# Footwork

Every racquetball stroke starts with footwork. If your shots are weak or you can't seem to control where they go, it might be because your footwork is wrong.  If your shoulder hurts, it could be the result of poor footwork.

The racquetball stroke is mechanically the same as the baseball swing. Baseball players always square up to home plate and most hit with a closed stance, that is, with their front foot slightly closer to home plate than the back foot. Racquetball players should likewise square up to the side wall and hit with a closed stance. See the stroke tutorial for more detail on stroke mechanics.

#### Try to hit with a closed stance

If your back foot is closer to the side wall than your front foot, you are said to be "hitting with an open stance." The open stance could be just a few inches from closed ("slightly open") or all the way open so that your feet are parallel to the front wall. In this case you are said to be "wrong footed." For power and consistency, you should try to hit with a closed stance whenever possible. This means that, as you move around the court, you should try to end up in a closed stance when you hit the ball.  Also, when you hit wrong-footed you are using only the muscles of the arm, not the big muscles of the body. If you hit the ball hard when wrong-footed you put serious pressure on your shoulder. If you are playing with shoulder pain, it could be because you are hitting with an open stance too often.

#### Moving on the court

So, how do you move on the court so that you hit with a closed stance? There are essentially three methods of moving on the racquetball court, walking, running, and shuffling. Combining these movements is the key to winding up with a closed stance when it comes time to hit the ball. Everyone knows how to walk and run, but the shuffle or "step-together-step" might require some explanation.

Suppose you are in center court and your opponent hits a ceiling ball. You have plenty of time, so there is no need to hurry. Turn to face the side wall, take a step back with the back foot (step), then bring the front foot back to meet the rear foot (together), then step back again with the back foor (step), repeat as necessary. Don't cross your feet. This shuffle keeps you squared up to the side wall and virtually guarantees that you will be in position to hit with a closed stance when the time comes. You can shuffle backwards, forwards, and side to side. It is a great way to move on the court, while staying under control. (Click here for short video.)

## Pivot step plus cross-over step: the foundation of good footwork

#### Returning a drive serve

Let's start with the footwork necessary to return a good drive serve. As noted in the section on serve return, the basic footwork is a pivot step followed by a cross-over step. When returning serve, you start in the middle of the court, but your opponent's goal is to get the drive serve to die in one of the back corners. In order to cover the distance between the center of the court and the corner, you first take a pivot step toward the side wall. That is, you turn your foot so that the toes are pointing toward the side wall and take a small step (six inches or so).  Then take a large cross-over step with your opposite foot. This motion plus a lunge should allow you to reach virtually any drive serve to the back corner. You could simply turn on your heel and then take the cross-over step, but taking the little step doesn't cost any time and adds six inches of reach (which could be the difference between getting the ball and being aced). Turning your foot toward the side wall allows your hips to open. If your toes were still pointed toward the front wall, you couldn't take the cross-over step. (Click here for short video.)

#### Defending center court

Now let's assume that you are on defense in good center court position, with eye on ball. Suppose the ball is hit cross-court or down the line to your left (backhand). If the ball is well hit, you will probably not be able to cut it off by moving directly toward the side wall. Instead, take a diagonal path to the ball. Take the same pivot step as in the return of serve, but a little more diagonally toward the left back corner with your left foot. The cross-over step (plus a lunge if necessary) should put you in good position to hit a backhand with a closed stance. (Click here for short video.)

If the pivot step plus cross-over doesn't get you to the ball, you will need to take another step. If you don't have far to go, take a stutter step (a shuffle step) so that you keep your front foot closer to the side wall. (Click here for short video.)

If the ball is well hit all the way to the back corner on the right side, take a diagonal path on that side. Take a pivot step with your right foot diagonally toward the right rear corner, then a cross-over step to close your stance in preparation for a good forehand. If you need to go deeper, keep running, ending with a shuffle step if necessary (assuming you have time) to close your stance.

