Muscle memory improves focus, concentration

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

As your child progresses through sports, one term you'll hear is "muscle memory." Let's explore the idea of muscle-memory training and illustrate how it can help your child improve focus and concentration while simultaneously decreasing frustration, failure and "choking."

Muscle memory is built upon the theory of classical conditioning, an approach to human learning that relies on stimulus-response contingencies (i.e. a red siren automatically prompts you to become alerted to potential danger). The reason you react with caution or fear (responses) is due to the fact that over many years' time you have associated a red siren (stimulus) to indicate imminent danger, even though the red siren really is no more than a red siren and does not have any inherent meaning in and of itself.

A more famous example of classical conditioning is the famous work of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. In this research, dogs that originally were inattentive to a neutral stimulus (a bell) were conditioned to react upon hearing the bell after learning that when the bell rang they soon would receive food.

The bell-feeding (stimulus-response) contingency actually led to the development of an automatic, reflexive response, eventually allowing the sound of the bell to trigger physiological changes in the body. (In this case, dogs began salivating by just hearing the bell.) The theory of classical conditioning is at the root of muscle memory and can work in many positive ways for your child, including faster and more consistent skill acquisition and development, better anger management, or helping your child get "in the zone" quicker and more often.

Muscle memory requires a clear set of instructions and a dedication to practice without allowing negative emotions to get in the way. Developing muscle memory can happen through live instruction as well as through independent-imagery exercises your child can practice in solitude. The following are tips to help you begin to use muscle memory with your child:

* It's important to begin with a few basic applications to build confidence for future success. In other words, rather than attempting to have your child completely overhaul his or her approach to improvement, start with simple contingencies. For example, let's say your child is a goalie. He or she might benefit by practicing a simple hand-eye exercise of kneeling close to a wall while repeatedly bouncing a ball off the wall and quickly reacting. After repeating this exercise regularly, your child will develop faster, automatic reflexes when a ball is heading his or her way and eventually will begin to react without even thinking.

* If your child deals with general anxiety, adding another element to muscle memory can help. More specifically, using the goalie example again, doing the exercise with music playing in the background will help with mood and emotions and facilitates faster learning.

* Keep it short, simple and consistent. Muscle-memory exercises rely on repeatedly experiencing the stimulus-response by doing it fast, focused and without getting caught up on any mistakes along the way. When tossing the ball back and forth off the wall, it's imperative to let go of any misses and stop any negative self-talk. Instead, continue to do the exercise quickly and only focus on the positive results. Additionally, muscle-memory exercises only need to be a few minutes long, and going overboard can actually be counterproductive as it can lead to boredom and poor focus.

* Finally, doing muscle-memory exercises in your mind can be beneficial. I have found that dedicating just a few minutes each night going through a simple imagery exercise can help.

For example, teaching your child to practice making 20 successful free throws in his or her mind every night before going to sleep can lead to conditioned, calm, focused free throws. In this case, the subconscious mind is actually programmed through the imagery experience, even if the exercise was played out only in the mind.

Muscle memory really works but does require patience and dedicated practice. A final suggestion to parents who watch their children improve their muscle memory is to emphatically praise them for the efforts. The association of positive reinforcement immediately after completing a muscle-memory drill can lead to faster learning and skill development. Good luck.

Dr. Chris Stankovich is an expert in sport psychology and has co-written two books, The Parent Playbook and Positive Transitions for Student Athletes. If you have a sports question,, visit or call 614-561-4482.