Swing technique - beginners' step by step breakdown of swing mechanics
Does it make much difference how you swing? It's unbelievable how much difference it makes, so it's certainly worth your while to get it right, from the beginning, so that you won't have to break any bad habits.
The best way to study correct swing technique is with an instructor. It's likely that they've seen all the major mistakes students make, and can quickly correct any bad mechanics. This instructional page on the other hand, can't stop you in the middle of your swing and point out what you're doing wrong. So a certified teacher is the surest way to get good. View this page as a check list.
Definitions: see the racquetball dictionary if you need definitions of backswing downswing and kinetic link
The analogy we're going to use is that of a buggy whip. The cracking noise that a whip makes is caused by a large wave starting at the handle, carrying its energy into a smaller wave (which has to travel faster to maintain the energy from the slower, larger wave) as it travels down the whip, where the tip breaks the sound barrier at 700 miles per hour.
To pass the energy from the legs and hips to the wrist, there must be a series of links that pass that energy along, without dissipating it. These links in your body are called kinetic links. If any of one the links is not loaded correctly, then the energy is blocked, and your swing loses power. It's your job to make sure that each link correctly passes the energy on down the line to the next link.
You can see that some parts of your body need to be very supple: hips, arms and wrist. Your arms should be as loose and limp as rope. Imagine the whip's cord made up of a stiff garden hose. Would that whip very well? No! The cord should be very loose. Likewise, your arms and wrist should be relaxed as rope, or else the whip won't snap. Make sure that there's no tension in your arms.
Your shoulders on the other hand, should be straight and wide, like the long wooden handle of the buggy whip, to create a larger wave whose energy can be channeled to, and magnified by the next link in the sequence.
Practice these instructions without a ball, at your house. Hold off on doing a fast swing until you've read the whole page. We're doing a forehand shot. First learn how to hold the racquet then come back here.
Cock your wrist for the forehand swing. The wrist snap the last component in your swing, but we're starting from the end and moving backwards. Wrist should be lose and supple so that it can snap forward. When swinging at a ball, keep your wrist cocked during most of the arm's swing, until just before racquet hits the ball, then snap the wrist through the ball. Here's an example of Cliff Swain, courtesy of Ed Arias, snapping his wrist (Cliff is a lefty). The snap pretty much happens by its self. Just keep it cocked and at the end of the swing, the wrist snaps by itself. Kind of like the last person in the chain of the crack the whip game. (Don't cock your wrist for your backhand though. That's old school. New school is keeping it straight.)
While keeping your wrist cocked, bend your forearm back until it forms the letter L in relation to the upper arm like Cliff does here. Now swing the forearm starting in an top down motion then pretty early on, turn the movement into a side arm motion like when you're skipping a stone over water. Snap your wrist at the end of the movement, or, as I said, it kind of snaps itself when the wave traveling through your arm reaches the end. Watch Cliff do this. The skipping-the-stone motion isn't all wrist though. It utilizes your whole arm starting at your shoulder. This makes a larger wave.
Make your shoulders square (like the straight, stiff wooden whip handle) by keeping the tops of your deltoids down, your shoulder blades pressed in, and pointing your elbows at an imaginary ball in front of you. Baseball coaches call this shoulder lock leverage. Pitchers lock their upper arms (humerus) with their thorax (rib cage). It should feel like your elbow is stretching out and away very slightly from your shoulder, but not so much that your shoulder blade isn't still pushed in. Now raise your right elbow up as high as your shoulder. To raise your elbow that high, you have to bend your knees, move your hips forward, and line up your trunk upright so that your head, chest and hips are directly over your ankles. If you have your shoulder locked correctly, your chest naturally rises/gets pulled up into correct position when you raise your elbow as high as your shoulder. You don't want to raise your arm so that it slips out of that locked position (with shoulder blades tucked in and elbows pointing at ball).