For some more examples of the cross-over step, click here.
For some more examples of the stutter step, click here.

## Sacrificing footwork for center court position

There is a contradiction between two of the standard recommendations by racquetball instructors, namely (1) use the correct footwork to hit with a closed stance and (2) dominate center court. If you are going to dominate center court, you are going to have to compromise your footwork. If you are going to always use the correct footwork, you are sometimes going to have to give up center court.

#### An example

Suppose you are in center court and the ball is hit hard right at you with enough speed so that it will come off the back wall. You have two choices. You could let it go and take it off the back wall or you could volley it. If you take it off the back wall, you will be able to use good footwork but you are abandoning center court. Because your opponent is now in center court, you now have to hit a very good offensive shot from deep court in order to have a reasonable chance of ending the rally.

On the other hand, you could volley the ball and hit a nice pass away from where the ball came from, forcing your opponent to scramble to get to the ball on the other side of the court. You have a much better chance of ending the rally with the volley then waiting for the setup off the back wall.  If the ball is low, it might not come off the back wall. So, by attacking now you could hit a pinch and end the rally. Mixing ceiling balls, vollies and half-vollies (hitting on the short-hop or mid-hop) will keep you in center court and keep your opponent off balance behind you. To do this, you will not always have time to set your feet, so you will frequently be hitting wrong footed. (Click here for short video.)

#### Another example

There are other occasions when you will have to hit off the wrong foot. For example, when you are jammed by the ball coming directly to you on the fly, bouncing close to your feet, or cracking out from the back or side wall.  That's just the nature of the game. Make a reasonable effort to set your feet, but hit with an open stance when you need to.

#### What the pros do

I charted the videotape of the final match of the 2002 Greensboro Pro-Stop between Cliff Swain and Jason Mannino (numbers one and two in the world at the time), from ProRacquetball.net.  On average, 65 percent of all hits were taken with a closed stance, 20 percent were taken with an open stance, and 15 percent were other (dive, easy ceiling ball, hit into back wall, hit behind the back or between the legs, etc.) If we ignore the return of serve, which is almost always hit with a closed stance, and we ignore the "other" category, then about three-fourths of the hits were from a closed stance and one-fourth from an open stance. That is, in a rally these top pros hit one of every four hits from an open stance. We all do it.

#### Easy does it

You should probably not try to hit the ball very hard when you are wrong footed. Take care of your shoulder. You can still get off a good shot if you just rotate your upper body and snap your wrist.

For some more examples of pros sacrificing form to maintain center court position, click here.

## Some common mistakes

#### The step-out step

Many players use a "step-out" step rather than a pivot plus cross-over. For example, to get a ball hit to their right, many players take one big step with their right foot and swing. Such players are not using the big muscles of the body and they are not taking their normal swing, so the resulting shot will be weaker and less accurate than it would be with a simple cross-over step.

On the other hand, the step-out step takes a little less time than the pivot plus cross-over step. If you are protecting your good center court position, you might not have time to pivot and cross-over. (Click here for short video. For some more examples, click here.)

So, you might have to use the step-out step occasionally to preserve good center court position. However, don't get into the habit of hitting with the step-out step. You are hitting with a completely open stance and, because your arm does all the work when hitting wrong-footed, you are risking injury. If your shoulder hurts after playing, you might be using the step-out step too often. Do the footwork drills below to train your muscles and develop better habits..

#### Taking the ball off the back wall

Another common mistake involves balls that come off the back wall. Let's assume your opponent hit a ceiling ball that hits too high on the back wall and is going to come out for a setup. Face the correct side wall depending on whether you want to hit with your forehand or backhand. Run or shuffle (step-together-step), if you have time, back to the back wall, or close to it if the ball is going to fly way off it. Keep eye on ball. Feel for the back wall with your left hand if your are on the backhand side or with your racquet if you are on the forehand side. Shuffle out with the ball after it hits. Keep shuffling along side of the ball, letting it drop into your hitting zone. When the ball is at or below your knee, take the last step with your front foot and swing. Your motion should be like a wave flowing into and then away from the back wall. (Click here for short video.)

