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Most teachers of the backhand in badminton preface their remarks by advising players not to learn it; to develop, instead, a "round-the-head" forehand stroke. This article follows tradition: the advantages of using proper footwork to the backhand corner and taking the shuttle on the forehand do outweigh using the backhand. The player can see the net, and can make stronger, technically easier, and more types of shots using a round-the-head. The best players, however, all seem to have good backhands anyway, and all players eventually have to use their backhands at some point. Here, then, is how to hit the overhead backhand.
There are eight bevels to the racket handle (see Figure 1). Most players extend the thumb so that it and its mount (the fleshy part of the palm below the thumb) lies flat along a bevel (Geoff Stensland does not change his grip for the backhand). One teacher (Don Paup) puts his thumb on bevel B; another (Peter Lim) told me it has to be on bevel A, since if placed on the popular bevels B or C the racket face would naturally face out away from the backhand line, so that the shuttle would easily go wide. Most of the early works on badminton suggest putting the thumb on bevel C, but if you stroke using forearm rotation (supinating for the backhand - described below) this position is constricting, and the racket face does not square naturally at impact. Lastly, Gord Smith (Badminton News, 6/96, 6(4):10) says the position of the shuttle at impact in relation to the body determines which bevel to use: if the shuttle is closer to the net than you, the thumb should rest on bevel C; if the shuttle is next to you, choose bevel A; if the shuttle has traveled past you, use bevel D.
Get your racket side of your body close to the flight path of the shuttle. You want to strike the bird before it goes past you. You should be completely turned around (but see below for a contrasting position) with your back square to the net, looking over your racket shoulder at the oncoming shuttle. Just before you begin your stroke, your racket foot should be planted. Your racket elbow should be pointing to the floor, held in front of your torso; the racket itself should be pointing upwards, with the racket hand close to your non-racket shoulder. Your trunk and shoulders should be rotated away from the shuttle.
The stroke starts with a quick jerk of your hip, shoulder, and elbow toward the shuttle. (I believe all shots, including drop shots, are best executed quickly for deception.) Your thumb should be pointing downwards on the handle; your forearm is still close to the bicep. As your elbow rises past your shoulder, the forearm starts straightening and rotating clockwise for right-handers (counterclockwise for left-handers). The stroke ends with a violent twist of the forearm so that at impact the racket face is square to the shuttle, with the arm fully extended. You should try to meet the shuttle as high as you can, to give yourself the most offensive options, and since any stroke with a bent arm at impact is inefficient.
Except for the racket head (some players end the stroke at impact), there is very little follow-through with the arm. I was told that swinging your arm beyond the shoulder actually dissipates power. The classic analogy of the backhand swing is snapping a towel at a fly: the arm does not need to follow through to achieve the snap. At impact, your tricep and bicep should be flexed and strong, to counteract hyperextending the elbow.
Jean-Pierre D'Zahr follows an older English style: the thumb is extended along bevel C, the body and feet are stable and sideways to the net, the trunk and shoulders rotated towards the backcourt. The stroke starts by uncoiling the shoulders, followed by the elbow and wrist, much like how a whip uncoils. The thumb snaps forward and downward at impact, which must be in front of the body for effectiveness.
Anders Linden does not extend the thumb on backhand drops or smashes, as he feels the extended thumb prevents the racket head from fully following through quickly enough to hit downward.
You can slice a backhand drop by quickly sweeping the racket head towards the sideline, clipping the shuttle downwards to the tape.
Getting more length
Most beginners don't get length on their backhand clears because they don't take a full stroke. The mechanics of the backhand make it mostly an arm/wrist shot (unlike the forehand, which uses more of the hips and shoulders as well), so starting the backhand with the elbow pointing up toward the shuttle is like patty-caking it across the net. Although it is easier contacting the shuttle this way, once you get used to timing the impact high at the end of the shoulder-elbow-wrist uncoiling sequence, the shuttle should travel noticeably farther.
The racket head should be moving quickly at impact. The backhand is a wristy shot; you should be thinking of flicking at the shuttle, rather than taking a sweeping, muscular arm swing at it. Many beginners overswing this way, and do not turn completely around when setting up for the backhand. The shot literally ends with your back still to the net with your arm up in the air.
Whether or not you rotate your forearm to hit shots, the thumb does a lot of work near the end of the stroke. Pushing and snapping the racket head forward with the thumb are big keys to the backhand.
Think of quick-clearing the shuttle low and deep. All backhand clears do not necessarily have to be defensive; perhaps getting more length is a simple matter of changing tactical attitude.
The pitfall of learning the backhand is that once you get good at it, you will become more lazy and start to rely on it. Remember, the round-the-head is much more dangerous to the opponent. It is much better if you practice shots using this stroke rather than the backhand.