Badminton skills: how beginners can improve at record speed


Justin Ma - September 9, 2022 - 0 comments

I rediscovered my love for badminton at age 32, after a fifteen-year-long break and I expected that I had forgotten the badminton skills I learned growing up, but it turns out to be exactly like riding a bike — you never really forget.

At one point I got curious if there would ever be a chance to play as a professional given enough training, as I had a feeling that pro athletes normally tend to retire in the early to mid-30s.

I took to the internet to see how old the oldest competing professional players were, and I was pleasantly surprised…

I noticed exceptions such as Vietnamese Tien Minh competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in men’s single at 38 years old. There’s also Mathew Fogarty, an American competing in mixed doubles at the 2015 BWF World Championships, who was 58 years old at the time.

Most recently, Svetlana Zilberman won her first match in the BWF 2022 World Championship in mixed doubles at 64 years old, with her son Misha.

Encouraging stuff!

In this article, you and I will dive into the fundamental skills in badminton and break them down into different levels so you can get a sense of what is often learned at each level. We’ll also look at two game-changing insights from the world’s best learners we can use to improve our game rapidly.

The critical (and counterintuitive!) badminton skills needed at each level

It would be easy to dumb the world’s longest list of 800 basic skills in badminton but I’ve found that it isn’t the most helpful for new players.

Instead, let’s look at which skills tend to be taught at each level. They’re counterintuitive as people often focus almost exclusively on the strokes and movement, and forget about the rest.

We can look at this as a pyramid where we continue practicing the techniques from the previous level until we’ve mastered them while building on top with new and more advanced skills as we progress.

To simplify things let’s break this down into just three levels: beginner, intermediate and advanced. Sometimes we count a starter level before beginners and the professional level after advanced but since the pros work directly with coaches and starters need to get as much game time as possible to feel comfortable on the court, it doesn’t make much sense to cover them in detail here.

The beginner level: fundamental skills in badminton

The difference between beginners and starters is that starters are those who’ve never held a racket in their hand before, whereas a beginner will be able to time their shots well enough to hit the shuttle.

In this example, I’m assuming the beginning player has a basic understanding of the rules and is somewhat comfortable hitting the shuttle with the racket, even if it isn’t pretty. While many articles cover grips at this stage as well, I believe they depend on each shot and situation (e.g. transitioning from one shot to another) and so will naturally be covered when a player is learning each individual stroke.

At the beginner level, it’s all about learning the different strokes and being able to return most shots while staying in the game. The most tangible example is running all the way to the sideline of your weak side (if you are right-handed it would be your left side) to be able to use a forehand shot before learning to use the backhand. It becomes exhausting in the long run and if the opponent keeps playing the shuttle to each side, we’ll be dead after just a couple of shots. 

If we instead can use the backhand to cover our weak side, we can use the length of our arm and racket to save the space our legs would otherwise cover (this will be improved further with footwork down the road). It allows us to cover more ground while saving energy.

I find that the simplest way to think about the beginner stage is to visualize a game between two players and break down what might happen. First, one will have to serve in order to start the game, so there is no way we can avoid learning that. In fact, we should probably learn that first since it’s guaranteed that we’ll use it several times in each game.

Next, as beginners, we tend to focus more on keeping the game going rather than just scoring points which require playing defensively. For that, many beginners use some variation or combination of a drive- and a clear shot to return the shuttle.

At the beginner level, the basic skills in badminton are:

  • Serve
  • Drive
  • Clear 
  • Drop
  • Smash

As a beginner, some players prefer waiting to perfect the clear shot until at an intermediate level because they struggle to clear to the backline, which can make us feel stuck. The same is true for the smash — we might want to learn it early because it looks cool but it’s challenging to master.

On top of that, there are forehand and backhand variations of each stroke and as a beginner, we can make do with learning just one backhand stroke at first to stay in the game.

This was the first and foundational layer in the badminton skills pyramid. Next up is the intermediate level where we’ll build upon what we’ve already learned as we have to improve the technique of each stroke from the beginner level while adding new game skills on top of that.

Badminton techniques and skills at the intermediate level

At an intermediate level, we learn about covering the entire court while using less energy, getting the hard-to-reach shots, and strategies for setting ourselves up to win more points.

We’ll continue to practice more advanced variations of the shots we learned at the beginner level and we’ll add the strokes we delayed (if any) such as the smash, jump smash, or clear to the backline. On top of that, we’ll also learn better footwork, where to place ourselves on the court to save energy and return the opponent’s shots more effectively. 

A friend of mine, a brand new beginner player, described just this aspect as a game changer for her as she noticed she got much less tired as the game progressed.

We also learn to predict what the opponent is doing, so we can reach their shot earlier, which usually leads to a better return, and we’ll practice setting up the attack a few shots in advance. For example, by first shooting a clear to the backline in order to move the player back followed by a drop shot to move the player to the front and tire them out.

