Picture the scene. You are playing a tennis match and you take on a nice easy short ball. You approach the net and your opponent pops up a high defensive lob.
You step back to hit an overhead, and you miss it…
This is a nightmare that haunts most tennis players on court.
It is embarrassing and can be demoralizing when you’ve worked to get yourself into a good position in the court and you mess up the one ‘easy shot’ of the rally.
However, hitting overhead smashes is not necessarily an easy thing to do.
And more often than not, it is the mental side of hitting the overhead that holds players back.
We will explore the technical elements of hitting a better overhead, but the expectation that so many players have that hitting an overhead ‘should’ be easy can make missing one all the more painful.
Therefore, in order to learn how to hit a better overhead, you need to leave your ego at the door and recognise that this is a shot worth working on!
So, without further ado, we will explore the ways you can improve your overhead and improve your confidence on court!
Recognise the Overhead Early
The first step towards hitting a better overhead is to recognise when to actually hit one.
This may sound like a very obvious point, but so many times you will see players hitting a smash on a ball that is too low, coming too fast or too far away from them.
Therefore, you should predominantly hit an overhead on balls that are slow, high and that you are able to get behind so you can move forward on to the ball.
If the ball is forcing you back so you lose your balance, you would probably be better off letting the ball bounce and hitting a groundstroke.
Similarly, if the oncoming ball is too low, it can be difficult to get under the ball effectively.
This means that your angle of attack will be too shallow and you will likely hit the ball too far down into the net, or too flat and balloon it long.
Both of these outcomes will knock your confidence and leave you feeling frustrated.
Also, if the ball is coming too fast it will be difficult to time the overhead.
You’ll find it much easier to hit a strong high volley in this case, since you will not actually be trying to add any power to a ball that is already coming at speed.
This makes it much easier to time correctly and will give you a lot more margin for error.
Finally, simply recognising that the ball is going to be hoisted high up in the air early is a great way to hit a better overhead.
If you can acknowledge when your opponent is in a defensive position, far off the court and struggling to hit aggressively, you can get ready to hit your overhead much sooner.
This will help you get in position nice and early and improve your ability to put away that overhead with confidence!
Turn, Turn Turn!
Once you have decided that you are going to hit an overhead, the first thing you must remember to do is turn your body.
This is an absolutely essential step that so many tennis players forget to do!
Turning your shoulders, hips and legs so you are side on to the net improves your balance, increases your leverage and gives you a solid base to hit from.
Yet so many players will try to hit an overhead when facing head on to the court, meaning that they will only be able to use their arm to generate power and will likely be off balance as they step backwards.
Start by turning your shoulder fully and stepping back with your back foot, getting yourself into that sideways position immediately.
From there, you can move backwards a lot more efficiently and stay balanced, whilst being in that perfect power position, with your racket up ready to put the ball away!
Prepare Your Racket
You should aim to get your racket into the ‘trophy position’ when hitting your overhead.
Similarly to how you position your racket on your serve, you should aim to have your racket close to your head ready to extend and contact the ball at the highest possible point.
Think of your overhead swing like an abbreviated serve.
You are trying to generate power but are much further up the court, so won’t need a full swing like you do from the baseline.
Make sure to follow through fully and across your body as much as possible.
This will help you hit your overhead in the most natural way and keep your swing as smooth as possible.
Use Your Non-Hitting Hand as a Guide
An often overlooked pointer on the overhead is to use your not hitting hand as a guide.
Extend your non hitting arm and reach out with your hand as if you were going to catch the oncoming ball.
This will help get you into that perfect trophy position, whilst also acting as a guide for the rest of your body to follow.
Aim to have your arm almost touching your ear, so your head, shoulders are aligned.
This will then naturally feed down to your hips and legs, helping to keep you in the most balanced position when preparing to hit your overhead.
Be On Balance
There is nothing worse than trying to hit an overhead from an unstable platform.
Getting into the right position by constantly keeping on your toes is a great way to ensure you are prepared to hit a better overhead.
Make sure to have a nice wide base, by keeping your feet at least shoulder width apart as much as possible.
Also, if you can get the ball in front of you by moving back behind the ball, you can step forward with authority and put that ball away with confidence!
Pick the Right Overhead
Now, this may sound like a confusing tip, as you may be wondering ‘aren’t all overheads the same?
Shouldn’t I try and hit them all as hard as I can?’ Well, as I’m sure many players around the world can testify to, not all overhead smashes are the same.
Trying to hit a high bouncing smash when you are leaning far back and off balance is a recipe for an embarrassing mess that could end up with you landing on your backside!
So, it is important to know which overhead to use for a given situation, so you can avoid any embarrassment and make the most of being in an aggressive position in the court.
If you are receiving a high, slow, floated ball that is relatively easy to take out of the air, then you should be just fine stepping up and attacking this.
You can get on top of the net and use the angles of the court to put this away with relative ease, hitting with as much power as you feel comfortable.
In this kind of situation, you can also add some security to your smash by hitting it with a bit of slice in order to control it more easily.
It can also be easier to hit the smash cross court since you will be swinging across your body.
Whereas, if you are leaning back and off balance, you may be better off opting for an overhead directed down the line or inside out.
This is because you will likely be hitting the ball flatter and have less leverage from your body, meaning most of your power will be generated from your arm and wrist.
So in this case, there is less distance for the ball to travel when going down the line, plus your opponent will likely have less favourable angles to work with.
Also, if the ball is getting far behind you (if your opponent has hit a heavy topspin lob for example), but you still want to take it out of the air, you may want to opt for a skyhook.
This is quite an advanced level overhead, but one that can definitely come in handy.
As you are leaning back, you want to get your racket out behind you, so you can just about reach the ball as it passes over your head.
Once you are confident you are in the right position, you can use your wrist snap to contact the ball and try to aim down into the court, so you can still get some power on the ball.
This is easier said than done, but an option worth considering when hitting off balance or leaning back.
Hitting a better overhead is a great way to improve your confidence on court, as it encourages you to come forward to the net with peace of mind.
You can rest assured that if you hit that aggressive approach shot, you will be able to confidently put away whatever lob your opponents throws up in the air.
Being in the right position, preparing early and choosing the right overhead for the situation are all key elements that will help improve your game.
So go out there and get practicing your overheads, you never know when you might need them!