Playing Darts – A Mental Game

Darts, looks fun and easy right? I however, know of no other sport looking as easy as darts for outsiders but in reality being so demanding for a player. Darts is the type of sport where mental strength is perhaps just as important as skill.

A Fun Game for Stress Relief

I have been playing darts for nearly four years. It started as a way to release stress after work, as we all know working in the legal profession is intense. In Hong Kong, there are lots of darts leagues, both steel tips (with bristle dartboard) and soft tips (with electronic dartboard), which compete every week. I initially began playing soft tips since it is more popular than steel tips in Asia. In the beginning, I didn’t even know how to throw darts properly. What motivated me to improve was that a special feature would be shown on the electronic darts boards whenever a special score, such as low ton (over 100) or hat trick (3 bulls), was achieved.

Another thing that interested me about darts is that you can design and combine your favourite parts to create your personalised darts set. Darts consists of four parts, the barrel, flight, shaft and tip. The barrel is seen as the most important part, as it determines the dart's centre of gravity. The shaft is used to adjust the overall length and weight of the dart. The flight is the wing part that stabilises the dart in flight and comes in a variety of sizes and shapes. Players usually go in one of two directions when choosing their first set of darts. Some players pick out a set they think looks cool, while others pick a set similar to the darts of a player they look up to. There are many different styles of darts and tonnes of choices. Some people like their darts to be smooth with little or no knurl. Some like the whole barrel to have a very sharp or rough edge to them. This is a personal preference that you should decide after trying different darts. Your preference may change over years of playing darts. Sometimes changes in your life or career can dictate a change in the texture you like on your dart. As you proceed in your darting life, do not be afraid to try new types or styles of darts.

Darts Games and Rules

Some people may be confused about the scoring areas of the dartboard. The dartboard is divided into 20 numbered segments and a bullseye. Each segment has four scoring areas: two single, one triple and one double. The bullseye has an outer ring (25 points) and an inner ring (50 points). As for games, there are many interesting ones to choose from; some are great for beginners, and some are a better fit for experienced players. The most popular games are probably 01 Games and Cricket.

01 Games

The game starts with a set number of points, such as 301, 501 or 701, depending on the difficulty level. The first player who manages to reduce their score to zero wins the game. If a player's points go below zero, it is called BUST, and the player will have to start again with the score he had at the previous round. At the beginning of the game, players will focus on reducing their points and usually aim for high scores with a triple 20 or bullseye depending on game rules. If you miss the target, it may land on a single area or other segments. Towards the end of the game, you will have to consider how to reach a final total of zero by hitting a double score (the last throw has to be a double number subject to the game rules). By using the different scoring areas of the board effectively, you can adjust the points to make it easier for you to win.

Cricket

Cricket may seem a little bit confusing at the start compared to 01 Games, but it is fun to play and easy to catch onto. Its popularity is mainly attributed by the fact that even weaker players have a fair chance of winning because there is some strategy involved and not just skill. In a game of cricket, the numbers used on the dartboard will be limited to six segments only: 20, 19, 18, 17, 16 and 15 point segments, and the bullseye. The goal is to open and close all those segments and achieve the highest score. Each segment must be scored three times in order to be opened or closed. If you hit any of these six segments or bullseye, a mark is added to that segment. Once there are three marks, the segment will be opened. After a segment is opened, hitting it will score points. If your opponent opens another segment, he will be able to score on that segment as well. In order to prevent your opponent from scoring points on the segment opened by him, you have to close it by hitting it three times. Once the segment is closed, your opponent can no longer score points on that closed area. It's worth noting that since double and triple point count are also applicable in cricket games, if you hit a triple, you will be able to open the segment immediately, score high with triple points or close other segment opened by your opponent immediately. The strategy part comes in when you and your opponent must decide whether to try and close a segment, or proceed to open another segment in order to score more points, depending on how the game is progressing.

Becoming a Darts Player

Many people get their first experience with darts while drinking beers at a bar with friends, but if you want to improve and take your darts skills above the bars and the beers you have to take your practice seriously. My family has been very supportive of me in this regard. I have two children aged five and three, so I usually practice darts after the children have gone to bed. I usually practice alone at late night for around two to three hours per day until midnight, three to four days per week, to keep my muscle memory and rhythm. While top players may make it look like a piece of cake, there is quite a lot of technique and skill that needs to be developed to master your darts, and what you see in one throw may be hours of work behind the scenes.

Anyway, if you want to begin well and get good results, being comfortable and relaxed is crucial. With that being said, however, you should still be mindful of avoiding common mistakes or errors that new players usually make in basic areas such as gripping, throwing, releasing and the follow through.

