Working In Uncertainty
Badminton and the Lucky Choices Theory of Ability
The Lucky Choices Theory of Ability proposes that at least part of our ability in particular skills is the result of choices we make about our technique that are little more than guesses. The idea is that some people make luckier guesses than others, and these guesses contribute to their ability, along with genetic gifts and persistent hard work in developing skill.
One of the reasons this theory is an interesting one with the potential to explain a lot of the difference in ability between people is that there are aspects of skills that are very subtle. They are invisible, or almost invisible, or at least hard to notice, so it is easy for a person to completely miss them.
In this article I will present a list of subtle skills that may play an important role in performance in badminton, a sport popular with my family. This list is almost certainly not complete.
1. Eye movements
‘Watch the ball’ is a very traditional piece of advice in racket sports. (In badminton it becomes ‘Watch the shuttle!’ of course.) This is good advice, up to a point, but it is a mistake to watch the shuttle all the time and important to watch other things at the right times.
Research over the last three decades using increasingly sophisticated gadgets has shown that the eye movements of elite players in many sports are noticeably different from those of less skilled players. Different sports show different patterns.
The best patterns for badminton are unclear, but a sensible guess is that, as the shuttle approaches, the player should track it very closely but then, having hit the shuttle, should look back towards the opponent. Good players anticipate their opponent's shot from their position and body movements, particularly the chest, shoulders, and arms. If you are looking at the shuttle you cannot take in this information, or learn to use it.
Players who do this are likely to learn to use information about the opponent's movements to anticipate their shots, which is a great advantage over someone who does not learn this.
2. Central contact on the racket
What do you think constitutes a good contact with the shuttle? In my mind any contact that misses the frame is a good contact, which is not the right way to think about it! For a good player a good contact is one that is in the centre of the sweet spot of their racket. They know exactly where their last contact was and anything off centre is a mistake and should be corrected for in later shots.
This is an important mental habit. Only consistently central contacts will give control of shuttle speed and the ability to hit accurate drop shots. A person who is not achieving consistently central contacts will find that the shuttle often ends in the net or goes too high to be an effective drop shot.
A persistent effort to achieve central contacts is likely to have a pervasive beneficial effect.
3. Movement and position of the other arm
By ‘other arm’ I mean the arm not holding the racket. The other arm is important because it has significant mass and, used correctly, helps enormously with balance and power. It is not invisible but it is easy to ignore it because so much attention is needed for the racket arm and coaching focuses on the racket arm.
In badminton the other arm is usually held away from the body, providing stability and resisting the tendency to spin that is caused by the racket arm making a swing. In some situations, such as in a smash, the other arm moves counter to the racket arm, cancelling out the tendency for the whole body to spin as the racket is swung.
In the smash, the other arm starts high, then swings down as the racket arm is sent back, then slows and starts to rise again as the racket arm is thrown up, over and around the shoulder.
When a player jumps sideways and hits a drive in mid-air the other arm swings forward, countering the racket arm, rather than just trailing behind as usual. This is because the feet are not on the ground and so the only way to avoid spinning is to counter fully with the other arm.
Another use of the other arm is in a deep lunge. In this the other arm swings back as the body lunges forwards, then swings forward as the body recovers backwards.
4. Starting to move
There are several subtle details that help a player move off quickly towards the next hitting point. Miss out on any of these and getting to the shuttle in time will be much harder.
First, you need a well timed split-step. The split-step in badminton is a very low jump, during which the feet come off the ground and spread a little further apart, followed by sinking lower and charging the muscles of the legs with elastic energy, before pushing off towards the target.
The timing of the split-step is crucial. Start too early and you may have to move before you know what direction to go, or hold for a moment and lose the benefit of the split-step. Start too late and time is wasted.
The difference between a helpful split-step and a useless one is just a split second, so it can be hard to notice the importance and hard to learn the right timing.
Good players often do not rush to the waiting point, stand still, then do a split-step to move off. If they have plenty of time then they deliberately move towards their waiting point gently so that they arrive just in time to split-step. The last movement into position is also the drop into the split-step, saving a little energy. That's a subtle detail.
Getting the feet the right distance apart is also important. Many beginners have their feet too close together for fast, stable movement.
There is another crucial detail in the push off out of a split-step. Both feet should help to launch you on your way. If your feet are such that one foot is closer to the target than the other, the temptation is to push off with just the foot furthest from the target and raise the other foot to start the first step. This puts all the work onto one leg. It is better to use both feet, with the foot nearest the target pulling your body while the other foot pushes. This way both legs share the work and you go further with less effort.
Having executed a perfect split-step, the second thing a player should often do is accelerate with one or more shuffles. These are done with the feet still some way apart and are really like sideways jumps. More shuffles are used for moving sideways, and again when slowing down near the shot.
