Sep 03, 2019 2:56 PM

Martin Estrada
Martin Estrada holds a 4-goal outdoor handicap.

Approaching the ball with the intention to strike you suddenly hear the all too familiar, deflating command, “leave it,” over your shoulder. Called off, you reluctantly move out of the right of way to allow your team pro to carry the play forward and make the shot.

A scenario taking place in tournaments representing all levels across the country, many beginners are experiencing this barrier to their participation and ultimate growth. Coming up through coaching chukkers only to participate in games dominated by pros, many green players have limited contact with the ball during their time on the field. Emphasizing the importance of developing players in the early stages of the game to promote longevity in the sport, an alternative option known as “Two Contact” is making inroads in the non USPA sanctioned low-goal scene, supported and utilized by well-known horse trainer and 4-goal polo professional Martin Estrada. Applying only to the designated professionals on the team, Two Contact simply allows any pro two consecutive hits only (full swing or half swing) before the ball must be passed to an amateur teammate. Allowing the pro to score under this condition, this option is distinct from other attempts which prevented them from doing so. This system proactively utilizes amateurs while ensuring the flow of the game. Requiring involvement from all team members as well as increased mental quickness from the pro, the Two Contact option is designed to enhance the skill level of all players on the field regardless of handicap by reinforcing their individual positions.

“In my opinion Two Contact makes the game better because you have to use everybody. Especially here [at Brandywine Polo Club] where we play low-goal polo, with the Two Contact option you include the other players, the sponsors and those who are learning the game. I’ve been playing polo a long time, but it has helped me a lot. I have to think and remember that I only have two hits. I have to hit it open, or I have to tail it, instead of turning, which may use two taps—then I’m done.”  – Juan Martinez-Baez, 3-goal professional

Drawing upon his expertise as a polo instructor for nearly 30 years and owner and club manager of Cypress Polo Club in Lake Worth, Florida, Estrada has been using the Two Contact option in lower level tournaments at his club and Brandywine Polo Club (Toughkenamon, Pennsylvania), with much success. “I came up with this idea when I built the Palm Beach Academy and Polo Club inside Gulfstream Polo Club [Lake Worth, Florida],” Estrada said. “I noticed the low-goal tournaments were not a lot of fun for the amateurs and I wanted to find a way to make play more open. I wanted the amateur to spend more time hitting the ball instead of watching the pro do everything.” An idea developed out of Estrada’s desire to evolve the game for the beginner’s benefit and increase participation by amateurs in the action, Two Contact improves the strategic thought process of everyone on the field. This option also simultaneously teaches pros to hit the ball the first time and forces amateurs to be in position to receive the pass.

Martin Estrada instructing a player during practice.
Martin Estrada instructing a novice polo player.

Originally from Argentina and a pro himself, Estrada has witnessed firsthand how this shift can positively impact the quality of polo produced on the field. “The whole point is to change the pro’s mentality when playing low goal. The best polo players hit the ball less because they are precise with their shots,” Estrada said. “They only have two hits so they have to use their team effectively. You have to really think about where you are going to send the ball, how you are going to hit it and how you need to position your teammates on the field.” Seeking to improve on the shortcomings of the traditional low-goal structure, Two Contact offers several benefits in comparison including a more enjoyable and constructive game for upcoming players. As a businessman, Estrada leverages this option as a solution to deliver a polo experience in line with what his customers want, a fun game that ensures everyone stays engaged on the field.

“Before [using the Two-Contact option] it seemed as though the pro would make all the key plays, but now I have to make sure to play my position and contribute to moving the ball down the field. Knowing the pro on your team and their ability and accuracy to pass the ball becomes even more important.”  – Michael Bucklin, Amateur

Popular in small clubs across the country, the Two Contact option has received a wide array of positive feedback from umpires, beginners and pros alike, all advocating for its use in low goal. Recently umpiring a game using the Two Contact option, Robin Sanchez has personally seen the advantages of speeding up the game. “It forces all of the players on the team to make faster decisions and react more quickly. It is challenging not only for the amateurs, but for the pro because it enforces communication within the team and well-executed passes,” Sanchez said.

A game changer for the amateur player, Two Contact’s simple yet effective stipulation is making a difference in the way beginners interact with their pros. Playing polo at the low-goal level for only the past two years, Brandywine Polo Club member Michael Bucklin is actively improving his skills like never before every time he steps on the field. “Playing a match using the Two Contact option this season has really changed the way I play and think about the game,” Bucklin revealed. “It definitely has helped improve my skills because I get to hit the ball more in a competitive environment.”

Hannah Reynolds, a member of the Texas A&M University intercollegiate women’s polo team, has played polo for 11 years and just started playing at Brandywine Polo Club in 2019. Playing under the Two Contact option and seeing the dynamic that it creates on the field has been instrumental to the development of her outdoor game. “I think that the Two Contact option is beneficial to all upcoming players because they are included more in the game. Since the pro only gets two taps, the game demands that the amateur players create and finish plays.”

Robin Sanchez and Martin Estrada
Robin Sanchez umpiring a game under the Two Contact option.

“I have played a lot of polo where the pro on my team has told me to either run and wait for the pass or clear the path for him to run the ball down the field,” Reynolds continued. “To me that is not what low-goal polo should be about because it doesn’t allow the amateur players to develop their skills to be successful in the game. Playing with Martin Estrada I found that the game was open, fast and the polo had rhythm. Our team was able to build confidence because we were playing more as a team. I think that this option allows for amateur players to not only better themselves, but better their quality of polo. This will attract more members, players and sponsors to smaller polo clubs increasing the polo community across the country.”

Martin Estrada playing in the Sand Cup at the Cypress Polo Club in Lake Worth, Florida.
Martin Estrada playing in the Sand Cup at the Cypress Polo Club in Lake Worth, Florida.

Although the reality of implementing this rule in tournaments nationwide has yet to be discussed within the USPA and USPA Rules Committee, Estrada has a vision for how it could accelerate and supplement the development of amateur players. “My dream is for the club to be able to choose how they want to play in 4- and 6-goal tournaments,” Estrada said. “In theory, they could use a Two Contact option in USPA tournaments or they could play the traditional way. It would be a great progression if I could get the USPA to support it as an optional tournament condition that the Host Tournament Committees for low-goal tournaments could opt to use.” Hoping to integrate Two Contact into more low-goal club tournaments in small clubs across the country, Martin Estrada encourages clubs to use the option and provide feedback to the USPA. Embracing amateur players and creating a game at the low-goal level which can be enjoyed is the key to sustainability and the growth of small clubs. Beneficial to everyone involved, Two Contact is strategically improving the quality of polo for players one club at a time, promoting the health of the sport at all levels.