Learning to play racquetball can be one of the most intimidating things you will ever do. The sheer speed of the game, from the outside looking in, can leave even the most athletic person wondering if they are capable of stepping inside the court.
Perhaps, the most challenging parts of learning racquetball are mental. Unlike many sports, physical strength will get you nowhere if you don’t understand the mechanics of the game.
This guide is designed to not only make you aware of the sport that so many people ignore, but also to show you how to be damn good at it.
To clear up the confusion about what racquetball is, and if you have ever seen it played before, watch this epic video of classic singles matches at the professional level.
(If you cannot see the video, you may view it here.)
I could barely stay in my seat watching such an intense, meticulous sport.
Why Would You Want to Play Racquetball?
Racquetball is one of those sports that teaches you lessons about life. Every player of every sport might make the same claim, but racquetball is different.
What separates racquetball from the rest is the fact that you have to do worse before you can do better. There are no “naturals” in this sport. Even if you are agile, quick on your feet, and know how to handle a racquet, none of that matters if I can pick at the things you aren’t good at.
The learning curve for racquetball usually goes something like this:
- The first time you get in the court, you are not there to play a game of racquetball, though you think that you are. The game itself has a goal of teaching you about the speed of the game and the multiple dynamics that you must shrink down to second nature within your own mind. Every player’s first true game of racquetball is always humbling. You think you know racquetball, until you play it.
- After a few games, you will start to gain a little bit of confidence as you start to understand what you need to do to stay alive on the court. You begin to understand the value of patience and strategy, rather than anticipation and pure athleticism. At this point, you start to challenge other beginners because you think you have it.
- You start to play regularly with “house racquets” from the gym front desk only to realize that your shot isn’t the same as it was last week. The importance of having your own gear kicks in and you run to Wal-mart to pick up your first racquet, glove, eye protection, and maybe even a wristband and headband (if you’re smooth like that). Now that you’ve spent your own money, you have officially picked up a new hobby and you are ready to take it seriously.
- You get tired of playing other beginners and you are ready to start playing with the “big dogs.” Your first words on the court are “don’t beat me too bad.” You laugh it off with the 47 year-old geezer and learn your first lesson in the power of experience against your youth and healthy heart. By the end of the game, the old man has given you so many tips that you realize how wrong your approach has been thus far, and you humble yourself back to being a student of the game.
After number four is where most people stop learning. At this point, it’s more fun to play against someone on your level, so you enlist your unknowing friends in order to show them how much better you are at something than they are.
Soon after, they repeat the same cycle that you went through and we end up with a gym full of inexperienced racquetball players that will never improve until they continuously play the old man.
For those who make it past this point, the life lessons start to shine through and the sport becomes the life blood of who you are.
- The desire to play the sport frequently becomes your answer to getting quality exercise and staying in shape.
- The importance of your gear becomes an appreciation for having the right tool for the job, whatever it may be.
- The undeniable difficulty of the sport provides a reason to stay humble and appreciate the fact that you can always get better at something.
- The small victories, like the individual rallies you saw in the video, teach you that hard work, patience, and challenging yourself will pay off if you stick with it.
Racquetball truly enforces the idea that only the strongest will survive. That strength, however, must be spread out between many different areas. If you want to strengthen your brain by engaging in mental exercise, racquetball is the sport for you.
So, what should you do once you are on the court with your gear and taking things seriously?
Things You Must Understand On the Court
Unfortunately, the rules and regulations of racquetball are far beyond the scope of this article. However, I will give you a brief description of how the game works. To keep from complicating things, I will limit this description to a singles match where two players are head-to-head against each other.
Much like Tennis, player one (P1) serves the ball while the other player (P2) waits in a designated area. Once P1 serves the ball, it is only allowed to touch the ground a maximum of one time (and that’s optional) before P2 is responsible for hitting the ball towards the front wall (the wall in front of the players) again. Once P2 connects with the ball, it can hit any combination of walls as long as it touches the front wall before hitting the ground again.
Once the ball touches the front wall, P1 is now responsible for returning the ball to that same front wall, only allowing it to touch the ground once (optional) before making contact. Only the server can score. If the server, P1, faults, P2 now serves. During that rally, if P1 faults again, P2 earns a point.
Typically, games are played best 2 out of 3 with each game to 15 points. Tie breakers are oftentimes played to 11. If you are a visual person, watch this short clip explaining the very basics of racquetball rules and how to start a rally.
(If you cannot see the video, you may view it here.)
Now that you understand the basics, let’s talk about what it takes to survive a rally.
Where to position yourself
Racquetball is a game of strategy. Geometry, physics, athleticism, and a little bit of intuition all tie in together to make a great player. In order to increase your ability to tap into all of these areas, you must first be positioned in a manner that allows you to perform effectively.
The Home Position
The home position puts you in the perfect spot to reach most areas of the court quickly after your opponent has returned the ball to the front wall. When two players are in the middle of a rally, it should be a constant battle to hold the home position. Think King of the Hill…
The home position is in the middle of the court from the right wall to the left wall, and just slightly behind the middle of the court from the back wall to the front wall. Because of the velocity the ball usually has when it hits the front wall, being too close to it reduces the amount of time you have to react when it bounces back into the field of play. Being slightly back from the middle of the court increases the amount of time you have to react.
If you watch the very first match of the video in the beginning of this article, you will see that both players immediately returned to the home position after each time hitting the ball. This is to best position themselves to counter their opponent’s next hit.