#### Avoid "camping out"

Don't try to predict where the ball will go and simply wait for the ball to come to you. This is called "camping out" and can lead to nasty surprises when the ball doesn't do exactly what you thought it was going to do.  Force yourself to go all the way back to the back wall and touch it with your hand or racquet every time the ball is going to come off the back wall. The only exception would be when the ball is going to rebound all the way to mid-court ( a terrible shot).  Eventually you will develop the habit of going all the way back and be going forward when you hit the ball, like the pros in the previous video.

A very common mistake is to hesitate after you shoot, before moving toward center court. Don't "admire your shot." See the section on court positioning.

#### Don't dawdle in the service box

If you are drive serving, you will wind up with your front foot on the foot fault line, 15 feet from the front wall. This is way too far forward. You are extremely vulnerable to an easy passing shot. You have to try to get back to good center court position.  Given the speed of the ball, you will probably not be able to get all the way back to the ideal spot two feet behind the dotted line. However, you should be able to get close to the dotted line. To do this, you must push off your front foot. Different players do different things. Some shuffle, some run backwards. Do what you want, but try to get back to the dotted line, keeping eye on ball. (Click here for a short video.)

#### Running around your backhand

Because your backhand is almost certainly weaker than your forehand, you might be tempted to "run around" your backhand to take a shot on the backhand side of the court with your forehand. This is a bad habit. Two things happen. (1) It puts you out of position, usually up against the side wall, so it is harder to get back to center court. (2) Your opponents will recognize your weakness and hit you a constant stream of shots to the backhand side, closer and closer to the side wall, knowing that you are uncomfortable there. Work on your backhand so that you are comfortable hitting it.

However, sometimes you really need to make a shot and you have to be confident in your swing. In that case, there is nothing wrong with taking a forehand shot on the backhand side of the court. You might have to work a little harder to get to center court, but that is the only downside. Just don't make a habit of it. I have watched hours of video tape. I have only found two examples of pros running around their backhand. To see the video, click here.

## Drills

#### Modified star drill

The best drill for footwork is the star drill. I recommend a modified version that requires some visualization. Start in good center court position two feet behind the dotted line. No ball. Imagine returning a ceiling ball in the center of the court. Shuffle directly back to the back wall (keeping your eye on the imaginary ball), touch the wall, shuffle out with the imaginary ball and then execute a phantom stroke. Be sure to have a closed stance when you swing. Go back to center court. Now imagine a ceiling ball to the backhand corner. Shuffle to the backhand wall close to thecorner, touch the wall, shuffle out, execute a backhand stroke (with a closed stance). Go back to center court. Repeat on the forehand side.

Now imagine cutting off a DTL on the backhand side. Take a pivot plus cross-over step diagonally toward the back corner. Execute a backhand. Visualize hitting a nice pinch. Go back to center court. Repeat on the forehand side. Back to center court. Now move forward diagonally to the left to the short line, execute a backhand. Use a stutter step if necessary to close your stance. Back to center court. Repeat on the forehand side. Now imagine running directly toward the front wall with the ball dying in the front court. Hold your racquet out in front, low, with the strings facing up at a 35 degree angle. Imagine hitting a dink shot to the front wall. Backpedal to center court. Imagine the ball coming off the back wall and flying toward the front left corner. Run up to the left corner and hit a phantom backhand low into the front wall or corner. Backpedal to center court. Repeat on the forehand side. Take care that you execute all shots with a closed stance and that you immediately hustle back to center court.

Once you have hit all the points of the star, take a breather by returning imaginary shots hit close you you in center court. Take a pivot plus cross-over to the right, swing. Return to ready position. Take a pivot plus cross-over to the left, swing. Repeat until you catch your breath.

