at your feet as you strike.

  • A lot of striking inconsistency, I think, comes from the unconscious battle between your two hands. This is why people with their hands interlocking can be such good shots (think Rutger or any number of Egyptians, like Ahmed El Mahdi). I have an overlapping Irish grip - my way of getting my hands as much in unison as I can. I've eventually worked out I need to grip the mallet tightly with my weaker top hand, with my stronger lower hand only loosely around the shaft. If I let my stronger hand grip tightly - especially with my thumb and forefingers around the shaft, they can twist the mallet on the final swing as you instinctively grip tighter. I now use the thumb of my weaker hand to clamp down on the two smaller fingers of my stronger hand, and am careful to keep my stronger-hand thumb beside the shaft, rather than around it. All this has reduced the degree of twist I can occasionally induce during the swing. For gentler strokes (e.g. hoops) make sure the wrists are loose - don't lock them out as this causes some quite gross errors of aim finally, think about the dynamics of the swing.

  • I've been a caster for 30 years, but it's only the past 3 years after a patch of really poor shooting, I've realised the need to ensure a slight pause at the top of the final backswing, then accelerate the mallet through the ball. My occasional duff shots are when I'm snatching my backswing - the more liquid I can make it the better.

What do other people find helps them?

Paul Wolff added:

I'm game to revealing my secrets, though far from expert. It's worth disclosing what works, even at a modest B-level. We can all learn from each other's ideas. Hitting the target is probably the strongest part of my play. Where I go wrong is in what to do next...

I've been asked about aiming. I've decided I don't "aim" at all. I've said here before that I used to be a decent rifle shot, so I know what aiming is: it's using the eye to align two connected external markers (rear sight, foresight) with a target. In croquet, the key seems to be the alignment of three independent objects, one of which is you yourself, the middle one being the striker's ball, and the third being either a ball to be roqueted, or a hole in a hoop. For me, the only method of getting this right is an adaptation of "stalking", though that word is not very helpful, implying as it does a sort of furtive creeping up on the striker's ball.

I find that, especially for a long shot or a tricky hoop, I need to go a long way back from my ball, as far as ten yards or so for a distant roquet. From there, I can truly see whether the target appears vertically "above" the striker's ball, or not; and if not, move left or right until it is. If necessary, to reduce the vertical spread, squat on my haunches; and to get the perfect alignment, move by fractions of an inch left or right.

[Some people start talking of parallax and being monocular at this point; I'm lucky, it seems, in being able to average both eyes and know when I'm in the midway between the one and the other.]

Once aligned on the ground, stand straight, fix eyes on the target, and walk towards it; which now by necessity implies walk also towards your striker's ball. If you make the mistake of watching the latter while advancing, you can drift off line, so make sure it's the target you walk towards with every step. Stop before the striker's ball, swing mallet over it, check that the forward swing is central to the target; eyes down to the striker's ball, swing back, let your shoulders drop a little and allow gravity to take the mallet through on the same line, flat as you can, letting the hands swing onward towards that same target. Bingo.

Martin speaks of competition between opposing hands, and of standing upright. For both those reasons, I've moved to a Solomon grip. It also gives less of an impact shock to ageing wrist joints, a big plus for me.

And on the subject up uprightness, it is worth considering whether most croquet players are properly married to their mallet handles. I suspect that 34 to 36 inches is a sort of Procrustean bed to which far too many players are obliged to conform. Standing six foot and with a Solomon grip, I've just acquired a 42-inch mallet. The 2014 season will tell.

David Kibble comments:

Great points Paul. I believe that aiming is complete by the time you address the ball and all the rest is about producing a good stroke. However, there are some pendulum multi-casters who aim by shuffling about once over the ball and in their casting routine. Of course, their turn would be much quicker and no less successful if they followed your advice.

One thing you might have missed out is to be sure to plant your feet consistently at the end of the stalk, i.e. no shuffling to get comfortable once in stance.

