On Becoming a Badminton Badass: Insider Tips from a Former Player

Staff Writer Pho Vu ’23 reflects on her journey with badminton, from Vietnam to Amherst, and encourages other players to cultivate an appreciation for the game’s fundamentals.

I started playing badminton in my first year of elementary school. On weekends, my grandpa would take me to the city’s youth center to practice badminton with a coach and other budding learners. From then on, my decade-long love for this unofficially-Asian sport began, and I practiced and played whenever the time allowed.

Looking back, I am immensely proud of the student-athlete life that my younger self once lived. Pursuing an extracurricular activity within an academic-driven culture was both a privilege and a litmus test of my perseverance. Thanks to my mom, who encouraged me to put physical well-being first and join badminton, I was able to navigate the demands of school and life with a clear and focused mind.

As expected, traveling to America for the remaining years of high school put a limitation on my capacity for time management. My calendar was soon chock-full with volunteer gigs, SAT and AP cramming sessions, and college application due dates. The racket that I brought over from Vietnam remained in the deepest corner of my wardrobe, and I forgot about its existence for years.

Entering Amherst, I was excited to hear about the existence of the Badminton Club. My presumption about American colleges, where people solely played tennis and golf, slowly faded away. I wrote down my name and email at the Badminton Club booth at the Get Involved Fair, harboring a hope for a soft comeback with rackets and shuttlecocks. Joining without knowing anyone on the team, it was reassuring to see students from different backgrounds have  friendly interactions and plan their next practice on GroupMe.

However, I quickly realized that my workload as an Amherst student was intense and unrelenting. The task at hand was not a one-time assignment with a single deadline, but rather a project that included a sequence of deadlines. As I grinded to complete the work on time, I found myself already involved in a perpetual match of “badminton,” constantly running after the “birdie,” or deadline, always out of my reach.

Even amid such an unanticipatedly entropic school life, I still managed to hit the court with our Badminton Club once last semester. Upon arriving at the Alumni Gymnasium, I was pleased to see the careful preparation of equipment, from the setting up of nets and poles to the generous provision of rackets and cylindrical cartons of birdies. The scene immediately transported me to my old days of playing badminton, carefree and unconcerned with the outside world. The epitome of ideal college camaraderie wondrously rested on these teamwork-focused moments — when both scoring or missing a goal causes emotions to run high, hearing cheers and words of encouragement calm even the most chaotic of thoughts. At those moments, you know that is all you ever need. I felt so very lucky to have received that support from both sides of the game. The experience was indeed a much-needed refreshing break from the endless stream of schoolwork.

After the game, I was relieved to have still retained certain skills after all those years away from my racket. As much as I took delight in the play-off games, I did notice several technical concerns that I felt compelled to vocalize.

To begin with, warm-ups were completely omitted before the game. Although I gave everyone the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they did warm-up on days I wasn’t present, it was worrying to see my fellow players jump straight to the match without any stretching or warm-up exercises. In sports, pre-workout warmups are a hallmark for ensuring a safe game. Skipping warm-ups can leave players vulnerable to cramps and injuries. Years ago, I was told to complete 10 rounds around the court, followed by a series of bending and stretching exercises, which typically took me around 15 minutes.

Additionally, I spotted many players grabbing their rackets improperly. They were either holding their rackets too tightly or situating their thumbs over other fingers, which disabled the built-in functions of the rackets in many ways. In some situations, it can inflict pain on the players’ wrist, the least desired outcome anybody would want from playing sports. Back in my earlier days, I was interrupted many times during my game because my coach caught sight of me holding the racket incorrectly. To help me out, he showed me the V-grip, where the thumb and finger form a V-shaped angle, and the head of the thumb lands in the gap between the index finger and middle finger. It took me many attempts to eventually do it right, but it was definitely worth the endurance, seeing how my birdies would land beautifully on the other side of the court.

Per my next observation, players were eager to hit the target head-on. I understand the temptation — in fact, I plead guilty for being a sucker for this move. But what will you do when it comes at a much, much lower height, and you hit it directly into the net? From a strategic standpoint, it is advisable to weave a web of tactics that work in these situations, and at the same time keep the opponents on their toes by rendering the direction of the birdie more unpredictable. Additionally, many players were not following through with full swings, which was simply moving the racket past the waist after touching the birdie. Failure to execute the entire maneuver jeopardizes our control over the birdie: not only does it sway the desired direction of the birdie, but also weakens the strength of their shots.

In addition to the above, players did not serve the birdie properly. Despite the simplicity of the low serve technique, which is uncomplicated and effortless to execute, there are other serving methods that players could contemplate, such as the traditional high serve. I advocate for this serve method as it forces the opponent to go the extra mile, thus giving the player some space to calculate options for the next move. Some students were hesitant to try the high serve, which can be tricky for players who haven’t received formal training. The pressure of performing in front of others can make this tactic even more neglected. For this one to work, we need to take initiatives by asking those that are already familiar with this serve technique like the back of their hands.

Finally, I noticed that most players tended to stay in one spot during the game. Badminton is a lightning-fast sport that expects players to react quickly to the birdie. Rather than aimlessly chasing after the birdie, the art lies in the agile footwork. Try absorbing the working principle of  a rubber band: stretch out your leg in rhythm with the arrival of the birdie, and snap it back as you are done responding to the birdie.

There are many other details that merit further explorations, but I have highlighted the top five elements that I believe, if given due priority correctly, can breathe new life into a badminton game.

It was heartwarming to witness people come together, bond, and enjoy themselves on the court. Nonetheless, as someone who used to play competitively, I understand that incorrect techniques can lead to serious injuries. My badminton coaches, who were competing for the national team, always emphasized the importance of getting the basics right from the beginning. Continuing with poor techniques can result in muscle strain and other injuries. I dreaded the process of slowing everything down so much, just to realize he was right all along.

In outsiders’ impressions, Amherst is portrayed as a hotbed of cutting-edge research work, but what truly sets us apart is the students’ constant strive to acquire extensive knowledge in our extracurricular activities outside academia. From photography to stand-up comedy, there’s always someone in the vicinity to consult. Concurrently, the outlook for sports is not so positive. I can’t help but feel a chasmic divide between non-athletes and student athletes on this campus. Our school recruits well-built athletes that bring back trophies from sports tournaments, and we have become too reliant on them to carry the load. As a community, we should share these responsibilities collectively, starting with sparing some gaps on our calendar to learn and appreciate the club sports that we commit to even for only 30 minutes a week. As members of the Badminton Club, we should organize how-to events where the pros can show the newbies the ropes. Sure, having a coach in this context would sound ideal, but we can always bank on YouTube walkthroughs and instruction websites.

Playing badminton with friends is an absolute blast, and my intention is by no means to downplay the accomplishments of our fellow enthusiasts. I’ll be honest: I’m far from being the best player, but knowing how these little things helped me get this far on my badminton journey, I felt an irresistible urge to speak my mind about something that has been near and dear to my heart with you all. Allow me to analogize playing badminton with a conversation. You always need two to tango, and instead of words, the means of exchange is the feathered cone. In a sense, missing out on basic steps creates the impression of dropping etiquette and manners.

I hope this reflective article introduces a viewpoint in the hypothetical roundtable discussion of how we can elevate a badminton performance. By redirecting our focus on the fundamentals, we can unlock a new level of fun and wholesomeness.