Lately I’ve been coaching an advanced volleyball class at my local rec center, and I find myself talking a lot about training one’s brain for specific volleyball skills. Constant and consistent repetition are how I learned to play volleyball, and even when I couldn’t find a team for months or a year these habits allowed me to jump back into the sport very quickly.
It turns out this is a form of procedural memory or muscle learning, and not just something that my coaches made up. Often referred to as “muscle memory,” these deeply ingrained muscular habits come from long hours of repetition.
It’s muscle memory that allows us to whip our arms out to save the ball or explode upward to block without thinking about it. It’s muscle memory that gives us the confidence to serve the match point of the championship game with confidence because we’ve done it almost literally a million times in practice.
Unfortunately it’s also muscle memory that fosters bad habits and impedes some players’ progress.
Those of you who are part of my weekly volleyball skills newsletter have heard this before, but if serve, pass, set, hit or block incorrectly one time, you have to repeat the skill correctly thirty times to reset your brain/muscle memory and get back to a good habit.
The good news is that it really is your brain that’s in charge of how your muscles work, so with focused repetitions using the proper form you really can reset your mind and correct bad habits. There’s even some research suggesting that one’s attitude can influence the creation of muscle memory. So if you keep telling yourself that you’ll never be able to pass without swinging your arms, or that you’re doomed to set with stabby fingers, then that’s what your brain will tell your muscles.
Instead keep an open mind and a positive attitude when working on changing bad habits. Try not to get frustrated, even if it seems like you’ll never get your overhand serve perfected. No athletes, volleyball or otherwise, became great overnight. It takes hours of practice, and sometimes some good solid coaching, to breakthrough bad habits.
For more information on how your muscle memory can affect your serve, check out this earlier article on the serving routine.
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