Now try your swing again in slow motion, but this time pull your upper arm out and around with your shoulder. Don't push it forward, pull it with your shoulder. Then pull your forearm with your upper arm. The elbow should be moving ahead of your forearm and wrist. Like Cliff is doing above. This is called leading with your elbow. You can see correct form for leading with the elbow when watching a pitcher in a baseball game. Watch for the pitcher's elbow leading his forearm. In baseball they use an overhand throw; in racquetball the same motion is used but early on in the swing, the forearm starts moving sideways. Leading with your elbow is one of the key ways to allow the energy to pass from the shoulders to the wrist. If you don't lead with your elbow, then the energy from your shoulders doesn't have a good mechanical path to to travel on, to pass its energy on down to the forearm and wrist.
Another approach to leading with your elbow and snapping your wrist at the right time in the right way, is to aim the bottom (butt) of the racquet handle towards the front wall as you swing. When your arm runs out of length at the end of your reach, the wrist will automatically snap.
You will need to coil your shoulders so that they can uncoil during the swing and give your swing more power, but right now, your lower body is blocking your shoulders from turning, so we have to move on to the next section to fix this.
Why bend your knees?
Here's an experiment:
Now you'll have more power because bending down has allowed your shoulders to coil correctly, much further. Knowing this, would you ever want to stand straight up again while swinging? You don't have to go overboard on how far you coil your shoulders, but most people lose out on some power when their shoulders get blocked from turning because they're standing with their legs straight when winding up and swinging. Get out of the habit of standing straight up when you swing!
If you've gotten into the bad habit of using only your arms to swing, you may not be used to the motion of turning your shoulders. Create a neural pathway for this new feeling by imagining that there's a miniature racquet on your shoulder, and you're using that to hit the ball with, instead of your arms. See how this forces you to twist around a little more for your wind up. This is to help you conceptualize your shoulders' wind up (backswing); how far to coil your shoulders (I'm not talking about the downswing yet). Bending your knees will help you coil your shoulders around further and easier.
Imagine a five foot long, horizontal steel pole (like from a barbell set) on top of your shoulders (parallel to your chest, or your back, as though you have the barbell mounted on your shoulders for doing knee bends) keeping them straight and unified, so that when you turn your shoulders, the pole turns around too. Don't keep the pole stationary and just use your arms! Twist them like you're winding up to really spank that ball!
It feels like the mass of your chest muscles are used on the back swing and downswing, instead of just your arms. Shoulders are like a ceiling fan (with only two opposite blades forming a straight line) rotating a few feet above and parallel to the floor.
The main power source: hips
Most of your power comes from the hips. Your hips pull your shoulders around. You're not pushing off with your feet. Your feet pull your hips around and your hips pull your shoulders around. The hips should be loose, flexible and rotate freely. We're talking Elvis, Michael Jackson and Ricky Martin, but our hip movement is rotational like a gyroscope.
With your belly button and toes facing the right wall, stand with your feet a little bit wider than shoulder width apart, weight balanced evenly on both legs. Your left foot is ahead of your right foot (i.e., closer to the front wall, while your back foot is closer to the back wall). Both feet are the same distance from the right side wall (they're lined up with it/parallel to it). Do this in slow motion:
The body's hinges, kinetic links, don't all swing around at the same time. The hips uncoil first, then they stop, passing their kinetic energy to the shoulders, then the shoulders pass the energy to the arms and wrist. The forearm doesn't straighten out until it reaches your right knee, and the wrist snaps through the ball. At this point, your upper arm, forearm and wrist should be at what's called full extension. This is a light, strain-free, fluid motion. It should feel good, not painful!
The swing begins with your legs. The energy from these large muscles eventually ends up passing through your wrist. You must learn the knack for creating a pulling motion to power your kinetic links, starting with your legs. The leg pulling your shoulders feeling is what should be preceding your arm swing. Don't forget it and start swinging your arm around without any legs powering them! This is a common mistake many people make.
You must step forward each time you swing. The swing itself is not a forward motion, it's rotational; what the stepping forward does is lower your center of gravity and makes your swing more consistent. To step forward, you must start off behind the ball. So if you're running backwards to receive a lob, for example, you must run back one step further than necessary, wait for it, and then step forward to hit it.
