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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

Muscle Memory (Override)

You know how it goes.

You're at a seminar. You're visiting another school of your style or organization. You're cross training. Or maybe your teacher is showing you something brand new or something they learned from somewhere else.

However you got there, the new thing are trying to learn is super-cool and you're trying hard to learn it. The problem is that it's very similar to something else you do, and that you've done that old thing a lot.

Your brain says do the new thing, but your muscles "want" to do the other thing. You have to think triple-hard to do the new thing, to override what you're used to doing.

You will almost always say, and I quote, "But I want to do it this way!"

That's the trouble with "muscle memory".

Of course, that's not really a thing - muscles have no memory - but it's the term we use for something we practice so much that we don't have to think much (or at all) to do it.

This makes me remember the time I was learning a new variant of a disarm I know very well. This disarm is done by placing the tip of the stick against your opponent's wrist. I've done it more times than I can count. I can do it so fast you don't know it's happened until it's happened, mainly because I don't have to engage my brain to do it.

At a seminar, someone showed me a variant of this disarm using the butt end of the stick - the punyo - instead of the tip. It was really cool (and sets you up for some nice follow-up strikes), but I had to slow down and think very, very hard to not automatically do the tip version and position myself to do the punyo version.

You feel all clumsy and newbiesh and maybe a little bit embarrassed that you aren't getting it perfectly the first time.

We know that training something so well that you don't have to think about it is a huge advantage in stressful or fluid situations.  We strive for "muscle memory".

Not everything we do can be committed to "muscle memory" - for good reason - but we all have a certain set of techniques that we can just do, instantly, without any thought at all. It varies style to style and strategy to strategy, but we all have it.

You might not even realize you have something committed to "muscle memory" until you have to override it learning something new.

Another name, of course, for "muscle memory" is habit.

Ain't that the truth.

In the example above, it's my habit to disarm using the tip versus the punyo. It's more comfortable and I can do it without thinking. BUT, the new version sets me up to do some pretty nice follow-up strikes and potential counter-to-the-counter moves.

I had to decide if I want to override that muscle memory to use the tip vs. the punyo version of that disarm. If I do, I have to train it a lot, to overcome the habit I've already built. It goes from being a habit to being a choice, but I have to practice it as much as the version I already know to choose which version I want to do in a split second.

This process and consideration over what habits we have has to be made when we start cross training in different arts. Most styles have certain strategic choices trained to be "muscle memory" and don't want a different choice to override the habit.

This is why I believe it's important to have a core, base art - any art you like - before you train a lot in other martial art styles.  In a stressful situation, you want to do something, anything, even if it isn't "optimal" - that's the point of "muscle memory". If you don't have enough practice, it won't be in muscle memory, and you'll have nothing in your toolbox ready to go when push comes to shove.

That's why you spend so much time doing things over and over and over in the martial arts, and there is no shortcut to this. Repetition makes habit.  Habit makes speed, and speed might just save you.

Tell me about a time where you realized you wanted to override something in your muscle memory.  What tips or tricks do you have to help something become a habit?  Let us know in the comments!

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