Thursday, January 27, 2022

Three Strikes and You’re in




In the sport of baseball the rule is three strikes and you are out, but in the sport of pickleball, it’s three strikes and you are in!

The importance of the third shot in pickleball is a priority on all levels of the game.

Players on an advanced level of play are utilizing the third shot as a strategic opportunity to take offensive control. Once they have progressed beyond the serve, the return, and the return of the return (aka “third ball shot”) these players usually finish out the point, utilizing their advanced level skills of dinks and put-aways.

I want to point out and remind my readers that a well executed and effective third shot is a intermediate/advanced level shot. I do not necessarily recommend a beginner level player to attempt to conquer this shot in a competitive playing situation before they have built a strong foundation of fundamentals in executing their groundstrokes. However, I believe that beginner level players need to be aware of this scenario/ strategy because on advanced levels of competition this is how the game is played. If we achieve to eventually take our game to the next level, we must first comprehend the theory and then, eventually acquire the skills to execute the strategy.



So how do we become confident and comfortable with this shot and the strategies that are associated with it?

First and foremost, we must be able to effectively and confidently be able to serve and return serves. This confidence is derived from a combination of first learning proper stroke fundamentals, along with doing drills and practices, as well as having a certain amount of competitive playing experience.

In advanced level competition, the third shot is a vital part of the strategy of the game; and in open championship level play, you will virtually NEVER EVER see a player miss one of the first three shots of the point!

Also, let me clarify that the third ball strike strategy/option/scenario might not always be available to hit on the third strike of the ball, because if my opponent does a good job of returning my serve back deep into my court, it can be very challenging to hit the third ball back to a location on my opponent’s side of the net, which will allow me to take an offensive position at the seven foot line. The actual strategic success of executing my third ball shot may take me a fifth and seventh shot to eventually work my way up to the kitchen.

At any rate, my goal is to try to get myself up to the seven-foot line, in a strategically neutral, or better yet, offensive position!

The problem that presents itself is that executing a proficient and effective quality third ball scenario shot can be challenging because the opposing team has started the point with one player already positioned at the seven foot line, and if the partner (who has just returned my serve) is an experienced player, they are already making their way to a position at the seven foot line.

As an instructor, I see too many players make the mistake of attempting to smash the third ball either right at, or through the opposing team. While this strategy/shot, can be somewhat intimidating and effective against beginner level players, it is ineffective against an experienced higher level player (or anyone who, has taken lessons with me), because those players will be properly positioned and ready for the opportunity to hit a deflective/ spike put away shot.

So, the smart thing to do, is to attempt to softly place your third shot into an area of the court, which forces your opponents to have to hit a dink on their next shot.

The main problem which makes the “third ball soft” shot so challenging, is that we must be able to executed it from anywhere on the court; and the best way to become proficient at this, is to practice the shot in drills.

If you are a regular reader of my column, then you already know how much I recommend and encourage drills and practice!

A practice drill you can do to help you become proficient at hitting a good third ball shot is to have your practice partner either hand feed or paddle feed you balls to different areas of the mid court. Your goal is to utilize a dink shot from various areas of the mid court and gently drop the ball into the kitchen. If you are a beginner level player, you need to make sure you are practicing this drill utilizing a proper dink/serve grip (See my February 19, 2016 column, “Get A Grip” at, or seek out a qualified instructor to show you proper grip and technique.

Another option, which I like to use for my third ball shot, is to utilize under spin, to gently and softly place the ball just behind my opponents’ feet on their side of the court. There are two reasons why I like this shot. Number one, it is a very high percentage shot. I should not be missing/making an unforced error with this shot. Number two, I am forcing my opponents to back away from the seven foot line and hit a shot below the level of the net, which puts them in a defensive nature when executing their next shot.

So all of you players who are new to the sport and want to improve, make sure that you first have sound, basic fundamentals in all of your shots. Once you are confident with your abilities, then begin to challenge yourself with more advanced shots. With proper instruction and a devoted effort to do drills and practice, you can then take your game to the next level.

Wayne Clark is a certified professional tennis instructor with over 25 years experience coaching players on all levels of the game. Wayne is also qualified in pickleball instruction. He has been the head instructor at The Marco Island Racquet Center since 2001. The Racquet Center offers clinics, private and group lessons for both tennis and pickleball. Coach Wayne’s Island Kids Tennis/Sports Juniors programs run year round, and offer classes for players ranging from kindergarten through high school. Contact Coach Wayne by email at or by phone or text at 239-450-6161.

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