Have you ever wondered how professional tennis players are able to put a serve right on the line time after time? How about how a professional golfer is able to pull off pin-point shots with extreme consistency? Aside from intense focus, these athletes are using motor learning, also known as muscle memory. This is essentially teaching your muscles how to repeat movements or techniques over and over.
The theories that explained motor learning were developed at the beginning of the 20th Century. Dr. Edward Thorndike was a pioneer in the study of motor learning and he conducted various experiments that showed subjects required very minimal training in completing tasks that were learned decades before. These experiments led Thorndike and other scientists to determine that learned motor skills are stored in the memory section of our brains.
We all use muscle memory techniques in our everyday life. Whether it be riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard or entering a common password or pin number, we have taught our muscles to carry out these commands without putting much thought into them. It takes a great deal of practice and repetition for a task to be completed on a strictly subconscious level. For that professional tennis player or golfer it takes hundreds of hours of practice and repeated shots for the brain and muscles to perform at a world class level.
The process of adding specific motor movements to the brain’s memory can take either a short or long time depending on the type of movements being performed. When movements are first being learned, the muscles and other body-controlling features (such as ligaments and tendons) are stiff and slow and can be easily disrupted if the brain is not completely focused on the movement. In order to complete the memorization, acts must be done with full attention. This is because brain activity increases when performing movements, and this increased activity must be fully centered on the activity being completed. Much of the motor learning in the brain is located in the cerebellum which is the part of the brain in charge of controlling sensory and cognitive functions.
Once actions are memorized by the brain, the muscles must be trained to act in a quick, fluid manner. This can be done in the gym, on the court, or other playing field. When athletes complete strength training exercises, they enhance the synapses in their muscles which increases the speed at which impulses travel from the brain through the nervous system to the muscles. This is key because it lowers the time between when the brain decides to complete a movement to when the muscles actually start to move. This allows tennis players to react to a hard serve or a golfer to adjust the club during his swing. When the perfect shot is carried out, the brain will begin to memorize what it felt like and use the timing of the improved synapses so the action can be repeated.When practicing, you will inevitably hit poor shots every once in awhile. This is where a good attitude comes into play. As stated before, muscle memory comes from focusing on a single action or movement. Unfortunately for some players, when you hit a bad shot, you will focus on this shot because bad shots are more emotionally charged than good shots. For your brain to memorize the good shots, you must attempt to look past the good shots and focus on what you do right on your great shots! If you do this, your brain and muscles will be able to memorize what it feels like to hit a strong shot, and you will become a better player.
Learn more about Muscle Memory.
By: Kenny Morley, Ohio State University
Tennis – Making Muscle Memory for Tennis. (2012). Retrieved from http://fixyourtennis.weebly.com/tennis—making-muscle-memory-for-tennis.html
Thorndike, E. Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949). (2012). Retrieved from http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/history/thorndike.html>.
Articles by Kenny Morley.