Pickleball is a unique game compared to other paddle sports and racquet sports. Where many require power and placement to win, pickleball is arguably a game that leans into touch and placement, with a side of power as needed.
When mixed at the right time, a player can be deadly on the court. Knowing how and when to send a drop vs a drive, or hit an unreturnable dink is what separates a 3.5 player from a 4.0. In other words, mastering the mix with a wider arsenal of shots is how a player becomes more proficient at pickleball.
If you're a player whose pickleball journey is stalling at 3.5 but your ambitions are pursuing a 4.0 rating, then we have 7 shots that just might help get you to the next level.
7 Pickleball Shots to Level Up Your Game
Knowing and mastering the following 7 shots can take your game to a 4.0 level. They aren't easy, and by no means something you should use every moment of every game. But sprinkled into your play at the right time and frequency will surely help you reach your pickleball goals.
- Volley Lob: The volley lob is a shot used to lift the ball over and beyond your opponent's reach, taken from the air.
- Backhand Spin Dink: The backhand spin dink is a cross-court dink that relies on the controlled spin to force an error on your opponents.
- Topspin Roll Volley: The topspin roll volley is an advanced shot that's great to set up an offensive moment and keep your opponents at their baseline.
- Third Shot Drop: The third shot drop creates a ball that's difficult for the receiving team to create offensive opportunities, therefore buying the serving team time to get to the kitchen.
- Erne: An Erne is a shot executed close to the net, sometimes with a fast spin or roll effect, and legally allows a volley over top of the non-volley zone.
- Backhand Punch: The backhand punch is an offensive shot that relies on power and surprise.
- Fake Dink: A fake dink is a deceptive shot that looks like a dink, but ends up being a drive.
That's the agenda then - let's look at the details of executing each shot and when to pull them out in a game.
1. Volley Lob
You know how devastating a well-timed lob shot can be in a game. You also know how instrumental volleys are to pickleball - they're so important that the non-volley zone was created to act as a governor.
But what about the volley lob, is this a part of your game? If not, it should be. At least sparingly like all lob shots. Taken from the air, the volley lob is a great offensive weapon to pull out to shift a dink rally in your favor.
Sending a volleyed lob while standing just outside the kitchen is the equivalent of wearing sunglasses to play poker - you'll be difficult to read.
There are several reasons for this, but arguably the most important one stems from the added power you get on your volleys at the kitchen line. When you take the ball from the air that close, you don't need a big backswing to lob it deep. This shorter backswing makes it almost indistinguishable from your dink shots or volleys during your dink rally.
Your volley lob shot will rely on paddle angle, hammer grip, subdued shoulder movement, and a slight lift at the legs - but not a powerful backswing.
Hitting it out of the air gives your opponent less time to react. They'll be left watching the ball arch over their non-dominant arm as you grin for the win.
When to Use the Volley Lob: Sprinkled into Dink Exchange
First, this isn't a shot you want to use every time you get into an exchange. It's best used as something you mix in every once in a while during dink rallies. It's particularly potent during a battle of attrition where your opponent is expecting you to drive it at them or simply dink it back to the center.
They'll either end up flat-footed or overcommitted at the kitchen line, yet you'll send it overhead and just out of reach. It's a beautiful thing.
2. Backhand Spin Dink
This powerful cross-court dink shot is less than ideal if you're on the defensive, but if you're ready to get aggressive and call the shots, a backhand spin dink can work wonders. This is particularly effective because of the unpredictable spin, your angle for sending the shot wide, and the proximity to the net.
Combined, your opponent is going to have to react quickly, and as the ball moves irregularly on the bounce, they'll have trouble tracking it. To make matters worse for them, depending on your contact height with the ball, you can shift the spin.
Higher contact is better for throwing topspin on the ball since you need to get over it. Taking the ball lower is best suited for a slice because of the lifting motion of your arm and the ball's forward path.
When to Use a Backhand Spin Dink: Offensive Cross-Court Opportunities
This is a cross-court offensive shot, meaning it takes advantage of the lowest point of the net (the center) and is reserved for moments when you aren't in reset mode. So if your only comfortable option is to send the ball down the line or you have flimsy feet, don't try this shot. You need to be in a good position to pull this off successfully.
