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Visualize Whirled Peas

Back when I was first learning how to skate, my coach told me that visualization was an important tool for an athlete. She talked about a study where two groups of athletes were given skill tests at the beginning of a study and at the end of a study and their improvements compared. One group worked on their sport for an hour every day. The other group worked on their sport one hour every other day, and on the days that they didn't go practice they sat still and just imagined practicing for an hour. The group that spent an hour every other day just visualizing their practice actually improved more than the group that actually worked out physically every day.

One of the suggested reasons for this difference is that visualization can help you overcome the problem of uncorrected mistakes causing bad muscle memory. Every time you do an action you are building or reinforcing your muscle memory for that move. Muscle memory is part of what makes a complex action easy with a bit of time. Learning how to eat with chopsticks might like a major challenge to your coordination when you first start, but once you get the hang of it, muscle memory kicks in and you don't have to think about how to hold your hand or how to pick up food. When you learn how to skate you are building up all sorts of muscle memories. But if you learn how to do something wrong, you have picked up a "bad" muscle memory.

Imagine if the way that you learned to eat with chopsticks made it impossible to pick up single grains of rice. A friend shows you how to hold the chopsticks correctly, but try as you might, you don't seem to be able to get this new technique. Your hand seems to always do what you learned before, and it's very frustrating. Your muscle memory is kicking in and it takes a lot more work to re-learn this physical action than it did to learn to eat with chopsticks in the first place.

You can use visualization to help you overcome this problem. You can imagine the right way to hold your chopsticks, the way it feels to bring the sticks together like your friend showed you, what it feels like to pick up a single grain of rice. When you first try to imagine this, you'll likely find that you are even imagining yourself doing the action the wrong way. That's how strong muscle memory is. But as you keep at it, you start to imagine that you are doing the right thing. Once you can imagine yourself doing this action correctly, you have a better chance of actually doing it correctly. It seems as if you are re-wiring your brain, creating a sort of virtual muscle memory.

Over the next few posts I'll share some visualization techniques to help you overcome bad muscle memory and to build new skills. In the future I'll also make sure to tag any post with visualization techniques in it.

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