By Ken Woodfin

Shot Selection IS Voodoo Magic (almost)

Racquetball Shot Selection

The Nuts and Bolts of Shot Selection

In racquetball, you gotta know your limitations. So, as a player, you need to broaden your limitations. For a racquetball shooter, it’s invaluable to own a great hitting range as a shooter by expanding these related skills…(1) lots of shot options; (2) a wide contact zone height-wise; (3) several effective, situational contact stances; (4) an ability to change your swing size; (5) finesse and power; (6) spin control; (7) fast Quick Draw and longish setup strokes; and (8) broad ball reading skills to take advantage when advantage can be taken by moving in concert with the ball.    

Shotmaking Skills Include

(1) Offensive shots…own a wide array of shots from all over the court that include…

(a) straight in kill-pass;

(b) cross-court kill-pass;

(c) near corner pinch;

(d) reverse pinch into cross front corner;

(e) splat with deep, slightly lower than contact sidewall target;

(f) 3-wall shot hit into sidewall you face when targeting cross front corner;

(g) twooze shot when facing far side and hitting with other side’s stroke into sidewall beside you targeting cross front corner;

(h) front wall first pinch;

(i) wrap around shot that hits one sidewall, bounces, and caroms off the back wall toward far sidewall;

(j) high Z shot hit high into front corner, front wall first looking to parallel back wall;

(k) wide angle pass striking sidewall next to challenger to go on and bounce twice in deep court;

(l) baby overhead cross-court; or

(m) overhead DTL;

(2) Big contact zone…when looking to find a low wall target, you want to have a broad range of contact heights from ankle bone low to shoulder high, which allows you to go for the bottom board or to go for slightly higher passing shot target spots on the front wall;

(3) Many stances…to be versatile, so you have a massive ability to shoot from multiple stances because the speed of the game requires it, while consistently looking to find your own straight in striking stance that hides your angle choice when it’s other than a DTL–>additionally the ability to hit from an open stance inside to out away from you and straight in is irreplaceable, although outside in for a cross-court angle from an open stance is that open stance’s meat and potatoes shot angle or the easiest way to turn on the ball;

(4) Flex swing size…it’s adaptive to have different sized racquet backswings that accommodate the time you make with your efficient movement to (and with) the ball so you may call upon the stroke version that fits the time you make;

(5) Pace control…to adjust to the situation, it’s useful to have touch and torch swing tempos, with enough oomph to make the finesse soft shot get there to your target spot or a hard shot pacy enough to shock um with your ball speed usually as a pass;

(6) Spin control…it’s important to adapt to incoming ball spin and to impart your own ball spin on demand to turn the ball spinning three basic ways, along with combo spin, too…

1) flow your swing in to out or for an inside out shot angling out away from you, like for sidewall shots;

2) flow out to in or outside in for cross-court shot angling;

3) swing over the top or Topspin so the ball tumbles over as it flows forward and it retains that overspin post contact with your wall target spot, adding an extra challenge for the cover player; and

4) plus have the ability to do a combo sideways and Topspin to corkscrew the ball into your sidewall target—>as that combo spin spirals the ball creating a funny bounce for the challenger to have to react to, as well as a very low rebound bounce coming out of the pinch corner or after splatting off the sidewall into the front wall and then veering off at a more parallel angle;

(7) Different swing speeds…it’s key to have the ability to prep with a racquet arm elbow thrust back for your forehand or a fist punch back for your backhand for your fastest, compact stroke preps or your QuickDraw strokes, as that shorter version for fast paced play compliments your routine full, looping windup when time is a luxury when you have a setup;

(8) Ball read skills…it’s invaluable to be able to read the ball’s bounce, as that reading is key to timing your swing. Until you read the bounce of the ball and you critically know (on which side of your body) and where your contact point will be, only then, right as you’re first setting your back foot, should you start your tempo-based backswing. Earlier prep than that and you are unable to produce your swing tempo to smoothly take your backswing and then smoothly flow, without delay, into your rhythmic, flowing downswing. Herky jerky pokey strokes produce erratic shot results.

