A croquet lawn is level and green and measures 35 yards by 28 yards.  Within these boundaries a game is played that is as complex and intriguing as life itself.  980 square yards may not seem like a large area but it is sufficient to provide a space where things happen that test judgement, courage and resolve

You live your life once (let’s assume it isn’t a rehearsal) roaming a far larger terrain than a croquet lawn.  However, just as in croquet, stuff happens. In essence, life is all about making choices – preferably informed choices – about what to do for the best.  Since this is rarely straightforward, life is far from being an exact science; we all have to rely on simplifying assumptions.

The start

The order of play in croquet is determined by the flick of a coin.  This moment is unique; it is the only time during the game when you are powerless to determine the outcome and, while the coin is airborne, nothing has gone either right or wrong.  As soon as the coin hits the ground and comes to rest, this unique moment vanishes. 

The start of your life is much the same as the start of a game of croquet. You are powerless to choose your gender, your skin colour, your dispositions or your parents.  You are born into a situation not of your making.  You aren’t even invited to call heads or tails.

Fortunately, both in croquet and in life, powerlessness is very temporary. Soon there are decisions to be made, all of which have consequences.

The aim

The overall aim in croquet, as in most other games, is to win but, of course, this outcome can never be guaranteed.  In fact, setting out with the objective to win is foolhardy since you have no direct control over this outcome.  It is more realistic to set yourself a performance objective (as opposed to an outcome objective) over which you have more control.  Your performance is your responsibility whereas the end result is in the lap of the gods. 

In life, as in croquet, outcomes are uncertain but your performance is your responsibility. Situations arise, some of them testing and tricky, where you have to decide how best to react.  Your behaviour either improves the situation or makes it worse.  The important thing in life, and in croquet, is to learn from whatever happens, setbacks and successes, and continually to improve your performance.

It’s up to you

When playing singles (doubles gets a mention later), whenever you are in play (as opposed to watching your opponent taking a turn) you are alone on the lawn.  It is just you, your mallet, four balls, six hoops and a peg.  You are responsible for all your decisions and your actions.  In a very real sense, you are playing against yourself and every mistake you make is a self-inflicted wound.

Life is much the same.  Despite ‘no man being an island’ there is a limit to the extent that other people can help you.  There comes a time when, after heeding advice and support from others, it’s up to you.  Blaming other people or ‘circumstances beyond your control’ is tempting but futile.   

Accepting that you are responsible for yourself is something many people fail to grasp.  They assume that someone – God, the government, their doctor, their parents, a partner – will look after them.  This breeds dependency and vulnerability. It is far safer to assume that ‘if it’s to be, it’s up to me’. 

Opportunities

A game of croquet provides one opportunity after another.  Every time you step onto the lawn with your mallet, you have an opportunity to gain the innings by making contact with another ball.  This might be easy or difficult depending on accuracy and distances.  Having gained the innings, a series of other opportunities present themselves; to score points by running hoops and/or to make things difficult for your opponent (the ‘and’ being preferable to the ‘or’).

In life armed, not with a mallet but with your knowledge and skills, opportunities tend to present themselves less clearly; events do not come conveniently labelled, ‘Hey, look at me – I’m an opportunity’.  Sometimes opportunities are regarded as problems that need fixing rather than opportunities that need exploiting.  When problems (i.e. the difference between what you’ve got and what you want) are treated as opportunities, the likelihood of success increases.

In life, as in croquet, it is best to wean yourself off problems and to train yourself to ‘think opportunities’.

Contemplation

Croquet is a still-ball game; each turn starts with four stationary balls and with time to decide which ball to play and what to do with it.  Thinking time falls into two different categories; during your innings and during your opponent’s innings.  The generous amount of time for contemplation is either good or bad depending how you use it. 

During play, you have time to take stock, to weigh up the pros and cons of playing one ball as opposed to the other, to work out how to set up a 4-ball break….and so on.  Or you could succumb to anxieties and self-doubt and convince yourself that your situation is hopeless. 

When your opponent is in play, you have time to lapse into reproaching yourself for whatever mistakes you have made and/or despairing at how well your opponent is playing; often both simultaneously!  Sometimes you could be well ahead only to have to sit and watch your opponent relentlessly catch up and overtake you.

Life is the equivalent of a still-ball game with plenty of time to ponder possible ways forward.  You are rarely in situations where you have to react so fast that there is no time to think about what to do for the best.  In most cases you have time to think about your options and the pros and cons of each. 

In life, they say, you make your own luck.  This suggests that luck, far from being fortuitous, is something you can make more likely.           

Staying focused

Croquet, played well, demands your undivided attention.  Each shot – perhaps hundreds of them during a typical game – needs to be executed carefully.  Being totally focused in this way has been described as ‘flow’ – a mental state where you are fully immersed and your emotions are channelled and totally aligned with the task at hand.

In life, the ability to focus and concentrate on what you are doing, without being distracted, is a major asset.  Staying engrossed in a task, perhaps for long periods of time, is an accomplishment – particularly nowadays when smart phones, other electronic gadgets and noise are so intrusive.  It is easier to stay focused if you are undertaking a task voluntarily, because you want to rather than because you must.  Often, tasks that you initially undertake grudgingly, without enthusiasm, can gradually reveal themselves to be beneficial and your initial reluctance can give way to increased willingness.  Clearly, the more you indulge in activities you want to do, the easier it is stay focussed and be fulfilled. Sadly, many people spend too much of their waking lives doing things they don’t want to do.  Fortunately playing croquet is not one of them    

Competition

Croquet is a competitive sport; someone wins and someone loses.  Quite undeservedly, croquet is popularly believed to be viciously competitive and this probably derives from the fact that players often attempt to move their opponents’ balls to unfavorable positions. However, purely negative play is rarely a winning strategy.  

Competition causes you to strive harder than you otherwise would.  Competing with someone doing their best to win puts you on your mettle.

The whole of life is competitive.  There is no point in pretending otherwise as, regrettably, some sports days at primary schools contrive to do. You compete to attract attention, for air space, for a university place, for a job, for promotion, for market share, for a life partner – it is all competitive.

Unexpected events

One of croquet’s many fascinations is the way fortunes constantly change as unexpected events cause the game to twist and turn. You can be well ahead and suddenly make an unforced error that gifts the innings to your opponent. 

In most other sports when a player is in the lead the end, though never actually guaranteed, is fairly predictable. Not so in croquet where foregone conclusions are utterly foolhardy; the game is never over until it’s over.  This means you should never give up hope; a seemingly impossible position might be reversed.

Life is riddled with unexpected events; a chance encounter may blossom into an opportunity, a setback could prove to be a turning point, something mundane could turn into something significant.  It is all a question of remaining open to such possibilities so that when they occur they can be grasped.        

Risk – benefit analysis

Weighing up risks vs. benefits is a constant activity during a game of croquet. Decisions about which ball to play and what to do with it are largely based on an assessment of risks and benefits. 

Life is one decision after another. Each decision you make requires you to weigh up risks and benefits.  Sometimes this is tortuous when, for example, you are faced with a dilemma and called upon to choose between equally unfavourable options (often referred to as being between a rock and a hard place) and sometimes the best way ahead is obvious, a no-brainer.

Once your decision is made, right or wrong, you have to go for it with total confidence.  Half-hearted actions can easily result in a correct decision going awry and confident actions might mean escaping the consequences of a poor decision. 

In life, as in croquet, sound decisions, followed by confident execution, is everything.       

Breaking the equilibrium

Sometimes a croquet game gets stuck, with both players repeating the same manoeuvre without making progress.  This is when it is appropriate to try something different to break the equilibrium, to alter the pattern that is failing to deliver. It requires a certain amount of courage to do something different. 

Much the same happens in life.  Often we get stuck in a comfort zone knowing that we could do something different, but we procrastinate for fear of the unknown. Somehow the known, even if it is unsatisfactory, is less scary.  Change, we convince ourselves, might make matters worse; better the devil you know.  The odd thing is that change is remarkably easy once you have made up your mind to do it!  Deciding, really deciding, to make a change is the difficult part.  Once the decision to change has been made, implementing it is relatively easy.

