If you don’t develop an effective third shot drop, your progress will plateau
The Third Shot Drop
Ah, the third shot drop… Much has been written about this shot and rightfully so. In fact, a dependable third shot drop may be the most vital stroke to master if you want to take your game to the next level.
After the return of serve, the intelligent returner will hustle to the kitchen line after hitting the ball deep in the court. The serving team must let the ball bounce and often find themselves deep in the court, facing a wall of players at the kitchen line (okay, only two players, but sometimes it seems like a wall). What to do?
Beginning players are usually just happy to get the ball over the net on the third shot, but of course, those shots often float high and are easily put away by the other team. If you have a powerful, consistent groundstroke, you can hit a “third shot drive”, hopefully handcuffing your opponent, creating an error or a weak short shot that you can come in on and either drive or dink as the situation demands.
However, for many of us, especially if we can’t hit the ball powerfully and accurately, the percentage play is to hit a soft arcing ball low over the net so that it can’t be attacked, enabling us to move forward toward the kitchen line. Until we join the other team at the kitchen, we are at a decided disadvantage. This ain’t tennis! Banging from the baseline when the opponents have control of the net is a trusty recipe for losing at pickleball.
The problem is that making this shot is counterintuitive to the beginner or intermediate player—“You mean you want me to hit a soft, floating ball when I’m all the way back here?” Every coach has heard a variation on that comment. However, this is the best strategy to overcome the disadvantage of being the serving team. So, how do you hit this tricky shot?
The keys to making a solid, dependable third shot drop are set-up, body mechanics, and remembering that it is a “push” shot. If you take a big backswing and hit this shot, you will need to decelerate your stroke as you make contact. Deceleration is the kiss of death in any sport.
Almost every shot you make in pickleball involves accelerating the paddle through contact with a follow-through that is longer than the backswing with the paddle face square to the target at impact.
A short or negligible backswing is especially important to executing a proper third shot drop. You generate enough power to clear the net with proper body mechanics and a long follow-through. In fact, I recommend thinking of a third shot drop as simply a dink with a longer follow- through. Bonus tip: on the forehand drop shot, a secret to eliminating a long backswing is to keep your paddle in front of your right knee (for a right-hander) so it can’t swing back behind you.
It’s also essential to get your legs involved by stepping into the ball from a low position. This adds effortless power to the stroke and gets you moving forward toward the kitchen line, which is your destination after making the shot. Again, “Low, Set, Push” is an effective way to feel this shot.
A crucial key to a dependable third shot drop is to get in the proper position to do all of the above. Move your feet quickly as the return of serve approaches, then once you’re in the perfect position, it’s just a matter of executing the same shot over and over. If you don’t move quickly into position, you make a difficult shot almost impossible by having to lunge or backpedal as the ball arrives. Be quick to the ball, but don’t hurry the stroke.
Now you know how to execute this shot, where should you hit it? If the returner doesn’t make it all the way to the kitchen line, you want to drop or hit the ball at their feet as they come in. If the returner gets to the kitchen quickly, I prefer to hit the vast majority of third shot drops to the backhand corner of the player on the right (or ad, for you tennis players) side of the court as you face them. Most right-handed players can’t aggressively attack balls hit low to their backhand. I’ll go down the middle occasionally, but I try to avoid setting up a potentially aggressive forehand. The advantage of hitting this shot consistently to one or two spots is that you groove your stroke and reduce indecision. Remember, keep it simple. Above all, do what works for you.
Great! Now you know how and where to hit (push) the ball, what next? Well, you can stand there and admire your third shot drop as it floats beautifully into the
kitchen. The problem is that your opponent will probably hit it back deep to you. Then you must hit a fifth shot drop and then a seventh shot drop—you get the idea. After hitting a good drop, you must follow it up to the kitchen. If possible, hightail it all the way up to the kitchen line. You should follow the path of the ball as you move forward as this puts you in the optimal position for the next shot. If you can’t get all the way in, pause as your opponent is about to hit and be prepared to hit a much easier drop over the net before making it to the kitchen line.
Finally, when do you not hit a third shot drop? When the service return is short and bounces high enough, go into driving mode and pound the ball between or at your opponents. And if the returner doesn’t get to the kitchen line as you’re ready to hit the third shot, drive it deep at their feet to force a weak shot and follow that drive to the kitchen.
If you don’t develop an effective third shot drop, your progress will plateau. It is especially suited to the senior player who may need to rely on finesse and guile to play their best. When you develop and hone this skill, your game will take a big step forward and you will be on the path to become the best player you can be!