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Muscle Memory: Practicing Success and Focus

For ten years I played a consistently mediocre game of racquetball. I got to a certain level and, no matter how much I played, I didn't get any better. Then one day I took a free clinic at our racquet club and learned the proper way to hold the racquet! My game improved instantly.
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Karl W. Palachuk
June 15, 2003


For ten years I played a consistently mediocre game of racquetball.  I got to a certain level and, no matter how much I played, I didn’t get any better.  Then one day I took a free clinic at our racquet club and learned the proper way to hold the racquet!  My game improved instantly.  I could serve more accurately and with a great deal more power.  I finally understood how the really powerful players made it sound like a gun going off when they served.

The basic problem was that I had taught myself “a” way to hold the racquet, but I had not learned “the right way” to hold the racquet.

I used to play with a guy who was raised in South Africa and went to school in England.  He had played racquetball his entire life.  I don’t know why he played with me except out of pity.  He always knew where the ball was going.  He could instinctively judge the position and speed of the ball, along with my movements, so he knew just where I’d hit the ball.  He would walk over there and wait for it.  Believe me, I got a lot more exercise than he did!

Let me clarify the use of the word “instinctively.”  My friend had learned from thirty years of playing racquetball.  He had a vision of the game that I never developed.  And he had “muscle memory” so that he didn’t have to consciously decide which backhand shot to use or make a decision of how soft to hit the ball so it barely touched the front wall and then died.

In all athletic activity, we practice building muscle memory so that we can advance to the next level.  Tennis players, golfers, weight lifters, and ballerinas all practice over and over so that they don’t have to think about every muscle move when the time comes.

As the father of a gymnast I watched for years as my daughter did cartwheels along a straight piece of tape on the floor.  And when it came time to do a cartwheel on a beam, she could!  Of course, on a real beam there are additional skills to learn.  The basic process of doing a cartwheel flawlessly on a straight line was now part of her subconscious activity—it was muscle memory.  Now she could work on the next challenge.

Working on success, relaxation, and focus, also require this level of practice.  You need to develop a sort of “Muscle Memory for Success.”  This has two parts. 

First, you need to tune into the skills you learned wrong so you can re-learn them the right way. 

Second, you need to practice the skills of success at your current level so you can move to the next level.

Unlearning What You Learned Wrong

When I learned racquetball, I held the racquet wrong at the beginning because I wanted to play the game.  But holding the racquet incorrectly became a habit and soon enough it felt right to me.  I couldn’t move up to the next level until I moved back and relearned this skill. 

Some people need to relearn communication skills or unlearn the habit of watching TV all night.  Some need to unlearn wasteful spending habits and others need to unlearn the over-eating habit.

Take a moment and write down three or four things that you need to un-learn or re-learn the right way.  Be patient with yourself.  Remember, the muscle memory of success takes time.  You may have developed a habit a long time ago and practiced it for ten years.  You won’t be able to re-learn that overnight.  It is comfortable, even if you know it’s wrong.  To begin the process of re-learning, you will need to set some goals and begin practicing your new habits. 

This is precisely the kind of activity that makes daily reflection useful.  If you take ten minutes every day to review your goals for the day, you’ll bring attention to your new undertaking.  Focusing on your goals will bring them into your conscious mind and make your practice easier each day.

Develop New Skills of Success

Once you’ve established some goals and are focused forward on your own success, then you need to develop new skills of success:  Taking time to relax; working hard when no one’s looking; reading (reading, reading, reading); improving you job skills; goal-setting on a regular basis; exercising; and so forth. 

Most of us instinctively know what we need to do to be successful, but it’s easier to sleep in as late as possible, come home from work and plop down in front of the TV, sit like vegetables all night, and then do it all again the next day.

It takes discipline—and practice—to get up a little early, exercise, spend quiet time focusing on your goals for the day, reading in the evening, and consciously work on your success.

You also have to get to know the skills of success.  You need to focus on the actions you take and acknowledge when you have a success.  When you experience a success of any size, stop and savor it.  Consider how it feels.  How did you get here?  How would you do it again?  It feels good, doesn’t it?

You need to focus on the feelings and actions of your success—these are your muscles of success.  In order to exercise these muscles you have to be familiar with them.

You also must learn to use these “muscles” before you need them.  Just like knowing the fire exits before the alarm goes off:  You need to know how to use your muscles of success when the time comes.

Perhaps the hardest thing for most people to learn is relaxation.  Most people have never spent time being wakeful and restful at the same time.  There is great value in calming you mind and focusing on the moment.  The more stressful the situation, the more important you will find this practice.  But you can’t practice when there’s a stressful situation (like an irate customer yelling on the phone).  You need to practice your calming technique before you need it.  Then when you need it, it will be there for you.  Your muscles will know what you want them to do.

Start today:  Make a list of things you need to un-learn or re-learn.  Make a list of successful practices you will work on.  Then set aside the time and begin building muscle memory in the muscles of success.

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