Now pretend that you have to return a well hit CC or DTL that carries all the way to the backhand corner. Take a pivot step then run back to the left rear corner. Be sure to adjust your feet at the end if necessary so that your stance is closed. Execute a backhand. (Visualize  hitting a nice backhand DTL, for example.) Run back to center court. Repeat to the right back corner. This is practice for the pivot step plus cross-over and diagonal path to the ball. You can create variations, by running though the center court position on your way to cover a shot on the opposite side wall. Always return immediately to center court after executing a phantom stroke.

This drill is quite tiring. I recommend that you do the star drill frequently during your practice session, but as a break between other drills. Although this could be a conditioning drill, it's main purpose is to train your feet, not your lungs. Don't make it so hard that you don't want to do it at all.

#### Toss and hit drill

Another drill to reinforce the habit of hitting with a closed stance is to toss and hit rather than drop and hit. Start at the dotted line in the center of the court, facing the front wall. Bounce the ball diagonally toward the left side wall so that you contact it about at the short line, close to the side wall, after taking a pivot plus cross-over step. Hit five good DTL shots this way. Repeat for pinches and CC shots. Now move back to good center court position facing the front wall and bounce the ball diagonally toward the left side wall so that you contact it close to the side wall about at the dotted line after taking a pivot plus cross-over step. Hit five DTL, pinch, and CC shots. Repeat from the return of serve position (skip the pinches, low percentage shots from deep court). Repeat the whole exercise on the forehand side. Finally, bounce the ball into the back wall, as it rebounds, shuffle alongside until the ball drops into your hitting zone, and hit a DTL or CC. Repeat the whole exercise on the right side.

## Bottom line

So, how important is good footwork? Very important, but not so important that you sacrifice center court position. Try to get to a closed stance but don't give up center court just to set your feet. Practice the star drill and the toss and hit to make good footwork a habit. However, recognize that there will be a lot of situations when you will have to hit off the wrong foot; as much as 25-35 percent of the time if the pros are any guide. Try to protect your shoulder in such situations by using upper body rotation and wrist snap to hit the ball.  Don't try to crush the ball when you are wrong footed.

## Some final thoughts

#### Keep your feet moving, even if only a little.

Movement is easier and quicker if you are already in motion. Have happy feet. Some professional players on defense just stand around watching their opponents, completely relaxed, in center court. However, as their opponent hits the ball, these players hop into a crouch with their feet wider than shoulder width.  The hop (also known in tennis as a "split step") is a dynamic movement that makes the next movement easier, especially if your next movement is sideways. (Click here for a short video.)

Also, it is a good habit to shuffle into the ball if you have time. This gets your body moving forward and adds power to your swing. (Click here for short video.)

#### Video

Here is a video (3.4 MB) taken at the Finals of the 2002 Greensboro Open between Jason Mannino and Cliff Swain. In the first clip, note Jason's stutter step which allows him to close his stance. In the second clip, note his (small) pivot step plus cross-over step and diagonal path to the ball. In the final clip, both Cliff and Jason shuffle to the back court to return a ceiling ball. Cliff returns a ceiling ball, but Jason returns an offensive shot. To do that, Jason goes all the way to the wall and then takes a couple of shuffle steps toward the front wall. He does not "camp out."  Also, Jason routinely takes a dynamic hop or split step as his opponent shoots. Finally, check out Jason's very effective junk lob serve.

#### Stay in a crouch?

Many books tell you to stay in a crouch as you move on the court. I don't think this is a good idea. It is harder to run and harder to breathe in a crouch. Stay upright, but in the athletic position with your knees bent, as you run or shuffle. Crouch (or hop into a crouch) when your opponent begins his swing. I have found one example of a pro staying in the crouch while moving. Click here.

#### Another video

Check out the court positioning video . Note the combination of shuffling and running. Also, note that no one stays crouched the whole time. Also, check out the videostreams from ProRacquetball.net. Watch the rallies and see how many players use a cross-over step from center court, see when they run and when they shuffle, how many shots are hit from a closed stance, how many from an open stance, etc.

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