How to Build Muscle Memory

Batter Warming Up in Baseball Game
Practice in a gamelike way to develop repeatable sport skills. (Image: IPGGutenbergUKLtd/iStock/Getty Images)

The concept of muscle memory, or repeating a movement many times until your muscles can perform it automatically, is a myth. Your muscles don't have brains, and therefore can't remember anything. In fact, hitting or throwing a ball over and over can fatigue the central nervous system, causing you to perform tired, late, incorrect swings or throws, hurting your motor skills. Skills become "grooved" in the brain through the creation of motor memory. Use a three-step process to learn, retain and recall motor skills.

Step 1

Practice a new skill in a blocked environment. Perform the same swing or throw the same way until you can repeat it with success. Calculate how many attempts it took until you were able to repeat the new skill, then practice it half as many more times to effect overlearning. For example, if it took you 30 swings to straighten out your golf drive, hit 15 more balls with this new technique before moving to the next phase of practice.

Step 2

Work on the new skill in a variable environment. Use the same skill, but in slightly different, gamelike situations. For example, if you practiced backhands in a blocked environment, receiving the ball in the same place at the same speed each time, and began to get the hang of it while performing your 50 percent overlearning, start practicing backhands while receiving shorter, wider and deeper balls. If you originally practiced a new golf swing technique with the same club from the same lie, practice the new technique moving from similar club to similar club -- for example, different woods -- every five or six swings. Move to the next practice phase after you are able to repeat your new skill in a variable environment.

Step 3

Perfect the new skill in a random environment. Practice your swing or throw in a gamelike environment. You don't hit 100 drives, throw 100 curveballs or hit 100 backhands in a row during a round, game or match. Hit a drive off a tee with your new technique, then move to hitting a long iron off the grass as you would during a round of golf. Move to shorter clubs, finishing with pitching, chipping and putting to simulate playing a hole. Play several more simulated holes on the driving range, using the new skill each time you drive. Hit a backhand down the line, then a forehand, a short forehand and a backhand cross-court while you're running, ending with a volley at the net. Move back to the variable stage of practice if your swing or throw breaks down in random practice.

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