You have probably heard the phrase “Practice makes perfect“. The America Football coach, Vince Lombardi improved it by saying “Perfect practice makes perfect” And another football coach, this time Association Football (also known as soccer to many people), Bobby Robson changed it to “Practice makes permanent“.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a few idioms that don’t really help performers. I’m not going to get too technical because A: I’m not qualified to and B: you don’t need to know the details, but let’s briefly look at Muscle Memory. There are actually two types of muscle memory, but the one we are interested in is the idea of an unconscious action – something you can do without thinking about.
Muscle memory is everywhere – really. From your signature, yes, that’s muscles memory!, to entering your PIN on your phone, to hitting balls (tennis, golf, squash etc), to driving your car and many more things. Some of those; the PIN and signature are not very complex and don’t have any interaction with outside forces. Golf has the weather and the course as an outside influence, and I suppose a musician has other musician as outside influence – keeping time with them etc.
But sports is a different category completely, because every shot is based on what their opponent does and must be made in fractions of second. Please don’t think I am saying rackets sports are harder than golf or playing musical instruments, I’m just highlighting one difference.
A beautiful new squash ball!
How Long Is Too Long?
When I was the coach at Wembley Squash Centre, we had a visiting aspiring professional squash player from Pakistan. Not anybody you have heard of, and he never made professional. I saw him from over the balcony and his was hitting straight forehand drives. I passed by a couple of hours later and he was still doing it! I spoke to him afterwards and he said his coach back in Pakistan told him he must do it for 3 hours on each side, each day. I was flabbergasted (greatly surprised or astonished). What a waste of time.
Which brings us to the title of this article and back to muscle memory. When you are learning a new skill, you are creating pathways in the brain for that action. At first those pathways take varying routes. Each variation is a slight difference in your body movement. For example, a faster swing, a different racket head angle, and change in the elbow position etc etc.
Over time, your pathways get stronger for the correct technique. Just to be clear, it’s not exactly that simple, but it’s a good way of imagining it. The pathways for the swings that were ineffective are slowly forgotten and disappear. Your brain builds up varying “correct” pathways for different shots from different positions, but it also uses those pathways as guides for completely new situations. I don’t mean that squash players suddenly develop the ability to play the guitar, but if they find themselves in a situation on court where they have to hit a shot from an angle they have never played, they have a good chance of getting it right.
Let’s Watch Rafael Nadal Do It
The ability to judge and control a racket and ball, even when it is way outside of your normal scope, is the mark of a very skilful performer pic.twitter.com/JyHizaDBwo— Phillip Marlowe: BetterSquash (@bettersquash) October 2, 2022
His job is to hit tennis balls over the net into the court, not hitting them into a commentary box. Yet in the video above he does it perfectly. Notice the pause and slight adjustment prior to hitting the ball, that’s him unconsciously accessing his pathways (okay, I invented that part, but it seems about right!).
Where Does That Leave Us?
You need to practice something enough to develop the correct pathways. However, any time after that, is not only wasted but could be counter-productive. If you practice a skill for too long, you will notice your concentration drops and errors begin to appear. The moment that happens, you MUST stop. If you don’t you will be creating pathways that don’t work and reenforcing bad habits – essentially, you will be getting worse.
I can’t say exactly when that moment will come because each person is different and it depends on what skills you are learning. However, as a general guide I never recommend anything be performed for more than 5 minutes for each skill at any one time. If you see or hear coaches on the internet, in books or in person who advise 15 minute solo drills of the same shot, know that I believe it to be wrong.
Shorter But More Often
I know this is easy for me to say and harder for the average squash player to do, but instead of spending 1 hour on court, one day a week, it’s better to spend 10 minutes each day, doing different drills or solo practices. The sleep you have each night in-between each practice helps (that’s a controversial topic, but I believe it) and it means your mind and body are not tired when performing the drill.
I prefer that you use that one hour per week to do 5 different drills. Each drill or skill that you improve all helps with the other skills, just like Mr. Nadal above. Sure, if you can get on court one hour PER day, every day, that’s great, but most people can’t.
Keep each drill short – no more than 5 minutes. Do different drills during a practice session. Do the same one a few times if you want to, but keep each drill to 5 minutes max. Many of my Solo Routines use this principle. Please check them out if you are interested. The moment you get either mentally or physically tired learning a new skill, stop. Do something else and come back to it later.
If you want to keep things interesting, find new ways to challenge yourself, not just increase the time.