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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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)