### Racquetball Stroke Mechanics

Carl Moody
Coach, William and Mary Racquetball Team

For years racquetball instructors have been telling students that they should hit a racquetball using the same stroke as a baseball player. However, there still seems to be a lot of tennis in many players' swings. I decided to apply the baseball analogy as completely as possible in teaching racquetball and eliminating all references to tennis or any other sport. To start, I visited Jim Farr, the baseball coach at the College of William and Mary. He gave me a short course on how to hit a baseball. I then went to the library and found a number of books on batting and I did a lot of research on the internet. This is what I have been able to translate from baseball to racquetball.

#### Forehand

For simplicity, I will assume that you are right handed. Now, pretend that you are a batter. Grab the racquet in both hands, like a baseball bat. Pretend that the pitcher is the front wall and you are standing at home plate. Note that the first thing most people do is turn sideways to the front wall. This is important. You must be facing the side wall to hit a racquetball properly. Assume the ready position as if you are waiting for the pitch. The racquet (bat) is vertical and your forearms form an upside down V. Your feet are about as wide as your shoulders and your knees should be slightly bent, so you can't see your ankles.

Now that you are facing the side wall, take a few practice swings with your pretend baseball bat. Look at your hands. They should be in a palm up/palm down position. The racquet should be gripped loosely in your fingers rather than up in your palm.

Take one, super slow, practice swing. Note that as you begin your swing, your elbow leads and the butt of the racquet faces the front wall.

Now, complete your swing, snapping your wrist, which straightens the racquet and makes it parallel to the front wall, and following through. Note that your swing is level throughout, including the follow through.

You now know how to hit a racquetball like a baseball. However, I don't recommend the two-handed forehand. So, take one more super slow practice swing and stop when your forearm is horizontal and the butt of the racquet is facing the front wall. Remove your left hand from the racquet and slide your right hand down until the handle of the racquet just disappears into your hand. (Don't go so far so that your pinky is off the racquet.) You should be able to see the fingernails on your right hand (through your glove if you are wearing one). Extend your index (trigger) finger slightly. Also, extend your thumb so that it is contacting the side of the racquet handle just above your middle finger. Don’t put the thumb on the back of the racquet.

Now snap your wrist so that the racquet is pointing at the side wall. Rotate the racquet until it is perpendicular to the floor (parallel to the front wall). This is how the racquet meets the ball. The racquet should not be tilted back or forward. This is the forehand grip. Remember to hold the racquet down in your fingers, not up in the palm, and keep your grip loose and relaxed.

Your stance should be slightly closed with your left foot in front of and a few inches closer to the side wall than the back foot. The feet should be slightly wider than shoulder width. Bend your front knee in toward your back leg. This shifts your weight back. At least 60 percent of your weight should be on the back leg. The front leg is bent in and the back leg is also bent slightly so that the knees are pinched in toward each other.

Your hands and arms should be relaxed. The looser you grip the racquet, the more power you can transmit through it. Don’t worry about losing your grip. Your grip will tighten automatically as you contact the ball.

Your belt buckle and knees face the side wall until it is time to swing at the ball. Your back knee moves forward toward your front knee as you push off your back foot. Your back foot pivots on the ball of the foot with the heel of the foot off the ground When this happens, you will notice that your hips have started to rotate, your elbow and shoulder are lower, and the butt of the racquet is facing the front wall, even though you haven't moved your right arm.

Continue the rotation of your hips, then your torso, and finally your shoulders. Use the muscles of your torso to pull your trailing shoulder down and around. The right elbow leads the racquet. The right  forearm and upper arm and racquet form a "U." Keep your elbow close to your body (in the slot). This is the compact stroke.

As your shoulders start to rotate, begin flexing the wrist, moving the top of the racquet toward the ball. Make contact with the ball off the front foot. The elbow, wrist, hand, racquet, and ball should be in a straight line when the ball is hit. Once the ball is contacted, allow your momentum to continue and follow through. When your swing is complete your knees and belt buckle are all facing the front wall. Your left arm should be behind you. Your racquet is well back on your left side, at or below your shoulder.  The shin of your back leg should be approximately parallel to the floor.

As you push off the back foot, the hips, knees, and shoulders turn toward the front wall, and the back leg pivots on the ball of the back foot. Baseball instructors say that you "squish the bug" with the back foot. The heel of the back foot is lifted off the floor.

