How A Master Would Program New Technique Into Muscle Memory

Updated: May 28, 2020



George Leonard, a 5th degree black belt in the martial art of Aikido, describes the process of mastery in his book Mastery. His essential proposition is that to get better in any skill requires a change in muscle memory. Changing muscle memory requires a plateau or even a slight decline. The difference between the Master and everyone else is how the Master handles the inevitable plateau. Below I describe four characters (the Dabbler, the Obsessive, the Hacker, and the Master), how each would approach the skill of learning topspin, and the typical results that occur. Which character are you?

The Dabbler loves learning new skills and upward surges. However, once the inevitable plateau arises, the Dabbler gets too frustrated and either moves to a different sport or gives up learning that skill entirely.

Application: The Dabbler approaches his first tennis lesson on learning topspin with incredible enthusiasm. At the end of the lesson, he makes 2 topspin shots in the court. After the lesson, I tell him that he should practice his topspin 15 minutes a day and visualize hitting perfect topspin for 5 minutes upon waking up and going to sleep. He does just that. On the second lesson, he improves to 7 topspin shots in the court. He is overjoyed and demonstrates his new topspin form to his family and friends.

However, the inevitable plateau arises. The next three lessons, he makes only 5 topspin shots in the court. This is unacceptable if not incomprehensible. His enthusiasm quickly wanes. He starts missing lessons. His mind fills up with rationalizations. “My flatter ball is faster, its more consistent, its more fun, and it takes less effort.” He quits learning topspin and continues hitting flat shots. His game never really improves.

The Hacker simply does not care. Once the plateau hits, he is willing to stay on the plateau indefinitely.

Application: On the first lesson the Hacker makes 2 topspin balls in the court. After the lesson, I tell the Hacker the same advice I told the Dabbler. The Hacker agrees. When the next lesson arises, I ask if he followed through with his practice and visualization. The Hacker uses school work and the Celtics game as an excuse. When the next lesson arises, I ask the Hacker, again, if he followed through with his homework. He makes up more excuses. Throughout the lessons, he makes some progress but eventually keeps returning to his old muscle memory. He lacks the commitment to program topspin into his muscle memory.

The Obsessive is not one to settle for second best. He cares only about results and wants to get to the result as fast as possible. Often, the Obsessive starts out with robust progress. But when the inevitable plateau arises, he simply will not accept it. He redoubles his effort. He pushes himself mercilessly. He refuses to accept the advice of moderation. Spurts of progress are followed by sharp declines, a jagged ride toward a sure fall. When the fall occurs, the Obsessive is likely to get hurt.

Application: On the first lesson the Obsessive makes 2 topspin shots in the court. I tell him to practice 15 minutes a day and visualize perfect topspin for 5 minutes upon waking up and for 5 minutes upon going to sleep. He nods in agreement then immediately goes to the wall attached to the tennis courts and works on his topspin for the next 2 hours. He hits the next day for three hours. When the next lesson arrives, he makes 10 topspin shots in the court. Ecstatic with these results, he repeats his intense method of practicing. However, on the next lesson, the inevitable plateau arises. He only makes 5 topspin shots in the court. He is shocked. He reasons that it must be that he was not spending enough time on the court. He decides to play in the morning and the evening now for 3 hours each. On the next lesson, he makes 20 topspin balls in the court. Again, he becomes ecstatic and continues to practice 6 hours a day. However, on the next lesson, he makes only 15 topspin balls in the court. Again, he is shocked and repeats the process of training harder. This process continues until he develops an injury that forces him to stop playing tennis.

The Master knows how muscle memory works. He knows that he must think about the skill over and over again until it gets “clicked into” his habitual system. He knows that there will be an inevitable plateau as his habitual system fights him on this journey of replacing an old pattern of sensing, movement, and cognition with a new one. Rather than being frustrated while on the plateau, he learns to appreciate and enjoy it just as much as he does the upward surges. Simply put, he trusts and loves the entire process of endless mastery.

Application: On the first lesson the Master makes 2 topspin shots in the court. I tell him the same advice I told everyone else. He does exactly that. He makes those 40 minutes a priority in his day. On the second lesson, he makes 10 topspin balls. On the third lesson, he makes 30 topspin balls. Oh, no. The inevitable plateau arises. The next three lessons he makes only 15 topspin balls in the court despite diligently and moderately practicing and visualizing his topspin. However, he expected this. Instead of getting frustrated, he becomes happy! He knows an upward surge is around the corner if he stays patient, diligent, and positive. On the next three lessons, he again makes only 15 topspin balls. However, during those lessons he focuses on the 15 good topspin balls he hit. After the lesson, he takes some time to express gratitude on the improvement he has made thus far. All of a sudden, on the seventh lesson, something clicks. He hits 50 perfect topspin balls in a row and at the end of this 50 shot spree he was not even thinking about his form. It just came naturally. However, the next few lessons he only makes 25 topspin balls in. Again, The Master does not panic but stays focused and keeps practicing and visualizing diligently. Finally, on the eleventh lesson something clicks again. Every shot he hits is with perfect topspin without having to think at all. The skill has been reprogramed and the Master’s game has improved. The next day he plays against his friend who used to always beat him but this time he beats his friend because his friend could not handle his massive topspin. The next lesson arises and The Master asks me what’s next. I tell him that the slice is next. The Master’s Journey begins once again…….

The categories are obviously not quite this neat. You can be a Master with your mental game and a Dabbler in learning technical skills. Even in the same context, you can be on the path of mastery one day and an Obsessive the next. But the basic patterns tend to prevail, both reflecting and shaping your performance, your character, and your destiny.

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