CJ Johnson Headshot
CJ Johnson
Tony Roig
Tony Roig

Defending the Pickleball Overhead Smash

As you become a better player, you need to learn to defend the pickleball overhead smash. Good defense gives your opponents one more opportunity to make a mistake. After all, every one of us has taken that juicy “meatball” and hit it out or into the net at some point in our pickleball life.


Forcing your opponents to hit overheads can be an extremely effective strategy for certain levels of play. I once watched a team win the 4.0 division at a large tournament almost exclusively by hitting a lob, defending the pickleball overhead smash, and waiting for their opponents to make an error. Side note: As you become a better pickleball player, you’ll face opponents with more consistent overhead, and that’s not a great strategy.

There are two parts to becoming a good defender, so let’s focus on those. Number one, get the ball back in play and give your opponent the chance to mess up the next smash. Number two, take speed off the ball and hit it into the kitchen so your opponent must hit up on the next shot. That requires touch and a lot more practice.

Too often, I see players make a bad situation worse by trying to be overly offensive from a defensive position. When your opponents are at the non-volley zone, and you’re at or near the baseline, they’ve shortened the distance between the teams. That’s taken away your time to react. They are offensive, and your team is defensive. To level the playing field, your team needs to get to the kitchen by hitting a lob, a drive, or a drop.

If you happen to hit any of those shots a little high, the team at the non-volley zone has the perfect opportunity to hit an overhead smash and end the rally. Once you recognize that your team’s return is too high, you know that your opponents’ goal is to hit the ball hard at your feet. Knowing this helps you prepare to defend.

What are the steps to defending the pickleball overhead smash?

  1. Split Step

A split step is a small hop that rebalances you on the balls of your feet and makes it easier to move in other directions.

  1. Square Up to the Ball

If you created a V by holding your arms out in front of you, position yourself in such a way that the V is facing the person hitting the overhead.

  1. Get Low

Your bottom is down, and your chest and eyes are up. Lower the paddle toward the court; after all, you know it’s most likely the ball is coming to your feet.

  1. Keep the Paddle in Front of Your Body

Even if you hit a drive, there is so much pace on the ball that a long swing will add more power, and it could be hard to keep in.

Steps 1 through 4 should be done at the same time.

  1. Watch the Ball

Ideally, you want to watch your opponents paddle contact the ball. The angle of the paddle will tell you the direction of the shot. The earlier your eyes pick up the ball, the quicker your body will be able to move.

  1. Move the Paddle Low to High

Move the paddle in an upward motion to get the ball back into play, even if it gives them another overhead. This is not the time to be the hero. You are defensive. It’s more effective to play the percentages.

  1. Paddle Face

If the ball is at your feet, you need to tilt up or open the paddle face. If the ball comes higher on your body, around the hip area, the paddle face is likely to be more vertical.

Now about that touch……

Once you can get the ball back in play, it’s time to work on softening the shot.

It’s challenging to hit a soft shot with a firm grip. As contrary as it sounds, this is the time to relax your hand and get ready to absorb the impact of the ball.

Move the paddle in front of you and think about meeting the ball. The further back your paddle gets, the less successful you’ll be.

Stay patient. It may take several shots to get them to hit a ball you can return softly. Until then, focus on keeping it in play.

My favorite drill for learning to defend the overhead smash

This game favors the player who’s at the net because they’re on the offensive.

The player on the baseline begins play by hitting a high lob to the player at the non-volley zone. Their goal is to hit an overhead smash and keep the player on the defensive.

The player at the baseline is trying to keep the ball in play and work their way into the net through a combination of drives and drops.

Play each point as if you were playing a game.

A bonus for this drill is that the net player gets to work on their overheads!

If you need some technical help with hitting a better overhead or defending, make sure you check out this playlist.


CJ Johnson

Hey there — I’m a professional three-sport athlete and coach who has spent my entire adult life earning a living from playing and coaching sports. Since I started coaching more than three decades ago, one thing has remained the same: My commitment to see students not as they are but as what they can become and to move heaven and earth to help them realize their untapped potential. You should know that when it comes to helping pickleball players over 50 live their best lives on and off the courts, I'm an expert. Good pickleball is not just technique; it's the mind and body working holistically. That's why I'm also a personal trainer and weight management specialist. When I’m chillin', you'll find me watching Star Trek with my husband John and our two fur babies, Shirley and Ralph. (Yes, Happy Days)


  1. Avatar photo William Bonsell on August 1, 2020 at 5:35 pm

    As a 4.0 rec player it’s my observation that the skill of defending is often overlooked. If you know the ball is coming back from an overhead smash it seems important to me to drop back a bit prior to paddle impact, get low, keep paddle out in front and try to take pace off the smash. Get it back low and soft if possible to reset the point. An overlooked skill in my view. You have poor results if trying to defend an overhead smash while standing inches from the NVZ

    • Avatar photo Cathy Jo Johnson on August 2, 2020 at 5:25 am

      I completely agree with you William, defending is over looked.

  2. Avatar photo CHEN HSU on August 1, 2020 at 6:45 pm

    Excellent teachings! Thanks for your kindness for your able teachings.

  3. Avatar photo Ed Lee , Folsom PB Club on August 4, 2020 at 8:56 am

    Thanks CJ. I like this drill and will add it to our regular drill sessions.

  4. Avatar photo Margaret Dunbar on August 10, 2020 at 7:17 pm

    It is easier to defend a lob from the baseline. What steps need to be taken if you are the nvz or kitchen line ?

    • Avatar photo Cathy Jo Johnson on August 12, 2020 at 7:24 pm

      For most people it’s easier to defend because it’s easier to see the lob from the baseline coming (paddle face), you have more reaction time and you’re not defending a ball hit at your feet. The trick with leaving the non-volley zone is the ability to track the ball while running backward and positin yourself to hit the return back. While it’s not defending a lob from the baseline this video will show you some of the basics. https://youtu.be/1NhvH07dwvQ

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