Your mind knows, but do your muscles?
It is amazing I don’t have a perpetual headache. I played soccer through my childhood and into college. Becoming proficient in the basic skills of the sport required repetition. Practice, practice, practice. If I wanted to forcefully head the ball into the goal during an actual game, I needed to rehearse that skill over and over.
So I did. It would be impossible to estimate how many times I put head to ball. (Note: this was before concussions in sports became a concern. Also, it might help my colleagues understand any perceived lapses in my brain function.)
Repetitive practice builds what is often called “muscle memory.” The term is helpful, but a little off-base. It isn’t our muscles that have memory. When we repeat a movement, we are really strengthening the neural pathways in our brain that tell our muscles how to accomplish a specific task. This is why hands-on learning — doing and acting, rather than just listening and reading — is so important.
My own thoughts on this were reinforced twice this week. First, I read an article published by Reuters arguing that CPR training — cardiopulmonary resuscitation — needs an overhaul. Used effectively, this critical skill saves lives when someone nearby is suffering from cardiac arrest.
It turns out that not only are not enough of us CPR-trained, but those that are rarely take the recommended refresher courses. Without practice, potential lifesavers are missing the repetition that builds muscle memory. CPR “learners should get shorter, more frequent practice instruction sessions to help them retain knowledge, receive regular structured feedback, and training experiences tied to real world situations,” the authors write. The American Heart Association has proposed using social media and games to prompt easy and frequent repetition to build CPR muscle memory.
I also learned that a practiced skill saved a hospital. I received a report from a health facility in the Philippines where Americares staff had provided disaster preparedness training. Hospital staff received classroom instruction and were also drilled in the actions needed during a range of possible calamities, including fire. So when a fire recently broke out in a main electrical panel and threatened to spread throughout the hospital, a staff member knew the drill and had practiced it. In short order, he and a colleague isolated and extinguished the fire. Their muscles remembered the steps they needed to take; they could act quickly, almost intuitively.
Let’s commit to build our muscle memory for skills we want or really need. Drill on the soccer field or tennis court. Take a CPR refresher, and then repeat it next year. Gather your family to practice what you’d do if a fire broke out in your home or a tornado was bearing down. You’ll be happy you did.