How To Master The Third Shot Drop In Pickleball And Why It’s So Important

Barrett Kincheloe 3rd shot, article, Basics, beginner, improvement, Technique 40 Comments

The third shot drop is an essential shot to learn in pickleball. If you’ve been playing for awhile you’ve probably had more frustrating pickleball conversations about the pesky third drop shot than anything else. I’m right there with you.

If you want to become a top player in your area or if you want to start playing in tournaments, you will have to have the third shot drop a solid part of your arsenal. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs to work. In this article, I’m going to explain to you what the third shot drop is, why it’s important, how to do it and how to get better at it. Let’s roll!

What is the third shot drop?

Before we begin with the instruction, I want to explain what the third shot drop is and why it’s so crucial to master. The third shot drop is a shot performed at or near the baseline that lands softly in the opponent’s kitchen. The shot is designed with mostly one thing in mind: to get your team to the net. Performing the third shot drop, however, isn’t so simple.

In general, this is what it looks like:

The green lines are the pickleball lines!

That’s me on the right. I put my camera on continuous shooting mode to show you what this looks like. Notice the green line. That’s the flight path of the ball. Luckily, the mechanics of the third shot drop are quite simple. The ball sails up into the air and drops into the kitchen.

Easy right? Yeah, not so fast. Sit tight, we’re going over technique and execution later.

Keep in mind that a “drop shot” is simply any soft shot that lands in the kitchen with the intended goal of slowing down the game. What separates the third shot drop and other drop shots is that it’s typically performed at or near the baseline.

Although the distance is only around 29 feet to the opponent’s kitchen line, it feels more like a mile. On top of that, it becomes even more difficult when you add the net, the small landing zone and the two opponents who proportionally look huge compared to the size of the court.

This is why the third shot drop is so tough. But what makes it so important?

Why is it so critical?

This is going to be complicated so please bear with me. The reason why the third shot drop is so critical to learn is that it evens out the odds of winning the rally. I’ll explain. First, look at this image:

This is what a typical opening sequence looks like in pickleball. The serve and return-serve are nothing special. They are standard, simple and quite frankly a bit boring. During these first two shots, players focus on keeping the ball in and follow the double bounce rule. But everything changes when the third shot comes around.

Before we get into it, let me ask you a question. During a pickleball rally, which team has the advantage? In general, the serving team has the advantage because they’re the ones that can score a point and potentially win the game. But if we ignore the potential to score a point, who has the advantage?

The defending team.

Big time.

Scroll up and look at the third pane in the image again. Look at the positioning. Both players on the defending team are standing at the kitchen line and are ready for anything. But if you’re the serving team, you’re all the way back and have very few options.

Remember this: in pickleball, whoever controls the net, controls the pace of the game. Whoever controls the pace of the game is the team more likely to win the rally.

The reason why the defending team has the advantage is that they are sitting comfortably at the net while the serving team is all the way back near the baseline. What should the serving team do on the third shot? Lobbing the ball over the defending team is risky because they can smash it back at you. Driving it straight at them is also risky because they can block it into the kitchen while you’re still at the baseline.

So, if you’re the serving team, how do you catch back up? What do you do? How do you get up to the net to even the odds?

You guessed it: the third shot drop.

As I explained earlier, the third shot drop is a slow, soft shot into the opponent’s kitchen. A well-executed third shot drop accomplishes two things:

  1. Due to how slow the ball travels with this shot, it allows you and your partner to quickly get to the kitchen before your opponent can hit their shot back over.
  2. It forces your opponent to dink the ball over instead of driving or smashing it over.

If you can accomplish these two things then you have successfully evened out the odds of winning the rally since you’re at the net just like the defending team.

The sheer difficulty of the third shot drop is what evens out the odds of winning the rally. It gives the defending team a fighting chance to get the ball back and prevents the serving team from constantly winning points and ending the game in mere minutes. If your third shot drop is well-polished, then you are far more likely to survive the rally and score more points (since the serving team is always the team that initiates the third shot drop). This is why the third shot drop is so important.

