The height of the throw

I’ve been watching YouTube videos of great shooters, trying to analyze what they’re doing so I can try to do what they’re doing. One thing that (I think) I’ve noticed is that when they are shooting, they are very consistent in how high they throw the boule.

Almost every player that I’ve watched throws his boule so that, at the top of its trajectory, it is about head-height… somewhere between his shoulders and the top of his head. If a player is shooting at a longer distance (say, 10 meters) then he throws a little higher, so the boule maybe goes a foot or two above his head.

Marco Foyot gives a shooting demo at the Zanesfield Petanque club

Marco Foyot gives a shooting demo at the Zanesfield Petanque club

What this suggests to me is that the great shooters are pretty consistent in the force (or speed) with which they throw the boule. And that means their form is probably pretty consistent — the height of the backswing, the speed of the throwing arm, and so forth.

The difference between shooting at a short distance and shooting at a long distance is therefore the height to which they throw the boule. For a short throw, the boule is released fairly early and follows a lower trajectory — about shoulder height at the highest point. For a longer throw, the boule is released later and follows a higher trajectory — above the player’s head, perhaps, at its highest point. In both cases the path of the boule has the same shape — a gentle arcing curve.

Thinking this over, I realized that I was not at all consistent in the height to which I was throwing, and that I should try to be more consistent.

I rigged up a ribbon across my outdoor practice area, half way between the circle and the target boules, so that I would have to throw across the ribbon when practicing. I stretched the ribbon at about shoulder height. And then I practiced throwing with the goal of having my boule just clear the ribbon, with at most a foot or two between the boule and the ribbon.
PracticingWithARibbon

Sometimes I practiced shooting not at the target boule, but at the ribbon. My goal was actually to HIT THE RIBBON and let the thrown boule land where it may. The ribbon is pink, and the material is sort of like yellow plastic CRIME SCENE tape. It is wide enough to be visible, and elastic enough to slip out of the way if I actually succeed in hitting it.

I’ve been doing this for a while, and it seems to be helping.

In the process, I found something that rather surprises me. After I practice shooting for a while (usually with a low percentage of success), I switch from aiming for the target boules to aiming for the ribbon. And when I do, my percentage of success (in hitting the target boules) is often actually higher when I’m aiming for the ribbon than it was when I was aiming at the boules!

I’ve noticed this several times, so I think the phenomenon is real. But I have no idea about how to explain it.


How to make a jack – the traditional way

TurningAPetanqueJack_theTraditionalWayIt is easy to find videos on YouTube showing how boules are manufactured. But you never see anything about how jacks are manufactured.

Recently I stumbled across this article on Boulistenaute, written in 2010 by JacPetanque (Jac Verheul). Even if you don’t read French, the pictures are interesting.

And the article has a link to this video clip on DailyMotion, from a documentary made in 1995.

Boules ELTÉ

ELTÉ was once a well-known and well-respected manufacturer of boules. In fact, along with JB, it was one of the original manufacturers of all-steel boules. Behind these two brands — LT and JB — were two remarkable men — Louis Tarchier and Jean Blanc.
boules_elte

By some accounts it was the Great Depression of 1929 that stimulated Louis Tarchier and Jean Blanc to go into business for themselves, and to develop the all-steel boule. But the dates just don’t work for that story. The evidence is that they had been working on their process since perhaps 1925, and produced their first boules in 1927 or 1928.

It is more probable that their inspiration was the development by Paul Courtieu of La Boule Intégrale, the first all-metal boule (cast in one piece from a “bronze” copper-aluminum alloy). Specifically, it seems likely that it was the approval of La Boule Intégrale by the Union Nationale des Fédérations de Boules in January 1925 that suggested to Tarchier and Blanc that there might be a market for an all-steel boule.

What we do know is that a man named Louis Tarchier, a gunsmith, and his friend and neighbor, Jean Blanc, a locksmith, lived in the little village of Saint-Bonnet-le-Château, and that sometime around 1925 Blanc came up with the idea that the two of them should go into business making metal boules.

Between the two of them they had the necessary skills and the necessary equipment. Blanc owned a metal press. Tarchier was one of the few specialists in the new technology of welding and cutting metal with an acetylene torch. They designed a manufacturing process, and invented and built the machines to do the various manufacturing steps. Blanc made the punches and dies to stamp steel blanks into hemispheres.

