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Practice Makes Permanent: Creating Muscle Memory in Athletes

Posted by Tennis Supply Team on 8/1/2014
Human beings are already hard-wired with the components of muscle memory. When performing gross or fine motor skills, we activate muscles without any conscious thought. Walking, speaking, and chewing are examples of gross motor skills that are unconscious, even among the very young. Typing, writing, and all of the components of driving are fine motor skills which are also so ingrained with time and training that they no longer require forethought.

Athletes, particularly those hoping to reach the top of their sport, work with coaches and trainers to create similar neural pathways regarding their physical skills. Baseball and softball catchers learn to overcome their involuntary response to flinch at high speed pitches. Golfers learn to connect with the ball on the tee, every time. Tennis players learn to hit the paint, the sweet spot of the ace, with nearly every serve. How do the top players achieve such consistent results?

Practice. Well, yes, and no. Practice, the repetition of necessary motor skills, building hand-eye coordination, breath control, and a hundred other seemingly minute factors can be the difference between a top seed at Wimbledon and a country club doubles player. Both may practice diligently. One however, is practicing wrong.

While most premiere athletes are naturally gifted with speed, strength, and agility, what sets the top seed apart is that he doesn't only trust his gut to tell him he’s got it right. He relies on a coach’s eagle eye noting a shift in balance a split second too soon, on video capturing his motion to confirm it, and most importantly, he has the willingness to change his actions. The willingness to change, to alter a motion which is ingrained, and then to work tirelessly to carve a new neural connection which allows the new motion to usurp the old one, is what makes perfect, versus only permanent.

Complete attention of the mind, the body, and the emotional state must be brought to bear when building muscle memory. It is crucial that the emotional component be taken seriously so that in the midst of a career-making set the player does not become overwhelmed. Properly ingrained muscle memory makes the pitch, the drive, or the ace matter of fact, allowing the athlete to focus on strategy and nuance, on winning.