Muscle memory allows us to perform complex repetitive motions without thinking about them. Could you imagine early man trying to hunt if they had to actively think about how to walk? The mind would be so preoccupied with flexing the ankle, bending the knee, rotating the hip that we would get eaten by the first passing predator. Luckily, we can depend on muscle memory, every day, to perform hundreds of motions from simple to complex. It allows us to walk, talk, type, play instruments, and among many other things I could list, swim.
Here’s the problem, sometimes we build a wrong muscle memory, and it can be very hard to make a change, and often small changes are tougher than the large ones. It’s like a car wheel falling into a well-worn rut. The moment the car gets near the edge of the rut, it is easy to fall into the rut and hard to get back out. What that means to the athlete is when the new motion is close to the old one, it is easy to fall back into the rut.
If you are struggling with making a small change, use this concept to help you avoid the muscle memory rut. Instead of making a small change, make a large one, a change that takes you far from the rut. Say the entry location of your pinky in the backstroke, needed to move one, or two inches further from your head, but you found yourself unable to stay in the new position. Try moving your hands out a foot, getting you far from the rut. Then move back in towards the ideal location, a little at a time. This will lessen the muscle memory’s ability to pull you back into the rut.
You will often find that when we have a wrong muscle memory that your body is being fooled. Staying with my backstroke entry example, your muscle memory will make it feel like where you are used to putting your arms is the ideal and you are doing exactly what the coach describes, but the video shows you that you are crossing over. If your wrong entry feels right to your body, then what is right will feel wrong. You need to be ready for the change to feel awkward and unnatural at first.
My tale of muscle memory can have either a happy ending, or a sad one. If you are diligent about making a change in your stroke, you will over-write the old muscle memory in about three weeks, and then muscle memory will be your valued tool in keeping a correct pinky first entry. But if you are not consistent and performing the new movement 100 percent of the time, then we have the unhappy ending to the tale, like our kitten in the header photo you will have made a big mistake, because several years later the video will still show your arm is still crossing over. Beating muscle memory is an all or nothing battle. You cannot just do your drill correctly, or fix the issue when the coach is watching. You must swim every stroke with the new movement. So, here is one last piece of advice on making stroke changes. Only do as much yardage of the stroke as you can do correctly. Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent!