2013 Guide to Ball Machines: Mechanical Advantage
A ball machine quickens the learning curve as it helps build muscle memory.
By Kent Oswald
At its most basic, learning to play tennis is a two-step process. First, learn how to hit a shot correctly. Next, adapt the ability to a game situation.
That the steps are basic, however, doesn’t mean there is no controversy over how best they can be learned.
Stan Oley, one of the more passionate proponents of adapting new technologies, claims to have “been on the soapbox 25 years for teaching with ball machines.” His complaint: Most tennis lessons are too depressingly similar to those of 1972, the teaching pro on one side of the net, “feeding an easy ball hit to students, micromanaging technique, yelling stereotypical jargon — when technology allows you to present a ball with a ball machine just like it would come across the net in a game.”
Oley, a top-rated USPTA pro with a long-established relationship with Playmate, is adamant that science supports a change in instruction. He argues that current research into acquiring new skills explains that first we learn visually, then apply the kinesthetic experience and only then add in the auditory cues. He cites two sports that are far ahead of tennis in adapting technology to training: In football, punt returners practice fielding from ball machines, not wearing out a kicker’s leg, and in baseball, a pinch hitter may be sent to take swings against a pitching machine innings before being called to the plate.
Too many students, Oley insists, have their pro standing yards in front, giving them a ball to hit they’ll never see in an actual match, and talking at them about what to do rather than standing next to them and helping them feel the right way to strike the ball. In addition, even as each ball a player hits in this way varies slightly, the basics of the process and how the ball is fed are the same whether the pro is instructing the beginning student or one rated 3.0, 3.5, etc., and too often even at the game’s highest levels where pros “practice” walloping a ball they will never, ever experience in match play.
Similarly, Jacksonville, Fla., pro Jon Solow describes tennis as, “a series of biomechanical motions in sequence. How does one get proficient? By repetition. The more balls you hit in a short period of time, the better you get.”
Solow’s practice and argument is to have a machine take care of the mechanics of setting up the ball in the right place for a student to strike it, freeing the teaching pro for the more important, non-mechanical, more highly technical part of instruction — assessing and communicating how to improve the stroke.
Building Muscle Memory
Current thinking is that 10,000 hours of repetitions is the benchmark for mastery of a task. Neither a pro feeding from across the net nor a backboard can repeatedly and tirelessly provide a student the exact same experience as he or she builds that muscle memory. Proponents also point out that machines ranging in price from the high hundreds into the thousands offer advanced technology proffering one ball or shot patterns hit with pre-determined spins and speeds, freeing the teaching pro to stand on the same side of the court as the student, commenting and correcting.
Incorporating the proliferating opportunities for remote control of the experience, smart phone apps to move instruction off the court, and increased video accessibility into the lesson provides a near-limitless array of visual, kinesthetic, and auditory experiences that can be proportioned to fit a particular students’ learning strengths.
Despite the impassioned advocacy of some teaching pros (and, of course, the ball machine manufacturers), any quick overview of instruction shows far from universal adoption of ball machines as an integral part of tennis instruction. Concerns abound over the price of machines and whether the investment can be recaptured by the freelance teaching pro or one at work for a club or resort; as well as whether or not ball machine availability may threaten revenues from hands-on instruction.
Resistance also includes fears that using a ball machine makes the lesson too impersonal for the student — and there are certainly a fair number of used ball machines on auction sites that failed to deliver an enjoyable tennis experience. The head of instruction at an upscale facility even expressed concern that having them on the court could lead to a degree of “laziness” among her staff, as it would be too easy to watch as the machines took over the hour.
Learning Something New
Gordon Uelhing is one who is not persuaded by those or other objections. His CourtSense in New Jersey serves as a USTA regional training center and he has worked with Novak Djokovic and Christina McHale, among others.
Uelhing uses pre-programmed drills and progressions for both individual and group lessons, and he is adamant that the most effective use of ball machines requires professional development. He believes the lack of adoption of advanced technology is because teaching pros are not being forced to adapt to changing times. “Most coaches don’t use it because they don’t want to go through the pain to learn something new,” he says.