If you are dragging your back foot after making contact with the ball, you have shifted too much weight to the front foot. Drop your butt slightly, so that you put more weight on your back leg. You should be leaning back slightly after you have completed your swing. Keep your weight back.

Notice that when the wrist flexes the motion is similar to hitting a nail sideways into a wall with a hammer. Many players flex their wrist with the palm of the hand facing the front wall in a slapping motion. This is less powerful than leading with the bottom of your fist. Also, make sure that the when the racquet strikes the ball that the racquet face is perpendicular to the floor, so that you are not hitting over the top or slicing under the ball.

Your muscles pull the racquet through the ball. Don’t try to push the racquet through the ball.

Throwing a ball sidearm

Another good analogy for the forehand stroke is throwing a ball sidearm. All the mechanics are the same, except for the wrist snap. The ball doesn't have a handle so the bottom of the fist never faces the side wall. A better analogy would be throwing a racquet (or anything with a handle) toward the front wall.

Drill

The basic racquetball drill for stroke mechanics is the drop and hit. Go to the short line on the forehand side. Stand about six feet away facing the near side wall. Drop the ball out and away from your body so that it bounces about at the midpoint of your front foot. Don’t jam yourself. Don’t throw the ball against the wall. Just drop it so it rebounds even with the front foot and hit it. Be in the ready position with your racquet up as you drop the ball. If you have trouble with the timing of the drop, just let the ball bounce more than once. Using the correct mechanics outlined above, hit the ball straight toward the front wall. If done correctly you should execute a down the line shot. Hit five good down the line shots. A good shot travels the length of the court without contacting the side wall and bounces twice before hitting the rear wall.

Now drop the ball a few inches forward, more toward the toes of the front foot. Hit five good cross court passes which go to the backhand corner, bouncing twice before hitting the rear wall.

Finally, drop the ball a little further back, toward the heel of your front foot. Hit five good pinches. A good pinch shot contacts the near side wall within five feet of the front wall, then the front wall, and bounces twice before hitting the other side wall. The secret to hitting a good pinch is to wait until the ball drops below knee level.

Go to the dotted line and repeat. Go to the halfway point between the rear wall and the dotted line and repeat. Finally, go to deep court, just in front of the back wall and repeat once more, except that you shouldn't practice pinch shots from deep court because you shouldn't hit pinch shots from deep court (very low percentage).

A somewhat more advanced version of this basic drill is bounce the ball rather than dropping it and then try to hit the ball  as it is falling. This allows you to practice waiting on the ball. It trains you to hit the ball low by dropping your butt and bending your back knee.

The more you practice the better you get. Practice more, play less, play better.

Power

Power comes primarily from bat speed. To maximize your power you must take a complete stroke and do everything right. The best way to increase power is to practice the complete, compact swing. Don't try to hit the ball hard. Concentrate on your stroke mechanics and let the power come naturally.

Control

Visualize the shot before you shoot. Use the good stroke mechanics to generate a flat swing. Make sure that your arm and racquet are horizontal with the racquet face parallel to the target when you hit the ball. Keep your head steady. Focus on the ball. The longer you keep your eye on the ball, the more control you will have over your shots. Dropping your back knee, which drops your butt, allows you to contact the ball lower so that it strikes lower on the front wall. Hit the ball level (flat), don't hit down on the ball in an attempt to keep the ball low as this increases the risk of a skip. The first rule of good racquetball is Keep Eye On Ball. The second is Don't Skip.

Video

To see a very short video of Cliff Swain's forehand, click here. Remember, this video was made during a match. It is not a demonstration. Even so, Cliff shows virtually perfect form.

Backhand

Now you are batting lefty. Again, grab the racquet in two hands as if it was a baseball bat. Pretend the pitcher is the front wall and you are at home plate. You should automatically turn sideways and face the backhand side wall.

Take a few practice swings as if you are getting ready for the pitch. Take one super slow swing and note that when you start your swing, the butt of the racquet faces the front wall. Freeze your super slow stroke with the racquet butt facing the font wall. Look at your hands. They should again be in a palm up, palm down position.

Now take your left hand off the racquet. Extend your trigger finger and also extend your thumb, just as in the forehand grip. Note that if you look at your right hand, all you can see is the back. You should be able to read the name brand of your glove. Extend your arm and uncock your wrist so that the racquet is pointing at the side wall. Rotate the racquet so that it is perpendicular to the floor, not tilted up or down. This is how the racquet meets the ball. Be sure to hold the racquet down in your fingers, not up in the palm of your hand, and keep the grip loose and relaxed.

