Badminton has the reputation as a children's backyard game, but enthusiasts hasten to point out that it moves faster than tennis and puts huge demands of speed and athleticism on its players. Instead of a ball, badminton uses a rounded cone-shaped shuttlecock, often nicknamed a "birdie" because it is traditionally made of feathers. These shuttlecocks vary in terms of material and speed, and the type players choose depends on their level and style of play.
Feathers are the traditional material for shuttlecocks, and they are still used in competition-level equipment—16 feathers, to be exact. Goose feathers are the most prized material, though duck feathers are also used. Feathers wear out quickly; writing for the Harvard Magazine, Craig Lambert reports that in an Olympics-level competition, a feather shuttlecock might last only five minutes.
Synthetic shuttlecocks might last longer, but "only recreational players use plastic ones," according to Lambert. Typically made of nylon, these synthetics are durable and inexpensive; the U.S. national badminton program recommends them as "ideal" for beginners and cost-conscious players.
According to USA Badminton, players can buy shuttlecocks calibrated for one of three speeds: fast, medium or slow; they recommend medium for beginners. A "slow" shuttlecock weighs 4.8 grams, and it travels about 120cm less than a "fast" one, at 5.2 grams. Speed refers to the distance travelled by a shuttlecock under the force of an average blow; the overall speed and trajectory, of course, relies a great deal on the skill of the players.
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