Responding to advocates who assert that the issues cited are part and parcel of letting too many pros live in the past, without knowledge (or with fear) about the potential of the automatic feeders, Steve Keller, the PTR’s director of development, explains the organization’s emphasis in training and certification is based on how a coach interacts with students, not technology. The PTR includes ball machine tips in every issue of TennisPro magazine and advocates for appropriate inclusion of the machines in the teaching process. “The problem is that the ball machine is not capable of giving feedback to the students,” Keller says. “We don’t have a lot of coach feeding in our certification. We have students feeding students in order to promote freedom for coaches to move around and give instruction.”
The philosophy is that to more aggressively promote the use of ball machines could lead to coaches becoming more static, less dynamic in their instruction. “I can’t think of any organization or federation that uses ball machines as part of certification,” Keller adds. “Things evolve. Things change. I think it is an integral part of any program or any facility to have that offering. The machine can be set up to do so many different things, but I don’t personally see that as part of our actual certification process.” The “human element” could be lost.
A Teaching Tool
If there is middle ground, it is likely to be found by agreeing that the “robotic pro” is a tool, not a replacement. For example, Bob Dallis, Dartmouth College’s head women’s tennis coach and not previously a fan of using ball machines, found that while the old machines didn’t provide too many options, they can use their new Sports Tutor machines to help the players get through their station work and to set up very different scenarios for individual players and even doubles teams.
“For women’s tennis we’ve probably created about 20 [basic] drills, some for singles, some for doubles,” he says, explaining that being able to save the drills in a machine’s memory creates flexibility in practice schedules and helps make sure each player can get her reps in no matter her academic demands.
“A number of the players have found it very helpful,” notes Dallis. In the near future he expects to also incorporate the data analysis applications. “For us at Dartmouth, we’re kind of scratching the surface of what it can do.”
The metaphor Solow uses to explain his philosophy on learning to play tennis is instrumental, as in learning to hit a shot should be like practicing scales on a musical instrument. One isn’t expected to be part of a symphony orchestra before having spent hours practicing scales, and a tennis player won’t be able to perfect a mechanical motion without repetitive work on that motion.
The recommended process is to get the player to an acceptable level of mastery first at the stage of dropping the ball and hitting, then replying to a ball machine, followed by points and then games controlled by the pro. (For the serious student, all the on-court practice will be complemented by off-court review of video and statistical analysis.)
The point is that a ball machine can never be a replacement for hitting with a person on the other side of the net because that is, ultimately, how the game is played. However, the machines are here and should be utilized for what they do well: replicating patterns, building kinesthetic connections with proper arm motions and footwork, advancing — not diminishing — personal interaction.
As Uehling says, when properly administered, the ball machine provides “a very dynamic experience” that quickens the learning curve. However, “You can also overuse the ball machine. It’s a tool. A tool [that should be] in your toolchest.”
For all the latest ball machines and all their specifications and features, see our exclusive Guide to Ball Machines.
Postscript: Spinfire Ball Machines
Spinfire has two new ball machines and unfortunately we did not receive the information in time for inclusion in our 2013 Ball Machine Selector Guide in the July issue.
The Spinfire Pro 1 ($1,599) and Pro 2 ($1,899) share many features as listed below. The Pro 1 can be upgraded to the Pro 2 ($499.00)
Both units share these features:
Warranty: 2 Years, Dimensions: 26"L x 20"W × 20"H, Ball Capacity: 200, Weight: 48 Lbs., Propulsion: Spinning Wheels, Feeding Intervals: 2 to 15 seconds, Ball Speed: 20-80 MPH, Electronic Elevation Control with ability to feed lobs, Battery Operated Only – 22 Amp/Hour w/Indicator Light. Smart Charger included. OPTIONS: Light Cover - $40.00, Carry Cover - $80.00, Fast Charger - $120.00
The Spinfire Pro 2 also includes 9 button, multi-functional wireless remote control, Oscillation - random vertical oscillation, Two Line Drill capability for alternating shots to each side of the court. Two line drill can be set to Wide, Medium or Narrow.
See all articles by Kent Oswald
About the Author
Kent Oswald is a contributor to TennisNow.com, producer at the JockBookReview.com and a former editor of Tennis Week magazine.
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