More and more players are buying ball machines and they are a wonderful tool for pickleball players to improve their strokes, to add shots to their games, and to get a good workout. The quality and versatility of the machines have improved, and they are portable. The question is, how do you maximize your time on the ball machine? Remember that practice makes permanent; it does not necessarily make perfect.
First of all, decide on your objective for each session. Break it down into categories: stroke improvement, offensive shots, defensive shots, working on hitting spin, hitting against spin, specific shot selection (example: return of serve), hitting balls (and hitting against balls) that have depth and pace, hitting shots that have little pace, lobbing off of the machine’s shot, returning a machine-lobbed ball with a hard groundstroke, lobbing a lob, etc.
You can add new items to your list by watching the many good videos of the pros online. But, first, start with a basic plan to use the machine properly for stroke improvement. It will give you an anchor, a place to return if you are struggling. I watch players set up the machine to hit forehands, for example, and that is the last thought given before the first ball comes flying out of the machine.
State your objective: “Today, I am going to work on my forehand crosscourt and forehand down the line. I will set the machine to hit the ball deep to the forehand corner at a medium pace so that I can return the line. I will set the machine to hit the ball deep to the forehand corner at a medium pace so that I can return to the center of the court between each stroke. I will not camp out in the corner. I will force myself to take the paddle back as soon as I leave the center of the court so that I am prepared to hit the ball when I get to the corner. As I take my paddle back, I will bend my knees so that I can adjust to the height and pace of the coming ball.
“I will focus on the ball as it comes flying out of the machine and I will track the ball over the net and keep my head down as I watch the ball bounce then make contact with my paddle. I will stay down through the follow-through so that I can quickly return to the center of the court in preparation for the next shot. Each and every shot I hit will be a deliberate stroke placed deep to the opposing forehand corner.”
You should begin by hitting just crossscourts. Then do a round of down-the-line forehands. Wait a second longer to hit the ball down the line but be sure to keep your head down as your body forms a tripod over the shot. Then do a round of alternating crosscourts then down-the-line shots. You can make any combination—for example, two crosscourts, one down the line—to keep yourself fresh when you drill.
This drill is strictly for stroke improvement. Don’t set the machine to hit too hard or too frequently. You want to think of yourself being videoed on every shot for an instructional video. Hold that position. Exaggerate your follow-through. Footwork and fundamentals are the key to stroke improvement. Next, do the same basic drill on your backhand, crosscourt and down the line. Then add hitting down the middle because this shot is so important in pickleball. Then add the ball machine hitting the ball down the middle. In this case, you should practice standing on both the forehand and backhand sides, taking the center shot on both your forehand and your backhand. If you have a partner, you can alternate shots. From both sides you should be able to hit the opponents’ corners and center. Think about taking the angle away from the opponents in pickleball. Most players hit better moving to the ball so try jamming them. Work on that center shot off the ball machine as you work on your fundamentals.
This gets tedious so you need to throw in some fun drills. Work on your offensive game. Start by setting the ball machine to hit crosscourt to your forehand well inside the baseline. You drive the ball down the line, go to the NVZ (No Volley Zone) line, and volley the ball to the backhand corner. Set a target a foot inside the corner. Race back to the baseline and repeat. Then, for the next round, drive to the center, go in and volley to the center. The next round on the machine, drive to the center, volley a forehand, back up, and hit a reset drop to the kitchen.
You are continually moving up and back. You can also hit a forehand, move in slightly, hit a reset, go to the NVZ line, hit a volley, then back up for a reset, back to the baseline and start the sequence all over again. Work on offensive shots from both sides and from the middle. Drive the ball. Put the volleys away. Put out cones for targets. While the reset is not offensive, it does give you time to set up the other offensive shots in the drill.
Next come the defensive drills. Increase the depth, pace, and frequency of the ball machine shots to the point of pushing yourself while still being capable of completing the drills. Aim the ball machine to push you wide, clear off the court. Learn to hit a defensive lob using good stroke production as you lift and carry the ball back into play. Try a topspin lob. Try an easier slice. Aim for that backhand corner. Put targets out so that you can gauge your depth. Focus on keeping the high part of the lob arc over the NVZ line. Stay with the shot so that the ball stays on your paddle as long as possible.
If you are a singles player, you definitely want to learn to hit a high, deep, offensive backhand to push your opponent back. It is a great return of serve shot since your opponent cannot serve and volley. It puts him in a defensive position on the court. Tailor your drills to your style of play. Learn throughout your drilling what you need to spend more time on and what you do well. You need to know the shots you can count on when the match gets close. Drilling helps you know your own game, your strengths, and what shots you can hit with confidence.
The ball machine can be useful in teaching you how to play with and against the wind and with a crosswind. You can set up the machine with the wind, for example, and you can experiment with hitting the ball higher over the net into the wind. When hitting with the wind, practice staying down so that you maximize your control by not lofting the ball. In a crosswind, learn to hit on the “high” side or upwind, so the ball drifts into the court rather than drifting wide outside.
The ball machine gives you a chance to repeat the same shot, to experiment, to groove and refine, and to push yourself physically. It builds muscle memory. You must have a disciplined practice where you have clear objectives and goals. Be creative and make it fun. Design your drills to suit the number of players and the level of play without compromising on the focus on fundamentals throughout each exercise.