Players who are working to improve their game sometimes wonder: Where should I be looking when I throw a lob? Should I concentrate on the donnée, the spot where I want my boule to hit the ground? Or should my eyes follow the boule through its high trajectory in the air? Instructional books and videos say that your attention should be on the donnee. But if you watch Youtube videos of world-class lobbers, you can see that their eyes are following the boule through the air. Which is right? What should I be doing?
There may be no definitive answers to these questions, but (for what they’re worth) here are some of my own thoughts on this subject.
I think it is helpful to distinguish three related but different questions. (When I speak of “attention” I mean both where the player is looking with his physical eyes and where he is looking with his “inner eye”: where his mental focus lies.)
- Where should my attention be when I’m practicing?
- Where should my attention be when I’m playing?
- When world-class players lob, where are they looking?
Where should my attention be when I’m practicing?
It depends on what you’re practicing. In the most effective kind of practice, called deliberate practice, the player is strongly focussed on a specific goal. When I practice lobbing, I focus on one of two goals: accuracy, or height. I don’t work on both of them at the same time; I work on one or the other.
- If I’m working on accuracy, my attention is concentrated on the donnee from the time the boule leaves my hand until the time it hits the ground. I never look up at the boule in the air; my goal is to hit the donnee. It is important to see the boule as it hits the ground and consciouly to note where it landed in relation to the donnee. This is the feedback that you need in order to correct your throw and to improve your accuracy.
- If I’m working on height, I start by looking at the donnee to get a rough idea of its location, but after that I pay no attention to it. My goal is to lob the boule in a nice high arc. My attention is concentrated on the boule from the time the boule leaves my hand until the time it lands. It is important to watch the boule in the air, to note its height and the shape of the arc. This is the feedback that you need in order to learn how to control the height and distance of your lob/throw.
To help me estimate the height of the throw, I have installed a ribbon above my practice area. When practicing lobbing, I try to get the boule into the bucket and to clear the ribbon by a specific distance— one or two meters.
Where should my attention be when I’m playing?
The simple answer is that your attention should be on the donnee. This is the petanque equivalent of baseball’s “Keep your eye on the ball.” But there is more to be said.
During practice it is good to be self-conscious about what you’re doing, but during play you want just to play. During training you consciously repeated good form and smooth motions until they became natural and unconscious for you. Now, while playing, relax and let them work for you. During play, if you consciously try to control what you’re doing, you’ll probably screw up. Don’t over-think things. If this was a class in Zen petanque I’d say— Just look at the donnee and wait. When it is ready, the ball will throw itself. That gets across the basic idea and sounds deep and portentous. 🙂
There is one exception to the “when you’re playing, just play” rule. It happens when you notice that you are playing really badly. The good form and smooth motions that you practiced until they became natural and unconscious are suddenly not working. Something has gone wrong; somewhere there is a short-circuit. You need to locate and fix that short-circuit. This is when you need to switch back into practice mode and to become deliberately self-conscious about your form. Look for what’s going wrong. Are your feet placed properly? Are you holding the boule properly? Are you doing a proper backswing? Where’s your left arm when you throw? Are you keeping your elbow straight? And so on. When you find the problem, correct it and carry on.
When world-class players lob, where are they looking?
If you watch Youtube videos of world-class lobbers, you can see that after they release the boule their eyes follow the trajectory of the boule high in the air. In order to see exactly what they are doing, I did a frame-by-frame examination of videos of Bruno Boursicaud and Marco Foyot lobbing. (See our post How to throw a high lob. A useful tool for doing frame-by-frame analysis of Youtube videos is VLC.) What I saw was this: The player’s attention is focussed on the donnee right up to the point where the boule leaves the player’s hand (at this point his arm is extended nearly horizontally). After that point the player’s attention shifts to the boule in the air. The switch is so quick and so smooth that it is almost impossible to see, but it is real.
This seems like very natural behavior (I’m sure a Zen master would approve) and it seems reasonable for ordinary players to do the same thing. But, as I say, only while playing… not while practicing.