The Importance of Muscle Memory in Tennis

Improving muscle memory will take your players to the next level. Les and Dave Jacobs - Getty Images

Coaches are dedicated and devoted to helping athletes prepare for competition. They run drills, condition, go over strategies on offense and defense, condition, and they may even review tape. But there is one aspect of an athlete’s arsenal of talents that often get forgotten: their memory.

Now we’ve all heard of the term “muscle memory,” but we may not fully comprehend its meaning and its importance.

And many of us are teachers, where “cognitive memory” is a crucial skill to learning and retaining knowledge. What we need to remember is that the athletic field, or pool, or court, is as much a classroom as the one in the building.

To build a truly complete athlete, one whose mental and physical skills are working in unison, it is important that we spend time talking about memory with our players and utilizing drills that strengthen memory. This is the key to a player performing on instinct and intuition, and the key to improving their “sports IQ.”

Muscle memory refers to an athlete’s ability to develop situational instincts while competing by “training” their muscles to perform important tasks such as sprinting and changing direction on the tennis court. It includes improved hand/eye and hand/foot coordination as well.

Improved muscle memory essentially speeds up the time that an impulse moves from the brain to the muscles performing a skill.

  A typical practice is of course the natural environment to work on muscle memory, for it is the repetition of action during drills that produces this memory.

A key point coaches must understand is the importance of correcting a player’s bad habits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, because muscle memory can have the negative effect of reinforcing those bad habits over time, making it extremely difficult to “erase that memory.”

Visual memory is an important skill for tennis players to develop. This memory includes a player’s peripheral vision, their depth perception, and their ability to see moving objects clearly, referred to as dynamic visual acuity. When we talk about players being able to “slow down the game” in their head, it is this dynamic visual acuity being referred to.

There aren’t a whole lot of things you can do as a coach to improve these skills other than repetition, but these two drills have had some success.

Drill No. 1

Put a number or letter on some tennis balls and have players try to identify the symbol during play by calling out what they see.

Drill No. 2

Use a whistle to have a player open and close her eyes while on the court to reduce reaction time to shots.

Keep a Log

After a game, have your players record their memory of the points by trying to remember the type of errors committed by themselves or the opponent. Maybe have them try to remember the number of hits in a rally, or where their serves landed in the box. Have another player on the sideline keep a similar record, then compare notes. This will force the player to focus during practice, training their memory to identify important elements of the contest rather than just “drifting” from point to point as if the past did not matter.

There is also a great deal of DVD’s and other resources designed to improve quickness, speed, and coordination. Many of these resources, from “agility ladders” for foot speed to “multi-sided” rubber balls for hand/eye coordination, are fun to do and help “disguise” the repetitive element of the activity. This is actually very important because repetition can create monotony, and this monotony reduces focus.

Tennis is a sport that demands a variety of skills requiring speed, coordination, agility, and quick thinking. Training to improve muscle memory will make your players more intuitive, and as a coach, you must take the time to explain the idea of muscle memory to your players. Once they understand the competitive edge it provides, you’ll have their attention.