Are Ball Machines Really Worth the Investment?
Today’s Guest Post was created by the folks at LiftYourGame.net exclusively for the ParentingAces Community. I hope you find it helpful!
As a parent, you probably know other parents with tennis ball machines. Or, your local court might have one you can rent.
But are they really worth the investment if you were to buy one yourself?
Here’s a brief look at the pros and cons of getting a tennis ball machine, and how you can use these devices for youth player development.
What are tennis ball machines?
For those that don’t know, a tennis ball machine is a training device that will fire tennis balls for you to return.
They cost anything from $500 up to around $3000, and there are massive differences between the different types of machines on the market. Here are some things 95% of good ball machines will have: • Adjustable speed settings – with a top speed of anything between 30-80mph depending on how much you pay.
• Adjustable feed rates (how many seconds between each ball being fired).
• Adjustable launch angles – the more expensive ones will do this automatically, without manual adjustment.
• Hoppers in which you can store anything from 50-250 balls. Obviously, the bigger the hopper, the bulkier and heavier the machine is, and the more difficult it is to transport.
• A battery, so you don’t have to rely on AC power. Premium machines will have programmable drills, remote control functionality, spin settings, electronic elevation/oscillation, and all sorts of other premium features.
Are they worth the money?
The answer is – it depends.
What ball machines are great for is allowing you to create incredibly consistent training drills (which we’ll discuss below) to help your child improve in certain key areas. They’re very versatile – you can practice everything from forehand drives to lobs, and even your speed and agility – provided the machine has automatic oscillation.
They’re also great for highly-motivated players who would love to be able to practice at any time of day. The beauty is with a good machine, kids can have basically any type of ball fired into them without a parent or coach helping out.
The older the player, the better the machine you’ll want to get. This is because better machines are going to be helpful with more advanced drills that are more of a challenge for those aged 12 and above. Younger kids will get much more benefit than teenagers out of cheaper machines.
You can get really good-quality ball machines that are suitable for young adults as well as juniors for around $1000. This isn’t cheap, but you should be aware that for most players, going for a $2000 machine isn’t going to be necessary. At this price point, you’re mostly paying for convenience (a larger hopper, remote control functionality etc).
To find out how worthwhile a ball machine is going to be for your child, think about when and where they’re going to use it. If you have the room at home or at a nearby court to set up a ball machine, then great. But if you’re going to have to be taking it in the car all the time, think about how much space you’re going to need, and how much hassle it’s going to be to transport it.
Cheaper machines weigh less – they’re normally in the range of 20-30 pounds, and are about the size of a small bedside table. More expensive options will weigh upwards of 40 pounds, and depending on the size of the hopper, will be about the size of a small filing cabinet.
For more information about the different types of ball machines you can buy, you can check out this buyer’s guide.
What can you do with them?
Here are three examples of some basic drills you can do with a ball machine, just to give you an idea of what they might be used for.
Note: we’re assuming the use of a machine with a random electronic oscillation function, like the Lobster Sports Elite One, which can be bought for around $1100.
1. Baseline movement
Place the ball machine on the center mark facing the net, and set it to fire randomly at the two corners at the other end of the court.
Stand the player at the center mark on the opposite baseline. They will then have to rush to where the ball has landed, and play a solid return.
This is a relatively basic drill, but works as a great way to begin a session. There are two things to note about getting it right.
Firstly, you’ll need to dial in the speed as you go based on player ability. If it’s too fast, they won’t reach the ball, and if it’s too slow, the drill will be too easy. This principle applies to many different uses of a tennis ball machine.
Secondly, this is quite a tiring drill. It’s easy to lose the intensity of the return after 6-8 shots, especially for younger players. Don’t be afraid to take breaks, or just use it for a couple of rounds at a time. Alternatively, you can lower the feed rate a little to give the player more time to recover.
2. Forehand volley
Keep the machine in the same place, but bring the player up so that they’re about a foot or two behind the service line. Lower the speed and increase the angle on the machine to offer the player a volley. You can choose whether or not to leave random oscillation on, or focus on a single side.
This allows the player to focus on their net play – especially low volleys, which many young players struggle to return effectively.
For an added challenge, with this drill you can place targets like cones or empty ball cans near the baseline to remind the player where they should be hitting the ball.
To “gamify” things a little and make practice more fun for kids, you can add obstacles that must be avoided.
Set the machine to alternate between the two sides of the court, keeping the depth consistent. Then, place markers or cones randomly in the player’s line of movement, which must be avoided. Be careful not to use anything that a player could trip up on.
This technique is great for improving footwork, which is particularly important for younger kids. You could make it into a proper game by giving the player a point for a successful return, and the machine a point if they step on an obstacle.
For additional drills, see https://liftyourgame.net/tennis-ball-machine-drills/.
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