Racquetball After 40 – How to Beat the Younger, Faster Player

My return to racquetball started six months ago, shortly after my 42nd birthday. After one session in the 4-wall ping-pong chamber, I quickly remembered why I love this game. Action. Speed. Aggression. Strategy. Lateral Movement. Body Slams. Trash talking…Racquetball has all that – plus a great cardio workout. After an hour, I was spent.

The next day, I also remembered why I stopped playing. Ouch. Sore in places I forgot I had. However, within a few weeks of regular play 2X a week – and with a diligent warm up routine – my body quickly acclimated.

I am not a doctor or a professional athlete, but I love to play sports and stay active, and I’ve learned what to do to keep my aging body in the game. If you want to get back into racquetball (and c’mon…I know you do!) here are three areas you need to focus on to keep playing… and winning.

1. Don’t Write Checks Your Body Can’t Cash

The adrenaline of the game can motivate you to make plays that are going to punish your body. The two most common body wreckers are: diving for the ball and running into a wall. Add to that hyperextending your joints and hitting the ball too hard and you have a recipe for a seriously taxed body after your court session. If you play several times a week, these nagging bumps and pulls can turn into serious injuries that will take you significant time to recover. If you’re over 40, you probably have a few more LB’s than you did when you played in your 20’s. Extra weight combined with hard impacts and lunges will lead to either heel bruises, knee strains, or back pulls (or all of them!). I’ve had them, and the only way to recover is usually to do NOTHING for a long time – and that just aint no fun.

Don’t let your pride get the best of you. I’ve lost a lot of playing partners who put up a good fight for one game, but couldn’t come back next week to play again.

Use your head. Stretch out for at least 15 minutes before you play. Precede your stretch with a short jog. Play against the side walls for at least 5 minutes. Practice playing low to the ground – it’s the low lunges that lead to muscle pulls, so warmup that muscle behaviour before you play.

Deal with your post-game battle wounds ASAP. Don’t be a hero and limp around for a week – if you do you’re starting down the path of a long-term nagging injury. Ice it, jacuzzi it, asprin it, wrap it, etc. Get sleep so your body can heal. Take glucosamine for your joints. If you take care of your body, it will acclimate…just don’t expect it to spring back like it did in your 20’s!

2. Gear Up

Goggle, Shoes, Racquet glove and Knee Support. This is your required battle gear.

Yes, goggles can fog up…but eyeballs cannot be replaced. Every time I contemplate peeling off my goggles – I end up taking a shot to the mug. A compressed racquetball hitting your eye socket can suck your eyeball right out. Enough said. Bring 2 pairs and rotate them when one fogs up.

Shoes. You need good shoes, that fit snugly. Don’t grab your ancient nikes – get some new shoes. You don’t need to spend a fortune. Get 2 cheap pairs that you can rotate so the shoes have time to recover. If your ankles are a bit out of practice, you may want to consider basketball shoes for extra support. If you turn an ankle you are on injured reserve for quite a while. Or, you can wrap your ankles before you play. Hey! It ain’t about lookin’ pretty…it’s about winning!

Racquet glove. Keeps your wrist from getting carpal tunnel from straining to grip the raquet. Worth the small investment.

Knee support. I’m not a big guy…170 pounds, 5′ 10″ – and I’m in OK shape. But, I wear knee supports, and I’ll tell you why. Because my knees were taking a pounding. If you want to play hard, you will end up diving for the ball or scrambling off the floor. You’re a warrior – you can’t help it! In the heat of battle, your knees will take the hit, but the next day you’ll be hurting. And each following game…they’ll get worse, and worse. Soon, you’ll have to stop playing for a while. Let’s face it – you’re not 20 anymore. Your body needs time to recover. Plus you need to go to work on Monday and still be a pack-mule for all of your families’ junk! Make sure you have enough body left over for your family!

Don’t show up with velcro knee pads…you’re not laying tile! Simple slip-on, breathable latex type knee supports that aren’t so tight that they restrict movement will help your knees survive.

3. Winning Strategy: Placement & Positioning. Especially important if you’re playing younger bucks that have energy to burn. To conserve your energy, you need to play smart. Playing smart involves placing the ball in the right spot, and positioning your body in the right spot on the court. Hitting the ball hard doesn’t win games. Putting the ball where your opponent is not does. Make the bastard run. Make ’em dive. Make ’em beg for mercy!

Here are a few playing tips I’ve learned that increase your odds of winning.

1. Quiver O’ Serves. You should have 3 or 4 good serves in your arsenal. Vary up your serve. Look back before you serve to see where your opponent is. Hitting into the backhand corner is good, but have it play off the side wall before it lands. Hit one that goes to your opponents ankles – fast. Mix in a dying high-corner lob that you can’t play off the back wall. Include a fast ball wall-hugging backhand. Once you get your opponent striking out on your serve, keep varying it and feed the serves fast. Don’t give them time to get set.

2. Body Positioning. Generally, with regards to position, try to stay in the middle of the court. If you’re against a wall, hit a cross wall shot so the ball returns back to where you are – which forces your opponent to your wall. Don’t hinder the ball. If your opponent is up front in the court, drive him back with a ceiling-first shot that forces him back. If you find yourself in a corner, get out of it and return to the middle as quickly as possible. Stay in the middle.

3. Wait for the Ball. When you get a good forehand shot, don’t blow it. If you see a lane where you can hit the ball, make sure you are ACCURATE in your shot. If you’re all juiced up, you’ll hit it too hard and the ball will bounce too high, which allows your opponent to recover with a back wall return.

If the ball goes past you, no big. Turn around and play it off the back wall. Play your game, not you opponents game.

4. Find the Achilles Heel. Play a variety of shots early in the game to find your opponents weakness. But don’t experiment when you have a kill shot. Take the kill. Toy with your opponent when you can afford it.

5. Keep the Serve! You can’t score if you don’t have the serve. If you are are returning a serve, it is GAME ON time. Get the serve back at all costs. Don’t let your opponent run up a tab. How do you do this when they have a wicked serve? Learn how to read your opponents body language. Usually a server will ‘telegraph’ their move with a switch of the feet, a turn of the wrist grip, a drop of the shoulder. These little ‘reads’ will give you that extra milli-second to get a jump on that serve and get that SOB out of the server box.

6. Placement, placement, placement. Make your opponent run, scramble, dive. EVERY shot should be hard to return. That doesn’t mean it has to be a kill shot, or a hard hit ball. To place the ball where your opponent isn’t, you need to know where they are! Which leads to my next tip.

7. Watch the ball and watch your opponent. Develop your kung fu senses. If your opponent is scrambling, they are generally going to hit weak returns (except for the occasionally LUCKY kill shot!). Try to anticipate where their next shot is going.

8. And lastly, my favorite tip. If you really want to get better, play at least 2X a week, and play with someone who is better than you! My regular partner beats me pretty much every game. He is simply Ninja good. A huge arsenal of deadly serves. A wicked kill shot (forehand and backhand). And an excellent strategic player. This guy played competitively when he was younger and never stopped. BUT, I’m gaining on him and I’ve beaten him a few times. I prefer a challenge to a win. I also beat other racquetball players easily.

BUT… I don’t recommend getting obsessed and playing 5+ times a week. You’ll beat up your body and burn out your thirst for the game. Find some regulars you can play with and stick to a schedule.

Have fun, cross-train, play hard, and keep those young guys RUNNING!