For players who are serious about improving specific technicalities of their pickleball game, a ball machine can be a critical training tool allowing players to practice specific shots. At Sun City West Pickleball Club (SCW) in Sun City West, Arizona, they believe that “repetition is the perfect complement to drilling exercises,” says John Click, SCW’s PickleSkills Plus Coordinator. Click appreciates that by using a ball machine, players wanting to work on a specific shot, like your third shot drop, can easily set up the machine to hit dozens in a row. Facilitating experimentation with certain factors in a player’s form, ball machines can be a great way for pickleball clubs to help members evaluate their technique.
At SCW, a club with over 1,700 members, they have two ball machines–a Lobster and a Tutor Plus. Recently, they have decided to move toward the Tutor machines because they do not “require any battery or battery pack to function, which [they] find easier to maintain.” In the coming months, SCW plans to add ball machine lessons to their class offerings which will focus solely on technique, as opposed to other types of classes that tend to be more drill oriented and designed for specific levels of play. Thanks to a generous sponsor, SCW was able to add two more Tutor Plus machines to their inventory of machines to support the new ball machine lessons.
Establishing and maintaining the ball machine program at SCW is a team effort with several leaders and volunteers coming together to make it happen. Don Marshall, the Officer at Large for Programming, created the program to manage the ball machines and subsequently recruited a volunteer member, Carrie Cottew, to manage the day-to-day operations. Cottew’s responsibilities include being the point of contact for members needing to reserve a machine and coordinating instructors for the machines. SCW’s lead ball machine instructor, John Lemma, did the initial research on which machines to purchase and is responsible for maintaining them.
In order to have an organized system to reserve ball machines, Marshall created a workaround within their court reservation system, Hold My Court, for members to be able to use the same system to reserve a machine. To do this, Marshall “[added] two courts to [their] current inventory…and named the courts Lobster and Tutor” to designate those reservations as reservations for those machines, says Marshall.
Prior to reserving a ball machine, members must first be trained and certified on the specific machine. Cottew oversees the reservations to ensure members are appropriately trained and certified prior to their use of the machine. The club refers to the training and certification process as a “checkout,” which involves “going with an instructor to a court where they show you how to set [the ball machine] up, take it down, what the various functions do, and how to troubleshoot it.” Upon a member’s successful completion of a checkout, the member will be added to an authorized user list for Cottew to cross check names when a new machine reservation is made. SCW has six ball machine trainers, three for each type of machine, to ensure their availability for members wanting to be certified.
When SCW initially began offering ball machines, they had trouble getting the word around that they were available for members to use. However, once Marshall added the machines to their court reservation system and they began promoting the machines via their weekly newsletters, they saw a significant uptick in interest and use. Additionally, they have encountered natural maintenance issues with the machines that come with wear and tear of regular use. However, Lemma is diligent to address these issues in a timely manner to get the machines ready for members.
Marshall is adamant that anyone looking to have ball machines at their club should “make sure [they] have a good checkout program so the machines are used properly.” Proper use and maintenance will keep the machines running smoothly and limit the amount of time the machines are offline due to maintenance issues. Marshal also recommends having a video system for members to see how their swing compares to the ideal technique. Further, Click emphasizes the need to think about how to power the machines and whether your club’s infrastructure is better suited for a battery-powered machine or one that can be plugged into a power outlet.
While they certainly require a time and financial investment from the club, ball machines are a “great tool and popular with players who are really looking to improve their game,” says Marshall. Providing members with ball machines can help elevate your club’s status as a more elite club with members who are serious about strengthening their technique and honing their skills.