Polo is a team sport. This means that if you’re lucky, you get the ball one quarter of the time because you are one quarter of the team! More likely, you get it about one eighth of the time because there’s the other team to consider, too.
That’s less than a minute per chukker.
Often we all spend our time preparing and practicing our stick-and-ball skills for those moments when we have control of the ball—and that’s great! Those moments count; they signify your value to your team and they’re often what you’ll remember best from each match.
But what about the rest of the time?
You can’t be a good polo player without being a good team player during those majority times in each chukker that you’re without the ball. Does that mean your primary focus should be on the ball when you don’t have it? No!
You should focus on three main things during a chukker, in this order:
- Watching your teammates.
- Watching the other team’s players.
- Keeping track of the ball.
Most people’s natural instinct is to follow the ball first. It seems to make sense, right? And sometimes going after the ball is the right move.
But if that’s all you do, you might get in the way of other teammates who were closer/better positioned to the ball. Or you might waste your pony’s energy chasing a play when a player from the other team was nearer and hits the ball in the opposite direction!
It helps in polo to have played other team sports, like football, basketball or soccer, that give you an instinct for following gameplay and positioning yourself. But even if you haven’t had that experience, you can learn! Also, even some people who’ve played other sports have to unlearn their instinct to follow the ball first.
Remember, polo moves faster than other sports. So you have to be extra strategic and think two steps ahead. Major Hugh Dawnay, who literally wrote the book on polo, says “Make the ball chase you, instead of you chasing the ball.”
What does that mean? In a nutshell, anticipation is key. Anticipating the moves of other players and the shifting of the ball is key for adjusting your speed, distance and direction as necessary and making great plays. You know who your opponent is at any given time and you can forecast where the ball is going to go.
That’s why you watch the other players first—to anticipate. This strategy allows you to turn before, rather than after, the ball turns … already on your way in the right direction. You’re ahead of the game, so to speak, well positioned in just the right spot.
This advice is about being a good polo team player, but it’s also about setting yourself up to play optimally during the moments when you DO have the ball. Being strategic during the non-ball-handling times will enable you to be highly useful to your team and the best player you can be.