Split step in badminton: the pros’ secret to speed

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Last Updated on July 10, 2023 by Aske

If you’re improving your footwork, you might have heard of the split step in badminton and be curious if this is something worth implementing into your own game.

I’ve found it to be particularly effective if you know how to move around the court but are missing that last bit that allows you to reach the fastest shots in time.

By applying this nearly invisible motion I’ve noticed gaining an extra 10-20 cm in length or half a second in reaction time on the court. It often means the difference between almost reaching the shuttle, barely kissing it with my racket, and returning the shot I wanted to.

The split step is a subtle move that looks like it just wastes energy, but in reality, makes a meaningful difference in being at the right place at the right time on the court.

In this article, you and I will dive into mastering the most challenging thing about the split step beside the technical details of perfecting it, and I’ll share difficulties I had so you can overcome them easier in your own game.

Let’s start with the basic variations and have the pros show us how they perform them.

The split step in badminton: the pros’ secret to speed

In the following clip, notice how Tai Tzu Ying moves from this position:

split step badminton - example performed by Tai Tzu Ying

…into this position:

split step badminton - example performed by Tai Tzu Ying 2

…in one swift move.

That’s one variation of the split step. There are two overarching variations: the standard side-by-side split step where we intend to move sideways (used when defending a smash for example), and the directional split step, which increases the speed to the corners.

There are subtle variations of this motion that can look different and be harder to recognize at first glance. One example is this running variation:

Essentially, the split step in badminton is an anticipating move that allows us to react to our opponent’s shot while being in motion rather than starting from a standstill. That makes us faster as we can leverage the existing momentum when we set off to reach the shot. An explosive start is everything.

It doesn’t sound like much but if we play against opponents who use this technique, we are at a disadvantage if we don’t use it as well.

The earlier we anticipate and move, the better chance we have of placing ourselves well to return the shot. But if our opponent plays a deceptive shot, it’ll be difficult to correct course in time. 

Here the split step comes in handy as well, as it allows us to reset our momentum and change direction instantly, as opposed to stopping our movement and restarting it in a different direction. Imagine, if you anticipate that the opponent will play a net shot, but at the last second, they lift and you need to change direction fast.

How to perform the split step in badminton

This video details how to perform the split step in badminton correctly:

For your convenience, I’ve made a bullet point list of the key items to refer back to.

  1. Drop or “jump” downwards
  2. Slightly widen your legs (slightly wider than shoulder-width apart)
  3. Lean slightly forward and stay on your toes/forefoot
  4. Stay low with bent knees
  5. Push off in the direction you need to go
  6. Perform it just before the opponent hits the shuttle (the key is not when you start the motion but the timing of when you land: land when the opponent hits the shuttle and you know where to go)

Directional split step

As mentioned, we benefit from using the directional split step to reach the far corners fast. To add power we need to push off the ground with the opposite leg than the direction we’d like to move towards in order to create extra momentum.

Tobias Wadenka explains it well in the example below. As he points out, it’s important not to move upwards in the air but rather directly towards the corner so as not to waste energy and lose balance.  

In this example, Thomas Laybourn shows well just how much explosive power you’ll be able to generate with the directional split step. 

Now that we know how to perform the split step, see if you can spot how many players actually use it in their game the next time you play at your club. Although it isn’t usually seen as an advanced technique, I’ve noticed it is one of the differences between the intermediate and advanced players during the sessions I’ve played.

Field report: using the split step in my own game

As I’ve been refining the split step in my own game, I’ve noticed that the technical aspects are relatively straightforward to master but I did run into challenges. I especially noticed these problems as I worked on my technique:

  • Forgetting to use it
  • Forgetting to stay on my toes
  • Jumping too high
  • Using it when I shouldn’t

Particularly, using it when I shouldn’t, became an interesting experiment. It should be done before every shot except the return of serve. According to the official rules, both feet have to touch the ground during service, including the player receiving the serve:

“9.1.4 some part of both feet of the server and the receiver shall remain in contact with the surface of the court in a stationary position from the start of the service (Law 9.2) until the service is delivered (Law 9.3);”

That makes it difficult to do it in anticipation as we don’t know exactly when the opponent will serve and it would make sense for them to wait until the timing of our split step is off to confuse us.

I experimented with attempting to remind myself to split step during sets, which led to jumping too much vertically in the air to feel sure that I did it. I noticed that I played worse because I was focusing too much on constantly performing it and that made it difficult for me to get in the zone.

But the single most difficult thing was being patient enough to ensure that the habit stuck over time rather than just when I’d remember it. 

It has been challenging to adopt a habit when I’m only on court two times weekly. Instead, I experimented with building the habit during my off-court training as well. Making the habit stick requires repetition and reinforcement.

I noticed that it was easier to perform the correct technique during drills and low-intensity matches where I had time to think about it, but much harder during high-intensity games against opponents at the same level or better. Ironically, that’s where I need it the most.

Building the habit

Some experiments worked better than others. I found that it especially helped to add split steps to my routine during my off-court training on leg day, for example, during clockwork lunges.

Clockwork lunges are standard lunges that are performed by rotating to the corners, sideways and backward like a clock. I’d do the split step between each lunge and that worked out well.

Another alternative as shown by Viktor Axelsen here:

Yet another variation is adding it between lateral lunges as shown here:

Another thing that helped was spending ten minutes per day just bouncing the shuttle at home while split stepping every time I hit the shuttle.

I’ve also noticed others using training ladders and doing a split step between each step. I haven’t tried it myself yet but it might be worth a shot if you have one of those.

It helped to record myself during games to better understand exactly how often I was using split steps as it’s nearly impossible to take note in real-time without getting distracted. 

I discovered that I wasn’t always doing it in games where I’d been pressured to my limit, meaning that it wasn’t a habit just yet. In that situation, writing it in the palm of my hand helped as an on-court reminder.

The psychology of being fast

The better I’ve become at the split step, the more I’ve noticed subtle new problems, and psychological benefits for both us and the opponent.

The benefit for you is that you’ll boost your confidence knowing that you’re fast out in the corners and correctly placed to return the shots. If you play doubles, it’ll also boost your partner’s confidence knowing that you’ve got their back if they are out of balance or getting a hard-to-reach shot that’ll take them longer to return to their normal position.

On the other hand, against the opponent, it can kill their spirit as they know that whatever they do, you’ll be right there waiting to send the shuttle back, as we saw in a recent match between Axelsen and Naraoka. 

What happens next? New problems created by mastering the split step

The more I’ve been able to use the split step in badminton, the more I’ve noticed some new challenges. Overall, it’s a positive since I’ve become faster and able to reach more of the difficult shots.

In the front court, I noticed being able to reach difficult net drops more often but having to practice the returning shot since I often hit the net due to the tight angle, even if my footwork is correct. It changes the struggle from reaching the shot to returning it well.

I’ve also noticed burning more energy due to the game getting more intense because I slowly realized I could reach more shots, meaning that instead of giving up right away, I’d go for the save. In part, that comes down to footwork and stamina since the games now require more energy overall, especially with back-to-back games during club sessions.

Takeaways

  • The split step in badminton is a key component in reaching more of those particularly difficult shots and helped me gain the extra margin necessary
  • There are several variations of the split step depending on whether you’re defending or moving to the corners and each one has its own benefit when it comes to moving explosively
  • I’ve found that the most difficult part of learning the motion has been building the habit during the most challenging matches. It’s easy to forget when things get intense, so it’s key to repeat it over and over again to make the habit stick
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