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Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Overhead Smash

Recent posts have discussed raising the level of controlled aggressiveness in your game. It is time to talk about the single most aggressive shot in pickleball – the overhead smash (or slam). While balls hit above the net can be volleyed aggressively, even to the extent of a swinging volley, nothing compares to the overhead. This is due to one factor – the height of the ball at contact point. A high ball allows the overhead to be hit downward using the leverage of a full arm extension and wrist snap (or pronation).

Overhead shot opportunities always result from an opponent’s mistake, generally a lob that is either too low or too close to the kitchen. An overhead should be hit only when the ball is high enough that you can reach it with the center (sweet spot) of your paddle using a full arm extension. A volley should be used on any ball below that height. Hitting an overhead on a lower ball will usually result in a ball hit into the net.

The overhead is a forehand shot and, therefore, a forehand grip is necessary. The continental grip is recommended because it naturally allows the paddle to slice through the air during the swing and then to open in order to hit the ball squarely at the contact point. See The Grip for a proper continental grip position.

A short lob is hit softly and gives a defending player sufficient time to both fix the grip and gain the proper body position for the overhead shot. As soon as the shot is recognized as a lob, the player should turn his shoulders and position his body and feet into a sideways position. If necessary, the player should move back in this sideways position to get under the lobbed ball.

Safety note: Never, ever move backwards while facing the net. Players of any age and athletic ability can lose their balance while leaning backwards and fall, resulting in their head striking the floor. All movement toward the back of the court should be either sideways or facing in that direction.

As you position your body sideways, both arms should come up. The paddle should be ready with a bent elbow behind the head. The opposite arm should be aimed at the ball, with many instructors stating that the index finger should point at the ball. This position provides balance and reinforces the focus of the head and eyes on the ball over the non-paddle arm shoulder.

The swing should be timed so that contact with the ball is in front of your body. Step forward with your foot opposite the paddle arm to provide body inertia into the shot. Most power will not come from the body but will come from the swing itself, however. The arm should be fully extended providing plenty of leverage for power. Still, most of the power is generated by the wrist snap. The ball should be contacted with the paddle perpendicular to the court. Then the wrist should immediately snap/pronate downward to drive the ball down. Without the pronation, the power of the swing would drive the ball beyond the baseline. The following photo shows the point of contact in front of the body, although the paddle is unfortunately out of the frame.

Follow through across the body and bring the rear foot forward and back into the ready position or moving toward the kitchen. A short video called How to Hit Quality Overheads from Mark Renneson explains the overhead smash motion.

The targets for an overhead shot are dependent on the opponents’ positions. Aim for their feet if they are at the kitchen line or in the no-man’s land between the kitchen and baselines. Aim for an imaginary line 2 feet inside the lines – either baseline or sideline – if they are back beyond the baseline. Use the middle of the court to your advantage. Despite hitting a pickleball with all your power, the physics of a wiffleball slows it down by the time it bounces near the baseline. Good players will make returns of overheads from there. But a middle shot creates momentary indecision and brings both opponents toward the center of the court. This creates openings down the sidelines for the next shot. 

There are also a couple of checkpoints to watch for with overheads. If the ball is consistently going long, the contact point is normally not far enough in front of the body. The ball is being hit more flat than downward. If the ball is consistently hit into the net, the contact point is normally too far in front. The ball is being hit more downward than flat. Both are common results when playing outdoors in windy conditions. Wind impacts lobs more than most shots because they are softer and higher. Windy conditions require more selective use of overheads in order to keep the ball in play.

One final point is needed regarding overheads. As noted above, overheads are forehand shots. However, a backhand overhead can be hit when unable to get into proper forehand position. The shot is very difficult, though, because the wrist pronation is not a natural motion. My recommendation is to instead use an aggressive volley that avoids the wrist snap. 

A second Deb Harrison video called How to Hit an Overhead emphasizes the required wrist snap of the forehand overhead smash.

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