Practice like you play, or you’ll play like you practice!
Tennis ball machines can be one of the most damaging learning or practice aids for tennis players—if you use them the way most players do.
Do you ever hit 100 balls in a row using the same stroke during a match? If not, then why do it during practice? You won’t build “consistency” or “muscle memory”. . . but you will build lactic acid in your muscles, fatigue your central nervous system and groove tired strokes with late contact points.
The good news is, with just a small bit of information, you can learn how to effectively use a ball machine to improve your strokes and shots.
Why Ball Machines Hurt Your Game
Hitting hundreds and hundreds of the same stroke during a 30-minute practice doesn’t create “muscle memory.” There’s no such thing as muscle memory (your muscles don’t have brains, so they can’t remember anything). Motor memory is created in the brain, which sends messages to your muscles when you want to hit a tennis shot. This is why you want to practice in ways that stimulate your memory, not your muscles. This is basic Phys Ed 101—not some sport psychologist’s theory.
Hitting on a ball machine until your arm is ready to fall off will hurt you, not help you. It will tire your arm muscles, fill them with lactic acid and fatigue your central nervous system which you need to send the correct messages about your forehand to your brain. If you get fatigued, your brain will keep a record of the many bad shots you hit, and may call on that stored catalogue of late, tired strokes next week during your match when you need to hit a good forehand.
If you want to improve at tennis, you need to learn skills, retain them and recallthem. Hitting similar feeds from a ball machine only helps you learn skills short term, not retain or recall them. That’s why hitting hundreds of balls without varying your ball machine settings is not very helpful. If your ball machine doesn’t have different settings, you can still get some benefit from your practice with the correct ball machine practice methods.
Ball Machine Fitness Workouts can Help or Hurt
If you want to improve your conditioning and burn some calories using a ball machine, avoid aerobic workouts against the machine and burn more calories, increase your stamina and improve your recovery time between points by creating high-intensity interval training ball machine workouts.
In summary, don’t hit backhands down the line or forehands crosscourt or any other single stroke or shot for an entire practice. It won’t help you create the right motor memory so you can hit the ball correctly next week, but it will hurt your strokes by having you practice tired shots with late contact points, too much wrist and poor footwork.