How to execute the third shot drop

Understanding the third shot drop is one thing, but actually doing it is a completely different adventure. I want to warn you up front: this is the most difficult shot to master in pickleball and will take you months to get good at. The reason why I’m saying this is because I’d like you to have realistic expectations when you’re working on your technique. If you’re in the middle of a match and all your drop shots are going into the net, try not to get mad at yourself. It’s difficult and it’s going to take time!

The swing

We’re going to begin by talking about how to swing at the ball for this shot. This will give you a solid foundation for the rest of the instruction.

I want to make this as easy as possible. You’re going to swing just like any other swing in pickleball. It shouldn’t be any different. Whatever kind of swing you use normally should be the same one that you use for the third shot drop. Try not to complicate things by adding spin or doing something different than what you’re used to.

You have to make sure your grip is correct too. If you’re using a strong or closed grip then it may be difficult to get the right kind of contact. Make sure your grip is neutral. For more on that, check out my article about how to hold a paddle correctly.

Aim

Aiming the third shot drop is very difficult because it’s hard to see the opponent’s kitchen from where you’re standing. The kitchen is 7 feet deep, but from our angle at the baseline, it looks more like a slice of bacon. Also, there are two people standing there which creates a psychological wall in front of you.

Look, I love bacon, but using it as a target isn’t very helpful.

Aim for the apex, not the kitchen

The third shot drop follows the same principles of physics as anything else. Whether it is a tee shot in golf, a home run in baseball or whatever else, the ball will sail up into the air, then drop. This kind of flight isn’t as pronounced in pickleball as it is other sports, but it’s there. It looks like this:

Aim for the apex, not the kitchen!

Notice how the slope on the left is steeper than on the right. As the ball is traveling through the air, it loses speed and succumbs to the force that we all know and love, gravity. This drop at the end is essential to getting the third shot drop correct. But how do we let this happen?

The key to aiming the third shot drop correctly is to actually aim at or below the apex of the flight path, not the kitchen. As long as you get the trajectory and height correct, the ball will always land in the kitchen.

The apex of the third shot drop will typically be between the landing spot in the kitchen and you. Do this:

  1. Visualize a spot halfway between the landing spot and you (typically your kitchen line).
  2. Visualize this same spot being 5-6 feet high or lower.
  3. Hit the ball towards that spot.

This is how you execute a third shot drop. Let it sail up into the air and gravity will do the rest. If you want, you can imagine a 6-foot person standing at your kitchen line and just aim for their head. Look at the picture above for reference. See how the apex of the flight path is near my head? For context, I’m 5’9″. So aiming a bit below that is perfect me. You’ll have to adjust your aim based on how tall you are. Also, remember that you don’t have to hit it that high. You can aim lower if you like your drop shots to be more narrow.

How it goes horribly wrong

There are many ways that a third shot drop can go wrong. If not done correctly it almost always leads to disaster. This why drilling your third shot drop with a partner is so critical. More on that later. Let’s look at some common pain points that people have with this shot.

You keep hitting it into the net

This is very common, especially for beginner pickleball players. Know this first and foremost: every advanced player has been there. And guess what? We still do it! I’m an advanced player and I still hit my third shot drops into the net sometimes. It’s going to happen. But if it’s happening consistently, then that’s when something needs to change.

Here are a few tips that you can think about when you’re working on your third shot drop.

One mistake I see all the time is people trying to run up to the kitchen and hit their third shot drop at the same time. This is a really bad idea. The reason is that while you’re moving you lose control over how hard you swing. Get set with your feet, step forward, strike the ball, then start running forward.

The next mistake that people make is purely psychological. They are afraid to hit the ball too hard. I totally get that. I used to do this too until someone said the following: it’s better to hit your third shot drop too hard, than too soft into the net. By hitting it harder, you at least give it a chance!

As we’ll talk about in a second, hitting the ball too high can allow your opponent to smash or drive the ball back at you. But sometimes they hit it too hard and it goes into the net. It’s always better to hit it too hard over the net than to hit it too short. Because at least you gave it a chance! Just focus on getting it over!

