Tennis ball machines are not simply an expensive substitute for a practice partner or coach. Ball machines perform unique functions that practice partners, coaches, and opponents cannot. Consistent, correct, repetition of stroke patterns is essential to producing a dependable stroke. By providing a practice ball that has the same height, depth, and pace, ball machines allow strokes to be reinforced correctly.
Think of a new skill or stroke as a delicate seedling, raised in a greenhouse under controlled conditions. Before the seedling can be planted it is “weathered” by leaving it outside for slowly increasing amounts of time. After it has been gradually stressed it is ready to be planted outside for good, and will flourish. Take that same seedling outside and expose it to abrupt changes and it will die a quick death.
When a Pro teaches a new stroke he or she feeds balls consistently, often from just across the net. New skills are learned with this gently fed ball to allow students to concentrate solely on the stroke. Throwing that new fragile stroke into the chaos of match play is a surefire way to break it down and/or revert back to your old habits. Paying your Tennis Pro to feed you balls simply for reinforcement is a waste of his talents and your money. There needs to be a transition from the lesson court to the playing court. This is the primary job of a Tennis Ball Machine.
At this point let’s walk through the process of “weathering” a new skill for match play with a tennis ball machine. Leave as little time as possible between the lesson and your first session on the ball machine. Initially set the machine at low to medium pace and have it hit to one spot. Concentrate on correct repetition. Avoid the temptation to hit too hard too soon. Vary your aim points. It is much better to alternate crosscourt and down the line shots than to repeat the same stroke and aim point over and over. As the stroke becomes reinforced through repetition gradually increase the stress level. Stand in the middle and have the machine hit the ball a step to your right. Leave a long enough pause between balls to allow you to step, hit, and then recover. Move the feed farther away with each load of balls. Adjust your interval setting so that you have just enough time to run hit and recover without rushing or going too slow. (This is a good example of an area where a machine is actually better than having a Pro feed balls to you. As you tire a Pro will tend to extend your recovery time to keep you from failing. Tennis ball machines are heartless. If you become tired and slow down you will know it right away!)
More advanced portable machines have a feature called Dual 2-line oscillation. Dual 2-line oscillation gives you alternating forehand and backhands with a wide and a narrow setting. Now you can practice changing wings and grips, pivoting, and recovering in addition to the stroke pattern. Dual 2-line oscillation provides an important step in transitioning your stroke. It allows you to move and hit but still get in a lot of repetitions before you tire.
Most portable machines have random oscillation. Random oscillation sweeps from sideline to sideline, spraying balls across the width of the singles lines. The range of the sweep and the speed of the sweep are preset but the interval setting can be adjusted to vary the workout. Start slow and gradually speed it up. This is the last step before taking your new skills into match play.
1.) Repeat the stroke pattern correctly with a controlled ball until it is reinforced in muscle memory.
2.) Gradually stress the stroke practicing grip change, pivot and proper footwork..
3.) Use random oscillation to run the full width of the court further stressing the stroke.
If the stroke breaks down at any of these steps stay there longer until you are ready to go to the next step. Now it is time to take the new skills into a match play. If you walked through these steps thoroughly I guarantee that your stroke will hold up and grow stronger every day.
My personal experience in more than 15 years of teaching tennis is that players that use tennis ball machines in conjunction with lessons progress 3 to 4 times faster than players that do not. Tennis ball machines are the crucial link between the lesson court and the playing court. If you are serious about improving your game you should be serious about using a tennis ball machine.
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