PART ONE: OVERVIEW
Ball Machines satisfy 4 important needs in sports by offering:
3. A TIRELESS PRACTICE PARTNER
4. A COACH’S ASSISTANT (details in Part Three)
3 PRACTICE OPTIONS: How many balls does each player hit per hour when playing/practicing?
Regular doubles play: 300 shots/hour/person (25 minutes of average hitting in matches)
Ball machines with 50-50 hitting and breaks: 900 shots/hour
Backboards and Rebounders with 50-50 hitting and breaks: 1800 shots/hour
What’s the best option?
All three are important, but the argument for a regular dose of ball machine practice is that they best help
players gain rhythm since they can feed consistent balls. Backboards and Rebounders are a next-best
option for this benefit, with real play being the most challenging. Of course, real play is also essential and
cannot be replaced. Our point in comparing is to emphasize that ball machine drilling has very specific
benefits that are difficult to obtain during real match play. With this and so many other benefits to ball
machine use, it’s no wonder that the many of the best pickleball coaches use these wonderful tools
PART TWO: CREATIVE DRILLS/EXERCISES
In this section, we will share a large number of pickleball playing concepts or themes along with examples
of ball machine drills for each focus issue. The reason for this approach is that, while effective practices
can certainly be “open” or random (match play), much benefit can be gained from systematic and repetitive blocked or serial practice. Blocked practice means hitting the same shot over and over again. Serial practice means you are practicing a specific pattern, such as approach and volley, and that you are practicing that same pattern repeatedly. Most coaches agree that players who improve most quickly structure their practice with a specific shot or concept as follows:
Blocked practice – Serial Practice – Random or Real Play
14 winning coaching trends and using ball machines to practice these top concepts:
1. Shot Specificity: Focus on grooving one shot until you are confident that you can hit it at least several
times in a row. Remember that improvement retention is highest when you focus on one shot at a time.
Repetition, repetition, repetition. Practice alone does not make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.
2. Target Areas: Create realistic targets, whether primary (above the net) or secondary (on the opposite
side of the net on the court surface). Make them large enough to succeed and build confidence, but also
challenging enough to push you to improve. Use a 70% success rate as a good starting point and
3. Timing: As players improve, both ball renognition and paddle preparation need to speed up. Practicing
with a ball machine can greatly help in this area since, with the simple turn of a dial, the machine can
feed balls at faster speeds and also with faster frequencies. The rule of thumb is to recognize much of
the ball’s speed, direction, and arc when it is still on your opponent’s side of the net and also initiate
your initial turn and movement into position before the ball crosses the net onto your side of the c ourt.
4. Rhythm: Ball machines simulate players hitting with a consistent rhythm. An effective tactic against
this type of player is to change the ball rhythm you hit with in order to break that opponents’
comfortable rally rhythm. Here’s the drill: Identify three ball speeds you can execute. Call them slow,
medium, and fast. Practice patterns such as slow, slow, medium, medium, fast, fast, and repeat. Or, just
one of each. Or slow, medium, fast, fast, medium, slow, slow, medium fast, etc.
5. Shot Tolerance: Impatience is one of the biggest downfalls of otherwise very good tennis players.
Having high shot tolerance means “tolerating” hitting more balls in a row than your opponent. For
example, if you feel that hitting 8 in a row is challenging for you, implement a 50% over-learning
process. In this example, don’t just hit 8 in a row, but try for 12.
6. Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Training: We all know that tennis naturally combines both aerobic and anaerobic
exercise. Real play involves sequences of balls in various patterns or combinations, and most of these
patterns are of short duration. While it is tempting to hit 30 balls in a row on a ball machine, avoid the
temptation. The patterns that will best transfer over to real play are normally just 5-ball to 10-ball
patterns, and not more. Hit your designated amount of shots in a row, then pause the machine and
recover for about 15 seconds to simulate between point breaks, and then resume your practice with
another sequence on the machine. If your intensity is high and you recover fully between shots, your
workout can push both your aerobic and anaerobic limits.
7. Movement and Positioning: When most people picture someone hitting on a ball machine, they imagine
a player standing still and hitting ball after ball after ball, waiting for the ball to come to them. This
common mistake is the opposite of effective practice. In fact, it’s like owning a car but never learning
how to drive it. Set up your practice realistically and as close to real play as possible. Move to the ball
and recovery fully. Remember that a pickleball ball is not a dog. It won’t come to you, you must move to
8. Footwork Patterns: Getting on balance should be your goal before hitting any shot. The two subgroups
of balance are static (stationary) balance and dynamic (moving) balance. It’s inevitable to need both,
since the one thing predictable about racquet and paddle sports is that they are unpredictable. Their
multi-directional and unpredictable nature demands that players are quick and agile, as well as
proficiently able to accelerate and decelerate. Use a ball machine two ways to develop these skills.
First, identify one shot and its required movement and repeat again and again. Second, put the machine
on random oscillation and practice putting your movement skills to the test.
9. Decision-making Drills: Pickleball is a game of fast decision-making. Whether it be on the execution
end of the court or when you are judging/reacting to the incoming ball, being decisive is essential.
Here’s a drill to help players react and make decisions according to the incoming ball they are about to
hit. Add a number of multi-colored balls to the standard white balls in the ball machine’s hopper.
Decide in advance what a fed white ball or a fed colored ball means. For example, if a white ball is fed,
hit that shot crosscourt. If a colored ball is fed, hit that shot down the line. There are numerous ways to
practice this concept. i.e. Lob or dropshot, hard or soft, lob or low over the net, etc.
