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The Mental Side of Muscle Memory

Last July, we posted an article entitled “The Misnomer of Muscle Memory.” This article discussed procedural memory and how the brain is responsible for your movements and skill development. Through neuroplasticity, the brain’s physical structure changes as neurological connections are created and strengthened.


Most of the article talked about the physical act of practice and “muscle memory.” This article takes a look at the mental side, specifically, what it takes to really master a skill.


When Learning a New Skill…


As an athlete, or anyone else for that matter, when you are introduced to a new skill or task, your sensory and short-term memory are at bat. We often think about, visualize, talk through, and try out the new skill in the beginning. As we continue to repeat this skill, we become more proficient, executing more correctly with less thinking, more speed, and greater ease.


Shifting to Long-Term Memory


Eventually, with enough practice, skills and tasks are engraved in the implicit/unconscious mind under what is called procedural memory. Getting to this point is just as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one, especially when dealing with more complex skills. In the beginning, new skill learning, although challenging, can be fun and rewarding as you are likely to see and feel improvements rather quickly. However, when shifting these new skills over to procedural “long-term” memory, the task can become more difficult. The more complex the task, the more time and practice it takes to become comfortable with it. Progress slows, plateaus that need to be worked through occur, and monotony is on the rise. Even once proficiency is shown, there are usually additional progressions to the skill that are more difficult. At this point, it is like you are starting over the learning process, slowing down and using more short-term memory to learn the new progression. As you are starting to see, it becomes a long road to mastery, with many repetitions to achieve exemplary “muscle memory.” Simply put, it is not enough just to do physical repetitions to obtain muscle mastery, but rather a combination of mental dexterity and physical practice.


It’s all Mental


The reason why many people fall short of their athletic potential isn’t because they aren’t skilled enough physically, but rather that they never invest enough in the mental component of training. Mastery of anything requires a mental discipline for quality and a patience for the time it takes to develop. For example, it may take you 500 practice shots to get comfortable shooting a basketball and developing a pre-shot routine. However, to truly master this shot and routine so that you can perform it well anywhere on the court in any situation, may take 50,000 practice shots over the course of a few years. During that time from proficiency to mastery, there will no doubt be mistakes. One repetition may be perfect while the next slightly off. It is your job as an athlete to have the mental acuity to recognize these mistakes, and make the mental correction to fix the physical flaw quickly. (What went wrong? What is the correction? Execute.) This consciousness to fine-tune a skillset requires the mental discipline to make each repetition count. It also takes emotional balance to consistently work through struggles while continuing to push for the same level of mental quality and focus when things are going well.


Essentially, it is your mental state that reveals the journey of your development. It is that wisdom which crafts physical mastery. What you do today is simply a brick in the road to mastery. If you have a tendency to rush through repetitions, skip over progressions, practice only what you’re comfortable with, practice with inadequate effort and focus, allow failure or struggles to negatively impact your performance/effort, allow success to justify complacency, etc., then you are setting up your athletic development on a weak and shaky foundation. Understanding the big picture can allow for an easier acceptance of both the downs and ups during development. It also allows for easier re-focusing, if you find that you have strayed off of your path. Focusing on making each day count by putting strong effort into each drill or repetition leads to the end result taking care of itself. This mental focus on the present, the here and now, allows you to push yourself as far as you can in that one moment, regardless of what you are working to accomplish.


10,000 Hours


Author, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote in his book “Outliers” that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. If we break down that number further, that is 250 weeks of spending 40 hours a week on that skill, or 4.8 years. If you spend 20 hours a week on your skill, that takes 9.6 years for mastery. 10 hours of deliberate practice a week, or about an hour and a half daily would take 19.2 years.


Now, 10,000 hours of work is not a precise number as some people learn faster or have more productive learning routines, while certain skillsets take longer to master. However, by using the 10,000-hour rule as a guideline, it is easy to see that mastery is a long and arduous journey! Without the proper mental fortitude, you will not make it. In fact, judging by these huge numbers, it is not a question of whether you need to develop your mental and emotional skillsets, but rather how can you start developing it now!


Developing the Mind


There are numerous ways to develop your mental skillset. These include setting goals for yourself. Goals should consist of daily, mid-term, and long-term goals. Most of your daily goals should be effort-based, or things that you can control, like effort level, attitude, and enthusiasm. These goals can start to develop a plan of action for achievement. Your goals, especially your daily goals, should be reviewed somewhat regularly as they can act as a reminder of what you are working to accomplish and how you plan on succeeding.


Another way to develop your mental skillsets is to set up little positive reminders around your world. They can be sticky notes with a word or short phrase (i.e. “I’m possible” or “Go for Gold”) stuck around your room, bathroom, dinner chair, etc. You can also wear a bracelet that every time you see it, reminds you of your own personal mantra. Many of my athletes write down their mantra on some piece of sporting equipment, like their gloves or cleats, to remind them to be positive, confident, and determined, especially when times are tough.


Taking the time to self-reflect is crucial to your mental development, as well. This is the time where you truly learn about yourself. Mindful meditation is a great way to be quiet and present, reflecting on who and how you are. Daily journal writing is another easy way to self-reflect. Writing down a note or two about how your day went, how you responded to adversity or any challenges, and what you are grateful for is positive practice for your mind.


It Starts with One Decision


The question becomes, do you have the mental resolve, toughness, and discipline to persist on the road to mastery? Of course, you do! It just starts with one decision, to make each day count. No matter who you are, you can make that choice, as an athlete or not. By developing your mental skills along with your physical, you are giving yourself a much greater chance at success. Make every practice and game count by giving 100% effort. Give 100% mental effort towards every workout, repetition, and set. Give your body and mind proper rest and recovery, maximizing this time with other productive endeavors. Be committed to a lifestyle of good eating, adequate sleeping routines, healthy relationships, and overall healthy decision-making. Finally, take the time for quality self-reflection, as learning about you is the best way to achieve your goals.

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