As an athlete who has played a variety of sports (hockey, soccer, basketball, badminton, cross-country, road racing, tennis), I’ve found that there’s one trait in particular that separates the great players from the good ones. It’s more applicable in racquet or ball sports, but every sport can make use of this trait in some small way. While I’m only going to focus on sports for today, it’s actually applicable to nearly any kind of game.
It’s perspective. Specifically, the ability to see and predict certain patterns of play, allowing one to act on them before anyone else.
The power of patterns in badminton
Let me take you back to when I was in high school, on the badminton team (I promise, I’m not here to talk too much about how “amazing” I was!). I was one of the best players in my school (so, including maybe two levels above me). I love playing badminton, and the challenge of trying to out-maneuver my opponent was always loads of fun. I was able to win most of the games I played. My speciality involved cross-court drop shots that froze my opponent. This may be a bit strange to admit, but I just loved the look on someone’s face when I froze them and the shuttle dropped harmlessly a few centimetres in front of me.
While a lot of my opponents often wondered how I could pull off these shots, I always wondered why I didn’t have to deal with shots like these. Sure, I’d get the occasional drop shot made on me, but I’d generally be able to at least make it to the shot. Rarely did I get frozen. Obviously, I think it had to do something with how good the players I played against were, but I’m positive it also had to do with my patterns.
You see, badminton is difficult because you’re trying to execute your strategy while simultaneously trying to defend against your opponent. As such, I began to develop ways to anticipate what a player would do. This was specific to each player. I knew some liked to play the shuttle to the back of the court often, so instead of always returning to the exact middle of the court (where you’re usually taught to go), I always played a little farther back. I trusted that the probability of moving just that little bit back and being in good position was worth the risk of a rare drop shot. As such, I was able to be in better positions than my opponents for most of the games I played. And position is everything in badminton.
For the drop shots, I got used to how people did their drop shots. I looked 1 at things such as: how the player was holding the racquet (winding up suggests a longer shot, while holding it close suggests a drop), where the person was looking (a clear clue for where the shuttle will go), and foot position (if they were scrambling to return my shot, chances are it would go long). As I played more and more, I noticed these elements as things my opponents did naturally, and I greedily mined those details, crucial bits to help me win a game.
As a consequence, I also started worrying about someone pulling tricks like these on me. My classmates weren’t that good at badminton, so I could be obvious with my movements. However, I didn’t want to freely give away so much critical information if I didn’t need to (cue NSA reference), so I did the one thing I knew would fool even me.
I tried to become unpredictable.
What this meant was that I tried to disguise every motion I did. Instead of pulling off a regular drop shot, I worked on faking a clear and then performing a drop shot within the same motion. On the one hand, I found this sort of deception wasn’t particularly fluid. My movements were slightly more jerky, but it paid off in throwing my poor classmates off even more.
I think this is a crucial lesson here. Badminton, like any other sport, allows one to do all kinds of fancy tricks: behind the back shots, between the legs, no-looking, etc. However, the way I got better at the sport wasn’t from learning any of that. Still to this day, I can only do a few of these “trick shots”. Instead, I focused on the fundamental shots of badminton: drop shots, clears, smashes, and serves. From there, I worked on out-thinking my opponent by studying how they play while the game is in process, allowing me to gain that extra margin of time to react to each shot. Then, when I got good at that aspect of my game, I went back to my fundamental shots and attempted to disguise them the best I could. By improving my fundamentals, I was able to perform them more consistently, eventually letting me “disguise” my shots, which helped me win more games.
Badminton really taught me that the fundamentals weren’t called that for a joke. By being good at the base shots, you can build up your game in order to beat people by always being one step ahead of them.
Work on become a master of the fundamentals, then look for how those fundamentals are expressed in your opponents. Look for patterns, and study them until they can give you an upper-hand during the game. Knowing the patterns of the game you play is crucial to getting that small advantage needed to win games.
Why pattern recognition is the most underrated aspect of sport
I established above that being able to see patterns in a game is crucial to improving, but now I want to put forth that it is one of the best ways you can improve your game.
For this, I want to give an example with basketball.
Basketball is obviously a more team-oriented sport, but it also has a bit of individual skill merged into it. Specifically, the ability to force a turnover is usually the result of individual effort (although it could be from the team).
There are two basic scenarios that occur during a turnover. The first is through pressure. If the defence is strong enough, it can make the offensive team panic, creating bad passes that eventually create a mistake. The second way happens when a player anticipates where the ball is going, and acts accordingly to intercept it.
When I played basketball at school, I saw this immediately from players. There were two types of people: those who looked for opportunities to jump in the play to steal the ball, and those who merely played the “required” defence. As a result, there were certain players who created turnovers on a more frequent basis (such as myself). I was always on the prowl for a ball to steal, even if it wasn’t going to the player I was guarding2. I tried to decipher the tell-tale signs of someone who is about to pass (and where they are passing to). Recognizing these signs and patterns allowed me to steal the ball a lot more often than those who “just played defence”. I became known for my defensive game more than my offensive one.
Therefore, I was able to improve my game just by looking for the regular patterns in the game and exploiting them to my advantage. Once you’re able to see this, it’s like seeing the world in a whole new light. The great players don’t get more opportunities because they’re necessarily more skilled, but that they actively analyze the patterns in their sport and work to use them for an advantage.
In the end, this isn’t anything revolutionary. You still need to improve on the fundamentals. You still need to practice and live the athlete lifestyle every day. In fact, this is simply another potential thing to work on. However, it is something that is worth it when you want to be the best you can be in a sport. So many sports have patterns in them, just begging to be analyzed and exploited. If you don’t do it, I can bet you that other people will.
Knowing the patterns that occur in your given sport is knowledge that any athlete should take it upon themselves to learn. It’s what sportscasters refer to as “sport I.Q.”. These athletes aren’t actually smarter; they’re more perceptive. If you can spot these patterns and use them during play, you will elevate your game to a level only few people actually are.
The patterns are there. Let’s look.
When I say that I looked, I really mean I got use to seeing these small details quickly. After all, badminton is a fast-paced game, so I learned to extract meaningful details at high speeds. ↩
And yes, this did result in my team getting scored on because I wasn’t guarding my player with my full attention. ↩