When to Invest in a Ball Machine?
Every once in awhile someone will ask me about buying a ball machine. The questions they typically ask are what ball machine should I buy and will it be a good investment? I’m not a ball machine expert (I’ll make some general recommendations towards the end) but I do have some opinions on the “good investment” angle. A lot of what follows will seem like common sense but if you’re in the market for a ball machine you really need to ask yourself all of these questions and answer them truthfully. For example in the spur of the moment you might be able to convince yourself that, “oh yeah I’ll use this thing religiously”… but will you really? Or even if you do is it feasible based on the courts available to you based on your schedule?
Ball Machine for Rent
The new trend in the “traditional tennis club” is to buy a fancy ball machine and then make it available to members or guests to rent. Some clubs charge a little (for consumer level machines) and some clubs take things a step further and offer “ball machine memberships” (typically for the high end ones). At the indoor facility I work at you can rent the ball machine for $10 an hour plus court fees. In the summer this works out to about $30 ($20 for the court) an hour and in the winter it comes out to be about $55 which all things considered isn’t terrible compared to some private clubs. The biggest complaint at my facility has to do with the ball consistency. We’ll talk more about that later.
When factoring in cost the thing to remember is the ball machine is basically replacing a very consistent hitting partner. That being said at end of the day you’ll still need to spend time programming the machine and picking up all the balls yourself.
Some ball machines are really fancy and can run you through drills or randomize things in such a way where you could argue the ball machine is even better than a human being. The advantage of the tennis instructor is that they can customize, randomize, and adapt feeds on the fly based on trends they notice in real time and that’s something a ball machine can’t do.
Ball Machine as Teaching Aid
All things considered ball machines are not that prevalent. It’s pretty rare that I see someone lugging a ball machine out to a public court. When I worked at traditional tennis clubs that had ball machines most of the time they sat in a shed collecting dust. Some of that had to do with the quality of the machine and some of it had to do with there just not being any demand. Clubs or academies that invest in the cream of the crop machines will often expect or pressure instructors to use the machine in private lessons (sort of as an advertisement that “hey we have a ball machine”). I personally think at times it’s a great aid during a private lesson because it allows the teacher to look at a students shot from all angles (something very rare in a standard lesson). If the machine has an app or remote control that makes programming/changing things up really quick and easy utilizing a ball machine isn’t a bad idea at all. Conversely it’s easy to waste a lot of time trying to program the damn thing and that never looks good.
Personally I’m a bigger fan of filming a student’s stroke from all angles and then sitting down to actually look at what’s happening. In that case you don’t need the ball machine you just need a camera. This gives the student and the instructor the added benefit of being able to archive and track progress. I still find nothing more effective then when you’re able to show someone the video evidence of what they’re doing.
The Pro’s of a Ball Machine
Randomization/Humanization – To me the greatest advantage of the ball machine is the randomization and I’m not talking about programmed oscillation. I literally mean that every ball that comes out of the machine is different. Ball machines are great at simulating live ball. Granted the slot the ball comes out of remains at a static height (not true to life) but you get the idea. That being said you don’t see too many instructors feeding from the baseline at different heights in lessons because not only is it difficult to feed but the level of difficulty to return the ball goes way up (footwork and tracking issue for most). Typically in a lesson you are focused on something specific so putting the ball in relatively the same location (either from a feed or machine) is the preferred route. I LOVE feeding from the baseline when a player is ready (sometimes even before) so that they can actually get a sense of what it’s like in a real life situation and whether or not their technique will hold up. Granted after a few balls I might have to move back up but the eventual goal is to simulate real life as much as possible and in real life situations you aren’t getting that nice ball time and time again.
Conditioning – The ball machine will also get you a great workout. Both in terms of transporting the thing and also the time you’ll spend with it on court. When it’s just you and the ball machine you can go at it until you puke or until the battery runs out if that’s your prerogative.
Keeps It Simple – In a lesson you normally get a lot of feedback and reminders. Usually too much but that’s just how it goes. As an instructor I’d feel weird if the only feedback I gave someone during an entire lesson was finish with your elbow up on your forehand. That really would be a good hour lesson but most people won’t feel like they got their moneys worth and understandably so. The great thing with the ball machine is that before you go out you can write down the one thing you want to focus on and really stick to it. This is one case where taking the other human out of the equation is a good thing.
Encourages Work on Serve -This seems weird because it doesn’t actually involve the ball machine but I’ve found this to be true. Let’s say you go out on the court and plan to do a set of forehands and backhands. You do that and then remember your instructor saying OVER and OVER that you need to go out and practice serve on your own. This is the perfect opportunity to do that. I know it’s super boring to go out on court with the sole purpose of practicing serve but with a ball machine it’s actually a nice reprive. Believe it or not at the facility I work at I usually notice people who rent the ball machine spend time on their serve.
At What Skill Level Should You Invest in a Ball Machine?
Personally I’d say not until you reach approximately a 3.0 (Intermediate) level. Aka you’ve learned the “proper” way to hit the ball whether or not you actually do it consistently. Committing to a ball machine before taking private lessons or attending clinics may do more harm than good. Ball machines are not designed to be setup on the service line and give you a nice gentle feed just over the net and in my opinion when you’re a beginner there’s no reason to go straight to the baseline (what a ball machine is designed for) because you’ll end up compromising form just to get the ball in.
