Sunday, August 2, 2009

RB instruction : Shot selection

Today's installment in The Racquetball Blog instructional series is going to address something that we learned from watching the pro men play. But we're not going to talk about how you should do what they do. No, we're going to talk about how you shouldn't do what they often do, and neither should they.

Yes, boys and girls, we're talking about shot selection.

If you want to win, then you need to take the right shot at the right time. You'd think the pros would always do this, but they don't. And it costs them.

A case in point came at the 2008 Motorola World Championships in Denver during the semi-final match between Jason Mannino and Rocky Carson. Mannino was up 10-8 in the fourth game, and needed to win it to force a fifth game.

Carson hit a ball that came high off the back wall bouncing far into the front court, and rather than doing the simple thing - a straight kill or down the line pass - Mannino tried a touch shot into the front corner, which he left up. That allowed Carson to get to it and win the rally.

Mannino did end up winning that game, but it took several more rallies and the energy Mannino used up in winning that fourth game (e.g., during one rally he threw himself towards the back wall in a futile attempt to keep the ball in play) meant he had nothing left for the fifth, which Carson won 11-1. Not taking the right shot could well have cost Mannino the match.

In general, the best place for you to put the ball is the back corner closest to where you are positioned. Thus, if you're on the left side of the court, you want to hit the ball to the left back corner. This would be a down the line shot.

There may be times when it's good to play the balls into the front corners, but that's a lower probability choice and misses will leave the ball in a good position for your opponent. Thus, down the line is the money shot. Period.

What's that you say? Down the line's boring? Too much like squash? You say you're playing racquetball, so you want to splat and kill and pinch the ball, 'cause that's racquetball! Boo-yah!

The Power of Seduction

It's true that racquetball is a power and speed game, and with no barrier to hit the ball over (i.e., a net or tin), it's possible to hit spectacular shots that roll away flat from the front wall. All the pro guys can hit these kind of shots, and you want to do that too. Fair enough.

But understand that they try to hit spectacular shots too often, as in every time they swing at the ball. This is a mistake, and it limits their success.

Spectacular shots are low percentage shots, which means that they are only successful a low percentage of the time. If you're trying to hit a spectacular shot every time, how much success are you going to have? A low percentage.

The possibility of a spectacular shot is the Siren call of racquetball. You're on the court, and the ball is moving close to the side wall, and it calls out to you: "splat me! splat me!"

When you hit a side wall-front wall shot, there are three things that can happen, as a coach we know often says, and two of those things are bad. Either the ball skips, or it comes off the front wall into the middle of the court giving your opponent a perfect opportunity to win the rally.

But occasionally you hit a winning shot. Splat! This successful outcome varies across the times that you try these shots, which reinforces the behavior in the same way gambling behavior is reinforced: the success sometimes happens but not in a regular pattern, so to get more of that success you increase the number of times you perform the behavior.

So all the pro guys try to be spectacular all the time, but none of them have the game style to back it up, save one. Kane Waselenchuk has a spectacular game style, so he can try a bunch of crazy shots and make them work a good percentage of the time. But as the saying goes, "don't try that at home."

In the 2003 US Open final, Derek Robinson hit a ball to the back left corner. Waselenchuk went over to retrieve it, but when he got close to it, it took an unexpected bounce. Most of us mere mortals would have been hooped, or perhaps flailed at the ball in an attempt to hit it off the back wall.

That's not what Waselenchuk did. He threw his left arm up, twisted around, and hit a pinch shot into the front right corner that rolled out flat. It was unbelievable.

But that's the kind of thing that all the pros want to do. Now, when I say "pros" here, I mean "male pros," because the women aren't seduced by power like the men are. That may be a function of them having less power, but nevertheless no man has the same game style as, say, Christie Van Hees, who pounds the ball straight in time after time wearing down her opponents.

But who among you wouldn't want to have Van Hees's success?

Psychology of shot selection

You might partly be going wrong due to the belief that you need to hit a better shot (read: more spectacular shot, read: lower probability shot) to win a rally than is really necessary. This can especially occur as you play more skilled players, because they're hitting more spectacular shots, so you think you need to do that too.

But it's better to win a rally hitting three 80% shots than one 25% shot, because too often you're going to be on the losing end with that 25% shot. Even if someone's retrieved your down the line shot twice, they might not get it the third time. Yet even if they do, the effort in doing so will take its toll over the course of the game and match.

Thus, patience is required. The best example of that is Rocky Carson, whose game style is to hit a number of loopy shots that put his opponents off balance. He's waiting for his opportunity to hit a high percentage winning shot.

It's a strange strategy, but Carson's successful with it, because it takes advantage of the fact that other racquetball pros aren't patient enough to wait for their opportunity. Similarly, Mannino's strategy of frequent diving to keep the ball in play works because in letting his opponents hit more balls Mannino's often simply giving them more opportunities to make mistakes that he can take advantage of.


You want to play the ball to the back corners, and do so often. Have confidence that this is the right strategy, because who among you wouldn't want your opponent always trying to hit the ball from one of the back corners 38 feet from the front wall?

Follow the bouncing ball....

1 comment:

David said...

Great stuff Evan. I'm going through all of your instruction posts and really enjoying them. I'd like to contact you and perhaps have a chat to get caught up since Paris. I can be reached here
or here