Where should I look when I lob?

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.)

  1. Where should my attention be when I’m practicing?
  2. Where should my attention be when I’m playing?
  3. 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.

zen_in_the_art_of_archeryDuring 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.


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✋ Left arm back for balance

Suppose you’ve been playing for a while and you’re thinking about how you might improve your game.

Here’s a suggestion. Pay attention to your left arm. (That is, to your non-throwing arm. If you’re a leftie, pay attention to your right arm.)


Here are some pictures. In each picture, look at where the player’s left arm is.

balanced_squat_pointer_lady

As you can see, these players aren’t crouching or bent forward. (We’ll talk about crouching later.) Their torso is basically upright. They keep their left arm straight. As they throw, they swing the left arm back, extend it back behind the torso, and hold it there while swinging the other arm to throw the boule.

The left arm, extended back, is a counter-balance for the right arm as it swings forward to release the boule.

If you don’t extend your left arm back this way, you will be unbalanced when you throw. As you follow through, you will find yourself almost falling forward. To compensate and to maintain balance, you will have a tendency to lift your left foot off of the ground. Which is, of course, a foot fault.
petanque_foot_fault

lifted_foot

This is fixable. If you find yourself lifting your left foot off of the ground when you throw, it is an indication that that you aren’t using your left arm to provide balance. Change your form— stand up straight and start using your left arm for balance— and you’ll lose the need to raise your left leg.


Things to watch for as you practice your form

As you practice your form, there are a couple of things that you should watch out for. You may do them without even realizing it. Ask a friend to watch you and give you feedback on your form. Or even better yet, ask him or her to take pictures of you, so you can look at yourself later.

One thing you should watch for, and try to avoid, is putting your left hand in the small of your back.

A lot of beginning players instinctively imitate what they see experienced players doing. They see that their left hand should be behind them, so they hold it against the small of their back.

This is better than nothing, of course. It’s a step in the right direction. But when the arm is so close to your body it doesn’t provide the amount of counter-balance that you’d get from fully extending your arm back behind you.


When players aren’t using their left arm for balance, many instinctively and unconsciously go into “the crouch”. This is where you keep your balance by sticking your butt out. In order to get the butt back far enough, the player has to crouch down. Crouching can be difficult, so the left hand usually ends up on top of the left thigh to add support and stability.

the_crouch_1
the_crouch_2the_crouch_3

The crouch isn’t inherently bad. It can be a useful stance when you want to point a long, low, rolling boule. But you don’t want the crouch to be your ONLY way of throwing a boule. That would be really limiting. You can’t lob or shoot from a crouch. That’s why it’s better not to crouch. Stand up straight and use your left arm for balance.


✋ Tips on how to practice effectively

If you play a lot, eventually you’ll probably start thinking about what you could do to improve your game. The standard options are practice and taking lessons. But there aren’t any petanque schools or coaches in the USA, which leaves American players with only one option… practice.

MarcoFoyot_pointing_lesson_at_Amelia

You set up a practice area in your back yard, and you get out there and start throwing boules. You see improvement, but you also wonder “Am I doing it right? Am I practicing effectively? How do players of other sports practice? Baseball players, for example. How do they practice? Is there anything that they know about practicing that I could use in practicing petanque?” So you go onto the Web and start googling around, looking for help and insights on ways to practice effectively.

That’s what I did. Here is the best of what I found.


There is a really good article that sums up a lot of the other articles on this list. It is “The Relevance of Practice in Pétanque Performance and Competition” by Philippe Geraud. It is available online in the early fall 2016 FPUSA newsletter, or our archived copy is HERE.


The articles that I found when I first wrote this post in July 2015 are-

  1. A Better Way to Practice
     
  2. The wrong way to practice golf – Why Much of the Work Golfers Do to Improve Their Games Isn’t Helping Them Get Better
     
  3. The Science of How To Practice a Skill Effectively
     
  4. The Psychology of Getting Unstuck: How to Overcome the “OK Plateau” of Performance & Personal Growth
     
  5. Why “Deliberate Practice” Is The Only Way To Keep Getting Better and
    Deliberate Practice: What It Is and Why You Need It

Removing a boule for measuring

Sometimes — before the agreement of points — you find yourself in a situation where you know which boule is closest, but you need to make a measurement in order to determine which boule is second. And sometimes you can’t make that measurement because the closest boule is in the way.

Which boule is closer - B or C ?

A has the point, but which boule is second? B or C ?
We must remove A in order to measure the distance to C.


In such a case, you need to mark and remove the first boule (A in our diagram), take the measurement, and then put it back exactly in its original position.

When tolerances are tight, this can be a tricky operation. Your marks on the ground may not be precise enough to allow you to be sure that you’ve put it back exactly in its original position. Another consideration is the fact that your marks on the ground are disturbing the terrain in a very sensitive area — something you really don’t want to do.

I’ve seen reputable petanque sites that suggest that you take another boule and tap a few times — very gently — on the top of A, to make a slight depression under it. Then, when you replace it, it will fit naturally and exactly into that depression.

That’s messing with the terrain! Don’t do it!

As Richard Powell, Regional Umpire of the Southern Counties Petanque Association of the English Petanque Association, writes

You should NOT try to push the boule downwards to make a little “cup” in the ground to help with its later replacement, because the “cup” might prevent the moved-and­-replaced boule from moving if any subsequent boule were to disturb it, or may stop any other boule that is moving from going where it would otherwise have gone.

As a practical matter, I think concerns about the effects of the cup are more theoretical than real. Petanque is not played on billiard-table surfaces. The size of the cup is unlikely to be greater than the natural variation of the surface. And the cup is surely a smaller disturbance of the terrain than marks drawn in the dirt, the traditional and accepted method.

Still, this technique does disturb the surface of the terrain, and that’s a concern, at least on a theoretical level.

What can we do then?

Here’s a tip that was posted by Colin Stewart last year on the “rules of petanque” forum of petanque.org. It is such a neat idea that I can’t help re-posting it here.

A good method which doesn’t disturb the surface is to use an old shoe lace. Wind the lace around the base of the boule and pull both ends gently until it fits around the point where the ground and the boule meet — but don’t pull so tight as to move the boule, just enough to create a ring that fits closely around the base of the boule.

Lift the boule out carefully and then measure. Replace the boule into the ‘ring’ of shoelace and then carefully unwind the lace from around the boule. The removed boule should be precisely where you left it and no need to scratch marks into the terrain.

This sounds like a great idea. I think I’ll need to practice a few times before I get the knack of it. And I’ll need to add a shoelace to my boules bag.


When your pointed boule gets shot EVERY time

In team play, the standard practice is for the team’s pointer to throw first and for the team’s shooter to throw last. Teams like to hold back their shooters — to keep them in reserve, so they will be available in case of an emergency.

This strategy works well, but it can be frustrating for pointers.

A few years ago we were playing a visiting team that had an exceptionally strong shooter. This gentleman, whose name was Van, had been a championship-level shooter as a young man in Vietnam.

I was pointing well. But no matter how well I pointed, Van would play next and shoot away my beautifully pointed boule. Finally, I expressed my frustration to a friend.

“Don’t feel bad,” he said. “The fact that Van is always being called in to shoot your boules means that you’re doing your job.”

“Your job as a pointer is to point so well that you force the opposing shooter to shoot you. Basically, your job is to disarm the opposing team of its shooter. By pointing well, you’re doing just what you’re supposed to be doing.”


✋ Pointing strategy

Here is a great post from the Harrogate Montpellier Petanque Club. I’ve lightly edited it for American readers.


First boule of the end

petanque_strategy_boule_devant

Always try to put your first boule in front of the jack. About 30-50 cm is a good distance, but even a meter in front is better than 10cm behind (see Backstops below).  The French have a saying, “Une boule devant, c’est une boule d’argent” – A boule in front, that’s a money boule.

The ‘boule devant’ has two advantages:

  1. your opponent cannot roll their boule directly to the jack but must aim to the side of your boule.
  2. If their aim is a little off (or they get a deflection from an uneven terrain) and they hit your boule, the chances are that they’ll push your boule closer to the jack.

Backstops

petanque_strategy_use_opponents_boule_as_backstopA boule just behind the jack is a gift to the pointer.

It’s much easier to stop a boule against a backstop than it is to stop it without.  Just throw slightly harder than you think you need to and let the backstop do its job.  A boule resting against a backstop is also harder to knock away. If it is shot, it will be knocked backward; it will hit the backstop boule; all of the momentum will be transferred to the backstop boule (which will go flying!) and the boule that was struck will stay nearly in its original place.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop the opposition from now using your boule as a backstop — but that’s all part of the game.

Promoting your boules

petanque_strategy_push_your_own_bouleAs mentioned above, boules in front of the jack can be promoted by running your boule into them and knocking them forward.  [Americans usually call this “pushing” your own boule.] There’s often an additional benefit in that the second ball remains close to the point of impact, forming a blocker.

Be careful if there’s an opposition boule close to the one you wish to promote. You can push an opponent’s boule as easily as one of your own, so take into account how accurately you can throw.

Limiting the damage

A common scenario for beginners starts when the opposition get a boule very close to the jack early in the end.  You can’t really point closer so you try to shoot it away.  Your team’s throws keep getting closer and you’re sure the next one will do it but you suddenly realize that your team have used up all of your boules!  Your missed shots have probably all gone sailing off well past the jack, allowing the opposition to rack up a big score with their remaining boules.

To reduce the odds of getting thrashed like this, you need to point one or two boules that, although not closest to the jack, are close enough to make it difficult for the opposition to score lots of points.  Better for them to score a couple of points than five or six. 

Ideally, try to make your boule snuggle up to the opposition’s closest boule so that they’ll think twice about trying to shoot yours away.

When limiting the damage won’t work

Of course in a situation where the opposition team needs only a single point to win the game, limiting the damage to only one point won’t help.  Strategies to consider in this situation are:

  1. Shoot the jack out of bounds, but only if they have thrown all of their boules.  This is a skillful shot but it stops the opposition scoring.
  2. Point slightly hard towards the jack and try to knock it towards some of your boules.
  3. Point and hope to beat the opposition boule.
  4. Shoot the opposition boule and hope that that will leave you closest.

None of these strategies are an easy option but you don’t have a lot of choice.


✋ 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.