You keep hitting it too high

Besides hitting it into the net, this is the worst outcome of a third shot drop. If it’s too high, the opponent will either be able to smash it out of the air, or it will bounce high enough to where they can drive it back at you. Either scenario is bad.

If you’re aiming for the kitchen then this could be the reason why. It’s just too difficult aiming for the kitchen and it can force people to hit it too hard. Try what I recommend above which is to hit the ball towards the apex of the preferred flight instead of aiming for the kitchen. You have to practice though. It’s not going to gel with you just by reading this.

The final thing I would recommend is to not be afraid of hitting it into the net. I know it’s intimidating, but try to force yourself to hit softer shots. Do this continually and you’ll eventually get used to it. And of course, keep practicing!

When to NOT use the third shot drop

The third shot drop is often treated as sacred. It’s such an important shot in pickleball that players confuse it for being important to use in all situations. But this is not true!

The third shot drop is something you use if both of your opponents are already at the kitchen line. As I mentioned earlier in the article, using the third shot drop in this situation is your only option. But what if the return serve was a bit short? Or what if your opponent hit it up too high? I have three words for you.

Smack that thing!

Smack it real good! If you have the opportunity to drive the ball back over, then do it! This is especially effective if the opponent hits it up high and short. Drive it back over instead of using a drop shot.

Also, what if you have an opponent that hasn’t run up to the kitchen yet? Should you use a third shot drop? No, definitely not, Remember, whoever controls the net, controls the game. Using a third shot drop, in that case, would only encourage your opponents to run up to the net. That’s not what you want. Instead, hit it to their feet in order to keep them away from the kitchen.

One great drill for practicing the third shot drop

Drilling the third shot drop is really easy especially if you have a partner to work with. If you don’t, just be ready to pick up a ton of pickleballs.

Stand at the baseline and have your partner stand at the opposite kitchen line. Have your partner hit a shot to you, then hit your third shot drop. Each time you hit it, have your partner tell you where it landed and if it was too high or not. Keep doing this over and over!

This is also a perfect drill for your warm up. As I mentioned in another article about how to get better at pickleball, warming up with the third shot drop is critical. This is especially the case if you’re playing on a court that you’ve never played on.

How you visualize and see the shot in front of you is a big part of third shot drops. If you go play at a different pickleball location, then everything is going to look different to you. This could include the lines on the court, the floor, even the net. All of these things will look foreign to you while you’re executing a third drop shot. So before you start playing, warm up with your drop shots first in order to get used to the new experience.

Wrapping up

I can’t stress enough how important the third shot drop is. If you’re looking to play at a high level or at least be recognized as a great player in your area, your third shot drop has to be immaculate. But remember, it’s not used for every situation! I hope the article was helpful to you. If you have any comments or questions leave them below!

Comments 40

  1. Hi Barrett, I’m a big fan of your PODCAST and UTUBE videos! I normally get to the courts early to drill before the crew shows up so I have plenty of time to practice. My issue is how do I drill the 3rd shot drop solo? I tried to drop and hit and even throw the ball in the air and then hit it and I do really well in those drills and then in game time I rarely even get one 3rd shot drop in properly because of the pace. None of my crew wants to drill all they want to do is play.

  2. Have been playing about 6 months now. Have read and watched a bit on third shot drop and this is the best explanation of why and how that I have seen. I get it. Now I have to do it!

    You do a great job of explaining the game.

    Thank you.

  3. Barrett,
    Thanks so much are all your great tips. I am 72 and just starting to play. I am addicted but the game is only played at a church gym. We are getting ready to stripe courts in my church gym and the city has agreed to temporarily stripe two tennis courts for pickleball. I am so excited to introduce the game to my city of Paris, TX. Thank you for all you do for the sport.

  4. Good stuff…

    I’m reading, watching and taking in as much as I can while recovering from an Achilles/calf tear. I have been cleared to do some hitting, but without running or scrambling so I’m beginning to work on serves and now want to work on the 3 shot drop. Thanks for your clear instructions and the diagrams. I come from tennis, table tennis, badminton, squash, and racketball background so I have lots of experience in competitive racket sports. This is a new one that I hope to learn well.

    1. Went to watch the NY OPEN today. Watched the finals of 4.5-5.0 teams….not one lob in any game, and they all had great third shot drops. Need to master this- thanks

  5. I am new to pickleball and started with a very weak or I suppose soft return on serve. It was not intentional but naturally I return most serves into the opponents’ kitchen. Although I have gotten better, stronger and quicker over the past few weeks at hitting deep balls, I still like this return 2nd drop shot as both receiving players are at or behind the baseline and I always win the point, even playing players better then me, as they can never run up and return the ball in time. Am I wrong in doing this?

    1. Not sure what Barrett would say, but I think it’s all about reading your opponents. If they are fast or expecting a soft shot (reading your swing), it’s not a great idea. Lots of things work with newer or less agile players.

      The great thing about Pickleball is if you find yourself in a less than competitive game, work on this shot! And others. You’ll be less apt to do that incredibly annoying thing of never wanting to play with folks you might consider “below your level”.

      Pickleball is a lot like love -in that there are stages you go through while experience it. Those stages in others are painfully obvious once you’ve been there, even though they might be clueless. The “hey, I got MY shot over the net, not my fault we lost the point” phase. The “are people actually trying to avoid playing with me?” phase. (Ouch.) The “oops, I set them up, didn’t I” phase. The “I really only like playing with folks as good or better than me” phase. The “oooh, there’s a lot to this game, isn’t there” phase. Might be others, think this is where I’m at! Lol. Practice, practice, practice.

  6. Great detail; and very well explained! Love the easy-to-understand graphics. Yeah, for a relative newbie, the 3rd shot drop is giving me a rough time. But practice, practice, practice. Thx Barrett.

  7. I’m going to be 82 next month and I am addicted to this game. I play st least 3 time a week, some times 5 times . I have watched videos and try to play with better players. The 3rd shot drop shot has been hard for me to get a hold of. Reading your suggestions should help.

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  8. Hi Barrett, thank you for our weekly tips for advanced play ..this week I have only one thought that is concerning. You mention as we learn the 3rd shot not to be afraid to hit I to net several times .. which when practicing is ok but during match I feel hitting a high 3rd shot is a better alternative and not rush net and go for a 5th shot or 7th shot if necessary. I see too many advanced players rushing net no matter what type of 3rd shot is hit and end up losing the rally with a smash. Practice is o d thing but during tournament play I feel it important to make good judgment and keep ball in play.
    Hopefully I am not misunderstanding.

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      You are definitely not misunderstanding. That is the right way to look at it. During a tournament, it’s best to just get it over.

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      This is a great question that I’m going to be addressing soon. The main answer is a ball machine, but I know that’s out of reach for most people. I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask around and see what other people think. Thanks for the comment!

      1. That’s my problem also. I’m relatively new to the game. I don’t have a buddy that I can practice with. Also, there really aren’t any courts that are open for practice, only for playing. So, even if I did have a partner there isn’t a place we could go to practice.

  9. Barrett, excellent advice. I’m just starting out in Pickleball and can’t wait to apply this technique the next time I’m on the court!

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  10. Barrett
    Some players have told me that when at the kitchen, never retreat.
    It seems to me that when it looks like my opponent, who is at his kitchen, is definitely going to smash it, I need to head for my baseline to try to return his smash (of course while watching for a dink instaead). Agreed?

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      If you don’t have time to retreat, then you should never do it. In general, you should never back off the kitchen line. The big question to ask here is, why was your opponent able to smash it? That’s what I would focus on. Thanks for the comment!

    2. Loved this article. It lets me know that everyone makes mistakes & the 3rd shot drop is a very hard shot to master. I think sometimes I am too hard on myself and need the power of positive thinking to kick in….

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        Glad you liked it! Yes, always remember that it’s a tough shot. You’re going to miss them sometimes and that’s OK!