The manufacturing process was divided between the two men. Blanc cut long steel rods into slugs (basically stubby cylinders of steel) and stamped the slugs into disks and then into coquilles (“shells”, hollow hemispheres). Tarchier cut beveled edges into the shells, welded them together to form boules, polished them, and added the striations and markings. When it came time to temper the boules in the forge, Tarchier pumped the bellows and Blanc rotated the boules.

It took about three hours to manufacture a boule, and in the beginning it was difficult to control the final product. The two had to make boules for several months before they were able to make two of the same weight and the same diameter.

Together, they created the first all steel boules.

Each man had his own business and sold boules under his own brand name. They created their brand names from their initials. Louis Tarchier created the ELTÉ brand in 1930. Its logo, which was stamped on its boules, was Tarchier’s initials “LT” inside a circle. Jean Blanc created the “JB” brand. In very early JB boules, he also used a logo of his initials “JB” inside a circle.
JB_logo_in_circle

Blanc died in 1933, at the age of 58. Jean Deville purchased the business’s machinery and continued to manufacture boules under the brand name of “JB”.

Louis Tarchier continued to manufacture “L.-T.” or ELTÉ boules, most of which were sent to, and sold through, La Boule Intégrale in Lyon.

boules_elte_logo

After thirty-three years with the business, Tarchier retired, giving the business to his son, Maurice Crozet. In 1987 the brand name and the factories were sold (to a company named Opoint?), and seven years later sold again to OBUT, which retired the ELTÉ brand name. Eventually OBUT also bought the JB brand and retired it, too.

French wikipedia says Les boules Elté sont des boules artisanales, très différentes des boules produites à la chaîne, et estimées par les professionnels. — Elté boules were “artisanal” (craft, hand-made) boules, very different from mass-manufactured, and held in high esteem by professionals.


Most of the information in this post comes from the article on ELTE in the French wikipedia. That article cites only one reference, Jean-Michel Izoird and Gérard Pélisson-Lafay, La Pétanque, éditions ÉdiLoire.


The ultimate shooting-practice pit

I’ve blogged several times (here and here especially, but also here and here) about practice equipment. Here is my latest experiment — I think it may be the ultimate design for a court for shooting practice. The design, needless to say, is not very original.


The purpose of practice equipment is to help us make efficient use of our practice time. We want equipment that will help us to maximize the amount of productive time that we spend (throwing) and will minimize the amount of non-productive time (time that we spend walking up to the head, rounding up and picking up boules, and walking back to the throwing spot).

I suspect that the best design for a shooting-practice court looks like a horseshoe court. That is, it is two shooting pits, facing each other. As in horseshoes, you stand at one end and throw into the opposite pit. Then you walk to that pit, pick up your boules, and throw back toward the pit from which you just came.

My shooting-practice court looks like this.

Here is a closer view of one of the shooting pits.

Just a few notes about the construction.

  1. My court is out-of-doors, in Tucson, Arizona. In Tucson we can play and practice outside, year round. If you live in a cold snowy climate, some of the design decisions that work for me won’t work for you.
     
  2. I built it out of 2x4s, because I had some scrap 2x4s lying around. It is probably over-built — I think one-inch thick boards would work perfectly well. It is better to leave your sideboards unpainted. Some of my 2x4s were painted white, and the white paint comes off on the boules.
     
  3. If you don’t protect the ground around the target boules, you will soon pulverize the ground into fine powder. The white sheets that you see on the ground are made of a plastic material called Plas-Tek. They are sold as construction material to line showers and should be available at your local Home Depot or Lowe’s. They come in 4’x8′ sheets, about 1/8″ thick, and cost about $20 each. I use two sheets in each pit, with the sheets held together end-to-end by wide black Gorilla Tape.
     
  4. Partly because of the Plas-Tek, boules that miss will bounce fairly high. That’s why the backboards — and the sideboards close to the back of the pit — are fairly high. Sideboards near the front of the pit can be low, since their job is simply to keep rolling boules from going too far.
     
