Let’s face it, lawn bowls is tailor-made for those who were rubbish at most school team sports. If you were the star Wing Defence or Centre Back on your school netball or soccer team, lawn bowls isn’t going to offer you much of a challenge. You’re more likely to take up golf or tennis or buy yourself a stand-up paddleboard.
The gentle sport of lawn bowls, though, can spark competitiveness and fierce rivalries. However, our mental picture of lawn bowls – old men and grey-haired ladies in their regulation whites – is being overturned, with younger players finding new satisfaction in this sport.
Australian lawn bowls
If you suck at card games and chess but want an activity that gives you the thrill of competition without the sweat, then lawn bowls is your go-to exercise. What? You can’t believe that lawn bowls could give you a kick? Well, if you love precision and you’re competitive, lawn bowls will work for you.
In lawn bowls, the player’s goal is rolling slightly asymmetrical balls to get closest to a smaller target ball known as the jack or kitty. The game is similar to the European pétanque and bocce and, despite inner city bowling clubs being taken over by developers, is still popular in Australia. New forms of lawn bowls are making this sport more accessible to all.
Lawn bowls history
The game is believed to have begun in Ancient Egypt; however, history buffs will recall the possibly apocryphal tale of Sir Francis Drake insisting on finishing a game of bowls as the Spanish Armada was approaching. (Spoiler alert: The English navy defeated the Armada.)
In what might be a first for productivity restrictions, King Henry VIII allowed only ‘men of wealth’ to play bowls, citing the time wasted by craftsmen such as arrowhead makers, who should spend more time pursuing their occupation. King James I took a more benevolent approach, allowing bowls while famously banning other pursuits such as golf.
Reinventing lawn bowls
The 2002 Australian comedy Crackerjack, a film about a hapless telemarketer who started to use his club membership under protest, propelled lawn bowls from a senior sport to popular activity. Company Christmas parties, social clubs and charities held functions at lawn bowls clubs, with ‘barefoot bowls’ being a key attraction.
Given that many older people refused to contemplate playing bowls because of the dress code and ugly shoes (my mother’s objection), barefoot bowls gave many pause for thought in their intrinsic opposition to bowls.
New forms of the game such as the wildly popular Jack Attack, a fast-paced form of bowls with games lasting just over an hour, drew a new style of player. Jack Attack, introduced in 2015, is attracting players who might like to try bowls but aren’t interested in formal competitions.
Roll Back the Clock, part of an Australian Government initiative of ‘Finding your 30’ minutes of activity at least four times a week, helps those over 65 find a gentle activity alongside health education in a supportive environment that reduces social isolation.
And to encourage kids in primary schools, the Rookie Rollers program offers younger children with less endurance ability the opportunity to try something new, hopefully something they can be good at.
Blind and vision-impaired people are encouraged to play lawn bowls, accompanied by a sighted helper; there’s a national body, The Australian Blind Bowlers Association or ABBA (and aren’t we just the right age for that acronym?)
And to round it off, the indigenous version of bowls, known as Koolchee, is the ultra-low-tech form of the game, using tennis balls and plastic skittles or weighted one-litre soft drink bottles.
The case for lawn bowls
Anyone with a competitive streak but limited coordination might be attracted to lawn bowls. The game can be challenging and frustrating but players get to spend time outdoors, belong to a team or simply book a green with friends for some much-needed social interaction with a low-impact form of exercise. In fact, it’s the social bowlers who’ve pushed the participation rate to 693,563 in 2019 – up from just 245,000 in 2014.
So whether you choose to play with family or friends for special occasions, make it a hobby and join a club or simply enjoy following the Jackaroos, lawn bowling is a popular and versatile game.
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