The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

No. 1 Reason Practice Makes Perfect

The Brain Science of Muscle Memory

My father was born the son of Montana missionaries in the 1930s. Becoming the Montana State tennis champion as a high school student was his ticket out of Glendive. He got a scholarship to attend college, went on to Cornell medical school and became a neurosurgeon.  He said, "Of this I am absolutely positive, becoming a neurosurgeon was a direct consequence of my eye for the ball." This quotation sums up The Athlete's Way because it captures the parallels between sports and career that come into play for all of us. It also captures why I am so interested in the link between brain science and athletics--and the link between 'practice, practice, practice' and success.

Although being a state tennis champion is technically what got my father a college scholarship, that 'trophy' is secondary to everything else that he learned on the tennis court that stuck with him for the rest of his life. His brain was rewired through his daily workouts. He was able to transfer his 'eye for the ball' into 'focus' and remain intellectually sharper than the rest. His daily tennis practice gave him the physicality, dexterity, and stamina to be a world-class surgeon.

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My father wanted me to be the next Björn Borg. I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed from a very young age. I wanted my father to be proud of me and I worked very hard on the tennis court. When I was growing up, tennis was our only real alone time and we played every Sunday. His coaching was based on an understanding that muscle memory is stored in a part of your brain called the "cerebellum" (Latin: little brain). My dad's mantra to me as a kid was: "Carve the grooves into the cerebellum, Chris. Think about hammering and forging your muscle memory with every stroke." The cerebellum is the #1 reason that practice makes perfect.

He knew from tennis and surgery that you had to do the same thing again and again and again to hardwire it into long-term muscle memory that is stored in the cerebellum. I played tennis for the first time in almost a decade a few weeks ago and was amazed how quickly all those years of playing with my dad and the hours and hours of hitting a ball repetitively against a backboard came rushing back. It is exactly the same 'cerebellar' (pertaining to the cerebellum) long-term muscle memory we refer to when we say: "It's just like riding a bike." You never forget how to do it once you've hardwired it into the skill center of the cerebellum through practice.

Before you read any farther, please watch this short 2-minute cartoon compiled by the DORE programs of the UK that brilliantly explains how the cerebellum relates to your cerebrum when learning and mastering new skills.

The word cerebellum was coined by Leonardo da Vinci in 1504 when he was making anatomical wax castings of the brain. The cerebellum is the size of a kiwi and is tucked under the much larger cerebrum in the base of your skull. The average cerebellum only weighs one-quarter of a pound but ounce-for-ounce packs a walloping punch. Although the cerebellum is only 10% of total brain volume it holds more than 50% of the brain's neurons. Because of this disproportionate distribution of neurons my father always said of the cerebellum, "Whatever it's doing, it's doing a lot of it." He was obsessed with trying to unravel the mysteries of the cerebellum and passed that obsession on to me.

Long-winded Latin anatomical names tend to make my eyes cross. As a kid the word 'cerebellum' and 'cerebrum' seemed too complex so I coined the term 'up brain' for the cerebrum and 'down brain' for the cerebellum. I know that these terms may seem grammatically incorrect but they are a direct and cogent response to the terms 'left brain' and 'right brain.'  In the 70s there was a lot of talk about the left brain being your 'intellectual' brain that was good with words and numbers; and your right brain being your 'creative' brain that was good with images and art.

If pushed to categorize the cognitive differences between the down brain and up brain, I would say that the up brain is the house of your conscious 'thinking mind' and the down brain is the house of your intuitive 'subconscious mind.' However, I am fully aware that dividing the brain and mind into a rigid dichotomy of 'down brain-up brain' is an oversimplification and not 100% scientifically accurate. Nonetheless, I still find this split-brain model a useful paradigm for facilitating self-understanding and improvement.

All parts of the brain work together in concert for everything we do. Assigning specific traits solely to one hemisphere--or any portion of the brain--is generally considered to be 'bad science.' That said, I would still encourage you to use the terms down brain-up brain as a simple and visual way to categorize an aspect of your psychology when you are taking inventory of your mindset and behavior. As a split-brain model it is helpful for isolating habits and character traits. Once you have identified an area that needs work, you can then make changes that will maximize your potential and improve your performance in sports and in life.

For example: Arthur Ashe said, "There is a syndrome in sports called 'paralysis by analysis'." One helpful way to avoid being too 'analytical' is to tag that mindset as being too "up brain" or cerebral. If you are over-thinking things, your very large prefrontal cortex stored in the up brain is getting in the way and blocking the more intuitive 'down brain' from working it's non-thinking and completely fluid muscle memory magic.

The up brain is so big and so powerful that it is hard to turn it down sometimes. When you choke in sport, or become over-excited, it is because your up brain is overpowering your down brain. Remember this visual and literally shift your consciousness away from the prefrontal cortex by relaxing the backs of your eyes, taking some deep breathes and 'letting go.'

To create super fluid performance you need to seat yourself in the down brain which has - practiced, practiced, practiced - and have your actions spring from there.  I call this state of peak performance "Superfluidity." You become super fluid in sports - and in life - when you have freed up the working memory of your cerebrum to strategize and keep tabs on the more cerebral aspects of everything that's going on while completely trusting your gut and the intuitive powers of your cerebellum.

In closing, please watch this video of Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt having one of the most incredible rallies in tennis history.


This is Superfluidity in action! Listen to the rhythmic timing of Roger Federer's footwork (he's in the white shirt.) The down brain is running the show for both of them throughout the early part of the rally. They almost look like robots repeating the same motion again and again and again as if they are both hitting against a backboard.  It creates a trance like feeling but the up brain is waiting in the wings and calculating when to make a break and begin to play the game of chess necessary to win the point with a strategic and unexpected placement.

This video holds many clues on how to maximize the use of your up brain and down brain on and off the court. Watch it again any time you need motivation to stick with it and practice, practice, practice anything that you want to become world-class at.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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