  5. Don’t let your sideboards and backboards rest directly on the ground. If your pit is out-of-doors like ours, you want to leave room under the sideboards for rain to drain off. In addition, you want to leave enough room under the sideboards so you can take a broom and sweep dust and fallen leaves under the sideboards and off of the court. (Of course, this isn’t an issue with a shooting pit that is indoors.)
     
  6. IdealShootingPit_RingToSupportBoulesI keep the target boules in place by setting them on thin rings that I cut out of a piece of black PVC pipe.
     
  7. I usually practice with a bucket of about a dozen boules. When I have finished throwing my boules from one pit, I walk to the other pit. I pick up the boules that I’ve just thrown and put them in a white plastic bucket. I reposition any target boules that I knocked out of position. Then I put the bucket of boules on the brick “towers” where they will be easy to reach as I throw.

Automatic boule return machines

I love weird and/or ingenious devices that are designed to help you practice petanque. In this post, I gather together a few pictures of the most interesting kind of device, the automatic boule return machine.


Here is a video of a BAR (boule automatic return) machine in Wateringen, the Netherlands. I found it in a video on Facebook. If you are a Facebook member, click on the picture (and log into Facebook) and you can watch a short video demonstration.
Most automatic boule return machines use gravity to return the boule. This particular device is unusual. It uses machinery to lift the boule to return it, like the ball return machines in American bowling alleys.


This is a picture that I found somewhere on the Web. I think it is at the Marathon booth at the SEA games in Thailand. Marathon is a Thai manufacturer of sports and fitness equipment, include petanque boules.

bar_thailand

Most automatic boule return machines have a target boule that is at least loosely fixed in place. What is unusual about this machine is that it allows you to knock the target boule out of position. When you do, the target boule is returned with the thrown boule via the yellow tube on the right. If a player succeeds in hitting and knocking the target boule out of position, he can feed another boule through the yellow tube on the left, which neatly deposits it in position as a new target boule. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)


In 2007, the Midwest Petanque Alliance had a post about this machine, which was for sale on eBay France.

Description: Very nice machine for a Petanque club which returns shot boules. A target boule is attached by a cable to the center of the shooting piste. The machine takes note of the force of the shots, and displays them on a screen (1,2 or 3) while returning the shooting boule to the player.

bar_france_ebay_2007


I forget where I found the next photo. The device appears to be quite similar to the previous device. In the lower right-hand corner of the photo, you can see the entrance to the gravity-feed boule-return tube. Perhaps this was a promotional tool for KTK, like the promotional device for Marathon that we saw earlier.


I actually built my own automatic boule return machine — you can see a video of it on YouTube. It was a gravity-feed machine, so the target boule had to be raised higher than ground level. It turn out NOT to be good for practicing shooting, but it was VERY good at practicing throwing HARD. I would throw as hard as I could, and the backstop of old carpet took it without a problem. So I would try to pay attention to my throwing form as I threw, and tried to throw hard.


So that’s my collection of such unusual machines. If you have another photo of such a machine, please let me know.


Two ways to hold a boule

I’ve been mulling over these ideas for a while. I’m not sure they are right. Or, if they are, I’m not sure they are anything new or significant. But I decided to write this post on the grounds that some player, somewhere, might find these ideas useful.

After watching videos of world-class players on YouTube, I think I have noticed that there are two different techniques for gripping a boule.

  • Using the vise grip you hold the boule in the palm of your hand. You close your fingers over the boule so that you are clasping the boule between your fingers and the base of your palm, like you have it clamped in the jaws of a vise. Because you have a firm grasp on the boule, if you turn your hand over, the boule will not fall out of your hand.
     
  • Using the cradle grip you slightly cup your fingers and cradle the boule, letting it rest on your fingers (not in the palm of your hand) rather in the way that a beach ball might come to rest in a hammock. Because the boule is merely resting on your hand, if you turn you hand over, the boule will fall out of your hand.

To illustrate the difference between the two grips, I’ve taken a few pictures. Notice that in the pictures on the left, the fingers are closed over the boule. In the pictures on the right, the fingers (beneath the boule) are almost fully extended. In the pictures on the left, the fingers are pressing the boule against the fleshy base of the palm. In the pictures on the right, the boule is close to the tips of the extended fingers, and you can see a noticeable space between the boule and the base of the palm.

