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The Myth of Muscle Memory

What you want is that when the game starts, you’re taking the same shot, going right back to what you did in practice, which some guys like to think of as calling on their ‘muscle memory.’ Your muscles remember what to do because you’ve trained them. Such a routine also provides the mental confidence you need.”

Muscle memory is a phrase that is used frequently by coaches without understanding what it actually means. Whether it’s used in regard to team practices or player development, shooting or daily dozen finishes and closeouts to defensive slides, the phrase is typically used to justify traditional coaching methodologies. This is an over-reliance on blocked, constant practice where a player performs specific patterns of repetitions. These are typically pre-described by the coaching staff and lacking the representative stimuli that a player would expect to find in a game. 

Evidence-based coaching ideas will be shared to provide an alternative viewpoint to this long-held myth of muscle memory. Tangible ideas and takeaways will be presented as an alternative to this traditional model, as well as using the NBA Finals as a case study for understanding some basic motor science concepts and how this disproves the outdated paradigm of training to develop muscle memory.

Traditional Coaching and The 33% Paradigm

Skill is not just the ability of a basketball player to perform a biomechanical move or particular technique. Suggesting this neglects a key part of how skills are performed. If we imagine a player on offense, consider the player searching within their environment for available stimuli such as the positioning of the defense, location of offensive teammates, where the ball is etc. A player uses all the information available to them to make a decision, before producing a biomechanical action to perform the action decided upon. Skill is therefore a mix of perception, decision and action, followed by rapid feedback on the execution of the skill. For instance, a pass may not have been successful due to the inability to accurately read the positioning and speed of a defender, or perhaps a player’s lack of upper strength led to an inaccurate pass being sent too close to a defender.

In basketball, players must be able to read and pick up visual cues – and in a very short amount of time – decide on an action, before executing the co-responding movement. Often in traditional models of team and player development, the stimulus identification (perception) and response selection (decision) stages are overlooked. They are skipped to go straight to the final response programming stage (action) where a technique is produced. The action is only one third of the actual skill execution process, coming after the perception and decision-making stages. If the perception and decision processes are overlooked through training with the traditional model, essentially it means that only one third (33%) of the overall skill is being developed. Furthermore the action is developed out of game-context anyway.  Few coaches would want to only focus on developing 33% of an overall skill if it was framed in this manner, yet this is often the unintentional consequence of not accounting for perceptual cues and allowing players to make their own decisions in the player development process.

Playing basketball primarily involves the use of open skills. Open skills are performed in an unpredictable environment, requiring players to adapt their movement in response to the dynamic properties of the environment and what occurs in front of them. Every situation is different, as demonstrated in this Jimmy Butler Finishing Case Study. The opposite to open skills are closed skills which are performed under predictable or stationary conditions, allowing players to plan their movements in advance. The only situation within basketball that this occurs is a free-throw. 

A traditional model of basketball coaching which focuses overtly on the final action component of skills may be better suited for closed skill sports, such as weightlifting or diving. In closed skill sports participants know what is going to happen next, allowing them to organize their movements without the need for perceptual cues that could change the required movement in order to complete the task. Drills that only focus on pre-determined patterns therefore provide limited value. This includes the likes of three-man weave, 5-on-0 offense installs, 1-on-0 daily dozens, the Mikan Drill, static ball handling, box drills and more.

So why is the concept of Muscle Memory so flawed?

The brain is composed of several neurons connected to each other by synapses. Whenever players do something – think, listen to a coach, participate in a drill, etc. – the brain sends a signal through the neurons to the muscles. To execute any type of movement after the perception and decision stages have been completed, a chain of nerve fibres carries down electrical impulses which are essentially like signals. It is this process which leads to the ability to execute movements and subsequent basketball skills. The idea that players perform skills through memory stored in their actual muscles aka “muscle memory” is simply a completely inaccurate concept. 

The great myth to dispel is the idea that lots of on-air, pre-determined repetitions in practice leads to enhanced “muscle memory” and subsequently increased performance. There is no such thing as a perfect technique, as players will always use different techniques in games as a result of the varying constraints present. No situation is exactly the same, yet for decades this is exactly what coaches have attempted to engrain into players. While practice does indeed speed up the process at which electrical impulses are sent from the brain (myelination), which allows for faster reaction times, it has to be the right type of practice to achieve this. Unless a complete novice player, this means using random and variable practice to provide the right level of challenge.  

