There’s a good argument to be made that the third shot drop is the most important shot in pickleball doubles.
A well-placed third shot pickleball drop shot gives the serving team time to get into the net. Once there, the serving team has a better chance of controlling the rally and winning the point.
However, since there’s no risk without reward, a bad third shot drop can also result in an error - or could give the returning team a chance to put the ball away and get the side-out.
Looking to get your 3rd shot drop to the next level? Read on for tips on:
- Where to hit your 3rd shot drops
- Driving versus dropping the 3rd shot in doubles
- Technique to ensure consistency on both your forehand and backhand side
- The drills used by the pros to master the 3rd shot drop
What is the Third Shot Drop in Pickleball?
The third shot drop in pickleball is the 3rd shot in a point. It is hit by the serving team after an opponent has returned the serve. Third shot drops are hit softly 2-3 feet over the net, before ideally landing softly in the kitchen with a low bounce that’s not attackable by the opponent. The goal of the 3rd shot drop is to allow you and your partner time to get to the net to start a dink rally.
Here's a quick clip explaining what the 3rd shot drop is in a rally:
Why is the Third Shot Drop so Important in Pickleball?
The third shot drop is important in pickleball because it’s the shot that neutralizes your opponent's offensive advantage and gives you and your partner time to get to the net, where you have a better chance of controlling the dink rally and winning the point.
Hit the 3rd shot drop well and you greatly increase your chances of winning a point. Hit it poorly and your likelihood of losing the point increases dramatically.
Here's an example of a good 3rd shot drop setting up the receiving team up to win the sideout:
And a poor 3rd shot drop where the receiving team never has a chance to win the sideout:
Where to Hit the Pickleball Third Shot Drop
3rd shot drops should be hit softly a few feet over the net, so the ball lands in front of the opponent and a few feet in front of the kitchen line. 3rd shot drops can be hit cross court or down the line, but usually should be hit cross court – the net is lower in the middle and the ball has to travel further giving you more time to get to the net.
Here's a quick clip to show you a well-executed third shot - it's hit cross court, softly and lands so the opponent has to hit up on the ball to play their 4th shot:
The key is that the ball stays low with a soft bounce so it is not attackable by your opponent!
The best 3rd shot drop is the one where your opponent has to dink the ball back over the net, or lift the ball up to get it over the net. Both scenarios give you time to get to the kitchen line and start a dink rally.
How to Hit a Third Shot Drop in Pickleball
Your pickleball third shot drop technique will vary depending on what kind of player you are and the strokes you are comfortable hitting.
You can send the ball soft and low so that it goes just over the net, or hit the ball 2-3 feet over the net with a slight arc that causes the ball to quickly drop in front of the kitchen line.
3rd shot drops are commonly hit flat without spin or with a little bit of slice/underspin. It’s usually easiest to go with no spin or a slice, since the whole point of a third shot drop is to take the power off the ball.
The key is to find a third shot drop technique that you can consistently hit softly into the kitchen area, and then perfect it!
How to Hit a 3rd Shot Drop: Forehand
Third shot drops are hit using much shorter swings than you would use on a full groundstroke.
Using a shorter swing helps you hit the ball more softly, and shorter strokes are easier to execute than long or full strokes (short strokes may feel unusual at first but once you practice a few you will get the hang of it!).
Pro pickleballer Tyson Mcguffin explains and shows the proper technique in this short clip:
In addition to using a shorter swing, keep the paddle head pointed towards the ground.
As the ball arrives, keep an open stance and contact the ball 1-2 feet in front of your body, using an upward lifting motion with your arm and shoulder. Accentuate the follow through so the paddle ends up at or above your head. The goal is to "lift" the ball softly toward your target.
When hitting a forehand third shot drop, also remember these important tips:
- Footwork is critical! Use small steps to move your feet and get in position to hit the ball.
- Bend your knees with slightly more weight on your front foot!
- Envision a target circle 2-3 feet above the net and gently strike the ball using your knees, arms, and shoulder to lift the ball toward the target.
- Run to the kitchen line to get in place for a dink rally.
How to Hit a 3rd Shot Drop: Backhand
Much like a forehand, hitting a backhand third shot drop requires you to shorten your backswing and take power off the ball.
Use the same form you would use hitting a normal backhand, except with a much shorter swing. Cut it by half at least, so that you’re not powering through the ball.
Use the same tips above in the forehand section to get in position, transfer your weight, and hit your 3rd shot drop.
For both the forehand and backhand, make sure you use your normal follow-through with the paddle moving toward the target! Shortening your follow-through makes it much harder to control where the ball will go and can result in more balls hit in the net.