Mistakes

During a croquet game, mistakes are inevitable (well, certainly at my standard!).  You might fail to hit the ball you are aiming at, you might get stuck in the hoop you are trying to run, despite your best efforts you might place balls in careless positions making it hard for you to make progress, you might hit your ball off the lawn….and so on.  At any moment a self-inflicted error can occur. 

Mistakes are inevitable in life too.  Everyone makes mistakes – you might say it is part of the human condition.  Of course, the gravity of mistakes varies.  Small mistakes are easily corrected and have manageable, perhaps trifling, consequences.  Big mistakes (‘below the waterline’) are far more troublesome and often have catastrophic consequences.

The good thing about all mistakes, large or small, is that they provide superb learning opportunities.  Inside every mistake there are lessons waiting to get out.  You are more likely to be motivated to review mistakes, particularly recurring ones, and to work out what to do to avoid repeating them in future.  Successes on the other hand are more likely to be celebrated without feeling the need to identify the ingredients of success so that they can be understood, replicated and built upon.

The important thing about mistakes is to learn from them and use them as a platform to continuously improve.

Practising

An accomplished croquet player once told me that 50% of the time allocated to playing croquet should be spent practising purposefully.  Purposeful practise is where you set yourself specific aims, for example, to set up a 4-ball break and run all the hoops, or where you practise approaching hoops again and again until you can place the balls perfectly. 

In life, as in croquet, the temptation to skip practising and to hope for the best is commonplace.  Unfortunately practising has the reputation of being boring and, since it is never the real thing, rather pointless.  However, concert pianists practise for eight hours a day and it has been estimated that it requires 10,000 hours of practise to perfect a skill.  Practise is an essential investment, not, of course, as a guarantee of success but certainly increasing its probability. 

Practising is always worthwhile; before an interview, before making a presentation or entering into a negotiation.  The whole idea is not only to identify and iron out wrinkles but to train the brain and muscles to reproduce the words and movements with reduced conscious effort. 

Etiquette

Despite its poor image, croquet is a civilised game played between consenting adults.  All the laws and processes assume people are honest and can be trusted to behave properly. If, for example, you believe your opponent has made an error, the correct procedure is to enquire if this was so, not to accuse.  The underlying belief is that people can be trusted to be self-regulating and, if necessary, that they will invite a third party to monitor a shot that might be dodgy. 

Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world; some people are not trustworthy and some are selfish and rude. Despite this, the best policy is to err of the side of assuming people are honest – even though sometimes we know we will be disappointed.  There are two compelling reasons for this.  Firstly, the assumption that people are honest and trustworthy does not, alas, guarantee they always will be but it makes it more likely.  Behaviour breeds behaviour.  Secondly, assuming people are honest is better for you than the alternative.  To operate on the assumption that people are dishonest and ‘out to get you’ is paranoid and injurious to your health and wellbeing.     

Partners

In croquet sometimes you play doubles.  The need to confer with a partner is an added complication over playing a singles game where you only have to agree with yourself! 

Partners fundamentally alter the experience of playing because, to some extent, you feel beholden to your partner.  Your performance is no longer your own, it is shared with someone else having a vested interest in what you do and vice versa.  Mistakes, in particular, are emotionally more troublesome; when you err, you tend to feel apologetic and when your partner errs, you can easily start blaming them for messing things up. Neither apologising nor blaming change anything – in fact they usually make matters worse. 

Partners also bring many advantages.  You have someone to share successes with, someone with whom to review the progress of the game and to discuss the pros and cons of different tactics. Playing with a more experienced partner can be especially rewarding as they urge you to be more ambitious than you might otherwise be and provide strategic insights that might not have occurred to you.  

Much the same applies to partners in life; they both complicate and enhance experiences.  Just as in croquet, choosing the right partners makes a vast difference to the balanced score card.  The trick is to select partners who add value to your life. 

Conclusion

I hope to have shown that there are many parallels between playing Association croquet and living life.  I’m sure that one of the reasons why croquet is such an intriguing game is precisely because of the many similarities between playing and living.

 

 

Add your voice

Current day month ye@r *

Enjoyed this article? Want to hear more? Book me as a speaker at your next event.