How to Practice on a Ball Machine
Becoming a good tennis player requires a lot of practice, hitting a lot of balls – obviously. It would stand to reason, in fact, that the more balls you’re able to hit the better you will get. Enter the ball machine. It must be the answer, right? Well, yes and no. Unfortunately, if you’re the sort of person who has trouble with shot selection, a ball machine will be of little use to you. It won’t fix your thinking, just your muscle memory. A ball machine is nothing more than a mindless machine that spits balls out at you, even at its best, in a random pattern. Tennis, as everyone knows, is a thinking game, and a ball machine doesn’t even come close to the computational power necessary to challenge even a 10 and under player. If all you ever utilize for practice is a ball machine you’re going to be sorely lacking when you play a real match. So what good is it? Why do people even use ball machines if they’re so worthless to prepare for a real match? I’m sure you already know. It’s for the same reason a boxer hits the heavy bag and the speed bag in the gym. It’s about strength and muscle memory!
One thing a ball machine can do that a coach cannot is feed balls in exactly the same place on every repetition. This allows the player, who might be hopelessly inconsistent on a certain shot, to build into his mind the instinctive ability to hit that shot with confidence. After all, what good is it to know what you need to do if, when you go to do it, you’re always messing it up? The ball machine will never replace a coach, but it sure can help when you have trouble executing on what your coach has tried to teach you.
When to use the Ball Machine: Do you know what Marine drill instructors love more than anything else? It’s a recruit that has never held a rifle and has no idea how they work. The worst are the kids who went out hunting with their fathers when they were kids, learned a whole bunch of bad habits, and have to be untrained before getting trained. Habits take a long time to break, and a tennis coach’s best students are the ones that don’t need to be untrained. Therefore, always use the ball machine after taking a lesson with a flesh and blood coach, never before. Take a 1 hour lesson then book half an hour on the machine so you can build the muscle memory for the skill you just learned, and which is fresh in your head, from your coaching pro.
You Must Test Yourself! It is wise to hit on a ball machine after lessons. You also need to be able to combine your “heavy bag” work with sparring sessions and real competition. The process is this: Learn the strokes, learn the strategy, practice the strokes, test without stress, add stress – repeat ad infinitum. Get a coach to help you think and teach you how to hit, use the ball machine to build muscle memory, and find a friendly opponent to play for fun. If you feel ready after all that then test yourself by entering a tournament. Tournaments (stress) teach you what needs the most work. All your flaws come out in a real match (don’t worry, it happens to everyone). Lastly, go back and start the cycle over again with your new found knowledge. Do it enough and you’ll be a pro before you know it (well, maybe not but you get the point)! The point is that tennis is a journey of self discovery. You find out the most about yourself by properly preparing and competing.
Now that you know what a ball machine is good for you’ll be able to use it for its intended purpose. I see people who practice on the ball machine every day, but some of those folks I never see with a coach or hitting with other people. I have to question the value of it all because it seems they are missing all the fun and self fulfillment. I feel a sense of satisfaction when I hit a nice looking ground stroke on a machine, sure. I also feel great for hitting a three point shot on the basketball court; but, don’t we all know deep down that it’s just not the same without a defender giving you problems? Hitting an awesome shot under duress is where the real satisfaction is at!