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Individual Sports

This article is about my experience of playing various individual sports. As you will read, I have tried several different sports over the years, although I have struggled to find a sport that entirely suits me. Perhaps reading about my experiences might help you in deciding on a suitable sport to take up. I will be talking about what it is like to play these games (rather than describing the rules which you can look up anywhere). I will also be discussing some of the social aspects (particularly in the discussion on Croquet).

Badminton and Table Tennis

I have always enjoyed individual sports. When I was at school I never really enjoyed playing team games like rugby or football but I did enjoy badminton and table tennis. True, both of these are often played in a doubles format where you are in a team of two, but I always enjoyed these games more when played as singles – so the competition is between you and a single opponent.

As a matter of fact I still quite enjoy badminton and table tennis today and do continue to play them from time to time, but they are neither of them sports which I would want to be participating in on a regular basis. Badminton is sufficiently energetic that it can only be done for say 1 hour at the most and table tennis just gets boring after a while.

Snooker

Even while I was at school the sport that really fascinated me more than any other was snooker. This was at a time in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s where snooker had become very popular as a television sport – rumour has it that it was introduced to television to showcase colour broadcasting – but whatever the reason was, there was suddenly a lot of snooker on television, and I enjoyed watching it.

The appeal of snooker for me is that it is not a reaction sport like so many others. You can take time over the shot – you are hitting a stationary target, the shot you have to play will be the same in a minutes time, so you have time to plan exactly the way you want to proceed. This applies when building a break but even more so when playing safety shots to try and gain a positional advantage. To a true fan of snooker, the parry and counter-thrust in a bout of safety plan is probably the best part of the game, although we do of course like to see a decent break put together. It is a pity the editors of the highlights programs do not understand this – they nearly always feature just the big breaks. This is why I always like to watch snooker live (and in these days of many TV channels and internet streamed TV, this is usually possible).

Needless to say, I pestered my parents to get me a snooker table, even a small one, to play on at home. Regrettably this never happened. Our living room was really not big enough to accommodate even a 6ft by 3ft foldable table. For the whole of my childhood I had to remain a spectator of snooker.

After school and university I did of course start playing pool in pubs. There are obvious similarities between snooker and pool, although pool is a simpler game both in terms of the difficulty of execution and in the tactics. But I still enjoyed it, and played enough to become respectably proficient (good enough for the B team of the local pub).

It was at about this time that I decided that I would really like to give snooker a go. So I joined a local snooker club and discovered in about 15 minutes that snooker is IMPOSSIBLY difficult to play. In my mind I wanted to play like Steve Davis, but the reality is that even the simplest of shots is actually very difficult to achieve. And I was just trying to pot the ball and not worry about where the cue ball was going. In snooker, control of the cue ball is the key to the whole game, and the players we watch on TV can do so with extraordinary accuracy, controlling the direction and speed of the cue ball over large distances. This means hitting the shot with exactly the right force, and imparting exactly the right amount of spin to the cue ball. Any non-centre striking also affects the path of the cue ball so an adjustment to the potting angle has to be factored in. It is all astonishingly difficult.

I stuck at it for a few months but I was not getting anywhere and I had to give up. Snooker is a highly tactical game, and for me those tactics are the most interesting part of the game. But until a certain level of technical competence in being able to play the shots is achieved, there can be no tactics, and for me this spoilt the whole game.

Golf

So I was looking for an alternative sport to play, and preferably an outdoor sport. Snooker is a fantastic game but nothing would persuade me to hide away in a dark snooker club on a bright Summer’s day. The obvious answer to this conundrum was golf, and I threw myself into the task of learning to play.

Golf, as it turns out, is also a very difficult game to play, although nowhere near as difficult as snooker. It takes a little while to be able to hit the ball into the air at all, but after a few months I found I was hitting some respectable looking shots and when I eventually joined a club I was awarded a handicap of 18. In other words, I wasn’t a complete no-hoper (like in snooker) but I certainly was not very good.

Sadly, I never improved from that standard. Over time the game seemed to get harder, not easier, which was somewhat demotivating. Improved technique means harder hit shots for greater distance. The problem is that greater distance means greater accuracy is required, but in fact less accuracy is likely to be obtained because the effects of any side spin imparted to the ball will be accentuated. At times I developed a debilitating slice or hook that meant I was spending increasing amounts of time wandering around in the rough looking for almost certainly lost balls.

Ultimately, however, this is not why I gave up playing golf. The aspect of the game that I increasingly began to find unsatisfactory is that you are not, in any real sense, ever directly playing against an opponent. You are trying to get around in fewer shots than your opponent, but the real battle is between you and the golf course. There is no action that you can take at any point that directly affects the shot your opponent has to play.

Croquet

I came to Croquet quite by accident. I simply happened to be driving to a nearby town one morning and passed a sign advertising an open day at a Croquet club. I had driven past this location many times previously without even having been aware of the existence of a Croquet club at this place. The sign was located at the entrance to the local rugby club, but unknown to me there was a Croquet club which used some of the spare land beyond the rugby pitches and which also shared the clubhouse facilities.

I turned up for the open day, and as it turned out I was the only person to do so (apart from the regular members of the club of course). This meant that for several hours I had the undivided attention of the Chairman of the club, who also turned out to be one of the top players in the country.

I joined the club and started to learn to play. What a joy, croquet turns out to be an EASY game to learn. You have to learn to swing the mallet straight, but the variety of ways in which you can strike the object is much more limited than in snooker. Backspin is impossible, as is side spin (without a mishit). For certain types of shot (croquet shots) the distance the strikers ball travels can be controlled by the extent to which you hit down onto the ball. So there are great restrictions on the way in which the object ball can be manoeuvred. And indeed, in many shots (roquet shots) the path of the object ball after it has made contact with another ball is irrelevant (it becomes ball in hand). A completely different situation to snooker.

