‘Ever played croquet?’ a friend once asked me one day in 1971 during a lunch break at country house being used as a management training centre.  I sniggered, assuming croquet was a sedentary game only played by old people on vicarage lawns.

‘Of course not!’

‘Well,’ said my friend, ‘You’re missing a treat.  Let me show you.’

In a dark space under the stairs, amongst vacuum cleaners, buckets and mops, we found a croquet set in a Jacques wooden box.  Clutching a mallet and feeling rather sheepish, I followed my friend onto the lawn.

That week we played every lunchtime and by Friday I was beginning to appreciate that croquet was a fiendishly complex game − not only in technique but also in tactics. On the face of it the game is simple: you have to get two balls through six hoops, passing through each in the correct order and in both directions and, finally, touching both balls against the central peg.  But this description gives no indication of why it usually takes three hours to complete a game using an array of different strokes − roquet, croquet, roll, pass-roll, stop shot, take-off, rush shot.  It is possible for skilful players to set up a four-ball break and take a ball through all the hoops in a single turn.  I wanted to be able to do that. I was hooked.

Later that year I joined a croquet club and signed up for coaching sessions.  This was the first time I’d set foot on an immaculate, full sized lawn (bigger than a tennis court) and mixed with people who really understood the intricacies of the game.  Our coach had learnt to play croquet at university and had been a croquet champion in his youth.  He was a stickler for the correct etiquette and, above all, a tactician.  When you made an error of judgement (often!) he’d bellow across the lawn, ‘No, NO! Think, THINK!’ and insist on replacing the balls so that you could work out what you should have done.  For him the game was as much about thinking as it was about the skills involved in getting the balls to go where you wanted them to.

There are lots of reasons why I love playing croquet: the lawns tend to be in beautiful settings; the satisfying ‘thwack’ as a mallet hits a ball; intriguing tactics: quaint etiquettes; civilised people; no gender discrimination; no ageism; a game uncorrupted by drugs or money; a game that assumes people are trustworthy and honest; a game where the outcome is uncertain and it is often possible to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

I’m also struck by the many parallels between playing croquet and living life.

In essence, life is all about making choices – preferably informed choices – about what to do for the best and that’s exactly what croquet entails.  Since croquet is a still-ball game, each turn starts with four stationary balls and with time to weigh up the pros and cons of different courses of action.  One of the best bits of advice I was ever given is to think not so much about what you’d gain from an action, but what you’d give away if it wasn’t successful.  When you look back on a game, just like looking back over your life, you can often identify a couple of pivotal decisions; the critical points that made all the difference.

There many striking similarities between the situations that arise during a croquet game and living your life.  Here are ten examples:

1  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 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.

2  It’s up to you.  In a singles game (doubles gets a mention later) when 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’.

3  Opportunities.   A game of croquet provides one opportunity after another.  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’.

4  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 with your emotions totally aligned to 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 in an era when smart phones 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

5  Competition.  Croquet is a competitive sport; someone wins and someone loses. Quite undeservedly, croquet is popularly believed to be viciously competitive, probably because players often move their opponent’s balls to unfavourable 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.

6  Risk – benefit analysis.  Weighing up risks vs. benefits is a constant 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.

7  Trying something different.  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 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.

8  Mistakes.  During a croquet game, mistakes are inevitable.  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, it’s part of being human.  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.

9  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.  The underlying assumption 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’ll 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.

10  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 changes 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 tactical guidance.

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.

Fancy a game of croquet?

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