We started practicing the lob and overhead this week. When people first start learning to play, or return to pickleball after a long layoff, it is just natural they will hit and receive a lot of unintentionally pop-ups and lobs. For your own safety, I thought I should address the lob — beginning with how you are supposed to drop back that 10 or 15 feet to hit it.
If it is just a pop-up, then just tap it to an open spot. No need to destroy the pickleball in the process. But if it is a real lob, then don’t run backwards! Turn to your right or left side and run sideways, looking at the ball over your shoulder.
Pickleball is won at the net by better players. Conventional pickleball wisdom was that the offensive lob was ineffective because of the small size of the court. However, as players improve, the lob becomes more of a weapon to force their opponents away from the net so your team can take the net.
Hitting lobs on such a small court takes a great deal of control, and I find that I am generally successful when I hit it completely on balance. Remember, in tennis we hit the lob to keep opponents off the net, but the NVZ (No Volley Zone) automatically does that for us. Not only does it keep them off the net, it positions them well for hitting overheads.
I hit it like any ground stroke, so as to disguise my intentions, but I hit under the ball and hit upwards so the ball clears both opponents at net, usually over the middle to create confusion among them. As they scramble, my partner and I move to our NVZ and claim the net.
The surprise lob volley is another effective shot. When in an exchange at net — either volleys or dinks — it can be very effective if you suddenly redirect the ball upwards over their heads. But when you do it, you must be well-balanced, because if you are on your heels in a defensive position and your body weight falling away from the impact point, it will likely float up into your opponent’s wheelhouse.
But the other team also might return the favor and lob you, and your team needs to recover smartly after you are lobbed. This requires teamwork.
If I am on the backhand side at net, and someone lobs me I have two options. I can turn sideways and drop back, or if my partner has a play on the ball, they will call “switch.” My partner has a much better chance with a simple half-turn and diagonal run to recover it than I do turning completely around and moving backwards. If there is a switch, then in this case I will begin to move to the side just vacated by my partner and then work my way back to get parallel with him/her. Once back, we then once again move as a team and try to retake the net as soon as we can.
If you remember nothing more about the lob, the following advice is certain to help you: The key to hitting a successful lob on the small pickleball court is balance. Almost every lob hit moving backwards in a defensive position is either hit to the opponents at net or way long. In this situation, the third-shot drop — not lob — should be the response. Just softly hit the ball into your opponents’ NVZ where they have to wait, and softly and slowly, to buy you time to get back up to the net.
The response to the short or medium lob is the overhead. The overhead becomes an important shot because so many balls get hit into the air in the fast volley exchanges at net. In pickleball, it might take three or four overheads to put the ball away on the small court, but patience and watching the ball very closely are the key.
Hitting an overhead is different than the other shots. It is similar in motion to a baseball pitcher as they deliver a pitch. At impact, you need to be perfectly balanced. If not comfortable with the overhead, let it bounce and hit a simple volley or ground stroke until you have had an opportunity to practice the overhead. However, those holes on the pickleball mean that you hardly ever get a true bounce like from a tennis ball, and you must be prepared for that.
Like anything, the lob and overhead requires practice. When was the last time you went out and practiced the lob and overhead? Your next job is to practice the lob!