Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Creating Good Muscle Memory

I did a hitting lesson yesterday with a young player that I hadn't seen in a few months. I had worked with him many times in the past and we had made several adjustments to his swing. But he hadn't played baseball since May. He wasn't even sure until recently about playing this year. I didn't know what to expect - figured he would at least be pretty rusty after so much time off. What a pleasant surprise it was when he stepped up to the tee, and within the first five minutes his swing was nearly flawless.

Score one for "muscle memory." Technically speaking, the neuropathways he had developed earlier in the year causing his body to swing with correct mechanics were still strong enough that his body naturally made the right movements. Not perfect movements, but pretty darn close for a 10-year-old that probably hadn't picked up a bat in many weeks.

Muscle memory is made possible by a process called Long-Term Potentiation. When a new movement is performed, corresponding brain synapses fire and form the neural connections necessary for that movement. The more that same mechanical movement is performed, the stronger and more efficient those connections become. This makes it more likely for a person to repeat a particular movement without much thought - like riding a bike.

I'm no neuroscientist, so I like to think of it as two paths in a forest. The first path represents the old incorrect mechanics. That path has been traveled many times. But then a second, better path is created representing the newly-learned correct mechanics. With time and focused effort, this new path is traveled more and more. After a while the second one becomes the more beaten path and the one that is more likely to be traveled. The old path is still there, but is overgrown and abandoned.

The younger the player, the easier it is to change paths and create new muscle memory. That's why it's important that we teach the youngest players how to throw, catch, field and swing correctly. Like riding that bike, those skills will never be "forgotten." And while to some, it may seem wasteful for parents to hire a private instructor for their child at age 8 or 9, they might actually be saving time and money down the road when it would be neurologically more difficult to make the necessary mechanical adjustments.

Learning correct mechanics is just the first step. It's very common for a player to learn to swing or pitch properly, and then go home and "forget" it. His brain has not been trained to naturally control the right movements. The old path is still prominent and the new one cannot be found without a good amount of effort and expertise. Developing correct muscle memory takes focused repetition. He must not only practice, but practice the right way. Drills can be beneficial. So can the use of video and mirrors. Over time the new path is routinely found with little effort at all. Even if you've been away for a while.
For more on this topic, check out the good article I found by Steve Robson at Peak Performance.


  1. Hi Brandon. I watched a lot of your hitting swing analysis with your younger players and they all seem to have very good hip rotation and a long follow through with their swings. I coach a travel 16u fastpitch team and experience a lot of girls with: 1. hips not fully rotating, 2. leaning forward after contact, & 3. not fully finishing their swings. Any suggested drill you can recommend for each of the 3 scenarios? Thanks much.

  2. I started typing and my answer got so long, I'm going to post a new blog entry in a bit with my thoughts regarding your question. Check the main page in a little while. Thanks. B.