At the risk of losing most of my readers, I want to write about the croquet tournament I watched last week. (Read on, seriously; it’s not as dull as it sounds!) It was the Arthur Ross Memorial Shield, won by a young boy called Edmund Fordyce. He came up against one the best croquet players in the world, Greg Bryant, in the final and beat him. How he came to beat him was partly due the fact that it was a handicap game. They get ‘bisques’ according to the difference in their handicap, which means they get ‘lives’ if they make a mistake. Edmund’s win was also due to the fact that he is already an outstanding player and performed on the day.
Greg has been mentoring Edmund, but didn’t go easy on him in that final game. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone prouder or happier to lose than Greg was to Edmund. He’s obviously taught him well and is happy to have done so.
There’s beauty in passing on skill, and a tremendous generosity. I felt it myself when I was in Anna Taylor’s Creative Writing class. She was completely open in passing on her knowledge and what she’d learned over the years about the craft of writing. She has an amazing talent and I was privileged to learn from her. She was passing it on, just as Greg does with croquet.
Greg is a friend of mine, and I’ve learned much from him too. Sometimes the right person comes into your life at the right time and that was true of Greg for me. I learnt to be focused on my goals, and trust in my ability to achieve them. He strives to master everything he does, and that’s true of any writer who redrafts, rewrites, closely crafts and gets lost in their work. That’s the sort of writer I strive to be. It’s about self-confidence and Greg restored so much of my self-confidence when I was low, as did my teacher, Anna. I’ve been empowered by both of them.
I am usually a little bit bored when I pop over to see Greg when he’s playing locally. The conversations I have with him are always entertaining of course, but the game is a bit of a mystery to me. As golf is a good excuse to go for a nice walk with some friends then have a beer, croquet always seems to be a lovely way to idle away an afternoon sitting in a pretty, enclosed space, enjoying the sunshine. I started to change my mind last week. It was edge of the seat stuff at a couple of points and I actually started to want to give it go!
The mixture of people who play competitive croquet fascinates me too. The age range was vast in this particular tournament, as was the ability range. There’s not many games when a player can compete with a world champion, and get a crack at beating him. The handicap system, and Greg’s decision to play that day, made that possible. Usually he plays against the same opponents, and New Zealand is home to many of the world’s top ranking players. They travel around, playing against each other in this tournament or that one, winning or losing.
This year those players, the New Zealand team, won the MacRobertson Shield, the most important croquet world tournament. Like a comet (a mild-mannered and slow comet), it comes round every four years. Four countries compete: NZ, Australia, UK and the USA. This year, for the first time since the Eighties, New Zealand won. Winning that tournament has been Greg’s raison d’etre since I’ve known him. And he achieved it too. Hard work and focus.
Kiwis aren’t very good at winning. There’s a general sense of collective low self-esteem in this country, and the America’s Cup was good example of the kiwis ‘choking’ at the last minute, and losing hard. As we chatted while watching the croquet the other day, Greg told me about the sports psychologist they’d worked with so that they didn’t choke.
‘We were favourites on paper, and much of the work we did was getting comfortable with being the favourites, and playing like favourites.’
‘That’s interesting,’ I said. ‘That implies you guys were intrinsically uncomfortable with it. What would give a lot sportsmen confidence, made you uncomfortable.’
He’d nodded and explained that’s how it can be for a lot of teams in this country. Thankfully the preparation paid off and they won for us, but not being as glamourous or, let’s face it, as good-looking as the All Blacks, the ‘Black Mallets’ got little media coverage. I guess that’s because, like me, most people know little of the game. With players like Edmund coming through now, maybe that will change?
Champions like Greg, and award winning writers like Anna, are securing the future of the pursuit they love by teaching the next generation of sportsmen and writers, just as artists are passing on their skills and actors and scientists and so on. Thus, Greg taught me one more lesson last week: giving back and passing it on is way more important than winning.