Muscle Memory: Movement Memory

In athletics, muscle memory is considered the foundation of consistent high performance. The term, “movement memory” (sometimes called “muscle memory”), refers to learned physical movements — everything from walking to elite athletic performance; the essence of movement memory is the brain’s ability to learn what a movement feels like and to coordinate muscles to execute it at will and with enough precision to meet the demand of the moment.

Movement Memory and Athletics

Movement memory enables us to touch-type, play a guitar, ski or ride a bicycle, even if we haven’t practiced that movement for a long time. This kind of movement memory also enables an athlete to return to play, pitching, making birdies and eagles, or kicking field goals, even if sidelined with an injury for more than six months. When athletes say they are “automatic” or “in the zone”, they are exactly right. The brain is simply coordinating the most efficient physical movements possible without the athlete even having to think about it.

Movement Memory and Injuries

Athletes learn muscle (or movement) memory through years of practice. It’s the key component in an athlete’s initial and continued success on the field of play. The ability to hit a 90 mile-an-hour fastball, a drop shot from the baseline, a 40-foot putt, an intricate gymnastics routine, a long field goal, or a bending free kick are all examples of movement memory in action. The ability to consistently and reliably repeat these movements despite a host of variables (temperature, wind conditions, mental or physical fatigue) separates the elite athlete from the weekend warrior.

Understanding Sensory-Motor Amnesia (SMA)

But what happens when an athlete is injured, sometimes repeatedly? What develops is a learned pattern of physical compensation and reflexive muscular tightening, often even after the initial rehabilitation is over. For example, a traumatic sport injury such as ACL surgery would result post-operatively in a need to re-learn the mechanics of balanced walking. It is difficult to accomplish at first without pain, because the initial injury and subsequent surgery triggers reflexive, protective tightening of muscles; the brain has to re-learn this series of movements.  

How is it that the brain forgets how to enable the athlete to walk freely and without pain? Where did the muscle memory for coordinated walking go?  The answer lies in the sensory motor system of the brain, not the muscles. What causes an injured player to often have to regain simple coordinated patterns, despite their years of disciplined training can be answered by understanding sensory motor amnesia (SMA).  

Sensory Motor Amnesia, as defined by Thomas Hanna, PhD, refers to a condition in which muscles become habitually tight in response to injuries (e.g., soft-tissue injuries), physical shocks (e.g., falls or blows), repetitive use (e.g., overtraining) or on-going stress. Those afflicted with SMA lose their ability to release and relax muscles and move freely.

SMA occurs in reflexive, full body patterns of contractions that alter voluntary coordination, balance, tighten joints and cause muscular pain.In SMA, the feedback loop between the brain and muscles goes into what can be described as“cruise control” or “auto-pilot,” and makes it difficult to control these muscles freely. Typically all the muscles along that specific kinetic chain tighten in compensation. 

For example, imagine a baseball pitcher who has repeatedly pulled a hamstring. No longer can he simply wind up and pitch the ball, allowing his leg to counter balance and support as he pitches because he still has residual hamstring tension that has become habituated on a neurological level. Not only that, but the muscles of the torso have tightened slightly in a compensatory pattern as well. He can still pitch – perhaps recruiting other muscles to make up for those that have become “amnesic” and just won’t coordinate. However, his pitch is thrown off because the muscles that are usually part of the movement memory of pitching no longer work as effectively as they once did. His entire form is compromised. This is SMA in play on the pitcher’s mound.

To overcome SMA, brain-level muscle memory of the needed movement has to be re-established so that good form is regained. To regain good form we must re-train the brain. In learning to overcome SMA, the athlete becomes more self-sensing, balance improves, and the athlete regains better coordination and control of his own actions. In addition, recovery time from injuries and training is shortened.

Reversing SMA is the goal of Clinical Somatics. Through the use of a movement action technique called “pandiculation,” (so far unique to Hanna Somatic Education) clients are taught to recover control of muscles from subcorticalneuromuscular reflexes triggered by injury. Through active tightening followed by a gradual lengthening release of affected muscles along the entire kinetic. The “pandicular response,” which is neurologically similar to yawning, interrupts habitual contractions of affected muscles and re-establishes full body control at the neurological level. Because Somatics is an active technique, using movement to reverse SMA and affect brain level control of muscles, it yields often dramatically effective, immediate and long-lasting results in comparison to other types of therapies.

For the professional athlete, a severe case of SMA could spell the end of a career, or the beginning of a series of recurring injuries to the same area of the body – or the beginning of a course of somatic training that improves his performance to new, higher levels.

The techniques of Clinical Somatics can keep players in the game while also giving them day-to-day strategies to continue performing at an optimum level despite the accidents, injuries and the stresses of rigorous athletic training.