Elementary Polo Strategy, from the Milwaukee Polo Club
All polo strategy is based on two concepts, speed and control. To a certain extent they are somewhat opposite. Unless a player is an exceptional high goal player speed must to some extent be sacrificed to control. Of the two speed is the more important factor. It is elementary that to make the play you have to get to the ball. Once the ball is struck several options present themselves. Since the ball travels approximately three times faster than the horse and the rider who last hit it, the rider can either: Follow up the ball and hit it again - hard. Follow up the ball hitting it repeatedly with short taps - dribbling. Pass the ball to a teammate.
All three options are part of a polo player’s repertoire but which will be used depends on a variety of factors: Strong players, players who are far ahead of the pack, or egomaniacs choose option one. Option two is best suited for a high goal player with great skill or to the player who is relatively surrounded by opponents and can not afford to hit the ball far for fear of an interception. Option three is considered the classic polo solution as it promotes teamwork; polo should be a passing game, it utilizes the speed disparity of horse and ball. Unfortunately, it presupposes: There is someone to pass to - not always likely if team members are not alert, not well mounted, or not experienced in playing together. There is a danger that the pass will not reach the teammate. While a pass may be intended for a teammate, a opponent may be nearby and grab it. Now all of these calculations have to be made in a split-second while continually moving both the horse and the shot.
It is fair to say no other game requires this combination of speed and sagacity. It is by repeatedly observing this choice of 1) hit the long ball; 2) tap the ball; and 3) pass the ball that the fan can determine the relative strengths of a team’s individual players and their length of experience playing together. A team with four lower goal players (if they are well mounted) can beat a team of higher goal players if Team A plays together all the time and Team B has just been assembled for the match. All of the above discussion has centered on the forward game - Team A proceeding towards its goal. Now defense must be explained. When playing defense a player also has three options: Hit the ball backward as hard as possible Hit the ball backward in a pass to a teammate. Turn the ball so as to have forward motion toward one’s own goal.
Of these three the third option is by far the most dangerous. Turning the ball is fraught with danger as it requires several movements both of horse and ball which can lead to an opponent stealing it back. While high goal players make it seem easy novices are best advised to avoid this play. Maneuver One has its disadvantages too. It does not pay to whack the ball so far that your team has to race to get it only to lose the race. Option Two is the best play but it again presupposes a teammate is in the correct position. At this juncture we can all see the drama that permeates every game. Basically the game strategies fall into three categories: The ‘go for the goal’ game. The passing game. The man to man game.
Tommy Hitchcock, Jr., certainly is in the running as the best polo player of all time. He favored the first type of game and encouraged players to hit the ball as hard as you can all of the time. Lord Mountbatten preferred the team approach to play and thus championed the ‘passing game’ and to a lesser extent the ‘man to man’ game. The best discussion of the importance of team play is found in Beginning Polo by Harry Disston (pg. 126). “Playing as a team means that each player contributes to every situation, that each helps the other, that there is coordination among them, and that in every situation each knows where the others are and what he and the others are expected to do. It means much passing, backing up and interchange of position (as against a haphazard change of position); the object is to complement each other’s efforts rather than interfering with them. This requires studying and understanding team play, sound coaching, practice, and a lot of playing together.”
As Disston was a Brigadier General he was well aware of teamwork as a necessity for success but he also was a shrewd observer of the game who wrote for Polo and the British Polo Monthly magazines. I think he would agree the worst trait in polo is also far too common - a player’s ego prevents a contribution to the team. This is something a fan can spot in a game. All these approaches have their merit and will to some extent be utilized in a single match. The race for goal game works best if all the players are high goalers and if one player dominates the game. The passing game is best if all the players or a team are of mostly equal ability and especially well if they have played together extensively. Then each player takes his counterpart and works best when both riders have comparable players. Frequently a game which results in a half time disparity will signal a change in approach for the second half. Two other sub strategies should be mentioned. Usually one player is generally likely to get the ball out of the bowl-in. This sets the pattern for a play downfield. The other is the practice of yelling to a teammate to leave the ball for a teammate coming through. This avoids the pass. The most dangerous plays in terms of losing a goal is when the defensive team has to slice the ball past the goal to save a goal and it is hit to the offensive players who are right there.