The Giannis Antetokoumpo Block as a Case Study for Perception-Action Coupling

Using a case study of the Giannis Antetokounmpo block from Game 7 of the 2021 NBA Finals, let’s explore how skills are truly performed in the game through a very specific basketball example, and how the complex nature of skill execution disproves the overtly-simplistic idea of muscle memory. You can watch the play here.

At this stage as the drop defender in the Pick & Roll, Giannis must identify incoming information (the stimulus). In basketball this is done primarily relying on vision, touch & sound. This may include looking for other patterns such as spacing alignments, how the ball is moving, time and score, warning signs, positioning of offense and defensive teammates, location on the floor, players involved in the action etc. This same process is repeated for every skill conducted within a game. For coaches who train with pre-determined reps to ‘develop muscle memory’, the training is simply too simplistic and reductionist because it removes all the actual processes Giannis is actually going through at this stage, which are highlighted below.

A deeper look at the specific considerations for Giannis in this image:

  • What offensive action is the offense using? This includes identifying the action Phoenix is running and applying a defensive coverage, in this case an up-to-touch drop.
  • What is a potential distraction? How Giannis communicates the coverage with Middleton could serve as a temporary distraction. 
  • What does the handler (Booker) and his defender (Middleton) do in the Pick & Roll? Firstly Middleton may choose to chase or gap the handler. In this situation with the chase over, Giannis must then determine whether Middleton is about to contain and get back in-front, or if he is still trailing. The disadvantage could be even greater if a hostage dribble is used. This may affect how long Giannis maintains his drop positioning attempting to guard two, as well as if, when and how he stunts at the ball in an attempt to slow down the drive and place indecision into the mind of the handler etc.
  • What does the roller do? Does DeAndre Ayton make contact by holding his screen and rolling, is there a ghost screen to pop beyond the three-point line, or a slip to the rim? Ayton did indeed slip this in order to create a head-start on the roll to the rim and get behind Giannis as the drop defender. Giannis may also wish to consider more sophisticated coverage solutions which could be used against the drop, such as Veer Pick and Roll or a Gortat Screen.

As the play develops, using information from the previous stage Giannis must now decide on his response out of several possible response options. Skilled players at this stage are able to select the most effective solution in the quickest reaction time.

Specific considerations for Giannis in this image are:

  • How long to stay in the drop before recovering back to Ayton? The empty corner may have influenced this decision, if it is noticed in the previous stage, as it means there is no Bucks defender to tag and also speeds up Booker’s pass decision as there is no extra defender to read. 
  • The role of individual constraints: who am I and who am I guarding? Recognition that Ayton is a lob threat, as well as Booker’s ability to make pocket lobs. But also at the same time, Giannis understanding his own unique individual constraints such as his wingspan and ability to cover large distances in a short amount of time.
  • Specific decision in the drop coverage of when can Giannis release to recover on-time, while still slowing down Booker and preventing a direct straight line to the rim? 

Once Giannis has chosen an action (i.e. when to release and where to sprint to), he must prepare for this before executing the motor skill (the output). This is the biomechanical component of skill as he completes the specific action to execute the coverage. This biomechanical component is what coaches believe they are working on when ‘building muscle memory’, but in reality it deprives the player of the opportunity to improve their skills through having a chance to scan the environment and then select an appropriate response. 

Specific considerations for Giannis in this final stage are:

  • Vision or No Vision? Note Giannis is blind to Ayton’s positioning until he turns around. But because he successfully anticipated the lob, it saved a valuable second but also led to Giannis recovering by sprinting & meeting Ayton at the rim, vs solely recovering to the roll man (which would have been too slow and given up the dunk). 
  • While the ball is in the air, because basketball is comprised of several open skills performed in rapid succession, Giannis goes through the perception and decision processes again in order to determine how to contest the shot. A number of key factors come into making an incredible play here: the level of fatigue, time and score (there is a big difference between a late fourth quarter, home Game 7 and a first quarter possession in a regular season road game), arousal level (support of the home crowd and other teammates), the positioning of Ayton above the rim, where the ball is coming from as well as speed of the pass, as well as a number of individual constraints such as height, wingspan, vertical leap ability etc.

