An Englishman playing in France

I played pétanque in Brighton & Hove for 15 years, before moving to La Ciotat, the birthplace of pétanque, near Marseille, in 2012. Although I always classed myself as a ‘keen’ player, rather than a ‘good’ player, I’d won the various club competitions over the years, played in the Regional Squad and once in the Champion of Champions.

Everybody tells me that the heyday of pétanque at La Ciotat was in the 1980s, before the shipbuilding yards closed, when local comps would regularly attract upwards of 80 teams and the standard was very high. The shipbuilding yards are long closed, times have changed and even here, numbers are not the same.

However, it was immediately apparent to me that the general standard of play was much higher – you could say that the UK Regional standard was about on par with the average club standard. The stereotypical ‘little old men’ would be the most amazingly accurate and consistent pointers, knowing every millimetre of the terrains from a lifetime’s experience. You might think you’d played a good point, 20cm from the jack that needed shooting — no, the little old men would beat it every time!

In Brighton, I’d often played as a shooter — not because I was under any misapprehensions about my ability but because I was simply in the minority of shooters in the club, so the role usually fell on me. Over the years I’d developed my own style — read, ‘bad habits’ — which immediately became very apparent here. I shot way too hard, dropping the boule too early, invariably falling short of the target boule. In Brighton, I got away with this — thicker gravel and a more forgiving terrain where such shots would often hit. No such luck here! Rock hard terrains baked by the sun meant anything short would simply bounce over the target boule — which happened to 99.9% of my shots…

By their standards, no way was I a shooter — here, if you miss 3 shots, another player will immediately take over as shooter. So I was a pointer, only with hindsight, I’d rather neglected my pointing skills as well and my pointing was also pretty poor — on the hard terrains where an uncontrolled boule would roll for an embarrassingly long way, many of my shots would be way too long. Here, you’re expected to point in front of the jack, not behind, and players are most certainly not backwards in coming forwards with pretty cutting criticism!

So, I’d gone from one of the better players in my club to somebody who couldn’t point or shoot… Worse, it’s a pretty tough culture: if you’re a good player, you’ll be welcomed, if you’re a poor player, nobody will play with you. Either I had to up my game or buy a return ticket home.

Fortunately and despite my shortcomings, I’ve always taken a very keen interest and strong belief in coaching. I was a Grade 3 coach and organised regular coaching and practise sessions for club members. Unfortunately here, there was no coaching whatsoever. In one sense, a big disappointment but in another, it forced me to work on my game myself and improve, not expecting anybody else to do it for me. My knowledge of the game was sufficient to go back to basics in terms of technique and start again.

I very closely watched the better players, both pointers and shooters, trying to observe what they did right and what I did wrong. For pointing, it was a case of developing much more souplesse and control, more backspin, rather than a more heavy-handed uncontrolled style, resulting in long shots.

For shooting, I did eventually get some help from one of the guys here who explained much more about placing the boule, a gentle lob, rather than my also heavy-handed shooting style.

I have spent a lot of time practising, as well as continuing to play and gradually over time my game has improved considerably. I regularly play in the local club comps and have managed a few wins and now I’m even allowed to shoot on occasions!

I haven’t played outside the clubs a great deal, in part I’ve struggled to find a team that I’m really comfortable with — all the good players are, of course, already in teams and it’s hard to break in, especially as an outsider. However, the general standard is still fairly good, no easy wins.

So what’s really helped me?

  • The weather, meaning you can play all-year round.
  • The overall standard has forced me to up my game.
  • Watching better players and learning from their technique.
  • Regular competition play where you’re up against better players.

The terrains too have played a part. There are 3 main terrains, plus other smaller ones:

  • Jules le Noir, where pétanque started. A varied terrain, some smooth parts, many uneven stony areas, some parts sloping. Room for approx. 40 15 x 4m terrains.
  • Le Cercle des Boulomanes, mostly smoother, more suited to le Jeu Provençal, similar size.
  • The Lido, not a club but players meet every day for games. Again, some smooth sections but also THE roughest, most challenging areas you’ve ever encountered, with tree roots, many stones, ruts and gullies, slopes, generally very uneven.

The latter is where you really have to learn to point and point well. On a smooth, flat terrain, you can roll a boule, the landing spot usually isn’t that important, just the line and weight. Here, the landing spot is critical and also the style of shot, often a well-controlled and accurate lob being the only way to point.

One of my topics during coaching sessions was, There’s no such thing as a bad bounce. I’ve now modified that too, there’s no such thing as a good bounce!

I was aware of my faults in the UK but really fell into a ‘lazy’ style of play, where I could still win at the level I was playing at. Also, although I’d had some individual help, there wasn’t really the coaching structure in place, like in other sports, to support a regular improvement programme. I’m now 62, probably playing my best pétanque ever but I know it’s too late to become a top competition player. If I had my time again and could learn properly from the beginning, maybe…

I’m more than ever convinced how important good coaching, practice and development are. Of course, all backed up by the right competitive play.

Boules

I’m fairly tall with long fingers and have always played with larger boules, usually 76mm 700g. Here most people are smaller and hence play with smaller boules, 73mm & 74mm being much more the norm. Most players said my boules were too big, which they referred to as melons ! I have tried 75mm and 74mm boules, also slightly lighter 680g & 690g. I’m probably the world’s worst player for trying new boules but have finally come to realise, ‘’it’s not the boule, it’s the arm’’, that counts.

Mental

Being here has also forced me to think a lot about the ‘mental’ side of the game. I’ve had a lot of criticism about my play and my confidence did take a knock. I’ve rebuilt my technique and also realised how important self-belief and confidence are. Also the mentality of those who play with. Some players can be rather difficult but this too teaches you to be focussed on your own game, not bothered by the comments of others.

Le Jeu Provençal

Last but not least, le Jeu Provençal, from which pétanque is derived. Although I’d never played in the UK, it’s still quite popular here — played from 15m – 20m, with one step out of the circle pointing and 3 running steps to shoot. Sometimes I play — it is a very good game but it takes a L – O – N – G time to play. Because shooting is difficult, the game is dominated by pointing and tends to be more of a defensive game, whereas pétanque is much more of an attacking game. To use a cricketing analogy, it’s like comparing a 5-day test match with a 20-20 match.

After a while, I’ve now found I can point reasonably well, on a good day, having finally learnt to control the distance. I don’t often shoot, I’m lucky if I can hit a boule. My ‘claim to fame’ is that I actually got 1 Carreau playing in Le Provençal 13, France’s biggest competition. I’ve since got a 2nd in practice but not in a match.

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