Third Shot Drop vs. Drive – Which is Better?

The third shot is a crucial time during a point in pickleball. So, should you be hitting a drop or drive? Which is better? Here are some guidelines to help you make the right choice.

Photo by chadpryan licensed under (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Before diving into some specific scenarios, it’s important to understand what you’re actually trying to accomplish with either a drop or drive.

Goal of a Third Shot Drop

A drop shot is a slow ball that travels along a fairly pronounced arc. It generally crosses about a foot above the net and lands in or near the kitchen.

The goal of the drop shot is to limit your opponent’s ability to attack the ball. A good third shot drop also buys time for you and your partner to advance to the kitchen without having the ball smashed at you.

Goal of a Third Shot Drive

A drive is a fast, low ball that has a relatively flat trajectory. It’s typically aimed deeper in the court and is often hit with topspin so it can be hit with more power while allowing the ball to still land in bounds.

The goal of the third shot drive is to overpower your opponent or force them to make an error. Note that you’re not trying to necessarily hit the ball past your opponent and outright win the point. Sure, you might get lucky from time to time but that isn’t the goal. Your goal is to get your opponent to:

  1. Hit the ball out or into the net
  2. Pop the ball up

If they hit the ball out or into the net great, you win the point. But if they pop the ball up, you need to be ready to follow up and capitalize on their mistake with a smash. If they return the drive successfully, follow up with a fifth shot drop or drive.

Choosing between a Drop and a Drive

The reason you can’t outright say ‘a third shot drop is better than a third shot drive’ (or vice versa) is because there are variables that fluctuate from game to game and point to point that can make one option a better choice than the other.

Consider some of these factors that can influence your choice:

  1. Court position of the players
  2. Type of ball you’re receiving
  3. The abilities of all the players on the court

When is a Drive a good option?

1. The return of serve is short and bounces high

Whether it’s a mishit or your opponent doesn’t know better, a short return is often a good opportunity to drive the ball – especially if it bounces above knee height.

As a side note – a short, high-bouncing ball is one of the worst ways to hit your return of serve. Don’t do it if you can avoid it.

When the ball is close to the net, it gives your opponents less time to react. This means that the chances of them making an error while hitting the ball move in your favor.

There’s also a good chance your opponents could be out of position if their return is short, which brings us to the next scenario…

2. Your opponents are out of position

A important goal during the return of serve should be to get to the kitchen and make sure you’re ready by the time the third shot comes over the net. If you see that your opponents aren’t going to make it to the kitchen line, keep them back with a drive that lands near their feet.

Not only will it be awkward for them to return a shot to their feet, but you’ll also have the chance to secure your position at the net while keeping them back – a great position to be in. Hitting a drop into the kitchen rather than a drive doesn’t capitalize on their mistake and gives them a clear path to the kitchen line.

This scenario also applies when your opponents have moved off to the side to return your serve, leaving a large open area on the court. Remember, you don’t necessarily have to hit the ball past them – just forcing them run or reach to hit the ball increases their odds of making a mistake.

3. Your opponents have a weak net game

Sometimes you know your opponent’s weaknesses because you’ve played with them before. Other times it becomes apparent during the course of a game.

If your opponents are weak at the net, this can increase your chances of success and limit the risks of a drive. Examples of weak net play include:

  • Poor blocking
  • Weak and/or inaccurate volleys

Why try to to out-finesse your opponents when you can simply overpower them? Use some judgement if you’re in a recreational or open play environment. Driving the ball over and over at new or especially weak net players can make them feel like they’re being personally attacked.

On the other hand, if it’s a competitive game it’s smart pickleball to exploit your opponents’ weaknesses.

When is a Drop a good option?

1. The return is deep in the court

One of the key reasons drives can be effective is because the speed of the ball gives your opponents less time to react to your shot. But, the further away from the net you are, the slower the ball is moving when it reaches your opponent and the more time they have to get ready.

Drives hit near the baseline lose much of their effectiveness and you’re often better off trying to hit a third shot drop and moving up to the net so you’re on even footing with your opponents.

2. Your opponents have a strong net game

If your opponents are excellent at volleying even fast balls and can block well, it can be difficult to force them to make a mistake by hitting a drive. Players with a strong net game can cause a lot of trouble for you and your partner by sending drives back at you low and with speed.

Don’t play into their strengths – limit their ability to attack the ball by dropping it into the kitchen and advancing to a more neutral position.

3. The return is short but bounces low

When the return is short, it can be easy to get into the habit of automatically driving the ball. But just because the return is short doesn’t mean it’s a good candidate for a drive.

Balls can bounce low for any number of reasons. There might be a lot of spin on the ball, it might clip the net, or you simply might not be able to get to the ball in time.

If the ball is low (below knee height), it’s going to force you to hit in an upward motion rather than flat. This means you’re going to have to dial back your power and hit it softer – otherwise it’s going to go sailing out of bounds.

Now, if the idea of hitting a slow drive at an upward angle makes you uncomfortable that’s a good thing. Trying an underpowered drive in this scenario is the perfect setup for your opponents and you should prepare yourself to eat a pickleball sandwich.

Instead, hit a third shot drop into the kitchen and wait for a better opportunity to press the attack.

4. Poor mobility or power

If you have poor mobility or can’t generate power behind your shots (or both), a drop is likely a better option that a drive.

If you don’t drive the ball with power, it’s going to be hard to force your opponents to make an error. And if they do make a mistake and pop the ball up, you need to be ready to move quickly to take advantage.

You also run the risk of clever opponents redirecting a slow drive to open areas on the court and you may find yourself in a losing situation if you can’t scramble to get it.

Wrapping Up

Making the right choice between a third shot drop or a drive can help set you on the path to winning the point. Rather than automatically choosing to hit one or the other, make it a conscious choice that takes advantage of the court position of the players and the ball.

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