We arranged for single dad David Atkinson to try a new sport with his teenage daughters. This is what happened.

Being a father to teenagers is a bit like a game of croquet — lots of negotiating hoops and just the occasional shot on target.

So a croquet lesson seemed to me the obvious choice as a bonding family activity for myself and my two teenage daughters, Maya (16) and Olivia (12). The girls were less convinced, however. As we gathered on a late summer evening at the Chester Croquet Club, I detected a certain world-weary ennui about Dad’s latest ploy for a ‘fun family night’. After all, they probably regarded croquet as the high-octane sister to crown green bowls. It’s hardly likely to generate reels of Instagram-friendly images to impress teenage friends. ‘I think we played it once as little kids,’ eye-rolled Olivia, ‘in the garden at an elderly neighbour’s house.’

Welcome to my world. As a single parent father, the two girls and I have always formed a tight, three-pronged unit. After all, we share a deep vault of common memories — Saturday mornings at the Who Let the Dads Out? group in Chester, Christmas at Disneyland Paris and the handful of people gathered around Granddad’s grave in the angry and confused early days of Covid. But I realise the tectonic plates are shifting. When they were younger, I was the multitasking superhero who cooked the dinner, got the grass stains out of the PE kit, and still had a good bedtime story in me before lights out.

These days, it’s a different role; I’m the one with the wallet and the taxi. Ironic, isn’t it? You try to father two independent, freethinking young women, both curious to explore the world around them. Then you realise you’ve made yourself largely redundant and need to totally recalibrate life, finding new ‘child-embarrassing’ ways to fill the time in which you’re no longer needed. The slow, nagging realisation caught me quite by surprise at first. I guess I must have missed that memo.

Run the hoop

We had come to our local park for a hands-on class in the burgeoning sport of golf croquet, a faster, T20 cricket-style take on the traditional Association Croquet game. The key difference is that golf croquet has one stroke per turn and, when a hoop is scored, all players move onto the next.

We arrived to find Mark Lloyd of the Chester Croquet Club marking the flat, grass court with six cast-iron hoops and a central peg set firmly into the ground. Mark, a regular club player with over thirty years of experience and a former world ranking of 230, had played some hard-fought matches in his time. But was he ready for two truculent teenagers and their non-sporting father, the latter perennially the last person to be picked for any school sports team? Handing out four coloured balls and mallets, Mark appeared to be taking it in his stride.

‘For me,’ he explained as we hit a few warmup shots and tried running a few hoops, ‘croquet is all about strategy. I’m always thinking three balls ahead. That’s why it’s a mix of snooker, boules, and chess.’

With the girls forming a teenage double pairing, they pitched themselves against myself and my friend Mark Chester of Care for the Family. Let the gameplay begin!

Mark and I made the early running with a confident long shot to open, running across the length of the court, followed by a glorious in-off, whereby I thwacked Maya’s ball away from the hoop, leaving Mark free to claim the point. The girls were clearly not impressed. Our early progress brought out their competitive streak, especially for school-hockey-playing Olivia, the only family member normally to exhibit any sporting prowess. They began breaking off for lengthy whispered team talks before each shot. This was their moment to salvage female pride against the dads and for Olivia to showcase her tactical savvy.

The bitter rivalry reached a dramatic crescendo over a hotly contested fourth hoop. All four balls were grouped around it with each player at risk of committing a fault if they shunted another player’s ball. After a frenzied flurry of whispered tactical exchanges, the girls claimed the hoop, striking a blow for girl power glory reminiscent of The Lionesses slotting home the winning goal against Germany before a capacity crowd at Wembley Stadium.

In the end, the glorious victory was theirs, a chance not just to put one over the dads, but also a testimony to the quiet power of strategy over blunt ‘whack it as hard as you can’ force.

Sporting nostalgia

We finished the evening with Mark Lloyd demonstrating a ‘jump shot’, a trick shot whereby the player leaps his ball over the opponent’s one to claim the hoop from the jaws of defeat. It reminded me of Steve Davis wowing the crowd at The Crucible in the 1984 World Snooker Championship against Jimmy White, a reference to sporting heritage met with blank looks.

I guess the girls regard the Eighties as ancient history, probably somewhere between the Vikings and the Norman Conquest.

Back home, basking in their post-match glory, the girls were filled with newfound enthusiasm for a sport with a heritage that stretches back through the mists of time to Charles II and a game with hoops called Pall Mall.

‘I’d definitely play it again,’ said Maya, for whom a night out on the sports field had provided some light relief from looming GCSE results.

‘Definitely,’ nodded Olivia in agreement. ‘It’s not just a game for elderly people after all.’

As for Dad, well, I may not have proved myself to be the Ronnie O’Sullivan of the croquet cognoscenti, but I did enjoy us spending an evening together without the regular distractions of homework, Netflix, and phones. I had learnt something too: raising teenagers may often mirror the rollercoaster rhythm of a croquet grudge match but, just sometimes, even this dad manages to get one on target.

Thank you to Mark Lloyd and Chester Croquet Club for hosting and coaching. If you’re in the Chester area and would like to find out more about croquet, please make contact via chestercroquet.club

The Croquet Association is the national governing body for the sport of croquet with some 200 clubs and around 10,000 players around the UK. More from www.croquet.org.uk

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