3. Topspin Roll Volley
This is a difficult shot to master, but it's also one of the most powerful and impressive shots in pickleball. It requires great finesse, timing, and an understanding of when to use it.
The topspin roll volley is taken from the front at around net height where you're able to get under the ball and lift your paddle from a low position to a high position. It requires a mid-powered backswing. This motion and power create some nice topspin and pace to keep the opponents on their far end of the court.
It's most often a great setup shot, but because of the spin and power, you might be able to force an error out of your opponents.
When to Use a Topspin Roll Volley: Keep Opponents at Their Baseline
When you and your partner are at the kitchen line and you've got your opponents back at their baseline, this is a great tool to keep them there. This usually presents itself after the third shot drop, where the receiving team was able to successfully keep the serving team at their baseline on the serve return.
4. Third Shot Drop
Speaking of third shot drops, it wouldn't be a best pickleball shot list without mentioning this one. Sure, it's not as creative as some of the others on this list, but we'd argue it's perhaps the most important shot of the game.
If you ever plan on getting to 4.0, you have to master the third shot drop. In any rally, the sequence goes serve, return of serve, then the third shot. It's the second time the serving team touches the ball and the first shot that gets the live ball past the two-bounce rule.
Strategically, this is a vulnerable time for the serving team because it's the first moment that volleying is allowed during the live ball, and the receiving team will get first dibs at volleying while you've perhaps had to stay back because the ball needed to bounce first before you can respond to the return of serve.
The third shot drop is meant to neutralize the receiving team's ability to control the court by sending soft shots into their kitchen where they can't use it to go on the offense. At best they'll simply be able to return the ball. The ball will fall low and stay out of reach of a volley, and since there's no volleying in the kitchen, their biggest strength based on sequence is no longer a factor.
Either way, it leaves enough time and space for the serving team to make it to their kitchen line.
With a semi-open paddle face and a lighter grip (use your soft hands here), the third shot drop has a little arc to it and lands low.
When to Third Shot Drop: Low and Steady
Well, of course, you should consider this drop shot for the third shot - keeping in mind what your purpose is for the third shot. Your mission is just to get your side to the kitchen line without giving up control of the court. That's it.
So the real decision surrounding when is whether to drop or third shot drive. If you're pushed back to your baseline or your angle is somehow more challenging on your third shot, this is a great time to drop it. The motion is low to high, so it removes the barrier of a poor angle. But the third shot drop isn't just for getting out of jams, it's a reliable third shot, and one of the main reasons people choose to drop instead of drive on their third shots.
Love it or hate it, the kitchen in pickleball is one of the things that truly make the sport unique. This 7-foot stretch from the net is the source of many curses on the court, and at the top of the list is volleying in the non-volley zone. So if you're someone that's constantly falling prey to volleying in the non-volley zone, the Erne might just be the shot for you.
The Erne is a shot designed to truly test the rules of the kitchen as it allows you to hit the ball at an angle, usually down or at a harsh angle right near the net, and is technically a way to volley above the kitchen.
But how could this be? There's no volleying in the kitchen, it's called the non-volley zone after all... Since the kitchen is technically a 2-D area, as long as you or any part of your body (or items you're wearing or holding) don't make physical contact with the kitchen, then you're able to hit over the kitchen. There are three ways to successfully hit an Erne - aka volley the ball over the kitchen:
- Perimeter: If you run around the kitchen (kitchen line to sideline) without your feet touching any line, you can successfully hit the ball out of the air over the kitchen.
- Through: If you run through the kitchen, you're able to hit the ball out of the air if you're able to firmly plant both of your feet outside of the sideline of the kitchen before making contact with the ball.
- Jump: And of course, there's the coolest way to do an Erne, which requires jumping over the kitchen where you take the ball from the air, but make sure you land completely outside of the kitchen and that your start begins outside of the kitchen as well.
When to Hit An Erne: Opponent Struggling at Their Kitchen Line
This won't be the most common shot in your arsenal, or at least it shouldn't, because getting it wrong means you've opened a huge gap on your side of the court or you've committed a fault by taking the ball while touching the kitchen. But one scenario where an Erne is reliably devastating to your opponents is when you're in a dink rally at the kitchen line.
If you send the ball down the line and the opposition has to run toward their sideline to send it back, there's a good chance your opponent hits it into the corner of your kitchen, making it a prime candidate for an Erne response. You'll be able to smash it back or send it into their kitchen at an unreturnable angle.