Shooting Swing Timing

Time your prep so it’s not too early where you’re movement is impeded nor too late where you swing in emergency mode, like you’re trying to beat an imaginary shot clock. When you’ve read ball bounce and your contact point and you can just about reach out and pluck the ball out of midair, just as you’re setting your back foot, begin to wind back. Actually don’t wrap up your prep until you’re setting your front foot and connecting both legs. Then push off and swing forward to shoot. Another liability of getting ready too early is it’s hard to move or make final key positional adjustments when the racquet is the lifted up. Also, too early prep can lock you into one stroke when in reality the other stroke may be needed for a shot when you need to spin with the ball or when you must make a back wall save and you need to use the other side’s stroke.

Self Taught or Influenced by Others or Both?

—> Building all of those stroke and shotmaking factors into your wheelhouse, which is based often initially on emulating others, starts your own unique learning curve (or skill improvement curve) that should include…

(1) practice, via drop and hit which expands to feeding yourself balls;

(2) experimentation;

(3) self assessment;

(4) feetwork and stroke grooving;

(5) repetitions;

(6) testing best of 5 or, for example, or up to 10 in a row before you practice a new skill;

(7) many game-like pattern repetition drills; and then

(8) competition christen or rollout of your new skill, which includes new strokes and shots they power. 

—> Then post play reassess how well you did. When needed, get back on the practice court and make tiny corrections to sharpen plus fine tune your form for your different stances. That includes your prep timing or time you buy with your accurate ball reading, flexible ball tracking and efficiency actions ball approach, as well as setting your best case striking stance to shoot the ball, while timing your prep AFTER you have a definite shot plan and you visualize burying the kill-shot or placing the pass by them. Practice is when you develop strokes and it’s when you learn how to make sideways and vertical shot angles work consistently in response to bounce of the ball, the positions you take and those o the imaginary challenger or what is the “pattern of play”.

Shoot for Open Court or Best Kill-Shot

It’s been mentioned various and sundry ways and times in other Lessons and Techniques topics how playing keep away with your shots to tactically keep the ball away from the challenger is a great place to start with your attack plan both as you preplan your shotmaking planning before this match and then realtime in rallies when you make your shot choices. Then it’s key to see your shot as you’re setting up for it. Then let your drilled stroke execute that vision. Passes have a great power over controlling your challenger’s court positioning. Well hit deep passes push the challenger back so they have to hit the ball from deep in the backcourt or in the back 10′.

For all shots, both pace and angle control is big. That’s because avoiding hitting the passing shot (or kill-shot) either too close to challenger, up through the middle, or a pass off angle and overcooked so the ball comes off the back wall (or a low sidewall shot off the other sidewall) are totally unwanted results. So side to side and height control are both major and they should factor heavily in your mental shot imaging AND then your rally-time shooting, as you flow and angle your racquet thru face thru and select the part of the ball to strike at contact to shape every shot. That shot shaping is part muscle memory, part flexible feet and body movement and a big part artful ball control that depends heavily on your learned racquet skills that are found when drilling and even rewound when warming up.

Improv Shooting

Even as you close in on the ball to shoot your initially preselected shot, have your peripheral side view mirrors and mind alive so you can change up at the last second to find that perfect shot which will capitalize on the challenger’s movement and positioning. The basic thing is the snapshot you took could change because of player movement or an unusual ball bounce. As a pattern example, you’re closing in on a ball off to one side in center court, when initially let’s say the right corner may be your target. If you see one opposing doubles partner off to the left sidewall, but in your rear view mirror you don’t see the right side player flowing in with you. Instead of your righty backhand reverse pinch into the cross front right corner, change up.

Angle your racquet face and flick an inside out pinch into the left front corner by how you control your racquet face and open it up to face the left wall, as you swing in to out, while contacting the inside of the ball or the part closest to you. That’s one example of improv shooting. Another is going for a bigger angle completely around the challenger instead of a V pass right through them. The main point is to be ready to change based on the pattern and what

you see as you make your final approach on the ball and as you’re adjusting with your stance and racquet prep. When you can change, it makes you very hard to read and difficult to defend your shooting flexibility.

