CJ Johnson Headshot
CJ Johnson
Tony Roig
Tony Roig

Unlock Your Best Pickleball Serve | Plus 3 more MUST HAVE Shots to Play 3.5

Are you ready to play your best pickleball but not sure what shots you need to know? Here are three shots you need to play really solid 3.5 pickleball. And one you think you might need that, you don’t.

The first shot you want to unlock to become a solid 3.5 player is your best pickleball serve. This is not about knowing how to serve. It’s about knowing how to hit an effective serve.

An effective pickleball serve has two components. Number one, it’s consistent, meaning you can get it in more often than not. And secondly, it’s a deep serve.

What you don’t want is to miss or hit short serves consistently. Regularly hitting short serves will inhibit your ability to grow and win games. The beautiful thing about this is you can accomplish both of those objectives at the same time.

If you hit your pickleball serves higher over the net than you’re used to, you will be more consistent because you won’t hit the net. The bonus is that your serves will automatically hit deep serves.

My friend and senior pro mixed doubles partner, Sarah Mitten, refers to it as the length of the serve. So, think of your best pickleball serves as longer. Not out, but longer.

Let me show you a couple of different options.

A nice deep, consistent serve looks like the green line. That serve is high over the net and is also deep. You don’t need the serve to land on the line. Somewhere 3-4 feet from the baseline is perfectly fine. A nice deep, consistent serve is effective and is YOUR best pickleball serve.

The next shot you need to master to improve is the return of serve.

The reason we separate these two shots and discuss them separately is that players don’t see them as the same shot. But at the end of the day, the mechanics of the serve and return of serve are virtually identical.

You want to target and clear the net in the same manner as your pickleball serve. An effective return of serve is consistent and deep, the same as the serve. The only difference between the two shots is that in the traditional serve, there is no bounce. The apex over the net and thinking about the length of the shot is identical. That will give you the depth needed on your return.

Forget about the low to the net return. The “sexy” hard-hit low return may look good, but it isn’t easy to return deep consistently. Plus, it doesn’t usually give most players enough time to get to the net. Not to mention a weak return is a problematic strategy. Need more on that? Here’s a video that will help. (If you are a System Member there are multiple detailed footwork videos  in the Mechanical Pillar of your course hub)

Are you in control of your pickleball, or are you aimlessly wandering without direction, following whatever the next YouTube video tells you to do?

Take control of your game with THE Pickleball System, the most comprehensive and well-designed pickleball training program available anywhere. Over 150 videos, live coaching sessions, and our exclusive success path. To learn more about the Pickleball System and see what other players, just like you, have gained from being students of THE System, click this link. Take control of your Pickleball Journey. We’ll see you in class.

An effective block volley is the third shot you need to move up a level.

The block volley is used to diffuse energy. If you’re under attack, say from a hard volley, or more likely, a hard banger, someone who drives balls at you really hard. You need to learn how to block the ball. What you’re doing is you’re changing the tempo of the game. You’re taking control of the game.

What you’re telling the bangers out there is, listen, you can bang all you want; I’m bringing you into my world. I’m bringing you to a soft world. Think of it like a boa constrictor. You are just going to lull them into the soft game slowly. Slowly wrap around them and win the rally that way.

If you learn to hit an effective block volley, you will frustrate your opponents because they won’t know what to do if you have that shot. In addition, it would help if you also learned how to let out balls go, but that’s for another video. The most important thing to learn is to diffuse the energy they are sending toward you. The key to the effective block volley is to keep a nice, calm body, not a lot of movement of shoulders or body as you’re executing the block.

If you need more help with the Block Volley, here’s a link to some resources to help you develop a shot to frustrate your opponents. (If you are a System Member there is a more complete block volley video in the Mechanical Pillar of your course hub)

The one shot you don’t need?

Pickleball players LOVE to talk about the third shot drop, but it isn’t a necessary shot to move up to the 3.5 level.

Now, I’m going to caveat this because I know folks will come into the comments, and they’re going to say, what are you talking about? You need a third shot drop to play 3.5 Pickleball.

No. You do not.

I’ll explain in a second. But before I do, the caveat is this. I’m not saying that the third-shot drop isn’t a great shot to learn. What I’m saying are two things. One, regarding priority, it’s behind the shots we’ve discussed already. And number two, the reason you don’t need it to play good 3.5 pickleball is that, no offense intended, your opponents usually aren’t doing what they need to do on the return side.

Remember, you’re hitting third-shot drops when you’re on the serve side. When your opponents on the return side are about the same level, those players are not particularly good on the return side.

That means players don’t need to have a particularly good third-shot drop in order to accomplish their objectives on the serve side. For now, the serve side objective is just to keep the ball in play, and most likely, you will win some points. You do not need a good third-shot drop in order to accomplish that.

If you want to improve your game and play at a 3.5 level or beyond, focus on the first three shots mentioned, your best pickleball serve, a consistent deep return, and the block volley. Leave the third shot drop up on the shelf. It’ll be there for you as you keep on working on your game.

Let’s keep working at it.

