Last Updated on May 15, 2023 by Aske
“Your hand should be more relaxed… and if you’re able to land both feet before you hit the shuttle, you’ll get more stable shots,” Andy explained to me as we left the court and I asked how to improve badminton skills. Andy isn’t his real name but it’ll serve the purpose for now.
He was a strong player from Taiwan I recently got introduced to by the organizer of our club. Over the course of a few weeks at the club, I noticed several players I could learn from, so I asked them for advice on how to improve my badminton skills and noticed the pattern described above. If several players suggest the same thing, there’s probably something to it.
Other more advanced players at the local club can be a great source of free advice if we are willing to take it — and people tend to love it if we actually put their advice into action and share the win with them. But be mindful, if you aren’t ready to implement new ideas into your game, don’t ask for advice since you’ll come across as someone who doesn’t follow through.
How to improve badminton skills: figuring out where we lose the most points
I wasn’t able to find any meaningful official statistics on where players tend to lose the most points but I found myself noticing that in my case I make many mistakes due to nervousness. I know because my game can be fairly inconsistent at times, meaning that when I play against the same opponents my level can vary a lot, or when I play against people I don’t know who is on the same level as myself.
I’ve especially noticed that I tend to need several games before my mind feels warm and I’m able to enter the zone. In fact, it’s usually towards the last few matches that I gain confidence and return the hard-hitting smashes.
The big challenge is judging when the mind is at play and when it is something else, so take this with a grain of salt as I’m attempting an analysis of myself… I might be biased.
It appears that the mindset for professional players is the end-all-be-all as they tend to have coaches just for that, as mentioned by Paul who coaches them.
Speaking of pro players, we need to look no further than the recent Chinese Taipei Open tournament. In the final of the men’s singles Chou Tien-Chen (written as ‘T.C. Chou’ on the scoreboard) was ahead 4-3 in the third set, and in the blink of an eye increased his lead to 10-4 (maybe it was more like five-six minutes but you catch my drift).
Similar things happened to other players several times in the other recent tournaments.
Here’s another example with Viktor Axelsen in the Indonesia Open where he won four points in a row against Lee Zii Jia in the third set (followed by four points in a row going the other way).
Why does it though?
It can’t be the technical skill since it was good at other times during the match and the level among the two players are similar. It also can’t be the gear as both are sponsored by the top brands and likely playing with their preferred custom rackets.
If we look closer at the game, I noticed that several points throughout the sets were caused by human errors on each side of the net, such as attempting what seems like an unnecessarily difficult shot under pressure instead of choosing the safe option and living to fight another day.
This is also pointed out by Badminton Insight’s Greg and Jenny in a recent video analyzing why Viktor Axelsen is as good as he is.
How to improve badminton skills: instant remedies for small gains
This topic on mindset feels like a taboo as is the case in most sports. As I was researching for this article, I noticed many non-professional players like you and me sharing their nervousness and hesitation about playing. Just look at these comments:
And this one…
And this one…
And this one…
Do you feel anything like them?
While I’m not an expert on this yet, I found some interesting exercises to help with the mind games and nervousness. Most require frequent practice like nailing a powerful smash in order to work well and be available for us to tap into at a moment’s notice.
One awesome exercise is the visualization technique, where the idea is to vividly visualize how the game is going to go point by point, how the opponent plays, how we play, how the spectators react, and so on using as many senses as possible.
When I first tried this back in school, I was surprised by how effective it was — in the very first exercise, almost half my shots were significantly more precise right off the bat. In my humble experience, this exercise sounds easy but is fairly challenging because of the intensity we need to apply to the visualizing.
The more realistic we can imagine it, the better the outcome. I’ve been guilty of just closing my eyes and attempting to fast track it but it rarely works that well compared to fully immersing ourselves in the experience.
There is a wealth of power in being able to control our mind at will and tab into a relaxed, almost child-like, mood to snap ourselves out of a downward spiral.
