Muscle Memory: Is it a thing?


Very frequently we come across the term muscle memory in sports. Depending upon who you listen to, it exists or it doesn’t. In general the term is close enough to understand what the person means when using it. Perhaps there is a better term that we hear less frequently, or perhaps it still needs a name.

When I think of memory, I think of the word recall. Can I access something quickly and efficiently when I need it? I know my name is Paul and unless my brain function takes a dramatic turn for the worse, I can count on knowing my name is Paul for a few more years to come.

If I need access to my extension side fastball, can I dial it up when necessary? That’s when I begin to question whether we are talking ‘memory’ or if we are talking something else entirely. I may get something close to my extension side fastball even though I have attempted to throw it several thousand times. Can I say I have muscle memory or muscle Alzheimer’s?

Major league pitchers miss their target by an average of 8" and top performers are close to 6" of average miss, according to the last article I read on the subject whose author eludes me–perhaps I am taking my continued brain function a bit too much for granted :wink: Anyway, I think you see where I’m going with this. Would you call that ‘muscle memory’? I don’t think I would. Compared to the youth average miss of 17-24 inches from intended target, I’ll take 8" all day. By the way coaches, how are you feeling about your stellar go-to verbal feedback of “Just throw strikes,” for 9 year old Timmy?

I still can’t convince myself that’s memory. That’s like knowing your child’s name starts with a ‘C’. We could all adopt George Foreman’s philosophy and name all our children ‘George’. Well, maybe not. Raise your hand if you intended to throw a fastball down and away and it caught the inside corner for called strike 3. OK, put your hand back down. We’ve all done it…and taken credit for the pinpoint location of our kill shot.

I think that after repeating a pattern time after time after time, etc…we develop movement patterns within a given range and that the more we repeat, the more we refine and limit the range of that movement pattern. Think of all the muscles that are involved in throwing a baseball and the sequencing and timing of it all. Your synapses need to fire in precisely the correct moment for the ball to find the right sliver of home plate…all without the benefit of GPS!

Professional athletes can tighten up that range significantly more than the rest of us. Their central nervous system GPS works a lot better than ours. Why? Because they keep paying for the updates! (putting in the time during properly focused practice)Their extremes (detours) are less drastic than ours. They are able to hone in on the fastest route, so to speak, a lot faster than we can.

Another key component is that one would have had to experienced the optimal pattern at least once in order to recognize it and how it feels when it’s done right as well as have the ability to closely approximate that result repetitively. We can all benefit from a coach riding shotgun and pointing us in the right direction until our GPS software is current.

Perhaps a better term for muscle memory is ‘pattern optimization.’ Maybe it’s not. Perhaps you have come across a better term and would like to share.

Wow! You are still reading this. Those are two minutes of your life you will never get back :wink:


Very good post.
Pattern optimization is a good term indeed.
Standing on a hill…a hill that can vary to great degree from place to place…height, quality, footing, landing area ect…and being expected to throw a ball into a relatively small target from 60’ 6" away and have someone judge whether that is a strike or not…of course each person judging has their own take on were that target really is…oh yeah, there is a guy standing there trying to hit the ball to next Tuesday and he knows where you are trying to put the ball. Yes, it is very difficult. One of the more difficult things to do in sports if the intention is to do it well.
There is little actual coaching in regards to command. Repetition is about it. Actual mechanical changes in how someone physically throws a ball are hard to make. Easy to practice, difficult to see transition to a high effort game situation. That is my very long winded way of saying verbal cues offer little benefit. If a guy is struggling with command having a coach nag him to “fill it up”, “pound he knees”, “throw strikes”…thats all it is, is nagging. It will almost always be interpreted as negative feedback. Having a player develop his own verbal cues, in the language of his choosing and use self talk techniques is more effective IMHO.
One of the best ways to practice command is to practice it with every throw. Playing catch, throwing long toss…these are all opportunity to work on both grips and command. Throwing pens in an organized way, with a purpose, is important too. Frankly, it makes it more fun as well. Going in knowing, “ok, todays pen is about working the FB away.”…or…“Today is change up and working on cutting the FB day.” Having a purpose with each throw will help focus and intentionality.
A miss of 6 inches at the plate represents a difference in hand position or release point that is tiny. I mean tiny. Mechanics that really repeat are a myth.
The real key is to be able to recover, to adjust physically and mentally. That can be tough nut to crack however. For a pitcher to know why they miss where they miss and adjust in game is tough and takes a lot of self awareness.
As a side note. My sons high school coach made the visitors bull pen mounds very different than the game mound on purpose. The home bullpen mound and game mound were nearly identical. One year the bullpen mound was way lower than the game mound, the next way higher with a hard flat landing, the year after than it was sort of slanted. Dirty pool? Perhaps, but, being able to adjust on the fly is part of the deal.


Muscles don’t have memory so the term “muscle memory” is technically bogus. Memory involves the brain. And repeating movement patterns (the objective of muscle memory) has to involve the nerves that transmit the signals from the brain to the muscles. The correct term is “neuromuscular patterning”.

What is a Neuromuscular Pattern?
A neuromuscular pattern is a sequence of muscular contractions that results in a specific movement. These patterns are stored in the brain’s motor cortex. The more a pattern is used, the stronger it becomes…


10,000 hours of neuromuscular patterning plus good genetics and good coaching/instruction (and a little luck) = high likelihood of success as a pitcher :smile: