The other day I was watching a clip of Yuta Watanabe playing. I admire his game and especially his signature more: the flying backhand drop…
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that while the shot is cool, especially when disguised, it isn’t what makes it special.
We’ve seen other players like Lee Zii Jia or Chico Aura Dwi Wardoyo perform similar-looking flying backhand smashes with grace as well.
What’s truly amazing is Yuta’s badminton anticipation and ability to read the game in order to notice that a drop shot will break the bones (and souls) of his opponent, while in the heat of the moment.
I’ve now been playing for a few years since my “comeback” after more than fifteen years off-court. The more I learn about badminton, the more I realize just how important reading the game becomes.
Without it, we can make things really difficult for ourselves.
I sometimes play with people who have terrific technical stroke skills, much better than me but are missing the “glue” that holds their game together.
It’s an odd experience seeing a perfectly delivered smash but rotation, shot selection, or anticipation that makes them run awkwardly around the court. It feels as if they are amazing during training drills, but in the real world, something cracks.
In this article, I’ll unpack the benefits you get out of improving your badminton anticipation skills along with practical ideas to get better specifically for intermediate doubles players (it’s a great skill to practice during games and at home).
Unpacking badminton anticipation and reading the game at different levels
Mastering badminton would be a breeze if you could magically predict every shot, freeze time, and instantly teleport yourself to the perfect position behind the shuttlecock.
Unfortunately, such powers are beyond our reach. But, the goal is to come as close to that ideal as possible. There are two key factors that can help us achieve this: foresight and agility.
Agility is all about swift footwork, while foresight involves the ability to anticipate your opponent’s moves and predict what might happen next in a rally.
The best players are amazing at both. Where improving your footwork requires repeating loads of drills many times, reading the game can be practiced at home or during your matches.
The exciting part about developing your badminton anticipation is that it significantly improves your overall game, without needing to engage in traditional on-court practice drills.
Just look at how effective Kim Astrup is in this one rally (I’ve set the start of the clip a few seconds before it happens, but he’s so quick you’ll have to watch it like a hawk).
But reading the game is only valuable if you actually put it into practice. In my experience, it’s helpful for two particular items:
- Reaching the shuttle earlier, which allows you more shot choices
- Intercepting your opponents and catching them off guard (I’ll not be covering that in this article)
Reading the game and anticipating what’ll happen next is all about “calculating” the likelihood of what your opponent will do and reacting accordingly. Although this isn’t a math problem in badminton, your shot can usually create several different scenarios we need to account for which means we need to get a sense of the probability of each one.
It’s similar to playing poker or chess.
That means thinking a few shots ahead to figure out if there are any favorable shots for you compared to which shots will be favorable for your opponent, and what they will lead to after. For example, if you lift, you might offer the opponent a smash whereas a net shot can trigger a lift to you, or another net shot.
There are different levels of reading the game, ranging from easier to more difficult:
- Level 1: where are your opponents placed on the court? Where’s the open space?
- Level 2: how is their body moving?
- Level 3: what grip are they using? Where’s their racket facing?
Let’s dive deeper into each level.
Level 1: where are your opponents placed on the court?
To me, reading the game begins right from the moment the shuttle is served and continues throughout each shot until the rally concludes.
The first step is to train yourself to notice where your opponents are positioned on the court and identify any open spaces you can exploit. For example, if they are standing side-by-side, there might be an opportunity near the net on the side where the player is positioned further back.
The challenge lies in deciding if it’s worth exploiting in the heat of the moment.
At first glance, it may seem obvious but beware of your opponents baiting you. They might intentionally position themselves slightly towards their weaker backhand side, creating the illusion of a wide-open space on their forehand side. They expect you to hit there and are prepared to counter it.
Occasionally, there may be an argument for playing the shuttle back into your opponent’s hands. For example, if they are moving away from the shuttle, it becomes harder for them to change their direction and momentum.
Level 2: how is their body moving?
After identifying the open space, the next level is anticipating your opponent’s next move.
For many of us at the intermediate level (including myself), it can be challenging to keep track of the opponent’s nuances while simultaneously following the shuttle, maintaining your own position, coordinating with your partner, and managing everything else happening on the court (more on that in a moment).
This is where things become more difficult.
You’ll need to observe how your opponent’s body is moving and whether they are preparing to move in a specific direction. Are they in a state of “over-recovery,” where playing the shuttle back to their previous spot might catch them off guard?
Will they be late in reaching the shuttle, or are they likely to recover quickly and be prepared for the next shot? How are they coordinating with their partner in terms of rotation, and does that present any opportunities to exploit?
Level 3: what grip are they using? Where’s their racket facing?
This is where the challenge intensifies even further.
At this level, we need to pay attention to the subtle details, such as the grip our opponents are using, the direction their racket is facing, and even their stance.
Combine it with general patterns
These examples demonstrate what to observe in real-time, but there are also general patterns that each player tends to follow. Being aware of these patterns can help us make quicker judgment calls.