Vise grip
(boule clasped in palm of hand)
Cradle grip
(boule rests on top of fingers)


In the picture on the right (below) you see a hand posture that I’ve noticed in several “cradle-grip” players. The boule is held so far out that it seems almost to hang from the tips of the fingers. The thumb rests lightly on the boule, stabilizing it and keeping it from falling out of the fingers.

One of the most distinctive things about petanque is the way that expert players flex their wrists back and under their forearms. The standard theory is that this unique gesture helps a player to control a boule by giving it backspin.

While it may be true that the purpose of the wrist flex is to put backspin on the boule, I suspect that it serves another more important purpose for cradle-grip players. If you use a cradle grip, you are not actually holding the boule in your hand — if you turn you hand over, the boule will fall out of your hand. Therefore, in order not to drop the boule during the backswing, you must strongly flex your wrist, hand, and fingers back under your forearm. Together, they form the enclosing cradle that allows gravity to keep the boule in the hand during the backswing. That is why a vise-grip player may or may not flex his wrist, but a cradle-grip player will ALWAYS flex his wrist in this dramatic way. For a cradle-grip player, a consistent and serious wrist flex is a necessary component of effective throwing form.

 


GRIPS OF THE STARS!

If you watch world-class players in YouTube videos, you will see that some of them use a vise grip while others use a cradle grip. It doesn’t appear that either of the techniques is inherently superior to the other. Some top players use one grip, and others use the other.

I first noticed the cradle grip in videos of Philippe Quintais pointing.

If you go looking looking for the cradle grip in YouTube videos, you quickly learn to identify a few distinctive hand gestures. As I’ve said, if you carefully watch a cradle-grip player preparing to throw, he doesn’t appear to be holding the boule at all — the boule seems almost to be hanging from his fingers. Once I identified the cradle grip, I went looking for other players who might be using it. I found several. You’ll probably recognize some of them. Marco Foyot and Christian Fazzino seem quite clearly to be cradle-grip players. (Mouse-over a picture for the name of the player. Click on a picture to go into slide-show mode and see slightly larger versions of the pictures.)

 

During my search for cradle-grip players, I found many players whose grip-type I was unable to diagnose, and I also found vise-grip players. Here are just a few players that I think are probably vise-grip players.


Grip type and boule size

I suspect that boule size is important to a different degree in the two types of grip.

For a vise-grip player, boule size is important. A vise-grip player does NOT want a boule that is too big. If the boule is so big that it is hard to wrap your fingers around it, it will be difficult to grip tightly. A big boule will tend to slip out of your grip. You will need to grip the boule harder, and this will produce tired and aching muscles in your forearm. So it is important for a vise-grip player to use a boule that is small enough to be gripped easily.

For a cradle-grip player, boule size is less important, perhaps even unimportant. The cradle-grip player is holding the boule very loosely, just barely cradling it in his fingers. For him (or her) there isn’t much difference between cradling a medium-size boule and a large one. This means that a cradle-grip player can comfortably play with a much larger boule.

This means (perhaps) that learning to throw with a cradle grip might be a useful strategy for women players. Actually, it might be useful for players (of either sex) with small hands. Or even players with large hands, if they play a lot and are tired of having aching forearm muscles.


Updated a few days later (2015-03-15)
Christian FazzinoBy chance I just ran across a post from 2007 on the Petanque710 forum. Someone noted that Philippe Suchaud and Christian Fazzino play with small boules— 71mm. Another commenter ventured the opinion that la facon de jouer avec des petites boules est très différente qu’avec des plus grosses car on joue plus avec le bout des doigts car elles ne tiennent pas toute la main (regarder fazzino jouer , il les tient du bout des doigts). “The way one plays with small boules is very different than with larger ones because one plays more with the fingertips because [small boules] do not take up the whole hand (watch Fazzino play, he holds them by the fingertips).”

So I have one concurring opinion that Fazzino uses a cradle grip. I doubt, though, that Fazzino uses a cradle grip because he uses a small boule. As you can see from the pictures above, a number of top players (notably Marco Foyot) use a cradle grip and a large boule.


The boule advantage

To understand petanque at the strategic level, you need to understand the concept of “the boule advantage”.

