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How Does Muscle Memory Affect Your Martial Arts Training?

What is ‘Memory’?

Do you have a good memory of places you’ve visited (episodic memory) or of fact based information, such as capitals, people’s names, recipes etc. (declarative memory)? Or you may have experienced the instant recall and emotion of a lost loved one when you smell a certain perfume (olfactory memory), or perhaps heard a certain song, remembering the lyrics word for word, despite not hearing it for 20 years (auditory memory)?

At a basic level, memory could be described as our ability to remember things, whether it’s information, instructions, facts or directions. The way in which we remember things is far more complex than that, however, as we can see by some of the examples above.

Studies have shown our memories are made in three stages, by firstly encoding (or processing), storing and lastly retrieving information. Our memory can also be conscious, for example the effort of bringing to mind facts during an exam, or subconscious, such as walking or breathing. ‘Muscle memory’ is one example of our subconscious memory, and it has an important role in our martial arts training.

Muscle Memory and martial arts

Muscle memory is known as ‘procedural memory’, which means learning a new skill over time, through practise and repetition. Other examples of muscle memory are riding a bike, touch typing, writing our signature, or being an experienced driver.

In martial arts, muscle memory helps us to develop the necessary skills towards reaching ‘mastery’ in our learning (see ‘Unconscious Competence’ in the previous blog on the Four Stages of Learning).

When we first learn a new Hyung or technique, however, we are nowhere near that, and it takes a great deal of conscious thought and effort to carry out the task. With multiple repetitions and practise, we gradually begin to build neural connections and ‘fire up’ the particular parts of our brain responsible for motor co-ordination. The greater the amount of repetition, the quicker and more automatic the stimulus, and the more predictable and reliable the response.

Over time, and countless hours of practise, our muscles appear to be remembering what to do, and our movements become automatic. This process decreases the need for conscious attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems of the brain. In martial arts, we have a saying that we fear the person who has “practised a kick 10,000 times, rather than 10,000 kicks only once!”.

The good, the bad and the ugly!

Once we have learned a skill, our muscles have a way of storing that information so that the process becomes more automated, and our brain sidesteps the conscious memory process. Regular attendance at class and practise obviously accelerates this process, and it benefits our martial arts learning by reinforcing what we know.

There are pitfalls, however, and if we get into bad habits, or have gaps in our learning, our muscle memory might be unhelpful in reinforcing a poor technique. I can recall many times being told about my hand position in a form, for example, and having to go back to the drawing board to undo the habit!

Recent research has also shown that if we try too hard to continually do an action, this can lead to frustration, and repeated attempts only serve to shut down the learning process. We can become too rigid or tense in our muscles, for example, and have less power and accuracy (such as repeatedly trying to throw a dart in the bullseye, or score a hoop in basketball). If you’ve ever felt this, then having a short break between repetitions has been shown to embed muscle memory, rather than persevering with back to back attempts.

Mental Rehearsal and Visualisation

To make good progress in our martial arts, we need to have the right foundations, as well as the opportunities for repetition. There’s no substitute for getting into the Do Jang and putting our learning in to practice.

What if this is not possible, however?

A fascinating study of pianists recently looked at the level of brain activity whilst musicians were actually playing the piano, or merely going through mental rehearsal, and visualising the piece of music instead. The study found that the same neural networks were being activated, whether or not the pianist was actively practising the piano, or mentally rehearsing between practise sessions. When this is applied to our martial arts, therefore, we can see that visualising our Hyungs (or techniques) through the process of mental rehearsal is useful to help develop our muscle memory, alongside the physical practise. So next time you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, or sitting in traffic on your commute, visualise your Hyungs, and it will all help the pattern to sink in!

In summary

We know that:

  • Repetition and practise help to embed our learning and build muscle memory.

  • Getting into class and listening to your instructor helps to build the foundation of good technique.

  • Muscle memory can be a good or bad thing, and we need to undo certain habits if our technique is not where it should be.

  • Visualisation/mental rehearsal uses the same neural networks to build memory as if we are doing the real thing (but is no substitute for showing up!).

Final Fun Facts

Did you know?

  • Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an 'event boundary' in the mind, which is why we are three times as likely to forget what we are supposed to do after walking through a doorway. Please don't do this as you enter/exit the training floor!

  • On 20 December 2020, memory athlete Emma Alam successfully memorized 410 random words in sequence in 15 minutes.

  • Our short term memory is on average able to store about 7 bits of information (plus or minus 2) in one go (for example 7 digits in a row).

  • By the time you are 9 years old, you will have no conscious memory of approximately 60% of your earlier childhood.

  • Duncan Bannatyne (Dragons’ Den entrepreneur) has said he has ‘prosopagnosia’. This is a brain condition also known as ‘face blindness’, where you have difficulty recognising people's faces, and you have no memory of whether you have met that person before.

Kyo Sa Nim Carol Plummer

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