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Having a ball machine at your disposal can be key to accelerating your development as a player.
However, how you use the machine is going to make or break your training.
If you use the machine sloppily, simply going through the motions, or have the settings tuned incorrectly, you could be reinforcing bad habits that are actually making you a worse player.
Of course, be sure to check out our top four best tennis ball machine drills at the end of this article, but before that we’ve given some general principles about how you’ll want to use your ball machine.
Even doing these drills regularly does not guarantee improvement, unless you are being conscientious about how you are training, in order to ingrain the techniques that you want and not lazy footwork or sloppy swings.
For demonstrations of these and other drills, see this tutorial from Top Tennis Training.
The first rule of thumb for your training with a ball machine is that you’ll want to set shots that you will actually see in match play.
This will depend on the level of opponents you are facing and the speed and accuracy with which they are hitting.
But take a moment to analyze your matches, and ask yourself which type of shots appear most frequently.
It may seem like a good challenge to practice blistering shots that skim just over the net, but it’s likely that there are other shots that would be much more applicable to actual matches.
Quality over quantity
When you first unpack your ball machine and look at all the shiny knobs on the back, you may feel a temptation to crank it up to max and fire shots until you’re absolutely destroyed.
But training with too high a frequency is the number one pitfall for ball machine users.
This is because if the frequency is too high, it becomes much more difficult to hit with proper form, footwork deteriorates, and consistency goes out the window.
Using a ball machine is all about the fundamentals, and therefore it’s best to choose a frequency and a service speed that allows you to focus on these aspects of your game.
It’s much better to hit ten high quality shots than fifty using a sloppy swing and no footwork.
Simulate match play
One of the biggest hazards that comes with practicing on a ball machine is the temptation to let technique slip.
Of course you are working on the consistency of your shot placement, but there are other fundamentals that you should always keep in mind if you want your skill gains to carry over into rallying and competition.
The first of these is footwork.
With a ball machine you may know exactly where each shot is going to land, but merely standing and slamming returns is never going to prepare you for a real opponent.
Instead, think about getting back into position after each shot, using a combination of crossovers, side-shuffles, and a split step as the machine fires the next shot.
Incorporating this into your ball machine drills will get your feet in the habit of moving quickly and will improve your coordination.
In each of the drills below, we’ll describe not only the shot you can practice but the way you can incorporate footwork and movement.
Another fundamental that you can work into your ball machine drills is early prep.
The ball machine delivers shots to the same place again and again, and just as knowing the shot ahead of time can impair your footwork, it can also teach you to be lazy about shot prep.
Of course there are ball machines that can randomize the shots they give you to keep this from happening, but you can have a good session with even the most basic machine if you’re disciplined.
In terms of prep, try to use a split step as the machine fires, as mentioned before, and then move immediately into a loaded upper body position.
If you see that the shot is a forehand, twist quickly to your forehand side, and vice versa, exactly as you would in a real match.
This will be key in teaching the body to react quickly, giving you more time to prepare and move towards an unexpected shot.
Best tennis ball machine drills
And so without further ado, here are some of the best drills you can do with a ball machine to improve form, footwork, and consistency:
Cross-court shot with recovery
To perform this drill, set the machine firing cross-court to your forehand, with the ball landing relatively wide in the singles court.
Set up either a cone or a pile of balls at the center of the court to mark your recovery position.
Start from this position, and when the ball leaves the machine, move to meet it and return it cross-court.
As you follow through, use a crossover step and a shuffle to return to the center cone. With this drill the goal is high intensity and quality, so shoot for about ten solid repetitions.
And make sure the frequency of the machine is not too high. It’s important that you have time to move using correct footwork and to return the shot with good form.
Once you’ve finished this drill, you can move the machine to the opposite side and repeat the same for slice backhand cross-court.
For this drill set the machine to fire short volleys to your forehand side at about the depth of the service line.
Use your legs to get into a low lunge position (rather than shooting from a standing position or bending over at the back) and return the ball down the line.
After each shot, take a few steps back to a neutral position and into a ready stance for the next shot.
This drill is especially useful for players who like to play close to the net.
After you’ve finished doing this drill on the forehand, change to the backhand to practice the same technique, stepping through with your opposite foot now, and getting nice and low to impart a good slice on the ball.
Similar to the previous drill, but with the service from the machine slightly higher, around elbow height.
Here you can vary the direction of your return, practicing both down-the-line and cross-court shots.
Try to hit the volleys with underspin, which will help to keep the ball low and will make it more difficult for the opponent to fire the return past you.
As in the previous drill, stay active with footwork, returning to a neutral position after each volley.
Repeat this drill for the backhand side as well.
The same as the previous two drills, but with the volleys coming at above shoulder height.
Here, instead of the underspin used on the low and medium volleys, you can change to a more powerful direct follow-through.
Here you can practice down-the-line, cross-court, and short-angle shots to get the full range of match possibilities.
Again, repeat this drill for backhand, concentrating on footwork and being sure to load your weight into your opposite leg as you wind up and step through as you make contact.
There are lots of great drills out there that you can do with your ball machine.
The above recommendations cover most of the bases, but a little research or creativity can open up dozens more drills and variations.
The important thing to remember is that you’ll only get out of your drills what you put in.
Take a minute before starting to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses.
It’s common that your strongest skill will also be your favorite to practice, but being disciplined and focusing on your weaknesses is the best way to improve as a player.
In all of these drills, be conscientious about fundamentals such as footwork, swing form, and consistency.
Rather than cranking up the frequency of your shots, consider slowing things down to a speed where you can really get quality repetitions.
If you put in the time and focus on the basics, we’re sure it’ll pay dividends in your game!
Featured image credit: DepositPhotos.com