Develop Muscle Memory with Deep Practice

A guide for coaches to perfecting technique and performance

After weekend tournaments you often hear athletes talk about that “golden play” or “perfect game” where everything clicks. With little effort and less thought, timing, reaction, and execution come together with seamless movements and almost flawless technique. Greatness lives in those moments. Athletes call this being in the zone; coaches call it muscle memory. But what is muscle memory? What is the best way for athletes to achieve long-term, high-level skill acquisition? How can coaches use this information to help their players excel?

Muscle memory is the process through which physical skills are learned, and repeated actions become nearly automatic reflexes. Every action we learn to perform, from walking as an infant to spiking a volleyball as an outside hitter, is a result of muscle memory. The scientific term for this process is myelinization.

As we start to perform an action such as serving a volleyball, an impulse is sent from the brain to activate the necessary muscles. This impulse is an electrical signal that travels down a nerve to the intended muscle fibers. In response, the body automatically wraps the nerve in a fatty sheath called myelin. Myelin is an insulator and conductor, so it both protects the nerve and makes the impulse travel faster. The more myelin a motor unit acquires, the more it becomes the preferred neural pathway, and the more it is used, the more myelin it acquires. Myelinization is quite an elegant, self-perpetuating system.

However, myelinization does not guarantee perfect play. Practice a serve repeatedly and enough myelin is created that muscle memory is achieved – and excellent serving mechanics can begin to happen automatically. Unfortunately, you can just as easily put poor habits into muscle memory, so it is important to remember that practice does not make perfect, perfect practice does.

By understanding how an athlete learns or acquires a new skill, coaches will be able to watch muscle memory and myelinization in action. Remember, athletes will become what they do, so place emphasis on teaching and developing as close to perfect movements and techniques as possible. There are four phases to athletic skill acquisition, and each phase has special coaching needs.

Phase 1: Unaware and Incorrect

In this phase of development, athletes are not performing the skill correctly and are unaware of their mistakes. Pathways for proper execution have not been myelinated. Athletes may find themselves in this phase for several reasons, ranging from a lack of prior instruction or physical maturity to the need for self-awareness during skill execution.

Coaching Point
This is a crucial instruction phase because it sets the foundation for all future skill acquisition. Break down skills into their base components. All teaching must have an emphasis on mechanical excellence. Do not advance any skill to the next level before mastery occurs. Performance of the skill should be slow and deliberate to allow for mastery.

Phase 2: Aware and Incorrect

Athletes have been given instruction and now sometimes understand when they perform a skill incorrectly. Self-awareness and self-correction are beginning. Coaching levels must remain high, with emphasis on feedback and proper execution. Ask the athletes what they did, what they should have done, and how they would fix it. Develop a critical-thinking athlete. When athletes begin to fix their own errors, their brains’ efficiency is boosted and the speed at which the signal travels can increase by up to 100 percent.

Coaching Point
Do not be afraid to regress a skill or slow down the execution of a skill as needed to reinforce proper mechanics.

Phase 3: Aware and Correct

Now with focus and effort, the athlete can perform the skill successfully most of the time. Coaching should still be at a high level as setbacks happen. Adjust accordingly and keep banter positive.

Coaching Point
The speed of skill movements may now increase as long as skill competency remains high.

Phase 4: Unaware and Correct

In this phase, myelinization has occurred, neural pathways are strong, and repetition has led to the skill being put into the athlete’s long-term muscle memory. Movement and skill execution are correct and happen without the need of forethought. Coaching focus should be on developing game-speed movements and keeping technique flawless. Deep practice can begin.

Coaching Point:
Since game-speed movement tends to shorten and blur mechanical execution, athletes will now benefit from scheduled regression sessions that should focus on keeping the basic parts of the new skill sharp and fresh.

Deep Practice

Putting athletic skill acquisition into use is called deep practice. Deep practice involves practicing skills that are just beyond our current reach or at the next skill level. This is where your athletes start to make mistakes again. Practices are performed on the edge of the players’ comfort zone and intensity is maintained by replicating game-like situations that demand skill development on the court.

Mistakes during deep practice are a good thing. According to Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, “training in a dynamic capacity such as deep practice leads to mistakes being made and increases the speed in which we acquire skills.” This practice method has been shown to produce results 10 times faster than a traditional practice. Deep practice has been proven to greatly increase myelinization as the body strives to adapt to the challenge of learning new skills.

Progression is always of paramount importance when looking at long-term athletic development. However, with deep practice make sure to take time with your athletes to hammer away at a new skill. Be patient and do not push to go to the next stage until the current one is flawless and automatic.

While this technique has its greatest benefits for athletes between 6 and 12 years of age (due to their nearly unlimited capacity to acquire new skills), the increased skill performance associated with deep practice remains beneficial for all age groups.

Additional Tips for Coaches

Remember the following points and you will be well on the way to developing high-level players who can effectively execute automatic and efficient court skills.

1. Muscle memory takes time. Be patient.
2. Regardless of which of the four phases of skill acquisition your athlete is in, coaching never stops.
3. Under the right circumstances, mistakes need to happen and are a good thing.
4. Practice deep, get your players out of their comfort zone, challenge them.
5. Encourage your athletes to engage in critical thinking about their playing.

Originally published in June 2014

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