How You View Tennis?
This may be the most important factor of all when deciding whether or not you want to shell out the money on a machine. Most people want to get better but not at the expense of taking the “social” element out of it. Whether that’s clinics, matches, or lessons; on a fundamental level tennis is cooperative (even if it’s just You vs Them). If you really enjoy the human interaction that a clinic or lesson offers will you have the motivation to take the ball machine out, set it up, press start, make adjustments, pick up the balls, and repeat? Most people, even if they buy a ball machine, will continue with clinics or lessons and then use the machine as a supplemental training aid. What does that mean? It means that you need to have the time, physical conditioning, and dedication necessary to get those machine sessions in. You’re probably not going to skip the clinic because you paid in advance but it’s easy to find excuses to skip the machine days. I work with some people who I genuinely believe could care less about the social element and literally just want to hit the ball. In those cases I have no doubt they’ll take the machine out enough to justify the expense and in the process will reduce the amount of clinics and lessons they take. The ball machine can replace drill sessions and you can pace yourself however you want.
Ball Machine Logistics
If you’re still interested in a ball machine there are some logistics you need to think about in advance. The biggies are transportation and court availability. We’ll talk more about what to look for in a ball machine later on but you need to think about what court you’ll use the ball machine on and how easy it is to transport the thing. If you’re a member at a club ask if you’d be allowed to bring the machine and/or your balls on to one of their courts. In most cases their first answer will be no but if you threaten not to renew your membership and take your business elsewhere… I’m just saying.
That brings us to public courts. This is where you see the majority of private ball machine use. The questions you need to ask are as follows…
Is the court isolated (aka is it a single court fenced in)?
How busy are the courts when you would want to bring the machine out?
How hard would it be to transport the ball machine to the courts?
Do you need an outlet? Does the court have one?
The biggest complaint at clubs with ball machines for rent is quality and consistency of balls. A good club will monitor this really closely because a ball machine is only as good as the balls it shoots out. It’s not so much about the balls being brand new rather it’s just crucial that the pressure and wear down on all the balls is similar. This is a common sense thing that’s often overlooked. If you buy a ball machine you will need to invest about $100 every 6 months on balls. Be sure to throw out the duds and/or any foreign balls that somehow get mixed in.
The court you’ll be using plays a big role in the machine you’ll buy. Does your ball machine need to travel a great distance up and down a beat up path or can you pull right up to the court? Do you need an outlet to plug the machine in or can it run on a battery? How easy is it to transport the balls along with the machine? Will you need to transport them separately? How much functionality do you want/need when it comes to the variance of ball being fed? Can your machine be controlled with an app? Is there an option for a wireless remote?
These are just a few of many questions you’ll want to ask yourself. In my opinion if it’s a massive pain to transport your ball machine you’ll be less likely to use it. Almost all ball machines have a pull out handle and wheels that in theory should make transportation easy but that’s not always the case. Definitely read reviews and do a lot of research. In my personal opinion a machine that can oscillate and vary the height over the net is good enough for almost everyone. Some machines claim they can do a lot more but at a certain point hiring a hitting partner is just more practical, useful, and cost effective. Then the question becomes how easy is it to program? I’m a big fan of the wireless remote (a lot of times a paid ad on). It makes more sense to get a machine with less features if it has a fully functional wireless remote or control-app especially if you’ll be heading out on the court alone. It is very frustrating and annoying to have to keep walking to the other side of the net to make adjustments to the settings.
If someone were to ask me specifically what consumer machine to get I’d probably go with the Spinfire Pro 1 or Pro 2 machine preferably used from a reputable dealer with a remote.
At most clubs the machine you’ll be renting is a playmate. These are top of the line and not really designed for your average consumer unless you have a court in your backyard and a shed nearby to wheel the machine on and off the court. If you look at these machines you’ll see that you have a ton of options. In many cases too many options. I’ve seen several people rent the ball machine at our facility and waste 20 or 30 minutes trying to set it up because they have too many choices.
I personally think ball machines are great for a few things. First and foremost a ball machine will get you a great workout even if it’s not forcing you to run. There are times where you just want to go out and hit the crap out of the ball, there’s nothing better than a ball machine. Ball machines can also help with technique if you limit the time/number of balls you hit and really focus on what you are trying to improve. I also think going out on the court with a ball machine will encourage you to practice your serve (in between the exhausting sets of groundstrokes) which in my mind is the number 1 thing you need to practice if you want to get better in match play.
However a ball machine can’t perfectly simulate the nuisance, variance, and complexity of another human being. If that’s what you want you need to hire a hitting partner. I’ll be honest when I say the few people I know who have ball machines rarely to never use them but they continue to play a lot of tennis so it probably would have made more sense to spend that money elsewhere.
I really think ball machines are best for the tennis and fitness obsessed. If you hate going to the gym, enjoy tennis, but still want to get that workout in a ball machine is great assuming you have a court you can use. For everyone else going down the rental route at a local club or public facility may be the best way to go.