One exercise I use with people who have difficulty running angled hoops is to show them how to aim from several yards behind the ball and then to hit the ball with their eyes shut. Once you are lined up and producing a smooth consistent swing, only your active mind can make it go wrong.

In particular:

Once aligned ... fix eyes on the target, and walk towards it; which now by necessity implies walk also towards your striker's ball. If you make the mistake of watching the latter while advancing, you can drift off line,

is one of the most insightful things I've ever read on this maillist.

Stephen Mulliner adds:

I'll add my two pennyworth.

First, while there are good principles that apply to everyone, we are all slightly different and each person must seek the process that works best for them.  The process can sometimes need to change as the years roll on.

Second, I divide the shooting process into two parts - the aim and the delivery of mallet to ball.

How you aim is very personal.  Paul Wolff describes an excellent approach and I fully endorse the benefits of the worm's eye view whether for peeling or lining up a long angled hoop.  However, I am currently hitting about 50 balls a day at (and hopefully through) a 4-yard hoop and find that I can simply step sideways into the stance with remarkable success which suggests that the eyes are capable for telling you when you are lined up without much help from body alignment.  However, it is only a 4-yard shot and something more deliberate is probably necessary for anything much longer.  I should say that I have been preaching the importance of body alignment by stalking for decades and have been amused to find that it is possible to get the right alignment with less effort in some circumstances.

The delivery of mallet on ball is what varies more.  If I can keep the mallet face absolutely square to the line of aim (which is usually a function of grip and grip-feel for me) and hit at the absolute back of the ball (by focussing really intently on it), I can have runs of 5 or 6 shots which go straight through the hoop barely touching a wire.  In such moments, I have briefly achieved consistency, the holy grail of all sports performers.  The trouble is that it is only generally achieved in either artificial conditions or on very rare occasions.

The problem is always the unwanted input of the conscious or active mind which can play merry hell with a swing that is as smooth as silk in practice or introduce micro-twitches into the last few inches of the forward swing.

It's always said of high handicap golfers that they would be single figures if they could reproduce their practice swings with a driver when they step onto the tee and do it for real.  This is where Inner Game and NLP [Neuro-linguistic programming] techniques help.

So I don't find the "normal distribution" approach of much help.  I'm either "on", when aim and delivery are good, or "off" when they are not and face-wobble is evident.  The fun part is that you can recover from being "off" to "on" during a game and the effect on the opponent can be very entertaining.

Robert Fulford adds:

Like the debate so far, though I would add something from the perspective of someone who has been a good shot with bad eyesight and a crooked swing.

One of the aspects addressing the ball is to how much degree you are letting your subconscious correct for a natural tendency to 'miss' to one side. In practice how much does it matter if you tend to consistently hit the ball to a similar degree fractionally off square if your subconscious compensates and aims you there? 

In the long run striving for straightness seems like it must be good, but coaches can be very unhelpful if they 'fix' someone's well established address to point towards the ball, which is relatively easy, without addressing the swing which is much more complex.

I'm working on making my swing straighter, using a swing trainer, but I'm sticking to using my view from where I play all my shots, standing above the ball, as my primary place of aiming. This is the only place from where you can replay in your mind past successful shots. From there I think visualising the stroke is almost getting in touch with your subconscious and allowing it to correct for some deficiencies in the swing or conscious visual perception. I do stalk to reach my address, but happy to shuffle while casting from there if I think the aim looks wrong. Having said that I'll definitely have a go at doing the initial lining up as Paul suggests in practice.

For straight peels I have a strong tendency to impart some right to left pull so a worms eye view is of limited use, I need to visualise similar shots from standing.

Unrelated to the address, one tip from Kevin Brereton I use if I have been having a poor spell of shooting, is to visualise hitting the far side of my ball rather than the near side. This encourages hitting through your ball more and often seems to help.

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Updated 28.i.16
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