This is certainly not a shot to overuse - if you become predictable at this, you're using the power of Erne wrong. Oh, and make sure your Erne doesn't break the imaginary plane of the net or touch the net.
6. Backhand Punch
Imagine you're throwing a punch. Now add a paddle to your hand. This is the exact concept and namesake of the backhand punch. Played at the kitchen line, you'll punch the ball to your opponent's side.
The form of your swing is critical in this shot since it's completely at odds with the correct form of nearly all other shots. Where most shots will use the shoulder on your backswing, the backhand punch relies on keeping your shoulder relatively stable and swinging your elbow forward and out.
Unlike many other shots, you aren't trying to hit the sweet spot of your paddle, instead, you want the ball to be closer to your handle and hand, this makes the ball hit truer to the angle of your punch. You want to get leverage on the hit, so your arm needs to angle slightly downward.
When to Backhand Punch: Dink Rally Shock
Three factors need to be met before doing a backhand punch. First, you need to be close to the net, this is why dink rallies are common occasions for the shot. Second, this isn't a shot to force, so if you're in a reset or just on the defensive, don't try the backhand punch. Instead, you need to be on equal footing and see an offensive opportunity.
And lastly, the most important factor, the ball needs to come at you at the right height and be directly in front of you for this shot to work. If it's coming at your feet or you're reaching to your side to make contact, do something else.
This is critical because the punch removes your ability to control the ball, so contact in front of you alleviates this. And coming at the right height, toward the higher end of your strike zone, will ensure you can get enough leverage to put power on this shot and properly get an angle on it. If all three factors can be met then you will without a doubt catch your opponent by surprise, which makes this shot such an effective offensive weapon around the kitchen.
7. Fake Dink
You can put your diploma down since uncovering how this shot works doesn't require advanced credentials. When your opponent expects a dink based on shot sequence or court position, the fake dink sells the dink but drives the ball at the point of contact.
Where the dink leans into your soft game, a fake dink takes the opposite path and relies on power and pop. Shot placement is up to you, but since this is often a shot around the kitchen, aiming at your opponent or down the line works like a charm. If you have the proper angle, going for your opponent's feet is always advised.
This shot definitely requires some acting skills, because the element of surprise is ultimately what will make it effective. To sell the dink, keep your paddle in front - this will remove any tells about what's to come.
When to Fake Dink: Transition and Kitchen
Any time your opponent anticipates a dink is potentially an opportunity to deceive them with a drive. But, typically this will happen in a rally, or when you're positioned in the transition zone headed toward the kitchen. The fake dink should only be used as an offensive tactic to end a rally - anything other than that isn't using the shot correctly.
BONUS SHOT - Around the Post
That's right, a bonus shot on the list. It's earned this honorable mention status because it's less about being a dependable shot, and more circumstantial. It also requires a deep level of understanding of pickleball's rules. But it's such a fun shot to see in the wild when executed perfectly. So that's why we've decided to add it here.
Let's begin by level setting on USA Pickleball's rules pertinent to an around-the-post shot, we'll paraphrase for brevity:
- Rule 11.M. - The ball can be hit around the net post.
- Rule 11.M.1. - The ball doesn't have to travel over the net to be legal
- Rule 11.M.2. - The ball can be returned at any height around the post.
- Rule 11.L.3. - Outside of the posts, you can move into your opponent's half of the court so long as you make contact with the ball and you enter their half after making contact. Breaking either requirement results in a fault.
Many players don't realize this, but many players are never in a position to pull this shot off because it's incredibly difficult. Typically, you'll need some power and spin on your forehand to bend the shot in. You could do this shot with your backhand, but you would need an incredible backhand to do so.
Remember, Variety is Key
As you can see, there is a wide range of pickleball shots that you need to master to excel at the game. No two pickleball games are the same, and you need to be constantly adapting your strategy and shot selection on the fly.
The best players in the world are the ones that can consistently use a variety of shots and strategies to stay one step ahead of their opponents. The more variety you have in your arsenal, the better equipped you'll be to win more points and games.
So take some time to practice all these different pickleball shots, pick one that will be the most useful to your style, and work on it for a while. Then move onto the next shot until you've made your way through all seven.
By the end, you'll be a formidable 4.0.