Practice like you play, or you’ll play like you practice!
Ever run into someone who knows you and you start chatting, but you can’t remember their name? When they tell you, you smack your forehead and feel sheepish. What happened?
You obviously learned her name at some point and retained it, but you couldn’t recall it when you needed to. The same is often true with tennis skills: you learn a new shot in a lesson, you may even retain it, but you can’t recall it next week, at 5 games all, 30-40. So what good was all your practice?
Most people use ball machines in a way that helps them learn skills, but not retain or recall them. With the right ball machine practice methods, you can learn, retain and recall tennis strokes and shots with a ball machine. And, it’s more fun!
Tennis points usually last less than 10 seconds. Occasionally, you get into long rallies, but your goal should be to end points, not keep them going. Another thing to remember about tennis points is that you generally don’t hit the same shot over and over unless you get into a long crosscourt rally. You usually hit a forehand, then a backhand, then a forehand that makes you take a few steps, a backhand that’s short into the court, etc. Even in a crosscourt rally, each player may hit the same shot only five or six times.
Practicing to Learn a Skill
If you want to learn a new skill, such as a new grip or adding slice or topspin, hitting using a ball machine full of balls isn’t a bad idea because it can help you repeat the stroke over and over. This has only limited value, however, so you should only hit this way for part of your practice session, then move on to hitting that helps you retain and recall your new skill.
Set the ball machine on the opposite baseline so you’ll get balls just like you will in a match. Set the time between feeds to mirror a match—that means, the next ball shouldn’t shoot out of the ball machine until the shot you just hit has reached the opposite baseline. This will replicate match play, giving you the same time to follow through, recover to your original position and get ready for the next shot. Rapid-fire feeding will result in poor preparation and a late contact point. This is why backboards are so damaging for tennis players.
Once you get the hang of the new skill, hit half as many balls as it took you to get into a groove with it. For example, if you it took you 40 tries to get comfortable with the shot, hit 20 more balls. Hitting more than this (e.g., 200 balls) doesn’t help you with retention or recall — you’ll need to change your practice. No, you haven’t learned the skill permanently after 60 tries—that’s why you need to keep practicing on other days, and shift your practice to working on retaining the skill you’ve just figured out.
Practicing to Retain a Skill
If you want to store the new stroke or shot technique you’ve just practiced in your brain (not your muscles), you need to shift to variable feeds. This means you keep working on the same stroke (for example, a backhand down the line), but you now receive balls to your backhand that are deep, wide, short and make you move around. You will need to hit your backhand down the line when you receive short, wide and deep balls during a match, so you need to practice like this. Set your ball machine to vary the placement of the balls you receive. If your machine doesn’t do this, space out your feeds a bit longer so you can recover and position yourself differently after each shot. Variable practice helps you retain your new skill.
Practicing to Recall a Skill
OK, you’ve learned a skill and think you’ve retained it. How can you make sure you can recall it whenever you need it in your next match? You need to finish your ball machine practice with random hitting. This is where you practice like you play. It’s time to hit a forehand, then a deep backhand, then a short backhand, then another forehand . . . just like a point during a match. Play some points closing the net and hit an overhead to finish. Can you hit your new shot or use your new skill every four or five balls? Keep trying and see how it works. If you can’t recall the skill, move back to your variable practice for a few minutes.
How To Practice
Make sure every ball machine session (even if you’re just practicing what you already know) is match-like:
- Set the ball machine at the opposite baseline
- Space your feeds to give you enough time to recover after each shot
- Don’t hit the same shot hundreds of times in a row
- Vary your feeds after your first bucket of balls
- Finish practice with random feeds
Watch out for “cardio workouts” that can damage your tennis strokes. Trying to get an aerobic workout with a ball machine can cause muscle fatigue and create late, sloppy strokes. Using an interval-training ball machine workout that is more like a tennis match burns more calories and doesn’t hurt your tennis strokes.
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