Most every athlete or coach has heard or used the term muscle memory in their training and practice, referring to the body’s ability to execute a specific movement or task with success. When you Google “muscle memory,” you will find the definition: the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement. But, what is allowing us to execute specific movements repeatedly after the requisite practice has been completed? Many people misinterpret what muscle memory actually is, literally saying that the muscles remember how to move; however, muscles don’t have a memory, but the brain does.
The brain actually has several types of memory, but we will focus on procedural memory in this piece as it relates to muscle memory. All movement, from the most basic, like walking or tying your shoes, to the most complex, like hitting a 100mph fastball or performing a gymnastics floor routine, requires a series of muscle contractions and relaxations to occur, all which are controlled by the brain. As any athlete or coach knows, repeated correct practice results in the faster, more accurate, and smoother execution of the skill with less conscious thought required. As we continue to train or practice, increased muscular strength and mobility assist with the athlete’s ability to execute even better, but it is the process of learning that begins it all. When we begin to learn a new skill, there is high activity in several parts of the brain which include:
Pre-motor cortex- this part of the brain is involved with the preparation of executing movement
Basal ganglia- this part of the brain facilitates movement initiation
Cerebellum- this part of the brain receives sensory information from the spinal cord and other parts of the brain to regulate motor movement
These areas of the brain deal a lot with the planning and thought of movement and are responsible for procedural memory. When we are learning a new skill, it usually takes more cognitive and conscious thinking to execute. Many times, we simply do a “walk-through” of the skill at a slow pace or break the skill down into smaller segments so that we can begin to learn the proper steps and movement patterns. Before long, we are able to execute the skill faster and with more consistency. As our skill proficiency is improved, there are lower activity levels in the pre-motor cortex and basal ganglia as our movement pattern becomes more automatic and subconscious, thus turning into procedural memory. The motor cortex, which sends signals from the brain to the muscles in order to execute movements, along with the cerebellum, are still active once we have gained proficiency with our movements. However, the activity is much more focused on just the necessary information signals to execute the skill.
Interestingly enough, as we continue to learn new skills and movements, the actual structure of the brain changes through neuroplasticity. As we learn, new and increased connections between the brain and neurons occur. As a result, the brain has increased:
white matter, which connects different parts of the brain together for more efficient sharing of information,
grey matter, which is mostly filled with neurons that process information, and
connections to the primary motor cortex whose cells are connected to the neurons that are connected to the muscles via the spinal cord.
What does all of this information have to do with your athletic training? The more that you know how your body, and really your brain, works, the better you can train. Part of being a mature athlete is understanding what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how it works so that you can maximize your athletic growth. Without an in-tune relationship with your practice/training, you become susceptible to blindly following any training regimen without consciously looking at your development or lack thereof. Once you are aware of why you are experiencing success, a plateau, or failure, you can make an educated assessment on why things are going the way they are. For instance, how you practice is how your brain is literally going to wire itself. If during practice, your intensity or effort levels vary, you will experience a slower process of achieving high-level proficiency of your new skill. If your approach is lazy, slow, and not precise, you are training your brain’s neurons to respond accordingly. If you decide to skip over the earlier skill progressions without mastering them (such as fielding ground balls from someone hitting them to you at a high rate of speed as opposed to having someone roll them to you first so to practice your foot and glove work at a manageable and deliberate level) you will understand why you still struggle gaining consistent proficiency of your skill. For those athletes who are patient with their progressions and demonstrate a consistent willingness to execute each repetition of the learning process to the best of their ability, they will be able to use their knowledge about their training to make any adaptations or evolutions to evoke consistent athletic growth and success.