August 2011: Golf Tips From a Pro –Muscle Memory and Golf: Fact or Fiction?
Author: Pete Popovich | Photographer: Photography by Anne
Let me start by saying there is no such thing as muscle memory in the traditional sense. Now most of you reading this may be ready to throw the magazine down. However, in the traditional sense, people believe, or have been led to believe, that if they do something over and over again (such as hitting a golf ball), their muscles will “remember” how to perform the act. This simply is not true. If you would like to know why, continue reading.
Recent research has shown that muscles have no memory in and of themselves. Muscles are sent instructions, or a blueprint, on how to move, by way of your neurological system and the brain. What really transpires while learning a motor movement (any physical act or motion) is your brain determining which muscles to use, in what order to use them, how hard to use each muscle and at what rate the muscle should contract/relax. All of this is deciphered in the brain where a neural pathway is being created each time you make a specific movement, e.g. hitting a drive, a pitch or a putt.
Before I go on, let me explain what a neural pathway is. When we are born our brains have billions upon billions of neurons and hardly any are connected to one another. As we grow and begin using muscles, our neurons begin to develop connections between one another as messages are sent from one neuron to the next. These messages contain the blueprint for how our body moves as described above. During the course of development, we use some neurons more than others. Those that are not used are pruned away as the body seeks to be as efficient as possible. This pruning typically happens around the age of three or four, again in the early teens, and once more in early adulthood, age 19-23. When fewer neurons are receiving signals, because those not used are being pruned, the brain/body becomes efficient at the movement patterns it has developed over time. Movements become more efficient, because bridges, i.e. neurotransmitters, have been built between each neuron. As these bridges become closer (or shorter), the pathway, or movement sequencing, becomes easier and more efficient until it gets to the point where it feels like second nature. When this pattern becomes second nature, it forms what is called an engram, or memory trace, which is a deeply ingrained learned movement. Once a movement pattern is learned correctly, it does not have to be relearned. Don’t believe me? Have you ridden a bicycle after not riding for a number of years? Was it like starting over or was it easy?
How does knowing this help your golf game? To make it simple, think of your brain/muscle relationship as the movement inside a clock. Outside the inner movement, the hands on a smoothly running clock (the way you would like your golf swing to be) move from 1 to 2 to 3 and so on. However, continuously altering your swing by lacking proper instruction or going from one instructor to another creates numerous neural pathways and is the equivalent of a clock’s hands going from 12 to 4, back to 2 then to 7 and so on. Nothing consistent is ever achieved because the same path was never taken. The better instructor gets the student set on the proper swing path that evolves into the proper neural path that produces consistent golf shots. How many instructors have you heard or read that refer to this phenomenon?
Another golf fiction is that “practice makes perfect.”
Wiser men have said “Only perfect practice makes perfect.” Why? Because, just doing something the same way every time, ensuring the same neural path and same muscle use, does not necessarily mean you will realize your golfing potential or hit the ball the way you desire. It may even blueprint your errors instead of leading to improvement. No, you must first learn to perform the swing correctly in order to attain the proper neural sequencing. Then practicing the correct swing-manner will both deliver and maintain consistency by building correct neural paths.
This is not achieved by reading golf magazines, by watching an instructor on TV offering one-size-fits-all tips or working with an instructor who lacks the understanding of how the brain/body works, how the club works, and how to put them together. This is achieved by finding an instructor who can recognize the causes of your swing faults as opposed to the effects. (Causes are almost always hidden; effects are obvious by how the ball flies!)
Many factors play a part in whether a golfer is able to learn and maintain a consistent swing. If even one of these is amiss, it will cause you to manipulate something in the swing. And remember, you cannot learn to manipulate a golf club consistently.
If you would like to learn to swing a golf club correctly and develop the proper neural paths to better golf, call Golf Performance Academy-Hilton Head at (843) 338-6737 or visit on the Web at golfacademyhiltonhead.com or on Facebook at Golf Performance Academy-Hilton Head.