This is just one example of the complex nature of our sport. By highlighting this whole process, coaches should consider how to provide situations in their team and player development sessions which allow players to work on all stages of processing, as opposed to relying on hand-me-down coaching methodologies which place on over-emphasis on ‘muscle memory building’ in the final response programming stage (the action). Ultimately, what closed drill could replicate the incredible skills demonstrated within this possession? This is the key question coaches must consider when designing their practices, as closed drills simply do not prepare players with opportunities to improve at the complex skills executed within the game.

If we consider skill to be like an iceberg, the bio-mechanical action is what everyone can see above the water while the perception and decision-making process are submerged in the murky water underneath. Coaches are not able to see what is happening inside the player’s head, while the technique execution is clearly visible to everyone. It could be this iceberg effect which has led to coaches believing in muscle memory for so long and overemphasising technical execution. 

Implications for Player Evaluations 

Every year in the NBA Draft, the topic of player evaluations and what constitutes a skilled player is discussed. How much of an emphasis is placed on players’ perception and decision capabilities, and if these are valued, how are these capabilities evaluated and measured? Could this be the next frontier for NBA teams looking to gain a competitive edge? Traditional talent identification methods place much focus on the skill and athletic ability of prospects. Much of this evaluation of skill and athletic ability happens in closed environments void of perception and decision capabilities.

These closed environment evaluations are not the most efficient way of evaluating a player because it neglects a whole component of the player’s ability to perceive and make decisions. A player making 85 from 100 in a three-point catch and shoot spot shooting drill provides some proof of action capability, but very little proof of skill capability in a game context as none of those shots are proceeded by perception and decisions prior to skill execution. Since skill and athletic ability are so varied, it is critical for talent evaluators to also evaluate the ability of a player to perceive, decide and then execute as a player would do in the game.  

Revisiting the Giannis Antetokounmpo case study, it reveals the complex nature of basketball and how many information sources players must attune to before selecting from a wide number of possible responses. How many player evaluations are flawed if these practices are predominantly action-focused and non-representative of the game? Using the 33% Paradigm, if a prospect is evaluated in a closed environment, theoretically this means a prospect evaluator / scout was only able to accurately review 33% of a player’s actual capabilities. Through dispelling the muscle memory myth, more representative work-outs can be created to not only provide a better evaluation of a prospect, but also provide a more comprehensive player development experience.

Of course, there are limitations with load management and being able to run task-representative activities in pre-draft work-outs, but basic methodologies such as guided defense can be used which can provide an insight into perception and decision-making capabilities. Daniel Peterson and Leonard Zaichkowsky appeared on The Basketball Podcast and share a number of ideas on this topic in The Playmaker’s Advantage:

Peterson and Zaichowsky reference the Raab and Johnson experiment where 84 athletes watched 30 clips which were 10 seconds long. The clips were paused at key moments and players had to say the first decision that came to mind, as well as one alternative. This is a simple way to gain more insights into a player’s perceptual capabilities. Of note is that during the experiment, players came up with 107 different options. This is a great example of why the idea of muscle memory and limiting a player to just one solution is flawed. 

Why do players make mistakes?

A basketball player’s perceptual skills can therefore be defined as the ability to identify what’s happening in the environment by detecting the available stimuli, and then deciding (or not deciding) upon a particular motor action. This motor action may not always be the right outcome however, because this ability is based on the quality of a player to read and identify the perceptual cues. This serves as another reason to refrain from using vast amounts of blocked constant practice in an attempt to supposedly develop muscle memory, as players may attempt to execute particular moves skipping straight to the action without considering their environment within the perception and decision-making stages. 

So, does this mean we should never work on technique? Of course not. This is often misunderstood. Many basketball skills such as shooting involve complex motor patterns. When players understand the perceptual cues and can demonstrate an understanding of using an appropriate technique based on the situation they are in, it makes the technique better because a player can understand the context of what they are working on. If a player cannot perform a technical movement or is not confident in that movement, using blocked practice without decision-making can have some benefit. Furthermore, this blocked practice can be made variable by changing locations and positioning across each rep. The problem is not as much blocked practice, as it is staying with blocked practice too long thus neglecting an opportunity to connect actions with decisions. 

