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 same affordances 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as using the NBA Finals as a case study for understanding some basic motor science concepts and how this disproves the outdated paradigm of training to develop muscle memory.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 Approach: Information-Processing  

Skill is not just the ability of a basketball player to perform a biomechanical move or particular technique. Suggesting this neglects the fact that skill is an emergent behaviour, appearing as a player interacts with their environment. If we imagine a player on offense, consider the player acting upon different affordances such as the positioning of the defense, location of offensive teammates, where the ball is, time on the shot clock etc. A player uses all this information, within their environment, to act. Skill is a result of perception and action. Furthermore, skill is not something that can be possessed (which many coaches talk about), as it emerges within this specific context. 

In basketball, players must be able to act (or not act) upon affordances. This is all based on what they perceive within their environment. The traditional information-processing (IP) model talks about a stimulus identification (perception), leading to a response selection (decision), before a final response programming stage (action) where a technique is produced. This is also known as the GMP, created by Schmidt.

Note that this is NOT the ecological approach. This is because the GMP is robotic-like, suggesting that humans are like computers, being able to recall these specific techniques based off stored motor programs. This contrasts to the ecological approach, whereby there is enough information within the environment for a player to determine their action.

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. 

The traditional model of basketball coaching with repetitive drills and a technique-focus seems to place basketball in the same box as a more closed skill sport such as weightlifting or diving. The reality could not be more different, given basketball is such a complex system. In closed skill sports, participants always know what is going to happen next. In basketball, this is never ever the case. 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?

Simply put, the idea that players perform techniques 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 is likely focussing on the positioning and actions of the offensive players. This can be done through vision, touch (e.g. feeling the picker and their positioning) & sound (e.g. proximity to the offense) . 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 to perceive the information within his environment and then act. 

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 from his ability to perceive something within the environment. 
  • 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, Giannis acts. 

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? 

Prospective control is the idea that Giannis will continuously adjust his action based on information about the “current future” (e.g. whether the current movement is sufficient to achieve the future goal). Credit to Rob Gray for this terminology. This is evident within this possession, as Giannis realises he is caught too high, and quickly adjusts his positioning by sprinting to the rim to contest the shot.

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 develop as they do not have the chance to perceive and adapt to what happens in front of them.

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, a number of key factors come into making an incredible play: 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 have perception and action coupled, as opposed to relying on hand-me-down coaching methodologies which place on over-emphasis on ‘muscle memory building’ within the outdated information processing approach. Ultimately, what closed drill could replicate the incredible skilful behaviour 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 tasks that appear within the game.

Skill is like an iceberg to traditional coaches, focussing on the action component and ignoring the role of perception. Coaches do not think about what the player is perceiving within their environment, focussing only on technique execution as this is what is so 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’ perceptive capabilities, and if these are valued, how is this evaluated? 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 action coupling.

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 capability in a game context as none of those shots are game-like. Since skill and athletic ability are so varied, it is critical for talent evaluators to evaluate the ability of a player to perceive what is in their environment. 

Revisiting the Giannis Antetokounmpo case study, it reveals the complex nature of basketball and how many affordances there are to act, or not act, upon. How many player evaluations are flawed if these practices are predominantly action-focused and non-representative of the game? If a prospect is evaluated in a closed environment, what did the evaluator / scout actually review?  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 give ideas on the possible decisions that came to mind. 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?

Another problem with the IP approach is how it may lead to players attempting to execute particular moves without considering how these would fit within the context of their environment.

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. The reality is, we can work on perception and action at the same time, keeping both processes coupled. This is just what happens in the game. 

The majority of mistakes made in a game are not due to deficiencies in technique, but due to inabilities to perceive and act upon the relevant affordances. 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. 

Implications for Coaches

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, particularly the quality of task-representative practice.

Understanding the basics of motor science and training in a way which keeps perception and action coupled 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 using well-designed small-sided games where the perception-action process remains 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 same affordances and perceptual cues that players will encounter within 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 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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