How to Build World Class Muscle Memory
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on February 21st, 2011

In the NY Times article  Secrets of  A Mind Gamer journalist Joshua Foer relates that in 2005 he covered the U.S.A. Memory Championship, to write an article about what he imagined would be “the Super Bowl of savants.”  When the top performers in the event all claimed to have average memories developed through disciplined training, he decided to test that proposition himself. A year later, Foer himself won the championship and broke the US record (improving it from 1 minute 55 seconds to 1:40) for speed-memorizing the order of all 52 cards in a randomly shuffled deck. The lessons he learned apply to any exacting skill you seek to improve, and to muscle, as well as cognitive, memory. This is the first of two blogs that will relate the brain-training techniques Foer used to improving swimming skills.

Joshua Foer used goggles and earmuffs to deepen concentration.

Among the mentors Foer sought out as he began training was Anders Ericsson PhD, the world’s leading ‘authority on expertise’, who advised Foer: “Check out the literature on speed typing.” When he did, he learned that new typists improve quickly from single-finger pecking to two-handed typing, to effortless and ‘unconscious’ typing. But there, most people plateau; their typing skills stop progressing. Why don’t people who use a keyboard for hours a day continue improving?

In the 1960s, psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner answered this question by describing three stages of acquiring a skill. During the first phase, the cognitive phase, we intellectualize the task and discover new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second, the associative phase, we concentrate less, make fewer errors, and become more efficient. Eventually we reach the autonomous phase, when we’re as good as we need to be and begin to ‘run on autopilot.’  Call this the “O.K. Plateau.”

Until recently, psychologists thought that O.K. Plateaus marked the upper limits of innate ability. Ericsson and his colleagues believe the OK Plateau results from our own judgment that we’ve achieved an acceptable level of performance.

They’ve documented that top achievers avoid autopilot by: (i) focusing on their technique, (ii) constantly adjusting their goals upward; and (iii) getting immediate feedback on their performance. Average musicians tend to spend their practice time playing music. Accomplished musicians tend to repetitively practice exacting exercises and prioritize the most difficult passages of pieces. The best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps they’ve already mastered.

Any of us can bypass the OK Plateau, if we constantly push beyond where we think our limits lie, focus on our weak points and develop strategies for improving them.

Bruce Lee: “There are no limits. There are plateaus, and you must not stay there; you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.”

Unlike downhill skiing or race car driving, there’s little chance that arduous pursuit of excellence in swimming will kill us. In fact, it’s virtually guaranteed to make us happier and healthier, and has far broader utility than memorizing a deck of cards.

3 Responses to “How to Build World Class Muscle Memory”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by TERRY LAUGHLIN, TERRY LAUGHLIN. TERRY LAUGHLIN said: Most people stop improving not because they've maxed out their innate ability, but because they feel they've… […]

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