Controlling the Home Position
So far, I’ve told you what it takes to better position yourself to win a rally. However, you’re not the only one trying to win. In order to execute your new strategy, you have to be able to make sure you’re the only one doing it.
Every time you hit the ball, assuming your opponent is experienced as well and is now in the home position, your goal is to draw them out of that position. Racquetball players desire control of the court. The moment they leave home, they are no longer in control.
To pull someone out of the home position, you simply hit the ball in a manner that draws them forward, sideways, or backwards. If P1 has to run to the back of the court to take his shot, where do you think P2 should hit the ball next?
If you guessed to the front, you are correct.
Not only does this cause P1 to take sloppy shots because he is out of position, but it also causes him to run more. Once fatigue sets in on the racquetball court, your level of game-play suffers dramatically. As athletic as you may be, he or she who runs more is usually the least experienced. The exception is when you have two very skilled players on the same level. At that point, nothing you do will work. So now it’s time to get physical.
As an example of controlling the game, think about an experienced old man standing in the home position controlling the ball while the 27 year-old kid, such as myself, runs to every corner of the court chasing the ball. Are you beginning to see how pure athleticism gets you nowhere if you have no strategy?
Every shot you take should be designed to pull your opponent away from their comfort zone, even if you have to gently tap the ball.
It’s not about power. It’s about strategy.
The Undesirable Backhand
Every racquetball play loves an opportunity to draw back and give the ball everything they have. We call it the “kill shot.” To be on the receiving end of a kill shot is no fun. The ball is usually moving much faster which decreases your time to react.
The best way to keep your opponent from delivering kill shots is to constantly hit the ball to his backhand. In other words, a right-handed player would prefer that the ball be to his right, so that he has the most power to swing. If the ball is on his left, he has no choice but to reach his right arm across his body, then bring it forward for a less powerful hit.
Keep your opponent out of the home position, constantly running, and forced to return the ball in back-handed fashion and you just might have a chance.
Choosing your gear
One of the most important things you can do to start becoming a better racquetball player is to invest in your gear. Typically, your racquet will get the most focus, but other things play a vital role as well.
Racquetball racquets come in all weights and sizes. Usually measured in grams, it is important to find which weight is best for you. Also, weight distribution plays a part in how well a racquet works for you. Stronger players may be comfortable with a bottom-heavy racquet (weight distributed unevenly with an emphasis on the handle) while smaller, weaker players may need a top-heavy racquet. This allows a weaker swing to have more power due to the heavier part of the racquet making contact with the ball.
I use a balanced-weight racquet to avoid having to switch racquets as my body composition changes. My racquet weighs 170 grams which, to me, is perfect for 5’10” 165lbs with very little body fat. (I use the E-Force Bedlam 170, just in case you were wondering.)
A top quality racquet can cost upwards of $300 from the store. However, you can get your hands on a starter kit (racquet, racquet sleeve, eye protection, balls) for under $50. There are numerous racquets to choose from with a wide range of prices. You will, however, get what you pay for.
Note: Don’t ever step into a court without eye protection. Also, never play against anyone refusing to wear eye protection.
The best kind of eye protection to buy has a wide field of vision. Thick, colored, plastic borders tend to cause distractions as the speed of the game increases. Find a pair that covers your entire eye socket without plastic borders.
Also, make sure your eye protection has ventilation holes where the lens meets the frame. This is to keep your eye protection from fogging up once you start sweating.
For less than $20, you can have quality eye protection that won’t interfere with your performance.
I never play without a glove and I would suggest the same for you. Gloves come individually and only need to be worn on the hand that holds the racquet.
The importance of a glove is to create strong friction between your hand and the racquet handle. When you take a swing, it is imperative that the racquet remains sturdy as it makes contact with the ball. If there is no friction between your hand and the racquet, the racquet will rotate and the ball will adjust accordingly.
You can also have your racquet re-gripped to a style that increases friction, but that is not necessary if you are a beginner.
For around $10, you can get yourself a nice glove with padding for your knuckles and quality palm grip.
It always helps to have accessories but don’t overdo it. Make sure you have everything you need on the court and nothing more.
I typically wear a thick headband and three wristbands.
Because I hold the racquet in my right hand, I wear two wristbands on that arm. This is to keep the sweat from dripping down my arm and soaking my glove. A wet glove reduces friction and that’s bad for business, as mentioned above. I wear the third wristband on my left arm to wipe sweat if necessary.
The headband is to keep sweat out of your eyes. Eyebrows won’t cut it on the racquetball court. Be sure to invest in at least a headband. You don’t have very much time between rallies to remove your glasses and wipe your eyes.
Headbands and wristbands are no more than a few bucks.
Pep talk before game time
Finally, it should be understood that racquetball is a game of strategy and experience. In order to get better, you have to be bad for a while. If you learn to play with your buddy, that’s fine. However, you need to move up to better opponents once you understand the concept of the game. Two beginners who only play each other will only become good enough to beat each other.
The key to becoming a better racquetball player is to face more situations that you have never been in.
If you have never played a person that manages to keep the ball no higher than 6 inches off of the ground, you will never learn to counter those shots.
If you have never played against an old man that barely moves but swings like Babe Ruth, you will never learn how to hit the ball in a manner that prevents him from taking such deadly shots.
The more adversity you face on the court, the more experienced you’ll become. With that experience comes preparation, which eventually leads to intuition.
Once you can predict what will happen next, while also being prepared for the unknown, you’ll crown yourself King of the Hill.
Long Live the Rally
Now that you have an understanding of what you’ll be getting yourself into once you step on the court, check out the official website for all things racquetball: USA Racquetball