Intuitively, the idea is this — at any point during a mene, the team with the most unplayed boules has “the boule advantage” or simply “the advantage”. If your team has two unplayed boules, but my team has four, then my team has the boule advantage.

Here is a more precise definition —

If a team gains the point every time it throws, we will say that the team plays perfectly. It doesn’t make any difference how they gain the point. They can out-point the opposition, or shoot away an opposition boule that is holding the point, or throw a carreau, or shoot the jack. The important thing is they never require more than one throw to gain the point. If they do that, then we will say that they play perfectly.

At any point during a mene, a team has “the boule advantage” if, assuming that both teams will play perfectly from that point forward, that team will play the last boule in the mene.

This means that before either team has thrown its first boule, one of the teams already has the boule advantage. The team that throws the first boule has the boule disadvantage. You can sometimes see this in world-championship games. Team A points the first boule, and Team B shoots it with their own first boule. Team A points their next boule and Team B shoots it with their next boule. Point, shoot, point, shoot, the teams alternate until Team A points their last boule and Team B shoots it with their last boule. Team B gains the point and wins the end.

This is such a common situation that, in a game among world-class players, the best way to follow the game is not to watch for the fantastic carreau or the incredible plombée. It is to watch for the failures, the situations in which one or the other of the teams flubs the throw and requires two (or more!) throws to gain the point. The real drama in a world-championship game is in the shot that just misses its mark, and the pointing throw that doesn’t quite gain the point. At this level of play, such mistakes instantly give the boule advantage to the opposing team. Unless the opponents also make a mistake, they will win the mene.

You can apply this insight as you watch championship games. You might for instance go to YouTube and watch the marvelous final game of the first Men’s Singles World Championship (Pétanque Championnat du Monde 2015 Tête à Tête Finale Homme). Both Claudy Weibel (Belgium) and Sami Atallah (Tunesia) are wonderful players and the point, shoot, point, shoot battle rages across the menes, with an amazing final point.


Even us mere mortals who almost always fail to play perfectly can find occasions where the concept of the boule advantage is useful.

One situation is where your team has a couple of pointers, but only one person who can shoot at all decently. The opponents throw the jack and point a very nice first boule. It isn’t kissing the jack, but it is very close and is going to be very hard to out-point. What do you do? Should you ask your shooter to try to shoot it? But… it is very early in the mene. Your opponents still have five boules. Perhaps you should save your shooter, and try to out-point that boule. Here’s petanque’s classic question — to point or to shoot.

If you decide to point, you may end up with another classic situation, where your whole team ends up throwing all of its boules while trying to out-point the opponents’ one really good opening boule. And in retrospect, you think that you should have chosen to try to shoot that boule, and not to point.

If this happens to you, here’s how you should think about the situation. Your team started with the boule advantage. It might have kept the boule advantage if you had brought out your shooter and shot that boule away. It would have been worth it even if it took your shooter more than one throw to get rid of the offending boule. But in deciding not to shoot, you not only lost that advantage, you gave the boule advantage to your opponents, to the tune of five boules. With that kind of boule advantage, they are almost certainly going to win the mene. The moral here is that you should try your best NOT to give up the boule advantage. And that can sometimes mean using your shooter very early in the mene.

Here’s another situation. There are a lot of boules on the ground. Your team has the point. You ask the opponents if they have any more boules to play. They look around and then say “No, we’re out”. So you play your last boule and you’re walking to the head to count the points when one of the opponents says “Ooops! I made a mistake. I still have one boule left!”

So… what do you do? According to the rules, his boule really should be declared dead. But, you think, it was an honest mistake. Should you say “OK, go ahead. Play your last boule. Really, what difference does it make?”

No, you shouldn’t do that. The reason is that the player’s mistake (even if it was an honest one) had serious implications. Think of it this way. Your team had the boule advantage, the right to throw the last boule. And by his action, he did something important. He didn’t just forget a boule. He took the boule advantage away from your team and gave it to his own team. If he is allowed to play that last forgotten boule, he will be playing the last boule in the mene. And with that last boule, he can do all sorts of mischief. He can win the mene for his own team. So this is a situation where — even in friendly play — you really want to go by the book. The forgotten boule is dead. It cannot be played.