During a BWF coaching conference during the World Championships in Basel, Lars Uhre (former coach Peter Gade) gave a presentation on how a rally in singles can be divided into different zones/components to improve clarity of thought and simply the decision making process.
The presentation was primarily targeted towards coaching techniques employed by coaches. This might be the reason why it did not attract a lot of attention from the players themselves (judging by number of views the youtube video got). I found what Lars Uhre said to be extremely interesting from a player’s perspective and I would like to summarize a few key points from his presentation in the hope that it might make you a better player the next time you string up your shoes and step into court.
All credit for the article goes to Lars and the BWF team. I merely hope that I have successfully summarized his theory without distorting any of the essence. It has helped me in my game, and hope that it will do the same for you.
Men’s singles is often a game of attrition, of slightest margins, where a lot depends on not just the quality but also the consistency of the each and every shots. That being said, the single biggest criteria that often determines the result of the exchange is initiative.
If you hold the initiative in the exchange, you have greater advantage of scoring the point than your opponent. Sure, you could always score points with some amazing defence but statistically speaking, the player with the offence and by consequence, the attack always stands a much better chance of scoring. This is how it has always been and more so with the advent of modern badminton where speed plays a much greater importance.
The theory that is going to be described below uses gaining, retaining and exploiting the initiative as areas of focus. With that clear, let’s dive in.
The Game of Zones
Zone 1: Crisis
Picture this scenario; you have just started a match wherein you are serving and have scored the first point. You are now going to serve at 1-0 and for simplicity’s sake I am going to assume you are right handed player (apologies to all lefties among the readers). You serve a classic short backhand serve aiming for the T. Unfortunately, the shuttle goes a little high and the opponent pounces, sending a bullet like push to your forehand rear corner as close as possible to the sideline. Now players with a reasonable level of experience will immediately realize that they have been put in an uncomfortable spot and risk losing the initiative and the point.
Hit pause in your head.
Lars says that the situation that you are likely to find yourself in at this particular moment is what he likes to call “Zone 1“.
You are late to the shuttle, low and possibly unbalanced when going for the underarm stroke and highly unlikely to win the rally in the next 2-3 shots. (This is assuming that you are playing against an opponent who knows when he has an advantage and is capable of capitalizing on it. There will always be the cases where you produce miraculous cross court drop shot which skims the top of the net and lands on the line but let’s talk about it when you are able to do that at least eight times out of ten).
This zone is where most beginners and intermediate players tend to have their priorities mixed up. In the quest for initiative, they try low percentage shots (shots with low chances of success). They end up more often than not conceding the point immediately and adding to the pressure on themselves in the next point.
In such situations Lars suggests that the player redefine his priorities. When you are in Zone 1, he says that the priority should be to stay alive in the rally and to ensure that it is not lost in the next 2-3 shots. Keep the shuttle over and in. To this effect, let’s come back to our previous scenario; bear in mind that the opponent is someone who is tactically sound and will therefore follow-up to the net to kill any weak drop shots to the net from you. Therefore, from your disadvantageous position in the forehand rear-court, your safest option would likely be to play a long and high straight clear that will allow you to follow through with your action and assume a neutral posture. You could safely assume a neutral posture if your clear was of high quality with a good length. It would be complicated for your opponent to attack it again .
ℹ️Defensive clears are truly a wonderful thing. That is as long as you manage to give your clears sufficient length and height. A good quality defensive clear is ideally to the centre with enough height to make the shuttle drop vertically close to the singles service line. It is hard to attack this shot because all the angles are eliminated and the distance is such that attacking smashes would have to be quite powerful to have any sort of effect.
Now, you have effectively neutralized the opponent’s advantage and reset the situation to a point where it is anyone’s rally. Welcome to “Zone 2“.
Zone 2: Equilibrium
Zone 2, as defined by Lars is a state of the exchange where the initiative can seesaw from one player to the other and the exchange is not likely to end in the next 2-3 shots. This is the part where both players seek to construct advantages which they can capitalize on. Neither player is in discomfort and this is where precision and consistency of the shots come into play. The effects of both good and bad shots are cumulative.