Another way to be sure you have the right grip is  to hold the racquet with your left hand so that it is perpendicular to the floor. Place it against your left side as if it is a sword in a sheath. This is exactly like the forehand example, except the racquet is vertical instead of horizontal. Reach across your body and grab the handle with your right hand. Draw your sword from its sheath. Extend the pointer finger and put the thumb on the middle finger. This is the same backhand grip as above.

You should practice changing the grip back and forth until it becomes second nature to hold the racquet like this and switch easily between the forehand and backhand grip.

The knees are pinched in and the weight is back so that at least 60 percent of your weight is on the back leg. Your stance should be slightly closed with the front foot a few inches closer to the side wall than the rear foot. Your shoulders should be level. You should feel your chin touching your front shoulder and some tension in your front shoulder.

Rotate your hips and shoulders back. (Cock your hips.) Take a small, four inch step toward the front wall. Point the toes of the front foot toward the left front corner. As you take your stride, the left arm must drop and be kept close to the body as if you are hugging yourself. The left arm is the lead arm when batting lefty, so keep the left elbow in the slot on the backhand. Begin the swing by pushing off the rear foot, forcing your back knee forward. Your rear foot twists on the ball of the foot as you "squish the bug." Forcing the back knee forward starts the hip rotation, which leads to rotation of the torso and eventually the shoulders. Even without moving your arm, you  will find that your left elbow and shoulder are lower, with the butt of the racquet facing the target, beginning the flat stroke in which your forearm and racquet are horizontal.

The right hand is the bottom hand when batting lefty, so in the backhand your right elbow is away from the body, leading the racquet. Your chest, upper arm, and your forearm and racquet form a U. As your shoulders begin to rotate, straighten your arm and flex your wrist, throwing the head of the racquet at the ball.

Just as in the forehand, you want to contact the ball off the front foot. Your racquet is horizontal with the face perpendicular to the floor as you contact the ball. Utilize your hip, torso, shoulder rotation, and wrist. The knees and belt buckle start facing the side wall and end up facing the front wall.

Keep your arm, wrist, and grip loose so that the maximum power is transmitted to the racquet head. Keep the swing flat and level.  The follow through should end up at or below shoulder height. Note that in the baseball swing, the front hand guides the bat while the top hand does most of the snapping. Since you are now batting lefty and one-handed, the only hand you have on the racquet is the front or guiding hand. Therefore, you cannot generate as strong a wrist snap on the backhand side. This is one reason that the backhand tends to be weaker than the forehand. Another reason is that you can't sweep you left hand out and away from the body to help your shoulders rotate like you do in the forehand. Keep your arm and hand nicely relaxed. The result should be a backhand that is only slightly less powerful than the forehand.

Throwing a frisbee

Another good analogy for the backhand stroke is throwing a frisbee. All the mechanics are the same, except for the wrist snap. The frisbee doesn't have a handle so the bottom of the fist never faces the side wall. A better analogy would be throwing a racquet (or anything with a handle) backhand toward the front wall.

Drill

Video

For a very short video of Jason Mannino's backhand, click here. Note the big follow through and Jason’s chin in relation to his shoulders.

So far the stroke mechanics have assumed you are like a baseball player waiting for a pitch. Your hands are up near your back shoulder. In a rally you will have to get ready to hit the ball using good stroke mechanics. How do you do that?

When your opponent has taken his shot, you should (in an ideal world) be in center court in the athletic position (knees bent, slightly crouched) with your eyes on the ball and the racquet held horizontally across your body at waist level with your hands together.

For more discussion on this point see the section on racquet preparation.

The complete stroke

Note that their hands are togther, and their chins (almost) touch both shoulders.

Comparing the backhand and forehand

You can compare the forehand and backhand by assuming the forehand ready position (with the correct forehand grip),  execute a forehand swing, then just change your feet so that you are now in the backhand ready position (you will have to lift your left hand up under your right hand).  Now, without changing your grip, execute a backhand swing. You will see that you will naturally hit the ball with the side of the racquet, which is parallel to the floor when the racquet meets the ball. Changing your grip so that the racquet is perpendicular to the floor gives you the correct hitting surface for the backhand. Now repeat the exercise starting from the correct backhand ready position. You will see that, unless you change your grip, you will again be hitting the ball with the side of the racquet. Repeating this exercise a few times should convince you that the forehand and backhand swings are very similar and almost exactly mirror images of each other. It should also show how natural the recommended forehand and backhand grips really are.