And if you’re ready for more, join us in THE Pickleball System


  1. George Jakowenko on January 7, 2023 at 6:54 pm

    The problem with many of these articles is that it seems everyone had a different perspective. There is yours, mine, and everybody else who plays. They are probably all good philosophical thoughts. However, I’m tired of everyone starting out the article with “how to be a better player” or ” the first thing you must know how to do is yada yada yada…”. Or “3 things you must have in your game”. All you are doing is selling your program. It’s too bad. I’m an instructor for a 55+ community of pickleball players. I’m very good at seeing mechanical problems with form. I’m also very good at explaining the train went the article is either bad or good. They all come to me and say, “Hey, I read this article about the the need for a third shot drop” or “I just read an article that the third shot drop is not the miracle solution” or about ” getting to the net”, or “don’t rush to get to the net as quickly as possible “. Just offer the advice in the article as an option to have in one’s arsenal. STOP making it as if you have the solution to better pickleball.
    Just my thoughts.

    • Tony Roig on January 8, 2023 at 6:52 pm

      Hi George. Appreciate your working with players in your community to help them with the errors in their games. The content of our videos and lessons are designed to give a player the core concepts that will most help with their game. What we find too often is players focusing on aspects of the game that will not give them the results they hope to achieve while playing. A player focusing on the third shot drop before they have a deep serve or return of serve is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Our mission is to share actionable and relevant information with players who are interested in improving their games. That is what this article as well as the other videos and content we publish is built around. Appreciate the conversation and, again, appreciate what you are doing to strengthen pickleball in your community. Tony

      • Lynn Courtenay on January 9, 2023 at 5:56 am

        I agree with Coach Tony. The Pickleball System works!!

  2. Leslie Adams on January 7, 2023 at 7:17 pm

    Good content, but where is the link for the block volley?

  3. Steve_K2 on January 7, 2023 at 8:15 pm

    Love your lessons. Many thanks.

    • CJ Johnson on January 7, 2023 at 8:45 pm

      Thank you

  4. Al Rankin on January 7, 2023 at 8:35 pm

    Players at the 3.5 level know to return long and high enough to easily get to to the non-volley line. Therefore the opposing player at the 3.5 level must either drive, lob or drop. The lob is a weak choice at any level. The drive will work if the return is on the short side or against 3.0 players who have trouble handling pace. So you must have a decent third shot drop at the 3.5 level. If you have a great drive, use it. If you find that they can handle your pace with a good block volley then you have to develop a consistent third shot drop to play at that level.

    • Tony Roig on January 8, 2023 at 6:55 pm

      Hello Al. Thanks for the comment. Our experience is that players at the 3.5 level do not consistently return their serves deep and make it to the NVZ line. Too often they are caught in transition. The point about the third shot drop is that you do not need a great third shot drop to play 3.5 pickleball. The other areas of the game that are suggested as focus points have priority over the third shot drop. Once those are in order, the player can work on improving their third shot drop. Appreciate the opportunity to clarify our thinking on this. Take care. Tony

  5. Juliet Creveling on January 7, 2023 at 9:13 pm

    You left off the link for an effective block volley.

    • CJ Johnson on January 9, 2023 at 7:45 am

      Hi Juliet, use the Block Volley video in your System member hub. It’s more complete.

  6. Anita on January 8, 2023 at 10:28 am

    Thank you for the informative post. I’ll definitely continue working on my serve, deep return & block volley.

    • CJ Johnson on January 9, 2023 at 7:44 am

      If you are a Pickleball System member there is a more complete video in your course hub. If you’re not a member the link has been added.

  7. Beth on January 8, 2023 at 11:49 am

    CJ…. The block volley link is missing.

    • CJ Johnson on January 9, 2023 at 7:44 am

      If you are a Pickleball System member there is a more complete video in your course hub. If you’re not a member the link has been added.

  8. Eileen on January 8, 2023 at 4:37 pm

    As previously mentioned, the link for the block volley does not appear and that would be of great interest and, hopefully – help, to me. Love checking your website – very helpful.

    • CJ Johnson on January 9, 2023 at 7:43 am

      If you are a Pickleball System member there is a more complete video in your course hub. If you’re not a member the link has been added.

  9. Carol Epperson on January 8, 2023 at 5:35 pm

    “If you need more help with the Block Volley, here’s a link to some resources to help you develop a shot to frustrate your opponents.”

    Yes, good info, but link is missing. Thank you!

    • CJ Johnson on January 9, 2023 at 7:43 am

      If you are a Pickleball System member there is a more complete video in your course hub. If you’re not a member the link has been added.

      • Carol Epperson on January 10, 2023 at 7:40 am

        Thank you!

  10. Bob on January 8, 2023 at 5:36 pm

    I can’t find any other way of reaching you. Would you please publish some detail on how a person who has taken the system course moves on to the next year (cost, sign up instructions)?

    • CJ Johnson on January 9, 2023 at 8:08 am

      Hi Bob, You can always reach us by responding to any of your System Member emails or at Support@wearepickleball.com. We will send renewal information to March 22 System members sometime in late Jan or early feb 23

  11. Paul J Olsen on January 9, 2023 at 1:26 pm

    I can practice the deep serve and return but where is the link to the volley block shot?

    Also what is rally scoring?

    • CJ Johnson on January 13, 2023 at 4:17 am

      Hi Paul, the link is in the blog. We have a variety of blogs on multiple topics and one of the easiest ways to find things that will help your game is to use the search bar at the top of the site. Here’s the link that explains rally scoring. https://wearepickleball.com/pickleball-rally-scoring/

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