Help Ball Along on its Way

For example, when the ball is flowing toward a certain front corner, a pinch angle is an intuitive decision that becomes an easy and natural shot choice. Also, a ball flowing off the back wall out along one sidewall opens up multiple splat shot angles. There your inside out swing toward your selected spot up ahead of you on the sidewall depends on the height of your ball contact and the ball’s distance from the sidewall, as your sidewall target is measured by how your inside out swing is meant to glance the ball off the sidewall a little lower than where you make contact to cause your ball carry and find your imaged very low front wall target spot, with its particularly knarley, unpredictable rebound bounce. A splat carom angle off the front wall is characterized by an across the front court trajectory, making it tougher for the challenger to get um, while pinches angle out more toward the center of the court, when they’re left up just a little. Hence, with very low contact and a spiraling swing and corkscrewing ball spin result, good ball striking and targeting  keeps both the pinch and splat down.

Factor in Where You Make Contact

There’s a big schism between cross-court placements when you shoot from deep court or when you’re shooting from off to one side in the middle of the court. As you’re selecting your side to side shot angle from deep court and you note the opponent is hedging over to the far side of center court, reconsider a down the wall placement option. Then hit the inside of the ball with a little inside out “cut” to angle the ball into the near, rear corner. Optionally, as you’re making contact further up in the court, the wider angle around the middle of the court to the far sidewall should be considered when looking to place your cross-court pass. That’s a wide angle pass around the challenger. Now that’s for a ball that wants to want to go cross-court or you want it go with your strong across your body swing motion. As a ball is veering cross-court or as a ball closing in on the near sidewall where you run it down, the across you swing is easiest. When you’re up along sidewall, a down the wall kill-pass is always a viable option. Although plan to hit and move to avoid being in the way of a left up down the wall ball. The key is to pull the in on your strings to control the ball and place it on the front wall closer to you than halfway to the sidewall while finishing with an accentuated in to out swing.

Have Short Term Memory Loss

Now you know you’re gonna make mistakes. Even world class players miss. The thing is to not let a miss define you. First, don’t repeat the error. Don’t force a shot or don’t pick a shot you don’t own. Also mechanically correct errors. For example, if your feet were glued to the court so you didn’t set your topnotch stance for the situation, fix that. If your prep, was too tucked up or drawn in, wind back fuller and better by using your time well to prep as fully, as you can. If you took your eye off the ball at contact or you looked at your wall target before you made contact, stop that. Moving your feet is a great place to start. By moving them efficiently and softly as you make your final approach on the ball, you get to finish this stance to balance and power your best stroke for this one situation. For instance, even when time is less and an open stance would be best, commit to it. Step back or load back onto your back foot to wind back. Then make it a smooth, balanced turn on to your front leg and foot which trails the back foot away from the sidewall.

Note that your upper body can and should face the sidewall in your prep phase, even in an open stance. So, with that as an example if you under prepped or you didn’t work your legs, correct your form. The objective is to consistently find your rhythm with your feet. It’s step back, as you post on your front foot that you drag along. That posting includes the step up when you take a key, little step in place on the back foot that charges up your feet to set a live front foot to accept powerful back to front push that adds to the looping arm swing. That’s as opposed to form done with unoptimized mechanics for the specific situation which puts you at a disadvantage. Use technique you actually own and comfortably use with regularity for patterns just like this one and your shooting and making odds go way up. When the ball wants to go there, add to its natural momentum. When you need to change the angle the ball is heading, exaggerate the angle of your racquet flow and pull the ball in on your strings.