10. First Strike -First-strike is a catchy way to describe an aggressive style of competitive play – like a
one-two punch in boxing. With this style of play, athletes look for their first opportunity to hit an
aggressive dominating shot to put their opponent on the defensive. To begin developing this slightly
risky first-strike approach, it is helpful to use the consistent ball-throwing capabilities of a ball
machine. For example, feed a ball to your strongest shot, such as your forehand groundstroke. Then
experiment by hitting harder than you feel you can control. This inevitably leads to multiple errors, and
you need to remember that this is to be expected. Trust in the process that gradually you will become
more consistent. If needed, create a larger-than-normal target area to help you feel successful and
then make it slightly smaller at regular intervals.
11. Serve +1: This concept is an extension of “First Strike” and it simply means to focus on the serve and
then the very next shot. To practice this concept with a ball machine, you will need a remote o r a
partner to assist. Serve and then quickly press the remote to activate the machine to hit what is
simulating a return of your serve. Set up a very aggressive target zone into which you should aim.
12. Return +1: The return of serve is well documented as the most underpracticed yet truly critical shot in
tennis. Return +1 means that you are working on your return of serve AND the shot right after that!
13. Return of Serve – Set up the machine to serve to start the point. Considering the importance of the
return of serve, repetitive practice to various targets based on different incoming serves is essential.
14. Point finishers: This concept can be used to practice overheads, swinging volleys, high volleys, high
short groundstrokes and other point finishing shots. Let’s take overheads as an example and create a
drill for doubles (note that this drill can be used for singles as well). Set the machine feed a lob to start
the point. Set up the frequency of the feed very slow at 10 seconds. Here’s how it works: If the machine
throws the next ball before the previous point is completed, the receiving team scores that point. This
encourages the team starting the point with an overhead to finish the point quickly, and on that single
shot as often as possible. Of course, since the team hitting overheads has an advantage, score just 1
point for overhead team. But score 2 points for the lobbing team. The goal of the defending team is
obviously to keep the ball in play as long as possible. Remember to set the machine to oscill ate from
side to side or in random mode so all players get an equal opportunity to hit that first shot.
PART 3: HOW THE BEST COACHES/TEACHERS USE BALL MACHINES
Part Two covered how to use ball machines to accelerate the learning process. In this section, we will
identify how coaches use ball machines to enhance the overall learning experience for their students in
addition to their shot-making skills. Let’s identify 3 of the qualities demonstrated by the best coaches in
1. They establish excellent rapport with their students.
2. They use a principle called ‘guided discovery’ to help their students become self-sufficient.
3. They use the best available teaching tools.
In all 3 of these qualities, ball machines can play a very important role. Let’s identify how this works in each
aspect of coaching listed above.
1. EXCELLENT RAPPORT: First, the best teachers develop excellent rapport and personal relationships
with their students. Unfortunately, the majority of group pickleball lessons involve “coach
feeding” with the teacher calling out instructions and corrections from across the net. While
feeding drills can be intermittently used without problem, coaches should avoid using them as the
basis for all of their group instruction. In addition to pairing up students to hit with or feed to one
another, ball machines enable and encourage close interaction between coaches and students.
Let’s call this format “coach freedom,” where the coach is free to rove and make corrections
privately to each person. Remember the old saying: “Praise in public but correct in private.”
2. GUIDED DISCOVEYR: Second, the best teachers use the principle of guided discovery as the basis of their coaching. The students need to reach their own conclusions through reason, logic, and experience. Then, on their own, they become self-sufficient problem solvers, instead of dependent learners waiting for their teachers to feed them new information. The consistent feeds of a ball machine definitely facilitate guided discovery.
3. TEACHING TOOLS: Third, the best teachers use the best available teaching tools to accelerate the
learning process. These would include video, ball machines, training aids that guide movement, and
the regular use of highly visual target systems. These target systems provide immediate visual
feedback encouraging players to recognize the four basic pickleball errors and to make
adjustments. The four major errors are: long, in the net, to the right of the target and to the left.
Players should always make intelligent corrections, seldom making the same mistake two times in
Think about the machines we use every day. Cell phones, cars, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners.
Toaster ovens, microwaves, computers, and televisions. Electric toothbrushes, hair blowers, air conditioners,
and heaters. And the list goes on.
In fact, for most of us, losing access to any one of these machines would be a sacrifice. Why? They make
life easier, more efficient, and even more entertaining. Yet, while ball machines for pickleball are gaining in
popularity, they still hardly get used at all. And, for the coach, what’s most shocking is that it is one of the
few machines that can actually make money while making our lives easier, more efficient, AND even more
entertaining. What percentage of pickleball coaches and serious players use a ball machine on a regular
basis that they are practicing or coaching? Even being optomistic, the answer is in single digits. That’s
right, less than 10%.
What can you do? If you are a coach and you’re one of the non-users who wants to stand out from the
crowd while making your life easier, more productive and more profitable at the same time, join the small
world of ball machine lovers. But user beware. Once you start using a ball machine regularly in your
teaching programs, it is as addictive as any other machine in your life. In fact, some people love their
machines so much they keep a working back-up in storage, just in case they need it. After all, a small
investment that improves the services you offer, generates extra income, AND extends your career by
decreasing the wear and tear on your legs, arms, and voice is a good thing, right? Okay, pep talk over. Now
go out there and fire up your machine! Your students will love you for it!
If you’re a player, check out the portable Pickleball Tutor at www.PickleballTutor.com. It’s affordable,
durable, lightweight and extremely easy to use, with battery and remote control options.