So Croquet as a game addresses many of the problems I have had with other sports.

  • There are no difficult skills to learn to be able to play
  • There is genuine interaction between the 2 players (your opponent has to play the balls from the position you leave them at the end of your turn)
  • It is not a reaction sport – you can plan your shots
  • The game involves break building in a similar way to snooker
  • It is played outdoors (hopefully in the sunshine)

Within a couple of seasons playing I had become relatively proficient. It was at this point that I discovered an unexpected benefit to the game I had chosen. This relates to the fact that there are not great numbers of people playing the game, and of those that do, a large proportion are of fairly advanced age.

This means that as an averagely competent player it is possible to enter the same tournaments that the best players are entering. The golfing analogy would be that you are entering the same tournament as Tiger Woods and Phil Michelson. How many golfers can say they have done that? But even more so than that, you may be required on occasion to play a game against these players. Although I have never actually played against the world champion myself, I have on several occasions been entered into the same tournament as him, and have often had games against players with a world ranking of 20 or better. I have lost all of these games of course…

The majority of these tournaments are held at weekends for the benefit of working people like myself. There are around 50 clubs around the UK that host tournaments and I usually play a few each year and it makes for a very enjoyable weekend break. The usual plan is to drive up on the Friday evening (I am building up a network of Bed and Breakfast guest houses that I like to stay in). The tournament will normally start promptly at 9:30 on Saturday morning and you can expect to be playing almost continuously for the whole day (obviously with a suitable break for Lunch and Tea). It is also often quite a long day, rarely finishing before 6 o’clock in the evening and often going on until 8, 9 or however long the light permits.

There are always a number of the competitors who go for a meal and a drink at a local pub at the end of the day – and I tend to be one of them. Incidently it is the norm to be very well catered for during the day also. Meals tend to be very good and extremely good value – there is no profiteering going on. It always makes me smile when the tea lady is trying to work out if my tea and cake should be 60 pence or 65 pence when I would have quite happily handed over £5.

There is one more aspect to croquet that I was not expecting. It is surprisingly good exercise. I have worked out that during a full day’s tournament play you are likely to have walked around 7 miles and there is also a lot of bending down and standing up again. Believe me, at the end of a tournament you can feel the effects of this.

I mentioned above that playing in a tournament you can expect to be playing almost continuously for the whole day. Perhaps it would have been better to state you can expect to be in a game for the whole day – and that brings me to my next point.

The problem with Croquet

There is a problem with croquet, and it is a big one. Snooker at the top level also shares this problem.

The problem is that when your opponent is on the lawn and making a break, there is absolutely nothing you can do. You are out of the game. All you can do is sit and watch. It is a feeling of complete helplessness and it requires a lot of mental toughness to put up with this.

I was playing a game not so long ago in an important match, and had been doing very well – in fact I was at a point where I was likely to win the game within a short space of time and had complete control of the situation tactically. At least I thought I did. But then my opponent succeeded in hitting an unlikely shot over great distance, and proceeded to make a break. Over the course of the next 90 minutes I had to sit there watching him make steady progress towards victory while I sat fuming in my seat.

This is not even the worst example of this sort of thing. I have had games in the past which have consisted of exactly 3 (unsuccessful) shots at another ball. The rest of the game (in excess of 2 hours in length) was spent watching my opponent go around the lawn. Utterly depressing.

The really unfortunate thing about this is that the better you get at the game, and the higher the standard of the opponents you regularly play against, the more likely this is to happen. In fact, at the very top this is the absolute norm. Games are often best of 3 or best of 5 at this level, and the normal result shows that in each game only 1 player has scored any points at all, The snooker equivalent would be a player making a century break immediately after the break-off.

I have lost count of the number of good Croquet players that have told me that they enjoyed the game the most when they were at a lower standard and still improving. B class croquet as it is known. In B class croquet you can more or less guarantee that your opponent will make a mistake at some point to give you an opportunity. There is far more interaction in the games and these whitewash situations rarely arise.

Although I have enjoyed croquet, my temperament makes it very difficult to deal with these one way traffic situations. So again I find myself in the position of looking for another sport.

I should at this point mention that there is another variety of the game of Croquet which does not have this problem. The game I have been playing is Association Croquet, but Golf Croquet exists in which players take it in turns to take shots. I may also try this game during this season but I know that to play Golf Croquet well requires the ability to hit the ball very firmly as well as straight. This does not suit my game at all – I can hit straight but not with any great force. Whenever I attempt to hit with more force I lose accuracy.

Bowls

My plan for this year is to take up bowls. This is partly prompted by the fact that I have moved house recently and there is a bowls club just around corner. But I have been thinking about the game and it occurs that it could satisfy all my criteria.

  • Skills. I am hoping the required skills will not be too difficult to learn. How hard can it be to roll a ball along the ground? (I guess I am about to find out).
  • Interaction. Players alternate shots so you never have to sit and watch.
  • Tactics – there should be plenty of tactics dictated by how you and your opponent have positioned the bowls in previous turns.
  • Competition – the actions of your opponent have a definite bearing on the game. It is not like in golf where you are playing the course.
  • It is not a reaction sport.
  • It is played outdoors in the summer, but even better it can be played indoors in the winter.

I have high hopes for bowls. In due course I will report back here with an update (pros and cons).

Sports | Hobbies


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