Pickleball Third Shot Drop Drills
Looking to improve your 3rd shot drop with practice drills?
There are a number of 3rd shot drop drills you can practice with a partner or by yourself.
Try these drills for starters:
Practice against a wall or backboard:
- Draw or tape a line 34 inches off the ground (pickleball nets are 34” in the center and 36” at the posts).
- Mark or tape a large X (a 1-2 foot circle works too) 2-3 feet above the net line.
- Stand 15 feet away from the wall and practice using short strokes to gently lift the ball toward the circle or X.
Here's a modified version of the same drill:
Your partner stands cross-court at the kitchen line and feeds the ball deep to you at the baseline. You then practice sending the ball back to land at their feet.
- Practice hitting 10-20 shots in a row without missing with your partner returning each of your 3rd shot drops back to you. And remember - hitting a high 3rd shot drop is better than hitting it in the net!
- To increase the challenge, you can also play games to 7 or 11, where your partner feeds the ball to you, you hit a 3rd shot drop, and then you play the point out on half the court (e.g., cross court to one another) as you would in a doubles rally.
If you have access to a ball machine, use it to practice sending your third shot drops to a target (cone, racket cover, etc) 1-2 feet in front of the kitchen line where an opponent might stand during doubles.
With all of these drills you can also practice different spins and arc heights to get a feel for the type of 3rd shot drop you can consistently execute.
Third Shot Drive vs. Third Shot Drop in Pickleball
Is it better to drop or drive your 3rd shot?
The answer is that both shots are great to have in your arsenal, but you should be using a drop shot more often than a drive on your 3rd shots in pickleball doubles.
Drives may work well against lesser players, but against good players drives will be blocked back to you and there won’t be much time to get to the net since the ball is traveling fast.
Drives are good on occasion to keep your opponents guessing, but the drop shot is much more important and should be your focus 80-90% of the time.
Of course, if you can hit 3rd shot drives like this then fire at will:
It's usually best to drive the ball when the opponent hits a short return (5-6 feet in front of your service line). Drives should be hit low over the net and be directed at the opponent that hit the 3rd shot drop and is coming into the net (and not the opponent already at the net!).
A good third shot drop will put you in position to win the point much more often than a 3rd shot drive will. Trust us!
Third Shot Drop Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How Do I Return a Third Shot Drop in Pickleball?
With all the emphasis on a third shot drop, it’s also good to practice your fourth shot strategies to counter it if you’re on the receiving side.
Most of the time, you’ll want to dink the ball back crosscourt to the kitchen line, since your opponent may still be on the move to the net and not yet set to make their next shot.
Similarly, if the third shot drop was high you can volley the ball back at the feet of either player. Make sure you’re well-set and have a good read on the trajectory of the ball, to avoid putting your feet in the kitchen.
Why is the Third Shot Drop So Hard in Pickleball?
3rd shot drops are tough shots to hit because they are a defensive shot hit while your opponent is rushing to the net.
Another reason the third shot drop is so hard is that you are trying to take the pace off your opponent’s return, and this is difficult for most players.
Finally, 3rd shot drops require precision and are hit in a small area of the court - so there is a small margin of error. It is easy to miss a 3rd shot drop in the net or hit it too high, giving your opponent an easy put away.
Inexperienced players will too often try to hit a third shot drop by shortening their follow-through, rather than shortening their backswing. This usually results in more errors or weak shots that an opponent can attack.
How Do I Improve My Third Shot Drop in Pickleball?
Just like most things in life, practice makes perfect! Use the drills we outlined above to improve your 3rd shot drop, and once you have a good consistent shot, work on adding a variation using spin, no spin, or topspin. The more types of 3rd shot drops you can hit the more advantage you will have during games!
You can also use the drills above to work on getting your backhand as good as your forehand.
Is a Third Shot Drop Important in Pickleball Singles?
Not in the same way as it is in doubles. Because you have more room on the court, a third shot drive or a passing shot is easier than in doubles - so those shots are more important.
Of course, having a great 3rd shot drop allows you to alter the rhythm of the game in singles. You can use it to get to the net quickly, and to keep your opponent on their toes.
Third Shot Drop: Summary
The third shot drop is one of the most important shots in pickleball doubles, and one that can win (or lose) games.
Sending the ball back with no power to fall at your opponents' feet on the kitchen line takes away their offensive advantage, and allows you and your partner to get to the net.
The third shot drop is an essential technique for all pickleball players, at all levels of experience. No other shot in pickleball doubles has the potential to turn the tide of a game so quickly. Master it, and gain a competitive edge in your next pickleball doubles outing!