Myth of Muscle Memory

“Once your muscles memorize the technique, the movement will run off automatically on demand.”

Most coaches and athletes have heard versions of this statement and often buy into the idea that lots of pre-determined repetitions and drills will lead to “muscle memory” that will run automatically once activated. An example of this would be a golfer’s over-reliance on block practice or repeating the same movement in the same place over and over again to build up “muscle memory”.

But is this really what happens when we execute any skill? Is skilful behaviour repetitive, rote, and automatic? Or is it adaptive, responsive, and intelligent?

Habits or Skills?

Skill is not just the ability to repeat a biomechanical move or to perform a particular technique. Such a suggestion neglects the fact that skill emerges from interaction with the environment.

Skilful players must adapt their skills according to the moment’s needs. For example, a golfer will need to adapt the shape or length of her swing when hitting off different lies or a steep upslope or downslope. For a sport like soccer that primarily involves open skills in an unpredictable environment, repetitive drills that focus on pre-determined patterns (e.g., kids in lines waiting for their turn to receive from and pass to another static player) would conflict with the reality of the sport. Yet, aren’t most of our current coaching practices developing abilities that resemble habits rather than skills? Aren’t we often teaching our athletes inflexible, repetitive responses

Repetition without Repetition

Spending countless hours working on technique and mindless reps to “build muscle memory” is a myth that has been believed for generations. If we believe that skill involves adaptability and having multiple movement solutions, then our practice activities must reflect that.

Watch the following video comparing isolated drills (repetition with repetition) that are explicitly taught and repeated in an environment with limited solutions and a constraint-based activity where the athlete has to repeatedly solve the same problem by applying different solutions (repetition without repetition) with minimal instructions from the coach.

As you would have observed, an isolated drill limits the use of the perceptual system and ultimately limits the amount of learning opportunities. In the constraints-based activity, the players are placed in a dynamic environment where the tagger provides constant pressure. The players are free to use any type of ball control utilizing different body positions and at varying speeds. The perceptual system becomes highly active, and the activity is more representative of the actual game environment.

Isolated drills and deliberate practice do have their function and usefulness. However, coaches should avoid considering them as the main option for practice design. They should get athletes to quickly apply what they have acquired via deliberate practice in a game context.

Implications for your practice design

Which sport do you coach or compete in?

How can you use the notion of repetition without repetition to design your practice activities?

Specifically, how can you design activities representative of the actual game environment and offer opportunities for multiple movement solutions? For example, no two shots are the same in Golf, and missing any shot does have consequences. Consequently, how can a golfer or golf coach include variability and consequence in their practice design?

I would love to hear your ideas and responses to the above questions!

Meanwhile, here are several links related to the notion of repetition without repetition that you could refer to:

Repetition Without Repetition

Constraints-Based Coaching Examples w/ Graeme McDowall & Peter Arnott

The Legacy of Nikolai Bernstein III: “Repetition without Repetition” & Beyond

Coach Hansen

References:

Davids, K., Button, C., & Bennett, S. (2008). Dynamics of skill acquisition: A constraints-led approach. Human Kinetics.

Gray, R. (2021). How we learn to move: A revolution in the way we coach & practice sports skills. Rob Gray.

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