Here are some examples of patterns to look out for:
- Is your opponent likely to jump in to retrieve your low serve early?
- How proficient are they in executing different techniques? Are they more inclined to play a backhand shot or an around-the-head shot?
- Are there specific shots they consistently play from the same position, such as a return of serve or a clear shot down the line followed by a drop shot to the same side?
- Is their smash exceptionally powerful, making it costly for you to lift?
- Are they showing signs of fatigue or poor physical shape, suggesting they may struggle to respond to a few clear-drop combinations?
- Do they possess a weak backhand, indicating that you should cover the net after hitting to exploit this weakness?
Now, this gets interesting when you take it one step further and enter the matrix: do all of these things change throughout the game as your opponent reads your game and adapts?
… What if you adapt to their game while they are adapting to yours?
It’s important to be cautious. If you adapt too well and consistently wait by the net, your opponent may become aware of their own patterns and realize that you are reading and adjusting to their game.
It might be wise to vary your approach and not always reveal that you understand their game, preventing them from altering their strategy.
The issue with reading the game
Reading your opponent’s game isn’t always foolproof. Deceptive tricks like looking away when shooting or other body movements can mislead you.
There’s a saying in football to “watch the ball, not the player,” and the same principle applies to badminton, although it may limit our ability to predict as much. It’s a delicate balance to maintain.
Thinking about this while playing, means you’ll lose your chance of getting in the zone and playing freely in the short term. But it might be necessary in order to eventually play in the zone with better badminton anticipation skills.
Enough with the theoretical aspects of reading the game.
Next, let’s dive into practical ideas for practicing and improving your badminton anticipation.
Practicing your badminton anticipation and reading the game
One of the most challenging aspects of reading the game is transitioning from solely focusing on the shuttle and executing clean strokes to simultaneously keeping an eye on your opponents.
But without, our shots become a gamble, relying solely on luck.
I say ‘meanwhile’, but that’s particularly difficult on overhead strokes as we can’t look at the shuttle flying down from the ceiling while looking straight across the net. Instead, we have to get hints before hitting the shuttle and right after, leading up to the following shot.
Some players like to ‘capture’ the last known mental image, like they’re working for Kodak, and play their hand based on that. On overhead strokes, that might be the only possible option.
The reason why this is so challenging for many players is twofold.
Firstly, it’s a matter of habit—many haven’t dedicated sufficient practice to develop this skill. Secondly, it may stem from a lack of confidence in executing shots without visually tracking the shuttle during contact.
On shots below the net, you’ll see many advanced players having the courage to wait (as Peter Gade phrases it).
That allows them to observe their opponent’s movements and potentially catch them off guard. It also provides an opportunity to glance at the other side of the court and make an informed decision about the shot to be played.
Ideas to practice reading the game off-court
I’ve found that the easiest way to begin practicing this is not on overhead strokes, but rather on net shots and other simpler front court shots. You’ll be able to see the shuttle, the front court, and your opponents in one ‘view’ without having to look somewhere else.
It’ll just be a glance the split second before hitting the shuttle, and looking for the open space is the easiest place to start before dialing in the details and nuances of your opponents later.
Another practice method is when you’re receiving shots on the line where you’ll have to make a split-second decision on whether they’re in or out.
This is especially tricky when receiving lifts and clears as you may have to wait until the shuttle and the floor are both in your view in order to compare.
Another effective approach is to watch professional matches, pause them mid-rally, and try to predict what will happen next before resuming the playback.
Even better, record your games and analyze them with your opponents, pinpointing the best placement for each shot. Starting with serves and return of serve can be the easiest way to begin.
During your playing sessions, engage in quick analyses of other games you watch. While not actively playing, observe and analyze the situations in other players’ games in the back of your mind to continue practicing your skills.
Reading the game is a skill and repetition is the most powerful way to improve it.
Self-awareness is crucial in all aspects of life, including badminton. It is effective to start by examining your own games and identifying patterns specific to you. For example, assess whether you tend to stand too far back or too close to the net in side-by-side formation.
In a forum discussion on the same topic, a user named “Lefty” offered this terrific advice:
“Instead of anticipating your opponent’s shot, learn to anticipate your own shots first. For example, if you know you’re already off balance or you’re not fast enough to return the drop after your opponent block your smash, then don’t smash. Get to know your own shot and know that you’ll be able to cover the most difficult shot your opponent can return, then everything else will become easy. You wouldn’t get yourself in trouble.” – forum comment
Over time, you will gain more confidence in recognizing these opportunities, and you can develop the habit of thinking one shot ahead, before gradually expanding to two shots and beyond. This is how the ‘magical’ instinct, intuition, or ‘gut feeling’ is cultivated.
- Reading the game is an essential skill that boosts the value of all your other skills on court. It’ll make you appear faster by being able to almost read the mind of your opponent
- There are different levels of badminton anticipation. Begin with the simplest and most easy and work your way up by recognizing more and more nuances
- It requires repetition to improve and it’s among the most convenient skills in badminton to train as you can do it from home or during your game sessions, even if you’re on the bench between games