  11. My swing typically is more like a tennis swing: from the side, a lot of arm. I view this as the core of my pb game while realizing it doesnt do as well against better players, its just where I began.
    What Ive come to realize is that same swing isnt reliable for dinks, doesnt come as natural and is the main reason why its not my go to. And the transistion from hard to soft shots poses yet another difficulty. I know with practice I will get better. I hit 700+ balls twice a week with my tutor. Dink, drive, target dink, target drive, dink, drive, etc….
    What I want to understand are the optimal mechanics of the dink stroke. Heres what Ive observed.
    It must be a compact underhand swing with the paddle making its contact point with the ball and arm in front of your body. It should be more wrist than arm and loose rather than locked out.
    Im interested in what you think.

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      Great job, Geoff, you’ve got the vast majority of it right. I’m glad to hear it. However, the one point that I have to caution you about is the wrist motion. In pickleball, we want to keep our wrist mostly out of the picture, especially for dinks. For the most part, you don’t want your wrist NOR your elbow breaking when you are swinging through a dink. It should be your entire arm motion. This gives you the highest amount of consistency because it brings in the least amount of possible angles when hitting the ball. This is also what is taught in the IPTPA, and I’m pretty sure the PPR as well (both of which I’m certified in).

      Try swinging through the ball with a pendulum motion. Let me know how that works! Thanks for stopping by!

  12. For of a practicing the third shot drop –

    Aiming at about half way between the ball landing spot and you (at the base line) as opposed to “at the kitchen line” according to the illustration photo. (The location of the apex spot)

  13. Hi:

    Just started following your videos, they are very helpful.

    Would like some lessons or a clinic, in which you are involved.

    In what state do you live?

    Tony

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      Hey Tony, I’m glad they’ve been helpful! I’m in Dallas, TX in case you’re from around here.

  14. Barrett I really appreciate your articles, you tube videos, and podcasts… you share your knowledge of the game in a way that’s interesting and easy to understand … especially to someone relatively new to Pickleball and who really wants to improve…!!!
    Also you can tell you have a passion for the game and willingness to share your expertise…! I never expected to love this game like I do …????

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      Hey Lolli,

      You are absolutely welcome! I’m glad that you’re enjoying it. Please let me know if there’s anything that I can do for you.

  15. This is great content and I love your podcast, I wish you would produce more episodes. I recently bought the Selkirk AMPED Epic and am loving it…I might try out the lightweight version as my wrist has been sore for a few weeks straight now. Hmmmmm….

    Keep up the great work!

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      Thanks Scott!

      This isn’t medical advice, but I’ve had wrist soreness as well playing with a paddle too heavy for me. Definitely look into the lightweight version if you can.

  16. Cool idea to aim for the apex, not the kitchen. Can’t wait to practice it! Glad the podcast is back. Keep it up!

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  17. I was taught where the ball peaks so that it lands right in the kitchen but not about where to focus my eyes on. This will really help me improve and be consistent with my third shot drop. Thank you Barrett!

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    2. I’m taking a pickleball class at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, Calif. The class is taught by Professor Ralph Rabago and he teaches the third shot drop apex similar as you do Barrett. As a drill, he has two students hold a rope about six feet high across the court and at the kitchen line on the server’s side of the court. It requires four players, two holding the rope, one feeding the ball from the opposite kitchen line to a player at the baseline attempting the third-shot drop. The goal is to loft the ball over the rope and have it begin dropping just as it goes over the rope (the apex). It’s a great drill, but does require four players to perform. It has helped me when attempting the third-shot drop by visualizing the ball going over a rope. Barrett, thank you for your insight and teaching, much appreciated. If you offer clinics in So. Calif., I would very much appreciate advance notice.

  18. Barrett, that was a great description of a very valuable and important pickleball tool.

    You (and Janna on your podcasts) are providing an incredible wealth of practical knowledge. Thanks SO MUCH for what you folks are doing!

    The article you just posted has to be one of your classics. Stellar!

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