Move Your Feet as You Prep

Like you wind your racquet back, wind up and spring load your legs as you prep, too. A very common circumstance repeats itself numerous times in match play. The ball is hit by your challenger back into a back corner and, as you close in on the corner quickly, you may loop your racquet back automatically, but are you really ready to hit the ball or are you just in auto-prep? The ball is generally going to bounce one of two ways…(a) the ball will bounce, catch the sidewall and then deflect off the back wall into you; or (b) the ball will bounce, catch the corner and shoot out along the sidewall. You’re really not sure which one and doing the auto-prep restricts your ability to adjust. When you’re uncertain, first, always take a short jab step to the corner with your back foot. Hold back with your crossover step and don’t just automatically turn and face the sidewall too early with both feet or you can’t back off a ball jamming you off the sidewall or you won’t be able to scoot out along the sidewall for a ball that catches the corner and zips out right along the wall. Look at this corner situation as an opportunity. You want to shoot the ball. It’s literally a back wall setup.

Getting to the corner with feet ready to move and knees bent ensures you can adjust to the ball so you can go on the offensive. Both freezing your feet and straightening your legs early eliminates your ability to adjust. Go in with light feet and very alert ball read and your chances go way up to reach your goal of offensively shooting the ball. For a ball deflecting off the sidewall and then jamming you off the back wall, shift your balance onto your trail, non-jabbing foot and drop back with what is the back foot of your final striking stance. That move buys you space to shoot. As the ball drops, set the front foot, shift back and work your feet in your stance. For a ball catching the corner crack, after the jab step, crossover quickly with the trail foot and be prepared to even take a second or third step starting with a cross step into a short sprint with the jab foot to scoot out along the sidewall for a big flyer off the back wall. For either the jammer or the flyer, when you move with the ball and read where you’ll best make contact, right then prep to shoot the ball into your best shot choice to ideally capitalize on this back wall ball shooting pattern. Commit to your low sidewall or front wall target. Practicing this situation makes it timed on auto-drive in match play.

Pick Shots You Can Make

Now here’s a concept that may perhaps appear to be theoretical, but its actually empirically evident “it” happens in match play with all the skips and back wall setups players hit on neutral or un-pressured patterns or those patterns when they could hit and make their shot even when they’re on-the-move. When time is theirs to shoot, with solid feetwork and apropos striking form, the object is to hit winners or error forcing shots by the challenger. There are many times when what it looks like is simply a choice wasn’t made. What I mean by that is make sure you pick a shot you can make. Pick something out of your bag of tricks, your toolbox, your repertoire, your shtick from your owned, routine dance steps, as you select THIS shot which ideally should be your most familiar one for NOW! If you find yourself leaning back going for kill-shots, relax and instead hit the best pass you can. Hence the more experience you have in this and any pattern of play in competition and in simulations in practice where you remodel this situation when you’re molding your form to make it malleable, repeatable and easy, then the more often you’ll pick your right shot and you’ll tend to do it right, too.

So if you make a mistake on a shot as you play or drill, quickly assess, “Was that shot mine?”. First, decide if the ball was in your wheelhouse contact height-wise. And did you reproduce your best form in the time you were given or more accurately in the time you made with your efficient moves when setting and then putting your body into it. That means did you move with and to the ball efficiently and did you commit to your swing and use a full body swing. Also tactically was it a shot that takes advantage of your challenger’s positioning vs. stubbornly choosing a shot you’d have to rollout when another shot could strand the over-committed challenger with any easier to find angle for you?

Develop Shots from Spots

From 3 key spots up and down along each sidewall and also at say 3 spots down through the middle (where players actually drill less) get on court and receive the ball in multiple, realistic ways as it’s coming to you from out of all 4 corners of the court to one of your 9 spots. There find your form for shots when directing the ball from there to place the ball in all 4 corners of the court. Of course, make sure that you can direct this ball into that target spot you choose. As mentioned many times, it’s intelligent to hit the ball where it wants to go. And it’s invaluable practice time spent placing the ball anywhere in the court from one of those 9 spots to have the versatility to place the ball away from the competition and importantly where you and the ball can work together as the ball comes to you from different corners. As you practice, pay particular attention to both moving with the ball so you flow forward and look to set your difficult to read, attacking stance to disguise your shot and still make your shot easy to make after you’ve worked on your ball read, ball approach, flowing striking stance setting and executing shot shaping that you know works for this pattern you’ve trained. 