When it comes to improving darts skill, the mental aspect of darts is also just as important as technique or equipment. I can still remember how badly I performed in my first match. When I moved to the throw line, I became so nervous that my hand was shaking and I could not get my throw properly. Unlike most other sports where athletes normally would have a trainer or coach telling them what to do and what to avoid, there are also very few trainers in darts and players can usually only rely on themselves, both to resolve problems by trial and error and for motivation.

Playing Against Yourself

Many darters find that as they journey deeper into the game of darts, they eventually hit a performance slump – I did, and I had a hard time going through it. I tried to practice hard but my efforts did not seem to pay off. I analysed every single one of my own moves, making changes to my throw, stance, grip and eventually, even the darts I was using. I found myself playing even worse. I wanted to go back to where I had been before the slump, but for some strange reason, I couldn’t get there. It seemed as though I had lost my original rhythm in the game. Then I realised that it was my attitude in the game that needed recalibrating. I had reached the point in my darting journey where I could no longer rely purely on natural affinity for the game and muscle memory. It was now about me and my own nerves. How to steady myself even more under pressure to so that I could consistently execute each throw with all the skills I already had. In a nutshell, the more you try and think to get out of the slump, the worse it will get, and the more naturally talented you are, the worse it will hit you.

It is at this point that some people will think darts isn't their sport and step back from serious darting to playing socially or even quitting completely out of frustration. In my opinion however, the slump is a natural and valuable part of the darting journey. If you do not experience any slump, you miss out on the learning process of playing against yourself, and may never make it to the top of your game. It’s worth learning that sometimes trying too hard is a poison. As with some things in life, darts requires a subtlety and not brute force. Beginners do all things natural and easy but this is because they usually rely on things that work unconsciously, like the natural arc of their throw or stance. Once you start to think about the relationship between your throw and the theory behind the throw however, your honeymoon with darts has gone and will never come back, as it is not just a one-dimensional sport. From then on, you are constantly trying to incorporate theory, experience and learned skills into your game while simultaneously retaining the smoothness of your natural instincts. At the professional or master level, it is no longer the technical ability that matters anymore but your attitude, confidence, spirit as well as your ability to thrive under pressure, which differentiates the top players from others. If you lose focus or start doubting yourself, accuracy is the first thing to fly out the window. The mental aspect of darts is the line between success and failure, between joy and frustration.

It is because of this that when you search for your continued improvement in darts, you are also learning about yourself. Your behaviour and character can be revealed by playing darts. The more you explore how you react to stress and obstacles and then learn to react effectively, the better you can control your throw and master your darts. After going through all the many wins and losses I have had darting, my takeaway from the sport is that it is not about how high you can score, but how much you can take and keep moving forward.

Achievements and Enjoyments

Last year, I became more active in professional darts competitions and participated in various overseas opens and tournaments held in different countries and cities including Malaysia, France, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Guangdong. I was delighted to win the 2nd runner-up place in the Singles in the Taiwan Open and reach the semi-finals Doubles in the Guangdong Open. I also made my debut in the Soft Darts World Championship Series, one of the biggest soft darts world tournament in terms of both prize money and scale.

At each and every event I was struck by the warm hospitality from the local darters of every host venue. After the competitions, darters, both local and foreign would gather to enjoy the food and sightseeing in the host cities. Players may not always be able to speak the same language, but darts was our common language. Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus outbreak, all matches have been suspended or postponed, but the darters are encouraging each other on social media and look forward to reuniting in future matches.

Breaking Down the Barriers

Darts is an ideal sports game to break down the age and gender barriers. In most tournaments, players are classified into different divisions according to their ratings and past performance but not genders. Since it is not a sport which relies only on physical strength, male players do not necessarily have an advantage and the playing field is more even between sexes. Although it has traditionally between a more male-oriented games, the number and standard of female darters has improved rapidly in recent years.

Additionally, darts has also been widely used in STEM learning with young children in school and in elderly care services. Apart from the fine motor skills that the game requires, the nature of the game has also become a teaching activity to train up mental arithmetic skills and logical thinking. Simply put, darts is not just a social game to be played in bars and pubs as accompaniment to alcohol, it is an inclusive and educational game which I strongly recommend people from different genders or age group to participate in together. If you meet me in the bar next time you're out, please come and play a game of darts with me! 

Jurisdictions: 

Partner, Khoo & Co.

William is a partner at Khoo & Co., specialising in corporate restructuring of local and PRC enterprises and assisting such enterprises to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. He also advises Hong Kong listed companies on securities transactions and compliance with the relevant securities regulations and law in Hong Kong. William was admitted as a solicitor in Hong Kong in 2009 and obtained his Bachelor of Laws from the City University of Hong Kong and Bachelor of Science from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.