Visualization is challenging to get to work as a last minute remedy before a match but I’ve found a few alternatives that tend to work well instead:
- Watch a comedy show right before the action is about to begin to make yourself laugh and feel good inside
- When I trained growing up, my coach explained to us that we are allowed to take it slow between rallies in order to buy ourselves time to get back in a good mental space or snap the opponent out of the zone if they are playing well. For example by tying our shoelaces to delay the next serve
- Between each rally: remind yourself to slow down and play with a smile. This sounds simple and it is. The challenge is that we tend to forget it in the heat of the moment, so in order to actually make this work in practice you might need to write it in the palm of your hand so it’s easy for you to see
- Viktor Axelsen’s pro tip: “It’s a method I often use because it breaks the match down into a much more manageable interval and takes away the tension from the big result. Two out of three. There is a lot in it. It is both an acceptance of the previous mistake, because it is not necessary to win every ball, and an abstraction from the mistake, because it puts the focus on the next important duel.” (translated from an interview in Danish)
When you’ve seen results with quick fixes, you might be ready to experiment with more challenging exercises for bigger gains.
Two powerful ways to manage nervousness
There are rarely any major secrets to instantly change things — most of the sexy stuff like buying the right racket and playing with a certain type of shuttle can help but most of the meaningful work is unsexy, systematic, repetition of drills and habits.
The idea of building a habit is well known around training and eating before matches but tends to be mentioned less when it comes to the mind and competing, even though the mind works in a similar way and our thoughts tend to function as habits just like our body does.
It requires practice and repetition in order to change the way we feel about playing, both before and during the match in order to reduce the anxiety and have more fun.
As Simon Sinek points out, athletes tend to say they feel excited before a big event where the rest of us might feel anxious even though the physical feeling is about the same: elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, etc. The pro athletes figured out how to train themselves to see that as excitement rather than nervousness.
The difficult part about mindset is that it’s hard to notice — it isn’t tangible and easy to spot within ourselves like technical analysis of our serve is. In fact, Tanya Eurich, an expert in self-awareness, suggests in her book that most of us are not as self-aware as we’d like to believe and when I explored this myself I found it to be painfully true.
A simple technique for improving self-awareness specifically within nervousness and badminton is to take notes whenever you notice yourself feeling nervous or just off in general. Note down the following:
- Where you are
- Who you are with
- What time it is
- How you are feeling or what you are thinking
It can be as simple as using a note app on your phone or an old school notebook. If you do it for a week I bet you’ll notice some patterns that might be worth exploring deeper. You don’t have to think more about it when you note it down or write an entire essay — it should be easy to take notes and only take a second. Then set aside a bit of time on the weekend to review it and look for patterns where the same thing happened several times.
Another powerful technique as W. Timothy Gallwey shares in the excellent book The Inner Game of Tennis (which has less to do with tennis than you might think), in chapter three (p. 14) can be summarized as:
“We have arrived at a key point: it is the constant “thinking” activity of Self 1, the ego-mind, which causes interference with the natural capabilities of Self 2. Harmony between the two selves exist when this mind is quiet and focused. Only then can peak performance be reached.”
This can sound confusing as it’s taken out of context — what he means is that there are two sides of us, our ego and natural capabilities. The latter is a better raw player but the first (the ego-mind) tends to interfere with our natural capabilities and worsen our game because we start to think too much about the game, the opponent and rallies.
For example, when we are in the zone leveraging our natural capabilities, we are not thinking about hitting the ball — it just happens automatically.
He continues to point out that the skill necessary in order to do this is to let go of judging our own performance as good or bad.
There are loads of information and exercises out there and the problem is that there are too many, so it becomes challenging to figure out which ones are the best for us and that tends to lead us to get stuck. If you feel that way right now, simply pick the thing you are most excited about and move forward.
- When we look at how to improve badminton skills, for many players the mind is the hardest to control, the thing that limits our badminton game the most and one of the things that can help us improve the most
- There are many exercises that can help. The problem is that we might not be interested in doing the hard work until we can feel the results for ourselves — the irony of the catch-22 is real — so small instant results can help us see how much we’ll gain by systematically working on the mind in order to improve the game
- An effective way to start is going for quick wins to see the difference before diving into more challenging exercises that take more work but also offer bigger wins
- Next, check out this article on badminton tips for beginners