Ball Control in Cross-Court Pattern

Here’s a working example of a pattern of play and your three, basic pattern responses to cross-court balls. If you’re hitting the ball that’s coming to you as a cross-court pass or likewise when you’re fielding a sidewall shot that hit the far sidewall and you’re catching up to the ball as you’re closing in on the near sidewall, the main point is you must control both the incoming ball’s angle AND its ball spin, as well. There you must make sure to alter the angle and either kill and remove the spin or use that incoming spin to make your shot. Here are three possible options and how:

(1) Hit the outside of the angling ball or the part of the ball furthest from you with the center of your sweet spot and swing across your body sending the ball strongly cross-court, as that’s often the easiest reply angle to find responding to the crossing ball angle, even when going for a very low kill-pass target; or…

(2) Contact the ball just a little under halfway away from you on the back of the ball with your racquet’s center and flow your racquet toward your straight in target spot that’s under halfway between where you contact the ball and the sidewall and you create an angle change to strike the ball down along the near wall veering it as it comes off the front wall directly toward the rear corner. To hit cross-court you may consider it as drawing the ball in on your strings vs. striking the ball on the outside or the part furthest from you, as you must control and change the incoming ball angle to go cross-court or you’ll miss your angle just like pushing the ball away from you on the strings and hitting straight in cross to direct angle change; and

(3) To accomplish perhaps the most natural angle to produce when covering a cross-court angle, perform an inside out swing and contact the part of the ball closest to you to veer the ball out into the sidewall up ahead of you with the sidewall target spot nearer to you, as a mid court splat shot. Granted going right for the corner as a tight pinch would be a tough angle to produce, but completely discouraging sidewall shooting (as in don’t re-pinch a pinch) leads you away from this very makable sidewall target out ahead of you just a little lower than the ball contact. This “trickle splat” angle capitalizes on the ball’s incoming spin by just countering it and deflecting the ball off into the sidewall near you with an embellished in to out swing toward your sidewall target.

—> Those are examples of how to handle that very familiar situation when fielding a ball angling across the court and how developing your form to produce those angle changes, with racquet head control, spin management and your shot shaping racquet flow, turns into shotmaking that you’ll be very familiar with when making the shot based on your valuable experience you have both in practice and in lots of rally play. Now don’t stop there. With lots of practice open up your shot range to consider, for instance, a reverse pinch into the cross front corner to place the ball primarily into a sidewall target first. The reverse has lots of cross-court angle so lots of outside in spin when contacting the outside of the ball or the part farthest from you. Get on the practice court and find that angle. It’s a killer angle.

Choose BSA

Eventually and ideally it becomes second nature to pick the right shot, which is your best shot available (BSA) for the pattern at play. In actuality you need to hit a shot you feel highly confident is a shot you can make that best capitalizes on the ball’s bounce, your reactive play on the ball, the challenger’s coverage zone, and even the score or scoring situation in a match. For example, take a few more chances when you serve or you have a big lead. And you may shrink your shot options, like NBA coaches shrink or shorten their bench for the playoffs, when you return serve and as you go to shot options or skills that brung ya. Of course, here we go again back to reps.

The more drilling and playing and success you have playing, and the better you think on the move, the more chances you can take and the more effective options you have at your disposal. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy of increasing your trusted set of shots you can count upon, and then, like voodoo, you just know what trick to do or what play to run or what move to make that’ll a direct impression on the point. Then you prep to craft and flow into your striking stance to shoot, with balance and easy form, with both precision and trust in equal aplomb, which makes your attacking game something your challenger must avoid and something to behold.