Now you would think that this is where you should seek to actively end the rally. You wait for a poor clear or a loose defensive shot from your opponent. As soon as you deem one sufficiently poor, you rise up in the air and put down a smash. This is where you are wrong.
According to Lars, the first priority of a player who is currently in Zone 2 should be to stay in Zone 2. The emphasis should be on playing the percentages, out-manoeuvring the opponent and obtaining a substantial tactical advantage. Patience is the key and this is where you begin to employ tactics like isolation or working the triangles (more on this in an upcoming article).
Zone 3: Hammer time
Once you have constructed an advantage for yourself and have forced a short lift or have succeeded in taking the shuttle early at the net, you are now in “Zone 3“. Congratulations! If you think this is where you channel your inner Fu Haifeng or a push à la Tai Tzu Ying, you would be wrong again.
Incredibly, again, your priority numero uno according to the world renowned coach is to stay in Zone 3.
Make sure that your shots keep your adversary under pressure and do not allow him to recover and reset the game. Remember the feeling where after a long rally, your opponent gave you a relatively short clear and you pulled the trigger too early allowing your opponent to counter with a cross-court defence causing you to scamper around to return the shuttle? It would be a pity to allow him to reset the advantage the same way you did when you were in Zone 1 earlier on. That is precisely what we’re on about here.
Lars’ advice is it to keep it tight and maintain the pressure and not to look for insta-kills (yes I do use gaming jargon). With the sustained pressure, you will eventually forge out a clear cut chance to end the exchange in your favour.
Now you might assume that all of the above content is just pure common sense. But, when you compartmentalize your game using the zones philosophy, you will realize that you have massively simplified your decision making process by eliminating a lot of potential bad choices.
The most common problems that players face during the implementation of this zone theory according to Lars are the following:
- Misinterpretation of the zones i.e. not identifying the zone correctly.
- Mixing up the goals for the current zone.
- Not knowing when to transition to the next zone. Eg: from zone 2 to 3.
Addressing these issues correctly in a sport that is highly fluid and rapid is something that comes with great practice. It takes a lot of focus to be able to concentrate on every single point and applying the principles without jumping zones (for example when you are in Zone 1 and you decide to put your faith in a miraculous defensive shot instead of steadily trying to work through the zones).
Additionally, at the beginning of his presentation, Lars indicated that the zone philosophy is to be treated as a set of guidelines and not as a set of cast iron rules. This is a relatively foolproof way of steadily working yourself to an advantageous position during each rally. He then proceeded to draw up strategies on how to train in responses to each zone with a training partner.
If you are interested in these routines keep an eye out for it on this space, you will find simplified versions of these exercises here that allow you to get to grips with the thought processes.
My personal advice to you would be to play with an opponent whom you are capable of beating but have a tendency to struggle against and try to apply the zone theory. You will have the comfort of knowing your opponent’s playstyle, what works and what does not. This will in turn allow you to identify the zone you are in more easily. Once you are able to do this consistently and see a marked improvement in your decision making process and your performance against him/her, you can try this against random opponents. It would also be helpful if you are able to record your matches. This will allow you to analyse the transition between the zones (voluntary and involuntary) and the consequences. This will improve your decision making process during your next sparring session. Finally, while I do feel that I have summarized fairly accurately the theories of Lars Urhe, for those who are interested in the actual demonstration by Lars himself here is the original Youtube video link. If you have time, I strongly recommend you to watch it.
I sincerely hope this elevates your game to the next level. If it does, please feel free to share this article and the Youtube link to your fellow badminton lovers.
Who am I?
I am your friendly neighborhood badminton player with a limitless passion for the sport. I try to play badminton every time I get an opportunity. I predominantly play mixed doubles and men’s doubles, but have been enjoying playing singles recently. I also coach children who have just picked up a racquet in the hope of introducing them to the beauty of this sport. As a club level player myself, I believe that there is so much more to learn and I enjoy sharing my experiences with everyone. Love you all and KEEP PLAYING!