How Badminton Works

Whether it's serious Olympic play or leisurely backyard fun, badminton remains a popular sport. See more sports pictures.
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Plenty of records were set during the badminton matches at the August 2012 Olympic games in London. The most-ever nations participated (51) and the highest-ever number of nations won medals (seven). To top it off, scores of spectators clamored for tickets, ensuring each game was a sold-out event. Unfortunately for badminton, however, the sport's female participants racked up another milestone, too, when they became part of the first mass disqualification in Olympic history.

During the 2012 Olympic badminton doubles tournament, officials determined two teams from South Korea, one team from China and one team from Indonesia were purposefully losing early-round games so that they could face less competitive teams as the tournament wore on. As a result, the eight players involved were disqualified [source: Associated Press].


When the games began, few would have imagined badminton, a pastime that evolved from a child's game, would cause such controversy. In fact, badminton has been played for centuries in backyards and schoolyards, with most matches ending with presumably little debate.

One of the earliest sports to resemble badminton closely was recorded in 5th century China, where players used fancy footwork to punt a shuttle back and forth. The popularity of the game, Ti Jian Zi, which loosely translates into "shuttle-kicking," spread. Reports of similar games, some involving hands or primitive racquets instead of feet, have been discovered in ancient Greece, classical Japan and colonial India. In fact, children in India could be considered the first badminton aficionados. They played a badminton-like game known as Poona, which was named for a city near Bombay. British Army officers stationed at Indian outposts during the 1600s quickly adopted the game and introduced it others on their home turf.

In England during the 1800s, the game was called battledore or shuttlecock, named for the shuttle that participants batted over a net. It became a favored pursuit of the country's wealthiest classes. When the Duke of Beaufort organized a game on the lawn at Badminton House in Gloucestershire in 1873, it signaled the beginning of the game's modern era. Enthusiasts adopted the badminton name, and by 1934, the International Badminton Federation had been formed. It now counts more than 140 countries among its members [source: CBC News].

So, what are the rules of badminton? Read on to learn more.


Badminton Rules

Much of a player's badminton success centers on the ability to hit a 2.5-inch (6.4-centimeter) birdie weighing less than a quarter of an ounce. This birdie, also known as a shuttle or shuttlecock, features a semicircle-shaped base made of cork. Traditionally, this cork base is flanked with 16 glued and overlapping goose feathers. Over time, however, the feathers become fragile and break; serious amateurs and professionals may go through more than one shuttle during a match [source: NBC Olympics].

The cone-shaped shuttles used by most backyard players substitute a plastic skirt for real feathers. Whatever the material, the shuttle is an aerodynamic wonder. No matter which part of the shuttle is hit, it will always turn so the cork end travels through the air first.


Whether a player can win a game, however, largely relies on the ability to bat this cork-laden shuttle over the net. Badminton games are won when a player or team of two players reaches 21 points, a relatively new benchmark set by the Badminton World Federation and one used at the 2012 Olympic games. In the past, badminton games were scored to 7, 11 or 15 points. The games are played in best-out-of-three matches [source: Badminton World Federation].

Before you take a swing at a shuttle, it can be helpful to know some of badminton's common terms.

  • Serve. To begin the game, a player uses a racket to hit the shuttle using an underhand and upward motion. The shuttle must be hit with the racket before the swing goes above a player's waist. A serve also is used to resume the game after a point is scored.
  • Rally. A rally occurs when the shuttle is hit back and forth by players on opposing sides of the net. A rally continues until the shuttle drops or goes out of bounds. Each player may hit a shuttle only once before it goes over the net.

Badminton courts measure 20 feet by 44 feet (6.1 meters by 13.4 meters), and the many lines that mark the playing surface sometimes perplex novice players. The largest court outline is used when playing doubles; an outline 1.5 feet (0.5 meters) inside of the largest outline is used when playing singles. Of course, many backyard matches are played without a clearly marked court at all.


Badminton Scoring

In badminton, first team to 21 points wins.
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To score a point in badminton, you must first play the game. And to do that, you must decide which player will serve first. At professional matches, a neutral third-party often tosses a coin. Other times, a player will simply throw the shuttle into the air; the player it points toward upon landing will serve first, making this method a bit like spin-the-bottle for badminton.

