Rhythm in Sports: It’s More Important than You Think
It’s all in the timing. Comedians, actors, musicians, and dancers have heard this saying over and over again as they learn their craft. But great rhythm and timing is just as important for an athlete on the court as it is for an artist on the stage.
Rhythm in sports represents the application of all the individual parts of your practices into a cohesive whole. It is how you coordinate your strength, speed, balance, coordination, and flexibility.
So how do you practice rhythm? If you don’t have it, how do you find it? If you had it once but have fallen out of form, how do you get it back? And is your rhythm while playing the only rhythm that matters for optimal play?
Rhythm in Racquetball
Before we go into tips and tricks for establishing rhythm for athletic development, it’s a good idea to explore how a racquetball player utilizes rhythm. After all, the game moves so quickly, and rallies feature rapid changes in direction and intensity— from the outside, it seems like the rhythm is always changing.
But this confusion comes from conflating rhythm and tempo. Tempo is the speed of the game and changes frequently throughout a rally depending on the types of shots being made and the skill level of the players. Rhythm in this context is more about the applied mechanics of your swing.
When you practice your forehand and backhand swing, you don’t just swing with your arm. Your swing starts in your legs with a step into the ball, generating power that flows through your core as you twist and then into your arm for the final explosion of energy.
Rhythm connects the disparate parts of your swing into a smooth motion that can be done over and over. Your opponent may try to speed up or slow down the tempo of a rally to throw off the rhythm of your swing, but that doesn’t change the fact that rhythm and tempo are different parts of the game.
Your rhythm connects swing mechanics, footwork, and balance to make up the majority of the skills you utilize on the racquetball court. It’s important to find your rhythm in practice and, if you lose it, find a way to recapture it so that you can internalize your rhythm in an actual match and focus on your opponent.
Finding Your Rhythm
You may have noticed terms like “rhythm” and “tempo” come from the world of music. That’s not an accident. Many athletes use music to help them get ready for a competition and to help them find their rhythm.
To engage in exercises that will connect rhythm and movement in your mind and in your muscle memory, try skipping rope to the beat of different songs— slow songs, fast songs, and songs from genres you may not always go for, like prog rock or jazz fusion where there are often changes to the tempo and base rhythm.
This kind of exercise also helps reinforce the idea that you want to stay light on your feet while playing racquetball. As you grow accustomed to skipping rope to the beat of different songs, you can expand to running footwork drills.
Remember: during a rally, you want efficiency movement. Keep your torso square to the ball as much as possible and avoid moving your legs across each other on lateral movements. So running drills that have you moving from wall to wall doing the step-together-step footwork that is most effective during a rally to your skipping rope playlist is a good idea.
As you get used to the rhythms of that lateral movement, you can bring your swing motion into the drill—try timing your swing to correspond with big moments in the song you’re listening to. Then bring a ball into things. When you have cemented your personal, internal rhythm, all that’s left is to see how you can adapt your rhythm to actual play.
Rhythm in sports is about internalizing the fundamentals so that you don’t have to think about them when you need to be focused on your opponent and your strategy. Rhythm and movement activities like these help you get out of your own way.
Recovering Your Rhythm
Sometimes during a match, all the athletic development and performance training in the world can’t keep you from getting thrown off your rhythm. A really great opponent can throw you off so badly, you’ll be asking yourself if you even know what is efficient movement anymore.
When that happens, slow down. Your opponent needs to wait for you to get ready before they start the next rally, so take a little time to go through the rhythms you worked on in practice before taking your position to receive the next serve.
Don’t take a huge amount of time, of course, but enough time to do some lateral steps into a forehand swing and take a few breaths is reasonable. That little reminder drill will do wonders to kickstart your rhythm and help you get back in the game.
The Importance of Circadian Rhythms
Rhythm in sports is not just an aspect of your on-court performance. Other rhythms affect your performance. For example, an athlete’s circadian rhythm can play a major part in their success on game day.
Circadian rhythms are roughly 24 hour regulatory cycles for various systems in a person’s body. Everyone has their own individual circadian rhythms. This is why some people are incredibly productive after midnight, and some other people don’t even need coffee in the early morning.
When it comes to circadian rhythms in sports, understanding what time of day your body is operating at its best can give you an edge in competition. But what happens if your tournament takes place early in the morning when you’re a night owl?
While this is a relatively new area of sports science, some scholars suggest that you can temporarily adjust your natural circadian rhythms. By controlling your sleep and light exposure schedules, you can fool your body into thinking it is a different time of day.
This isn’t something you would want to do all the time. But if you have a very important tournament coming, you may want to consider it.
Rhythm in Sports: A Mental Edge
Any strength and conditioning coach will tell you that your physical gifts will only get you so far. The player with the mental edge that plays calmly and with confidence often wins. And the key to retaining your mental focus is your rhythm.
By working to incorporate the fundamental movements and rhythms of your game into your muscle memory, you free yourself to respond to the game as it happens instead of reacting a half-second or more after something happens.
When you don’t have to think about your swing or your footwork, you aren’t thinking about approaching the ball for a shot— you are in the moment, in the zone, taking your shot. To use an old sports cliché, that’s when the game truly slows down for you.
So instead of exclusively working to find the max velocity on your serve or only doing strength training, take the time to find your rhythm. Combine rhythm drills with flexibility workouts and strength training to make yourself into the best all around player you can be.
Rhythm in sports looks different from one event to the next. An in-rhythm football player won’t look the same as an in-rhythm baseball player, and neither will look exactly like a boxer who has found their rhythm. But rhythm plays a part in each of their games.
So fire up a new playlist, let the beat move you, and let that rhythm improve your game. It’s time to dance, and sweet Lady Racquetball is offering you her hand.