I previously wrote a review of The Brain Always Wins. Here’s an interesting quote I pulled from the book.

John experienced what is, for him, a quite common example of this at a Sport Performance Conference recently when colleagues began talking to him about muscle memory. As John explained, ‘The phrase is incorrectly used to describe the acquisition of motor movements and coordination, complex or otherwise. It’s incorrect because muscles don’t have memory. They are completely controlled by the brain and more specifically the cerebellum. So when talking about the muscle coordination of novice practitioners we should refer to immature motor patterns. And we should say that those who have mastered skills have mature motor patterns and coordination.

‘These descriptions are not as sexy as muscle memory but notice the differences between the two. Muscle memory falsely leads you to believe that all you have to do is repeat certain movements over and over and then the skill will be acquired, which is not even partly true. Movements need to be repeated but not endlessly. As far as the brain is concerned, more is not better –better is better. The brain likes efficiency. If overtrained it gets dull and weaker. Along with it so do other sub systems, for example the cardiac and neuromuscular systems.

‘This difference in terminology is significant because one emphasizes a process that seems like magic and the other a thoughtful process of working with the brain and learning. This is just one more example of how we distance ourselves from the actual truth that the brain matters. We have to ensure we avoid language that ignores or limits the brain’s influence or that restricts our curiosity about it. Unwrap the brain and you have solutions, keep it closed and we end up with mysteries.’

Notice the reference to motor learning (it also ties in to material from the book Peak). This is really important. It relates to the approach we take to training. Specifically, it speaks to the question of blocked vs. random training. Blocked training tends to be more of the repetitive movement side of things – repeating movements over and over. Random training creates a much more diverse motor learning environment.

Think about something like a hitter’s approach. A lot of people use the term “muscle memory” with respect to the footwork. The feeling is that just practicing the steps will train the player to do it properly when they hit a live set. The quote above suggests this is not the best way to go. While it is fine to just do approaches by themselves in a limited way, it is not enough to develop good motor patterns.

So what is the “better” solution?

Better is game-like. Better is performing the skill in the way the player performs it in a match. That means a ball and a net.

This is why you should make your drills as game-like as you can. This is not to say there is no value in blocked training. There is. We just need to understand its limits.

There is a chapter on this subject in Volleyball Coaching Wizards – Wizard Wisdom. It features quotes from the likes of the late Carl McGown. Carl was instrumental in bringing an understanding over motor learning in to volleyball training.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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