Surf the wave
To summarize, overall feel for your swing is to have your legs and hips pulling your shoulders to create a giant power wave. Then while sensing the wave travel up your body to your arms, time your arm snap so that it surfs on the big wave which came from your legs. This gives a big boost to your arm snap; like the motion of skipping a stone over water but with hips driving it. Timing is important. Feeling this double power in your swing is euphoric.
So a great swing is really about wave management. Make sure that the wave doesn't miss any connections as it travels through your body. Key areas to watch are legs pulling hips, hips rotating freely, shoulders kept square, and leading with the elbow. This is why skinny guys like Cliff Swain can hit harder than muscle bound body builders. Cliff is simply a better wave manager. He lets the energy grow while going through him, by creating kinetic links which build the energy highway that his body becomes. It's more of a timing thing than strength. Cliff's drive serve has been clocked at 191 mph.
The backhand is almost the same as the forehand but keep the wrist straight when starting the swing. Though it's easier to visualize as leading with the shoulder instead of the elbow.
You still raise elbow to shoulder height, and shoulders stay wide (keep them in good leading-with-the-elbow form while you're winding up: delts down, shoulder blades pushed in, elbows pointing at imaginary ball on your left side), but now bring elbow and forearm closer to to your stomach and racquet tip past your left ear when winding up. Lead with your right shoulder when swinging and still use your legs and hips to create most of the power. Unless your hips are able to rotate freely and drag your shoulders around, your swing will be weak or you'll end up relying on your arm muscles only, which will eventually become injured.
One other difference, don't stand parallel to the left wall, step at 45 degree angle, not straight ahead. This is to lessen knee strain.
Otherwise, the backhand is exactly the same as the forehand. Your weight should be shifted to your back leg as usual, but of course this will be the opposite leg than in the forehand swing. So for rightys, shift your weight to your left foot a bit when winding up, then transfer your weight to your lead (right) foot to initiate your forward swing.
If you find yourself slicing the ball, that means that you're dropping/taking the ball too close to your body and too far back behind you; the ball should be hit when it's away from you and even with your lead foot. The easiest way to stop the slicing problem, for both adults and kids, is to have the hitter straighten their elbow when their arm reaches their knee. This forces them to back away from the ball so that it's not too close to them. Otherwise, the ball is so close that they need to keep their arm bent when it contacts the ball, which is wrong.
Don't forget to end the swing with your back knee a couple inches off the floor.
In conclusion, your body has the capability of becoming a large, powerful whip, much more powerful than the muscles that move your arms. We have seen that your wrist is the tip of the whip, your arms the cord, your shoulders the wooden handle and your hips, the hand flicking the whip. We've learned that he way to transform your body into a whip is to first get into the correct form, then let your arms be so lose, limp and relaxed, that they don't interfere with your lower body. This will allow you to learn to feel the body's centrifugal force created by the hips rotating while the weight shifts to the front foot, which creates a whipping motion, snapping your arm out and around.
Here's a couple of ways to help you remember good form. (1) During serving: already have your knees bent and elbow at shoulder level before you even drop the ball (2) If you're hitting a set up to yourself, approach the ball for the last two steps with your knees already bent and your elbow at shoulder height. Don't approach the ball with your racquet hanging down, then have to raise it at that last moment!
Now go to the club and only practice hitting with good form. Start off just dropping the ball and hitting. Don't hit more complicated shots until you've mastered good form with the drop and hit shot. Then work up to having to take a few steps to get to the ball. Have your elbow already up to shoulder height while your walking towards the ball, before you get to the ball.
How do you know if you've mastered good swing technique? Easy, if you're hitting the ball very hard without forcing your arm muscles to do all the work. If you can hit a forehand and backhand splat shot without straining your arm muscles, but instead fluidly using your whole body, you've got it.
After you've got it to work, practice it on every conceivable type of shot.
It just feels good to hit the ball so hard without any effort. Also, good mechanics will give you more time to decide which shot to select. Many times this last second decision will make the difference in winning the point.