Muscle Memory

One of the best things about “A Pane in the Glass: A Coach’s Companion” is the articles by colleagues who have taken me up on my invitation to include their thoughts on all things pertinent to curling at the highest level (which easily transpose to many other sports and activities). One of my best friends in the “college of curling coaches” hails from the only province that has curling as its official sport. That would be Saskatchewan! My guest author then, as it is today, is Merv Fonger, coach of Team Holland (among many others as advisor). When I got home today and checked into Facebook, I saw that Merv had penned the following about “muscle memory”. I then decided to add my two cents worth. Enjoy and send me/us a comment from your coaching experiences!

The whole idea of maximum performance is to simply go on autopilot. Allowing the mind to focus on only performance and nothing else is an important key to being successful. Sound technical skills are a must in order to compete at the high performance level. If the focus is on how to do it rather than simply executing the skill, then you lose your flow and the focus is not where it needs to be.

We have a multitude of skills that we use when we perform. It is important to know when and how to use them without giving it a second thought. Those skills that require technical training need to be soundly incorporated into muscle memory before the big event, whatever that might be.

Technically strong performers are confident, assertive and task oriented because they have the ability to take what tools they need and go on autopilot without fear of negative consequences. It is not that new skills and different ways of doing things are bad, but they are necessary for people to improve performance. Knowing when to implement the changes and developing a plan to getting those skills to autopilot mode is what is important.

Peaking can only take place when the performer has total confidence in the technical package. Yogi Berra once said, “How can you hit and think at the same time?’. Nike has the right idea, Just do it!

It’s 2/3 of the way through the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games. Those of us in Canada are blessed with what can only be described as wall-to-wall coverage on a variety of platforms. We can watch events live on TV, iPods, iPads … or sit back in the evening and watch a comprehensive accounting of the day’s events. That’s not the case in other countries, notably our neighbours south of the 39th parallel who see it all unfold in historical perspective. You need to talk to those nice folks at the peacock network (that would be NBC).

One of the most interesting facets of the coverage here are the sports science vignettes by Dr. Greg Wells. One really caught my eye and it was all about the subject of Merv’s Facebook article. It was about “muscle memory”. In synopsis form, this is what Dr. Wells said.

First off, it’s not muscles that have the “memory”. It’s a part of the brain call the cerebellum. This is where repeated muscular movement (over thousands of repetitions) open neural pathways that fire without the athlete really thinking about it. In fact, and here’s the interesting part, if the athlete were to think or was distracted, the blood flow required by the cerebellum to fire those neurons is diverted to the cerebral cortex where decision making is centred. The result is a sabotaging of all those hours upon hours of work the athlete, musician etc. spent creating those neural pathways.

When one understands the sport science behind something like this, it makes us much more aware of the pitfalls of “over-thinking” and being “distracted”, both areas that can be trained but awareness is the first step.

Yes, Merv, “just do it”!