When you first learned to play pickleball, were you told to run to the non-volley zone right after the third shot, no matter what?
If so you’re not alone, it’s pretty common, that’s how I was taught. Immediately running to the net is excellent advice if you’re the returning team, or if you happen to be playing with a 5.0 pickleball player whose third shot is exceptionally consistent. If not, you probably found out relatively quickly that when you’re the serving team, running to the net as fast as you can after your third shot is not always the best strategy.
If you’re hitting the return, it’s easy to plan your approach to the net based on your shot choice.
When the return goes to your partner, it requires a little bit more awareness, but you know they’re going to hit one of three shots a lob, a drive, or a drop.
That begs the question, how does the serving team transition to the non-volley zone?
No matter which shot your partner chooses, your first move is to take a small step into the court, so you’re standing just inside the baseline. That small step gives you the ability to run for a short drop shot. Additionally, it positions you to watch the trajectory of the ball and determine if you need to remain in this position to defend or can move closer to the non-volley zone.
Your partner’s choice of shot and the trajectory of the shot determine how to move to the net. Let’s start with the lob.
Third Shot LOB
Unquestionably a baseline defensive lob is my least favorite shot. I cringe when I see players hit it.
Why? Our opponents are established at the non-volley zone, and they have already taken away our time to react. If my partner hits the lob anything but perfect, there’s a smash coming back towards us. We don’t have an opportunity to move toward the net. Our only choice here is to get low and to get into a defensive position to keep the ball in play and to reset the point.
Watch the trajectory of the lob, and if you think it’s going to land behind the players at the net, that’s when you start moving forward if you can’t tell by the trajectory alone glance at your opponents. When they turn to move backward, that’s a sign that you and your partner should run to the non-volley zone.
Third Shot DRIVE
Next, let’s talk about the drive. Most players set up for a drive differently since a drop requires an open paddle face, and a drive doesn’t. Watch how your partner prepares to hit the ball. If you think they’re driving, limit your forward motion to another step or two. Your opponent’s position at the non-volley zone takes away your reaction time. If you stay back just a little bit, you’re in a better position to defend a well-blocked drive.
Third Shot DROP
If you see your partner set up for the drop shot, pay attention to the trajectory of the ball. Do you think that the apex of the bounce will be below the net? If so, it’s less attackable, and you want to move closer to the non-volley zone.
When we first start playing pickleball, it’s difficult to determine our movement based on the ball trajectory alone. Another clue is if you see your opponents beginning to bend, that means they think the ball is dropping relatively low, and that’s like a green light to move forward.
Be prepared to stop the minute you think the ball is attackable or your opponents are ready to hit.
One additional point to moving forward effectively for the team. If one partner moves forward while the other stays back, there is a gap between the team, and it’s difficult to defend.
It takes time and practice to develop the visual sense based on the trajectory of the ball and then move your body accordingly.
Here’s a drill I use to help people fine-tune their visual skills.
Stand at the baseline and try to hit unattackable third shot drops into the kitchen. As you hit the shot, call out Yes if you think it’s attackable or no if you feel it’s not. Your partner at the net should attack anything high over the net.
Hey there — I’m a professional three-sport athlete and coach who has spent my entire adult life earning a living from playing and coaching sports. Since I started coaching more than three decades ago, one thing has remained the same: My commitment to see students not as they are but as what they can become and to move heaven and earth to help them realize their untapped potential. You should know that when it comes to helping pickleball players over 50 live their best lives on and off the courts, I'm an expert. Good pickleball is not just technique; it's the mind and body working holistically. That's why I'm also a personal trainer and weight management specialist. When I’m chillin', you'll find me watching Star Trek with my husband John and our two fur babies, Shirley and Ralph. (Yes, Happy Days)