Train Patterns

Train every pattern you can develop that simulates what you observe and experience in match play, theirs and yours. Also watching top flight racquetball increases your practice areas. Of course playing challenging competition reveals situations worth drilling. Here are a bunch of situations. Owning them will help you have more shots you can reach for in competition. In shooting patterns you must respond to…

(a) an attackable ball where you step up (forward in the court) to your right or left, from your spot in center court, to simply lay the wood to the ball. There, although it’s an easy shot, be complete, focussed and smooth vs. complacent and underwhelmed;

(b) a ball veering cross-court where you can step over to cutoff the V angle by moving diagonally forward or sometimes, though less often, by moving directly sideways toward the sidewall where perception of the ball, the onrushing wall and an over closed or wide open stance makes it much tougher or challenging–>Note that when facing the opposite front corner and tending toward covering the line back behind you where the challenger and the ball are in that back corner, a frontmost foot drop step behind you and then crossover step with your trail foot gets you there set to cut off even sharply struck cross-court passing shots;

(c) a ball down the wall where you can step out and ideally move diagonally forward when you offensively play the ball, by taking the ball out front with a back foot jab step out to the sidewall and then a crossover front foot step up as your prep, gears you to attack the ball out in front of your body;

(d) a gettable ball going by you DTL or cross-court where you can and do drop diagonally back to better time and adjust to the ball’s pace, allows to better play the ball. When the ball and you are going backwards, your angle drop allows you to much better see the ball, prepare better with the more time you have for your backswing, and have a far better view of what’s going on in front of you to more aggressively, tactically, and intelligently play the down the wall ball, even though you’re on the run;

(e) a ball shot into the far sidewall, as a pinch or splat, you can catch up to after the ball bounces once and before you and the ball reach the near sidewall;

(f) after a far sidewall ball bounces and carries to pop off that other, near sidewall, back off the ball to give yourself space and time to tactically shoot, while you pick the best shot you read you can make;

(g) a ball directly up through the center of the court at you where you can get yourself out of the way with a step back with your rear foot with your selected stance to hit the ball ideally where the challenger will be most strained in their coverage, and for a ball at you, it’s always a solid tactic, as you are there in coverage, think to yourself, “What will I do if the ball comes right at me?”;

(h) fielding a ball where you move with the ball as it bounces into a back corner to…

(1) deflect off the sidewall and then carom off the back wall; or

(2) the ball pops off the back wall and then angles to deflect off the sidewall to…in either case, drop as a setup when you move and play the ball effectively and aggressively;

(i) a ball that bounces and rebounds off the back wall as a setup when the ball is either going…

(1) straight in to the back wall; or

(2) the ball is going into the back wall angling cross-court, but, as the ball caroms out it angles off, but comes up just short of contacting the far sidewall making these balls very attackable in a pattern that brings in sidewall splat targets as a doable option, along with down the wall shots–>note that these back wall setups can be as a result of an overhit one of these…a passing shot; ceiling ball; drive serve; lob serve; or off speed lob serve;

(j) a ceiling ball (or lob serve) that you drop back quickly and track the ball down in deep court where it falls short of the back wall when you retreat quickly and patiently allow the ball to drop down low, giving you multiple shooting options;

(k) a high Z ball you track down that goes back taking a tough bounce deep in the back court sometimes paralleling the back wall just short of the back wall where you respond often with a flick, though explosive back wall save. Other times the high Z may either come out not as deep off the last sidewall or the ball may bounce and pop off the back wall as an attackable ball deep in the backcourt, when you’ve moved back quickly, while moving with the ball, then look to be very aggressive; and

(l) a ball that’s a wrap around shot or serve that hits the front wall, angles on the fly to strike one sidewall, pop off, bounce, strike the middle of the back wall and then caroms out toward the other sidewall turning into a setup or at least an attackable ball, when you move in circular pattern with the ball to intercept it as it angles out toward the second sidewall. You can drill this wrap around shot by yourself. Hit from deep in your mid court on one side looking to hit the ball with your off stroke so it angles off the front wall to catch the far sidewall high enough so the ball will carom off the back wall, as you drop back and to turn the ball and take it aggressively as it pops off the back wall, which is always a tendency you want to have to be THE shooter with practiced options you own and you use imagery for a shot you see happening successfully and then you shape it confidently.