If you play at an elite country club, you’ve seen players using state-of-the-art ball machines.
They are pretty cool inventions, but how useful are they?
Ball machines are quite restricting in terms of what you can do with them. However, they are helpful if you want to hit the same shot repeatedly.
They are not so good at simulating a genuine rally that you would get in a match.
Ball machines are not cheap, so it’s good to evaluate if a machine will meet your needs as a player.
But will ball machines actually improve your game?
If used correctly, ball machines can be an excellent tool to improve your tennis. Provided you already know the correct technique, machines can be excellent for helping to build up muscle memory. The shot will then become more consistent.
Having said that, no player has become great from just using a ball machine.
In this article I will be discussing:
- The benefits of a ball machine for a beginner and an advanced player
- If ball machines are ideal for training volleys
- The main limitation of ball machines: the rally can’t continue
- The best drills to do with a ball machine
Beginners Vs Advanced Players: Who Benefits More From Tennis Ball Machines?
The player who will benefit most from the ball machine is an improver in the associative learning cycle.
The three stages of learning can be broken up into cognitive, associative, and autonomous.
Someone in the associative stage will begin to identify a specific movement with a verbal or visual cue. One example could be when to rotate the hips on a forehand.
The reason people in the associative stage will benefit most because they have learned the correct technique.
As they have learned the technique, they need to work on practicing it until it becomes a habit.
The risk that comes with a complete beginner using a ball machine is potentially training themselves to hit the ball the wrong way.
Picture this. You have never played tennis before, and you have decided to play with a ball machine.
While using the ball machine, all you are doing is hitting the same shot repeatedly. So while you may be hitting the correct shot, the odds of you training incorrectly are high.
Let’s say, for example, you are hitting a forehand without having a bend at the elbow as you take back.
If you spend the next hour hitting the same shot with the incorrect technique, you are making a habit out of the wrong technique.
If you decide to get coaching in the future, it will be harder for you to learn a new skill. This is because you have made a habit of hitting the ball incorrectly.
At the other end of the scale, you have advanced players. Advanced players can benefit from using ball machines, but they have limitations.
For advanced players, the most important element is simulating situations you will come across in matches.
One thing that will happen in matches that won’t occur if playing with a ball machine is the return of the ball.
No ball machine has been invented to date that will return the shot you have hit. However, you will be able to strike the ball and then just prepare for the next shot.
Advanced players need to see their shot’s effect on their opponent.
The next ball they receive will be influenced by the ball they have just hit.
If your opponent can hit an aggressive angle, the only possible reason is that you have given him that opportunity.
Ball machines are useless for training anything more than a single shot repetitively.
Are Tennis Ball Machines Good For Practicing Volleys?
If you have an expensive ball machine that can adjust the trajectory, speed, and spin of the shot, then it can be helpful in practicing volleys.
In a previous article, I mentioned that I have a small ball machine that simulates a hand feed.
A machine like this is not of much use for training volleys. The machine cannot fire a realistic ball above hip height.
When you volley, you will most often contact the ball above your hips. It is possible to set the machine up to get it above your hips, but it is somewhat unrealistic.
You will have to stand so close to the machine that you will have less time to react to the ball. It is therefore unrealistic.
If you were playing with a partner, they would be standing on the baseline, and you would have plenty of time to react.
More expensive machines like this SPINSHOT (Amazon) are much better for training volleys. As the machine can send the ball further, it can be placed on the baseline.
This will give you enough time to react to the ball. It is this giving you a much more realistic ball to hit.
In addition to this, you can also adjust the speed, spin, and trajectory to give you an identical ball every time.
This can be effective for practicing the same shot repeatedly. In this case, it is arguably better than using another person.
Short of playing with a top pro, it is unlikely you will get an identical ball fed to you every time.
Keep The Rally Going: The Main Disadvantage Of Ball Machine
Here lies the biggest challenge when it comes to ball machines. No matter how perfect a feed it might be able to give, it will not return the ball you have just hit.
Industries across the world are beginning to see the effects of AI.
Tennis is no exception. There are now several companies that are using AI technology to create e-sport versions of tennis and improve coaching and biomechanical understanding.
Companies are already capable of creating AI within games that can respond to a shot a player has just hit virtually.
It is, therefore, only a matter of time before a real AI robot can act as a ball machine and a returning player simultaneously.
Imagine that! You can have a robot that fires the same ball at you repeatedly, and then when you want to turn it into a rally, it just plays on by itself.
Until AI-playing robots take off, machines will remain limited to giving you the same ball multiple times, without return.
If you want to train proper drills that involve more than a single shot, you will have to pay a coach or drag a friend to the court.
Best Drills With Tennis Ball Machines
The number of drills you can do is only limited by your imagination and the machine’s inability to return the ball.
A simple one I liked to do with my small hand-feeding machine was this. I would put the machine halfway between the service line and the baseline.
I would then tilt it slightly onto the advantage (backhand side of the court).
With the 5 second intervals, this was perfect for practicing inside-in and inside-out forehands.
This video has quite a few good drills you can try out.
If you’re not concerned about the price or the hassle of carrying it around, I would recommend everyone has a ball machine.
If, on the other hand, your budget is more restrictive, I would avoid it unless you are a player who is in the associative stage of learning and keen to improve fast.
The benefit of drilling with a partner far outweighs that of using a ball machine for advanced players.
What do you think? Do ball machines improve your game?
Perhaps you’re an advanced player who sees them as more beneficial than I do.