The official Badminton World Federation manual features several pages of rules. For most players, a few basics will suffice. Rule No. 1? Every serve will result in a point, and the first person (or team) to reach 21 points will win the game. Players then compete again to win the best two out of three. This scoring system seems easy enough, but there's a catch: You must establish a two-point lead to take the game. For example, if you have 21 points and your opponent has 20, you can't declare victory. This means that players occasionally rack up more than 21 points so the leader can gain a two-point advantage. Even so, the first player to reach 30 always wins (even if it's only a one-point lead).


You'll also need to know where to stand when you serve. There are service courts outlined within the larger court, and whether the server stands in the right or the left service box depends on whether the score is even or odd. For example, if the score is an even number, a player will deliver a serve from the service box on the right side of the court to the opposing player in the left court. If the score is an odd number, the player will switch to the left service box.

Scoring in doubles is similar, and this tri-fold tip may help you stay in the correct position: When you serve, the service court you stand in will be dictated by the score (even or odd). If you win the rally, you serve again -- but from the other side of your court. Receiving players don't switch sides when they get the serve; they just need to follow the even/odd rule [source: Hopley].

Once you have a clear understanding of the rules under your belt, it's time to perfect your tactics, including the three most popular forehand shots outlined on the next page.


Badminton Tips

The first time I went miniature golfing, I lined up the ball, gripped the club -- and sent the pitted orb flying across the street. Turns out, there should have been a little finesse involved. The same is true of badminton. Becoming a force to be reckoned with on the badminton court requires mastery, not brute strength, and these three forehand shots are a good place to start.

  • Lobs. Considered one of the most important shots of the game, a lob sends a shuttle high into the air, where it follows an arc that drops steeply to the back of an opponent's court near the boundary line. This shot is sometimes known as a "badminton clear."
  • Drops. A drop shot doesn't attain the height of lob, but drops steeply to the front of an opponent's court near the net.
  • Smash. As the name suggests, this stroke requires a racket to come from behind the back and over the head so it can "smash" into the shuttle. It works best when a player makes this shot close to the net, as opposed to the back of the court. It's the badminton equivalent to a "spike" in volleyball [source: How to Play Badminton].

You'll also want understand the moves that could put you at fault, which means you either lose the serve or lose a point. Here are some common mistakes:


  • Touching the lines. Keep your feet off the lines, whether you're serving or receiving.
  • Delaying the serve. While the adage "a bird in the hand" may run through your mind as you prepare to hit the birdie, don't let it keep you from swinging. If you take more than five seconds, you could be deemed at fault. However, you can vary the amount of time you hold your serve -- and this could keep your opponent guessing.
  • Hitting the net. Coming into contact with the net -- either with your racquet or person -- is against the rules [source: Hopley].

It seems like there's a lot to learn, but people have been playing backyard badminton for centuries. Before long, you may feel like a pro, too, if only at your family reunions.


Author's Note: How Badminton Works

In my extended family, every reunion includes two things: lots and lots of food, followed by a rousing sports match that usually ends in accidental injury. My nephew sported stitches after standing too close to his sister's golf swing; my sister-in-law fractured a wrist after an unfortunate flag football takedown; my daughter flew off her horse during an impromptu polo match and we collectively discovered that tennis racquets can't stand up to hedge-apple volleys. Badminton, however, is another story. Give us a hastily strung net and a feather-tipped birdie and you'll see soaring, yet pain-free competition. Fantasy football, however, may be another matter entirely.

Related Articles


  • Associated Press. "Badminton Open to Olympic Changes After Scandal." Aug. 5, 2012. Sports Illustrated.
  • Associated Press. "Chinese Badminton Player Blogs 'Farewell' to Sport." Aug. 2, 2012. Sports Illustrated.
  • Badminton World Federation. "Simplified Rules." (Aug. 7, 2012)
  • CBC News. "Shuttle-kicking? Battledore? Poona?" Aug. 7, 2009.
  • Hopley, Mike. "The Scoring System in Badminton." (Aug. 7, 2012) The Badminton Bible.
  • How to Play Badminton. "Bandminton Smash." (Aug. 7, 2012)
  • NBC Olympics. "Badminton Equipment." (Aug. 7, 2012)