Grip it and rip it. Ahhhh. The allure of banging a shot down the sideline beyond the outstretched arm of your non-volley-line-positioned opponent is intoxicating to most. If only it were as simple, however, as to “grip it and rip it.”
Transforming your pickleball forehand drive (groundstroke) from an “ordinary” shot that you’re just glad goes in your opponent’s court into a legitimate weapon that you can count on requires a massive amount of reps and practice. Fortunately, however, it’s a shot that can be learned if you’re willing to put in the work.
First Things First. What is a Forehand Drive in Pickleball?
The forehand drive (groundstroke) is a shot that is executed after the ball bounces. Since it’s a forehand, it’s also a shot that is hit from the side of your dominant (paddle) hand. The forehand drive is generally hit from at-or-around your own mid-court to baseline.
When Should I Hit a Drive?
In pickleball it’s been ingrained into our consciousness to play soft and hit drop shots. Indeed, that’s pretty sound advice. As is the case with most advice, however, there are exceptions. And hitting the ball hard is one of these exceptions.
A drive shot in pickleball is a great and effective shot selection in any of the following situations:
- Your opponent has a difficult time defending against the “hard” stuff.
You may notice your opponents consistently pop up the balls or are visibly intimidated by pace. If that’s the case, make sure you mix in a steady diet of these heat-seeking missiles.
- The return of server is “loitering” in no-man’s land (the transition area) after the return of serve.
If that is the case, a hard drive that lands at their feet is arguably more effective than a soft third shot drop that simply invites them to the most strategic position on the pickleball court, the non-volley line.
- Your opponents are kamikazes on their way from the baseline to the non-volley line.
Perhaps your opponents are on kamikaze missions and are not split-stepping as they venture thru the transition zone. They are, therefore, unbalanced and would have a hard time reacting quickly to balls hit to their left or right. A hard forehand drive will work beautifully in this situation.
- The return of serve is hit short in the court.
A short return of serve is one that should give you the “green light” to drive because the person returning the serve will likely not have time to get fully to the non-volley line and the returner’s partner may not be ready for the pace from closer proximity.
- You want to mix things up and not be predictable.
Instead of hitting soft shots from the baseline every single time, mix things up with a harder drive shot from time-to-time. Chances are your opponents will, indeed, be able to return the drive, but it will likely set you up for an easier drop shot on your next shot.
- Plan A isn’t working.
It’s always behooves you to have a Plan A… and a Plan B… and, perhaps, even a Plan C. If Plan A is your soft game – and, for whatever reason, you’re struggling with executing the soft shots – go to Plan B for a while. Start hitting the ball hard. You’ll build up your confidence and you’ll likely start finding the range once again with the softer shots as well.
- You’re hitting a passing shot when playing singles.
Because your opponent will have to cover the full 20 feet of court width, a hard forehand drive when your opponent advances to the non-volley line makes a lot of sense.
What Grip Should I Use when Hitting a Forehand Drive?
Because the forehand drive is typically hit from deeper in the court – and, this court positioning affords one more space and time – I recommend changing from the continental grip (which is frequently used for both forehands and backhands when positioned at the non-volley line) to the Eastern Forehand or Semi-Western Forehand Grip.
The Eastern Forehand grip, for example, is a stronger grip because it allows one to get the palm of their hand behind the paddle. As such, it provides more power and a greater ability to impart topspin on the ball.
For those of you who may have missed it, here is a primer on which grip to use when executing various shots.
How do I Hit a Topspin Forehand Drive?
So now that the opportunity for a forehand drive has presented itself – and you know which grip to use – what are the mechanics and technique for the shot? Great question. I’m glad you asked.
- Early preparation is key. As soon as you see the ball is hit to your forehand side, turn sideways (with your left leg in front of your right leg if you’re right-handed) and get your paddle back into position.
- Load your weight onto your back leg.
- Lead with your chest and hips to contact while transferring your weight from your back leg to your front leg. Note: It’s not the arm or paddle that leads to contact. The arm just naturally “comes along for the ride” as you open up your hip and shoulder to the ball.
- As your hip and shoulder comes through to the ball with the paddle lagging behind, your contact point should be out in front of your body.
- Extend out and around on the finish. It should be a very “loose” low-to-high stroke. The low-to-high “brush” of the ball will generate the topspin on the shot.
Common Pitfalls When Hitting the Topspin Forehand Drive
As I give lessons, I see many pitfalls that are common to most as they learn this stroke. These common pitfalls include:
- You’re swinging with “all arm.” To get “easy” power, you want to make sure that you are using your body to generate the power and not just your arms. Instead of “leading” with your arms as you swing, lead with your chest and hips to contact. Your arm should just naturally “follow along.”
- You’re rigid/stiff as you swing. The stroke should be one continuous, fluid motion. The looser you are, the better the results. Tension wreaks havoc.
- You don’t have a low-to-high swing path with a follow-through over your shoulder. Don’t forget to follow through! Let me repeat, don’t forget to follow through!!!
- You’re attempting to drive a ball that is at your shoelaces. For most, this is just too low of a ball to try and drive. You will want to be more selective and drive a ball that you can contact at about waist level.
Where Should I Hit the Topspin Forehand Drive?
Where you should hit the topspin forehand drive really depends upon the context of the rally.
- If you are returning serve, hit the ball deep into your opponent’s court – either down the middle or to your opponent’s weaker side – which is probably their backhand.
- If one of your opponents is “loitering” in “no-man’s” land, hit it so the ball lands at their feet.
- If you’re looking to drive the ball hard to one of your opponents at the net, I like to aim for their dominant side hip or shoulder. That tends to be the toughest area to defend.
- If you and your partner have created a hole between the two opponents, exploit the opportunity and hit it there.
Additionally, it will give you a rush of adrenaline when you overpower your opponents.
Just don’t forget to hit all your shots in your pickleball arsenal – including the soft, drop shots!!! Afterall, you don’t want to be predictable with your shot patterns.
I would love to hear your thoughts. What type of game is most effective for you? The soft stuff? The hard stuff?
See you on the courts.