Monday, November 28, 2011

Behold the power of muscle memory (updated)

About a year ago I made a conscious decision to stop attending my dojo. I think I may have blogged about it, but in short it was because I disagreed with several decisions they made in terms of instruction, and it was a big enough issue that I felt I needed to sever ties. I still work out six days a week, and part of that work out regularly involves the heavy bag. There is nothing like working out on a heavy bag. What I have rarely done in that year was Kata.

Kata, or Forms, are a prescribed set of movements designed to simulate fighting multiple opponents. When you test for a belt promotion you are graded on your ability to do the Katas for your skill level. I had learned six of the eight Katas for my school.

last night in my gym it was relatively quiet. At the end of this holiday weekend few had found their way back to the gym to work out. A large mirrored aerobics room was empty and I decided to do my Kata. I started facing the mirrors with the open glass behind me, so I could see how it looked. Almost immediately I got into a flow moving from my White belt katas up through what were essentially the Brown belt katas for my former dojo - even though I was only a blue belt. There were a few times that I wasn't sure I remembered the next step, and when that occurred I merely shut off my brain and did what felt correct. When I did, they flowed perfectly, the movements occurring smoothly for the most part, but with a few stumbles. Despite the stumbles I was happy that I remembered them all.

This is the perfect example of muscle memory. If you do something repeatedly, your body learns the movements and your brain only gets in the way. When you brush your teeth in the morning I guarantee you do it the same way every day. I am sure my friend the Chef cut onions the same way every time. I would be willing to bet you can find an example in your life of your muscles taking over when they know what they need to do.

The best example of this in kayaking is rolling. There is zero difference between a combat roll and a roll in a swimming pool. Yes the conditions may be different, the weather, the current, but the movements are identical, but so many people miss their roll when under pressure. For a very simple reason. Their brain gets in the way of muscle memory. When I teach people to roll and they get their roll correctly for the first time I tell them 'that was perfect, now do it 200 times.' You have to build that memory.

In one of the 'This is the Sea' movies by Justin Curgenven (I think disc 3) The great Freya Hoffmeister is paddling with a large group at a large tidal rip. Freya is probably one of the best kayakers in the world today, without a doubt the best, most prolific long distance paddlers currently active. I have heard it said that she can do 50 different greenland rolls, and yet in this tidal rip she failed to roll her boat. The reason is simple, her brain got in the way of muscle memory because she was thinking about how big the water was. (Clearly this is my assumption for the sake of an example as I wasn't there, Freya is an amazing paddler and I mean no disrespect)

And while rolling is a great example, we aren't limited to muscle memory effecting our roll. Muscle memory comes into everything we do in a kayak, from getting into and out of our kayak through all of our strokes.

When it comes time to react to something, you will always do better if you let your body react versus thinking about what the reaction should be. By the time you think about the appropriate reaction the time for that appropriate action has passed. A great quote from a bad movie, 'fear causes hesitation, and hesitation will make your worst fear come true.'


Today I received a comment that I felt deserved a bigger response than just a follow up comment. You can read it below, but here it is:

IMHO,you're right and you're not. I experienced lately a roll in cold water, the first attempt,based on instinct didn't succeed, (independently, I developed the same theory as you did and accordingly I rolled last summer at least 600-700 times) after the second attempt, despite the 7deg Celsius water, and no drysuit, I needed to bring my thoughts together and do it with more brain involvement, and less muscle memory, and voila, I rolled! But still, training is building muscle memory and confidence.I think you need both. Rolling 5 times after another doesn't mean by far that you're ready to go and won't fail
I suppose you know this better

So first let me say I welcome the comment and the conversation. I think I am a highly skilled kayaker, but the day that I stop trying to learn is the day I will stop writing this blog and for that matter stop kayaking. I welcome the conversation, and the debate, as long as both parties are open to hear both sides of the debate.  There is one particular kayak blogger who disagrees with me on a  number of concepts - and that's fine - but his lack of an open mind to my concepts - In my humble opinion - isn't. So I take what this anonymous commenter says very seriously. 

I have blogged about the exact thing that he mentions on at least two occasions. I did a post about rolling at the National Whitewater Center, And this post about 'fall back plans'. They are both about me missing rolls, one in a stressful situation, and one in a cold, but not dangerous situation.  

In my opinion when the commenter mentions "I needed to bring my thoughts together and do it with more brain involvement" I think he actually has it backwards. I think with the missed roll, a number of things are happening at once, the water is cold, and shocking. There is the stress of being in a bad situation. And the stress of the 'what if's'. What if I miss my roll. I'll get hypothermia and die. I'll end up in the next set of rapids upside down! From my point of view - and what I was trying to say in the original version of this post - is your mind is racing because of the 'what if's'. In my opinion when he calmed himself down he was taking the fear out of the situation, and allowed his body to relax and do what it needed to do. So I still consider that a muscle memory situation. 

I see what he is saying though, when I roll my kayak I am thinking as I do it, but it is more of gentle, slowing guide. The same applies to when I am sparring. I am thinking, but more about what I need to be doing, not how to do it. 

Rolling, I think - slow down, set up, hands in the right place? Good. Hip snap with your head down. 
Rolling, Don't think - Ibettermakethisrollorlifeisgonnasuck! (Your brain is racing, let your body take over)

Sparring, I think - protect, move, strike after he tries to strike
Sparring, Don't think - after he throws a right, I will block, and then kick to the head (Thinking this much will get you punched in the face)

In both of these situations we want the brain to be calm, and not racing. That way our body can do what it knows how to do. Without our brain adding a million thoughts, concerns and a whole lot of adrenaline to the mix. I am a big proponent of the concept of 'slow is fast'. Doing something slowly and correctly is much faster than doing something quickly and incorrectly. 

Thanks for the comment, and the conversation.