5. Correct grip on the racket
The exact way the racket is gripped in various rally situations and for various shots is crucial and hard to see and learn. Different backhand shots require different grips, different forehands require different grips, the grip for defence is different from the grip for attack, and even the best grip for receiving service depends on whether you are standing in the right or the left court.
These are tiny details but their effect is visible to experts in the shape of swings. A player with slightly the wrong grip will produce the wrong swing and often make errors towards particular directions.
Good grips are not intuitively obvious. Most children just starting at badminton hold their racket in a panhandle grip, so presumably this is the most obvious choice for them. Most do not change their grip for different shots, so presumably sticking with one grip throughout is the most obvious choice also.
6. Elements of the swings
The complexity of the swings is a problem of degrees of freedom. This technical phrase refers to the fact that there are many, many different ways to swing a racket at a shuttle, due to the many different joints of the human body. Each player hunts for an action that works well over a wide range of situations. You could hunt for years and not find a good swing for any shot requiring power.
The forehand clear and smash are tricky enough, but the backhand clear and smash are a baffling riddle to most players.
Fail at this and you will be unable to hit the shuttle the full length of the court, which means you will usually lose to someone who can. They will push you back to the tramlines, but your shot will be short, allowing them to attack, or push you back again and hope for a shot that's weaker still. Power matters, but it is as much a matter of technique as muscle power.
For a swing to work you need to combine the elements that generate speed, apply them in the right sequence, and have your body in the shape that allows the elements to work. The way to do this is not obvious.
For example, high speed photography and modelling of elite players has shown that the final movement of a forehand smash, just around the moment of contact with the shuttle, involves the whole arm twisting about its main axis, especially the forearm, but also at the shoulder. (Here's a compilation of video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2SDAuW7orE and the section from 20 seconds in is particularly slow and clear.) If the racket was perfectly in line with the arm then this would make the racket twist but would not make it go faster.
For the arm twist (pronation) to make the racket go faster, the racket needs to be off the line of the arm (by around 30 degrees it seems, but this probably varies). To achieve this angle the arm needs to be diagonally up and to the side, not straight up, so that the racket comes over almost vertically over the hand. This in turn is linked to the torso being leant over away from the shuttle so that the rotation of the shoulders and spine helps to move the arm forwards, and so it goes on. The details are interlinked and often far from common sense.
7. Waiting points
In a rally, having hit the shuttle, there is a best place to be to wait for your opponent's next shot. This I call the waiting point, though in practice you might not reach it, or might move into it only momentarily before moving off to intercept the shuttle.
The best waiting point changes from shot to shot. It is not a single, central position on court. For example, in singles, if you hit a drop shot then usually you need to move forward of the centre point, but if you hit a long shot you need to be behind it. If you hit a very good drop shot then you will want to get in even closer to the net, hoping to kill a return that's a bit too high. If you hit to the left then you need to wait a tiny bit to the left of centre, and conversely if you hit to the right then you wait a little on the right. Doubles is more complicated.
The ideal waiting point will be driven by lots of other factors, including your opponent's favourite tactics. Being even 30cm out of position can make the difference between success and failure.
8. Tactical memory
If you are lucky enough to catch a good player out with a tactic, such as a favourite drop shot or a feint, you may be delighted at your success and try it again at the next opportunity. It might work, but more likely it will almost work. The third time you try your trick they will be waiting, ready to hit a winner, or at least a shot that puts you back under pressure.
Clearly, good players notice when and how an opponent has beaten them with a tactic and immediately adjust their expectations about their opponent's behaviour in particular situations. However, this is not something that only very good players do. Some moderate players do it too, though most do not.
Similarly, players get an advantage by noticing and remembering your weaknesses. If you miss a particular shot in a particular situation twice in a row they will start giving you more opportunities to play that shot. If a trick of theirs catches you out they will use it again from time to time until you start to adapt.
This kind of memory use helps them beat players who look stronger in the warm up.
(They themselves avoid falling into predictable patterns, which makes their disguise and deception all the more effective.)
Not everyone notices the circumstances of won and lost points and uses that information. Not everyone even realises that it might be a good thing to try to do. A person who makes a habit of it will gradually gain a great advantage over someone who never does.
Each of these areas of skill is subtle. It is easy to overlook them altogether, or to search for the right timing or angles for a long time without finding them. Luck may play an important role in determining which young players attend to these details and find the best answers, and which do not.
None of this means that coaching is irrelevant. Quite the opposite. Good coaches dramatically reduce the time needed to find good ways to play.
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Words © 2013 Matthew Leitch. First published 16 February 2013.