Hitting the ball inside out

The stroke mechanics outlined above assume that when you contact the ball, your hand, the racquet, and the ball will be lined up. That is, your forearm, hand, racquet handle, racquet face, and ball will all form a straight line as you look at the ball. Many baseball players, looking to delay contact with the ball as long as possible, so as to gain time to get a good look at the ball, will hit with an inside out swing. The only difference between this approach and the stroke mechanics outlined above is that the hand is in front of the ball when the ball is contacted. This leads to balls hit to right field for right-handed batters, rather than straight away or pulled to left. You lose some power, but it is an effective method of hitting for singles and is frequently used when the batter has two strikes.

You can visualize the inside out stroke as "throwing the hands at the ball," instead of throwing the top of the racquet at the ball. Another way to visualize it is to "pull the butt of the racquet" through the ball. To hit inside out, keep the wrist cocked so that you don't snap your wrist at all. In the standard stroke, you start throwing the head of the racquet as soon as your shoulders start rotating. You will not have as much power as in the standard stroke, but the loss of power will not be dramatic. The path of the ball will be different from that taken by the standard stroke, depending on the relative position of the ball, racquet, hand, etc. You can still hit all the usual shots (down the line, cross court, wide angle, pinch, reverse pinch) but with a little less power. The ball will also have side spin, rotating clockwise when viewed from above. You can give it more spin by "dragging" the face of the racquet across the ball. This means that, for example on the forehand side, a cross court pass will have slightly wider angle while a down the line will tend to stay a little further away from the side wall than if hit with the usual stroke.

I can think of four situations that might call for an inside out swing. The first is during the serve. Hitting the serve inside out changes the path of the ball because of the side spin and it changes the pace of the ball. It could throw the receiver's positioning and timing off. See the section on serves. Another reason is to "take something off" the hit. If you look like you are going to crush the ball and then hit it inside out, it could change the momentum of the rally. The inside out stroke is tailor made to hit a pinch, although I don't recommend changing your stroke mechanics for different shots. Finally, suppose the ball is too deep into your stance to hit with the usual mechanics. This is exactly like a batter who is trying to catch up to a fast ball. In this case hitting inside out is just what the doctor ordered.

Bottom line: use the inside out stroke sparingly.

The pendulum stroke

The main difference between the pendulum stroke and the flat stroke is that the circle described by the head of the racquet is almost horizontal in the flat stroke and almost vertical for the pendulum stroke.

The primary disadvantage of the pendulum stroke comes from its vertical path. If you hit the ball a little late in your stance, while the racquet is still going down, you will hit the ball into the floor. If you  hit the ball a little too early in your stance, while the racquet is rising, you will hit the ball too high. Only when the racquet is approximately perpendicular to the floor will you hit the ball directly to the front wall. However, the racquet is approximately perpendicular only in a range of about 12 inches. This is a small window of opportunity. With the flat stroke, hitting the ball deep in the stance results in the ball hitting the side wall, generating a pinch shot. Hitting with the racquet parallel to the front wall generates a down the line shot. Hitting early in the stance leads to a cross-court or reverse pinch shot.  The window of opportunity for the flat stroke is approximately 36 inches, about three times larger than the pendulum stroke.

The primary advantage of the pendulum stroke is that it allows you to hit the ball with power deep in your stance. This is helpful if the ball is traveling very fast and you have to catch up to the ball. However, this advantage is offset in the flat stroke by early racquet preparation. That is, by raising your racquet early, you are ready to start the forward rotation of your body before the ball arrives. See the section on early racquet preparation for more on this subject. Also, you can hit inside out if you have to hit the ball deep in your stance.

As far as I know, nearly all racquetball instructors recommend the flat stroke.

One way to see if you are executing the stroke properly is to observe whether your follow through is above or below your shoulder. If it is above your shoulder, you have too much pendulum in your stroke. Flatten your stroke out, make sure your arm and racquet are horizontal on contact, and finish with your racquet at or below shoulder level.

Video

The following video has clips of several pros hitting forehands in rallies. Even though these pros are engaged in combat, they still have remarkably good form.  Pro Forehand Video

The following video had clips of several pro backhands. Pro Backhand Video