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How to Return a Lob in Pickleball (and Beat It)

Young man and woman playing pickleball in court with action.

Winning a pickleball match requires a strategy that encompasses its rules and borrows from badminton and tennis. Both tennis and pickleball feature the lob shot. In a lob, the ball travels quite high and lands near the baseline at the court’s rear.

Learn the C-shape run and proper set up of a lob return.

Getting in Position to Return the Lob

Close-up shot of woman playing pickleball.

Unless you hang out at the rear of the court waiting for the shots to fly over the net, you won’t automatically start in the right position to return a lob. In any racquet sport, you move around the court according to the ball’s travel. Since you can’t simultaneously cover the entire court, you need to pick your position.

Somewhere around mid-court offers the least amount of travel either to the non-volley zone line or the rear baseline. When you see that the return of a shot will lob, instead of trying to run backward, try running in a C-shape. This places you in a better position quickly and without the chance of falling over your own feet.

That happens frequently when you try to run backward. Turn around and run to the rear of the court, then turn around to face the net. This forms the C-shape.

You have two choices:

  • Try for a smash shot by hitting the ball at the highest point you possibly can with your arm fully extended to send it back to your opponent,
  • Try for a regular return shot by letting the ball bounce, then striking it.

Which to use? If you just began playing pickleball, choose to let the ball bounce, then strike it. The lob takes a lot of practice to return with a smash.

You’ve no reason to lose the rally by letting it bounce, then return it. If you have lots of pickleball experience, go for the smash as long as you think you can reach the baseline quickly enough. Options for returning a lob serve.

Making the Shot Call

Active retired women playing pickleball.

Deciding which shot to use to return a lob depends on your abilities as a player. Smashes take a lot of practice. You need to stand so that you place the side of your body not holding the racquet slightly ahead of the racquet.

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Put your weight on your rear foot. Point your non-racquet hand up as the ball falls. Striking it as far in the air as possible ensures you create as much leverage as possible.

The human brain judges the arc of the ball to determine where to go to return the ball. The overhead arc proves tough for the brain to judge, but letting the ball bounce offers your brain a new arc, one lower to the ground and easier to judge since it more closely resembles other shots you’d frequently play. When playing doubles, you need communication with your partner to determine who will go to the baseline.

You can use hand gestures or yell at each other or decide to take turns returning shots. Many times, one partner stands closer to the baseline, making it easier for them to get to the ball. Developing a communication code only the two of you know can help you keep your next move secret from your opponents.

One of you needs to remain near the non-volley line to cover that area.

Practicing Returning a Lob

Women playing pickleball outdoors.

How do you practice returning a lob outside of a game? I am so glad you asked! You can use a ball machine, just as tennis players and baseball players do to practice.

Practicing with a machine lets you perfect your smash without losing any games. You could also practice at home if you own virtual reality gloves and a headset. “Pickleball: The Road to 5.0” for Oculus Quest offers specific training strategies.

Another Oculus option, the “Pickleball” VR game, lets you practice at home against a VR ball machine, the game, or play against an opponent.