The majority of mistakes made in a game are not due to deficiencies in the action capability stage, but rather deficiencies in the perception and decision-making process. For instance going back to our Giannis Antetokounmpo case study, let’s explore from the lens of the Phoenix Suns why the possession was not successful from an offensive viewpoint:

  • Could it have been Booker’s inability to correctly identify the position and movement speed of Giannis in the drop?
  • Would a decision to have made an earlier pass have made a difference?
  • Should Booker have decided to pass the ball elsewhere, or was it a problem with the motor action which explains why the pass was slightly off-target and too far to the left of the rim? 

Use the next minute as an opportunity for self-reflection. Think of other potential explanations and variables which led to the negative outcome from the viewpoint of the Suns. Look away from the screen now and then continue reading once you have a few considerations! 

With this self-reflection complete, how many of your components were decision-focused vs movement focused? Because this false concept of muscle memory has become so ingrained in our sport, at all levels of the game the main focus in practice is usually placed on the latter vs the perception and decision-making stages. 

Improving performance in perception and decision-making 

By recognizing the importance of perception and decision-making, it is interesting for coaches to consider how performance can be improved in these key areas. Many factors influence success within these stages, including but not limited to: reaction time, the number of stimulus-response alternatives, amount and quality of task-representative practice, anticipatory skills, fatigue and level of athlete arousal. 

The Choice Reaction Time (CRT) is the passage of time between the presentation of one of several possible stimuli (perception) and the beginning of one of the several possible responses (decision), while the Simple Reaction Time (SRT) is the time between the stimulus appearing (perception) and the beginning of its associated response (action). Generally as the number of possible stimulus-response combinations increases, the time it takes to respond to any of them generally increases.  Delays in reaction time can be critical in an open sport like basketball, leading to situations such as sending a pass into the hands of a defense, missing a pass to punish a tag in a pick and roll, or on the defensive end being late to close-out and giving up a wide open three-point shot. Research suggests that the most skilled athletes try to find ways to decrease the number of choices they have to make so that their information-processing delay is as short as possible. 

Research also has shown that the amount and quality of practice (i.e. practicing in task representative conditions) can allow a basketball player to overcome the disadvantage of too many stimuli-response mechanisms. Additionally, having particular responses to use for the same stimulus can also speed up CRT. In a basketball context, this could be done through introducing automatics, such as looking to reject if a ball screen defender turns to look at the incoming screen or curling around a Get action if the defense attempt to blow it up. The simplistic muscle memory theory neglects this whole process of how skills are actually performed within the game. 

Implications for Coaches

Understanding the basics of motor science and training in a way which encourages perception-action processing can be considered as a needs improvement area in basketball coaching. This is why coaching can be seen as both an art and a science. Understanding the basic science of how people learn, but then coaching in a transformational manner to connect with each individual. As coaches, we should strive to strike the perfect balance, combining transformational coaching with a knowledge of motor learning. 

The idea of ecological dynamics has been increasing in momentum over the last few years with this school of thought being underpinned by more and more evidence. Through using the Constraint-Led Approach (CLA) in team practices and player development, the interaction of variable individual, environmental and task-specific constraints lead to opportunities for action to emerge: in other words, the development of skills. 

By adding decisions and creating small-sided games where the perception action processes are left integrated, it is likely you will be operating at the right level of challenge. How creative can you be to design these activities? This doesn’t mean creating endless drills with training props like cones, sticks and tennis balls, but rather creating a contextualised environment with the perceptual cues that players will see in games. 

Spending countless hours just working on technique, working on mindless reps to “build muscle memory” is a myth that has been believed for generations. A better understanding of these concepts can improve our delivery of player development concepts. 

Below are a number of small-sided games and drills based on the ideas referenced in this blog:

Randomizing the Traditional Mikan Drill

Using Guided Defense on Blast Cuts

Repetition without Repetition: Finishing

Alternative to Static Ball Handling

Pick & Roll 1-on-1+1 

Working on Scripted Passes in Gamified & Variable Manner

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