There are hundreds of pickleball ball machines in the United States alone, but how many players are really
enjoying the potential benefits of ball machine use? Sure, there is some benefit to hitting ball after ball after
ball, but why not make the most out of your ball machine practice. Here are the 6 keys to good ball machine
practice that will be discussed in this article.
1) Use a remote or practice with a partner
2) Do not hit more than 10-12 in a row
3) Pause for 10-15 seconds in between each sequence
4) Move into position for every shot
5) Time the machine to the ball you are hitting
6) Set up realistic targets
Have you ever seen someone hitting on a ball machine, gone away for 10 minutes, and then come back to see
that same player in the same position and still hitting? No offense to those who enjoy the risk of repetitive
stress, but this can be an innocent mistake. We see people hitting 50-100 balls in a row on a machine without
pausing and assume they are getting a great practice. After all, they are getting in more ball strikes and more
exercise in less time, right? The question here is whether you are looking for quality or quantity. Considering
that the average pickleball point lasts 4.5 strokes by each player in singles and a little over 2 shots in doubles,
how to use ball machines as an effective practice tool is an important issue. A 20-hit rally means that each
player in singles strikes the ball 10 times. In doubles it would be only 5. Then there is a pause between points.
Key #1 Use a remote or practice with a partner
The reason most ball machine users hit too many balls in a row without pause is simple. Few players enjoy
picking up a court full of balls. Use a ball machine with remote control to easily pause and restart the action at
any time. Without a remote, players avoid pausing because they have to run to the other side of the net just
to pause the machine since, while heading to the other side, the machine keeps firing balls, creating a larger
clutter of balls to pick up! Besides a remote, but harder to schedule, is to find a partner to share your time on
the machine. With a partner, one player hits while the other player picks up balls and then they switch.
Key #2 Do not hit more than 10-12 in a row
The primary reason to limit how many balls hit in a row is to help you establish a standard for quality that you
can consistently maintain. The number of balls hit should push your threshold of shot tolerance and focus but
still be realistic. I would also recommend changing the number of balls hit in your ball machine patterns. If you
have a remote or partner who will turn the machine on and off, practice 2-ball patterns, 3-ball patterns, 4-ball
patterns, etc. The idea is to practice in as play-realistic a situation as possible. Another mistake that we see
recreational players make is to stop when they make a mistake instead of finishing their pattern. For example,
if you are working on a 6-ball pattern on your forehand side, trying to hit 5 dink shots crosscourt and then end with a 6th ball down-the-line, finish the entire 6-ball sequence instead of stopping if you happen to miss shot #4. This approach will help you mentally in several ways. It will help you to not dwell on mistakes, to make quick adjustments to errors, and to stay focused in the face of adversity.
Key #3 Pause for 10-15 seconds in between each sequence
There is a sport called “Speed Golf” which pushes players to jog or sprint from shot to shot. But, there is no
such thing as Speed Pickleball. The rules are clear and it is helpful on many levels to manage time well in a
pickleball match, not just on changeovers but also in between points. How does this apply to ball machine
practice? Let’s say that you are practicing a 4-ball pattern and set the machine to fire balls to the middle of
your backhand court. The first 3 are hit with your backhand crosscourt. The 4th is hit more aggressively with an
inside-in forehand to finish the point and hit a down-the-line winner. You should then pause the machine, go
through your between-point ritual, and then play the next 4-shot sequence as the next point in a match.
Key #4 Move into position for every shot
Many people practice on a ball machine and it looks like they think the ball is a dog. Standing in one place and
waiting for the ball to come to where you are standing is a major practicing pitfall. You can train a dog to come
to you when called. A pickleball ball cannot be trained. The point here is to be sure to recover to the same
place on a court that you would in a real match. Standing to one side and waiting for the ball to come from a
machine is simply not realistic and, comparatively speaking, will not help you improve your match results
nearly as much as recovering after each shot as if you are actually playing a real point.
Key #5 Time the machine to the ball you are hitting
With what frequency should you set the ball machine to feed balls? This is not ball speed, but feed rate or how
much time lapses between feeds. The answer is simple. To create a realistic practice environment, pretend the
ball machine is your opponent or hitting partner. Set the machine feed rate at the same frequency you are
hitting based on your average ball speed. Simply put, set the ball machine to fire balls to coincide when your
ball crosses the ball machine or opponent position, depending on what shot you are working on (drives or
dinks). If you have it set at too slow a frequency, you will be practicing to be slow in recovery, slow in ball
recognition, and slow in preparing to hit your shot. Practice realistically for faster improvement!
Key #6 Set up realistic targets
Over several decades of coaching, I have asked dozens and dozens of players hitting on ball machines or
performing groundstroke drills where they are aiming. More often than not, they will give you a very nonspecific answer, such as crosscourt. But the fact is that knowing specifically where you are aiming is critical to
improving in pickleball. One person’s idea of crosscourt may be within 6 inches of the sideline and another
player may visualize their crosscourt target as 6 feet inside the baseline and 6 feet inside the sideline. What is
a realistic target? First, it should not be too close to either the baseline or sidelines in order to allow for a good
margin for error. Two or three feet from any boundary line is a good starting point. Next is to make the target
big enough for the player to successfully hit into that target zone about 70% of the time. The weaker the
player, the larger the target area and vice versa. And, when you set up targets, do not be lazy and just set out
a small hand towel or single cone and expect yourself or the player you are coaching to consistently hit it.
Confidence is a big part of winning at pickleball. And in order to become more confident, players must
consistently succeed at their drills and exercises so they can duplicate them in real match play!