This is also where we learn the rules of doubles rotation if we play double, as many double players lose points due to confusing communication with their teammate early on.

For the intermediate stage, the key badminton techniques and skills are:

  • Footwork and placement on the court
  • Strategies such as predicting the next two shots
  • Rotation (doubles)

At this stage, we improve on the strokes we’ve already learned and make our overall game more effective while using less energy. We become better at playing smart and with quality. For many of us, this is where things get really intense and fun as we’ve built up some level of confidence in the strokes and we can focus more on other aspects of the game.

Advanced level badminton skills

At the advanced level, we learn more about minimizing mistakes, mindset, and strategies like understanding the opponent even better and how we can use that to our advantage.

I was watching some games recently, and I was surprised when I noticed just how many mistakes are made at the professional level.

At this stage, most of the shots are perfected, we’ve learned new variations of them and a lot of the work goes on in the mind rather than the body. We better our strategies on the court, learn more of them and work on minimizing mistakes along with handling difficult situations such as being several points behind with people cheering all around us.

While some players choose to learn trick shots earlier, this is where they can really become handy. Trick shots tend to be misunderstood and assumed to be amazing shots that are unreachable to the opponent. That’s unlikely to happen. At this stage, we can expect that the opponent has perfected their moves around the court and will be able to cover all shots given enough time.

The point of the trick shot is to make the opponent reach the shuttle a split second slower than they otherwise would, which makes them more likely to make an error or return a lower quality shot that we can turn into a point. Anything better is a bonus.

The list of badminton skills for the advanced level is a bit vague and more dependent on our individual strengths and weaknesses from the previous levels:

  • Strategies on the court
  • Minimizing mistakes
  • Trick shots
  • Mindset

Putting it all together

Looking at the entire badminton skills pyramid, we can see how the first skills we learn, the strokes, help us stay on the court confidently while the more we advance, the more focus switches to mindset, effectivizing our playing style and adapting to the other player as it’s expected to have internalized the strokes to a point where they are automatic.

Next, let’s look at what the best learners know and how we can use it to improve our fundamental skills in badminton.

Use these two game-changing insights to improve your badminton skills at record speed

There’s a movie called Searching for Bobby Fischer about how a wiz kid became a grandmaster of chess at an early age.

That movie is based on the life of Josh Waizkin who, after mastering chess, became a world champion in Tai Chi. One thing he is good at is learning new skills and we can use the techniques from his book The Art of Learning to better our own badminton game. I’d like to highlight a few insights that are particularly useful for us.

1. Break the skills in badminton down into smaller chunks

Many of us learn badminton in a balanced way by practicing clear shots for a while, then practice a bit of smash, a bit of footwork, the serve, and repeat.

Josh Waizkin found that breaking down the skills into smaller components and mastering each of those one at a time is more effective than learning a bit of everything all at once (starting on p. 115, chapter 11, in The Art of Learning for those who are interested).

When we first learn a new stroke our brain is consciously practicing and memorizing it, whereas it eventually becomes subconscious when we get good enough at it.

Meaning, that once we’ve perfected each stroke, we don’t need to continue thinking about how to rotate the body, move the arm correctly, and how the timing should be in order to hit the shuttle well. It becomes automatic. Instead, we can focus on where the other player is on the court and look for empty space to play the shuttle into in order to win the point.

The best way to do that is with specific badminton drills as they allow us to dive deep into just one aspect before mastering it and moving on to the next one.

A chess example Josh Waizkin gave was to learn the end of the game first because there were fewer chess pieces on the board than during chess openings, where the board is full.

That was directly the opposite of what most other players would train and he found it more effective as it taught him the nuances of each chess piece, how they stack up against all the other types of pieces, and how to coordinate that specific piece with each of the other ones on the board to achieve his goal.

2. The best was not born with a gift

Josh points out (starting on p. 29, chapter 3, in The Art of Learning) that it’s easier to improve when we look at a new skill through the lens of a growth mindset, meaning that improvements are attributed to spending time practicing them rather than assuming that the best are born with a gift for it.

The big difference here is that the growth mindset helps us take ownership of our own learning and seek out different ways, and people, to learn from.

One way to make that practical is with what he describes as soft- and hard learning. 

Hard learning is if we force ourselves to imitate, say, Lin Dan, because he is one of the greats, whereas, with soft learning, we observe how he plays in order to learn how to defend against it while still keeping our own creative spin and style that fits our natural capabilities.

Takeaways

  • The more we progress in badminton, the less it becomes about the strokes and the more it becomes about mindset and strategy 
  • By breaking the skills down into smaller chunks and mastering them first, we can improve our badminton skills faster
  • By not assuming that the best was born with a gift but instead practicing a lot, we can take ownership of our learning

Aske writes about badminton over on his blog. Check out these 3 badminton tips to win more points next.

Justin Ma

I am passionate about helping people find joy in playing badminton, while also showing them how competitive the sport can be.

Justin Ma

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