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How to Make the Most of a Third Shot Drop in Pickleball

Coach Mike Branon is the bestselling author of “Pickleball & The Art of Living”

Mike Branon

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This video instructs you on mastering your third shot drop. Having a good third shot drop that’s dependable can really change everything about your game. It’s your ticket to the no-volley zone, where once you’ve arrived, you overcome that positional disadvantage of being the service team. 

The third shot is hit by the serving team and is the first shot that can be attacked out of the air. Therefore, you have a crucial decision to make – hit the ball hard or drop it softly over the net and move forward. If you hit it hard, you should have a solid ground stroke to keep the ball low over the net and in play, but even if you hit a good low forehand, you’ll have a harder time moving forward before the ball comes back to you. If the other team can keep you back, they control the court and the outcome.  

Once you learn to drop the ball from deep in the court, you make your opponent hit up on a low ball that they can’t attack. This gives you time to move forward and play the next shot from a much better position. It also makes for longer points and more fun when you get to the non-volley zone where you can use your finesse game to out-dink and outplay younger and more athletic players, and it sets up a variety of different attacking shots for when the time is right. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with hitting a third shot drive, but it needs to be powerful and dependable.  

Just like a drop shot, a drive works better when you move forward into mid-court to take advantage of a short return. From there, you or your partner can play a fifth shot drive or drop. With more young powerful tennis players coming in to pickleball, the third shot drive has become more popular, but the third shot drop is usually the smarter play to get you to the kitchen, where ability is more important than mobility. 

Preparation is key. The service return will arrive in various locations at different speeds. It’s up to you to move quickly and set up properly, so you’re hitting the same stroke as often as possible. When you get to the ball, you should be low with knees bent and the paddle in front of your legs. Your knee will serve as your backstop so you’re not tempted to take a back swing. As you play the ball, remember that this is a push shot. Pretend that this is a long drink. The only difference is you’ll be stepping into the ball and using a longer follow through to generate enough distance without hitting at the ball and losing touch.  

Accelerate through the ball with no back swing and a relaxed grip. This is a finesse shot. Hitting at the ball will cause it to pop off your paddle and drift high and long. You can also play the third shot drop with a hybrid stroke that is actually a controlled medium speed topspin ground stroke. Loosen your grip, drop the paddle head a bit, and brush over the ball from low to high. This shot is a little harder to master, but quite effective since it’s dips down instead of potentially sitting up.  

Finally, you never want to gaze adoringly at your third shot drop. Hit and move forward immediately as far as you can until your opponent is ready to make contact. If you’ve hit a good drop, your opponent is forced to hit up on the ball and you can easily continue to the kitchen on the next shot. Sometimes it takes a series of drops and split steps to make it to the kitchen. If you get a high ball on the way in attack, if your opponents can keep hitting at your feet, patience is needed to get the job done.  

Drop shots from deep in the court to mid-court are really worth spending the time to drill and practice on. You want to perfect these shots, especially if you’re a senior player since they keep your opponents from attacking high balls and enable your team to move forward to the kitchen where it becomes more of a 50/50 game. If you find that you’re playing from back in the court and just hitting at balls, especially low balls around your knees and just hoping they go over, that’s a sign you need to put in the time to become a drop shot artist. Control pace, control height, and then move forward, putting yourself in optimal position. Now there’s times when you want to drive the ball too. The third shot drop isn’t the only shot you can hit, but don’t just swing at balls that you really can’t handle and hope when you’re better off playing that patient game, getting a much easier shot to put away the next time. Third shot drops, resets, and other drops and dinks are the signature shots of savvy veteran players who understand that patience, control, and selective aggression are the real keys to winning the ball. 

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