I am not amazing at sports. I’m probably best at soccer, but I was never as good as I should have been, given how long I played. At my athletic best, I’m decent and at my worst, well… let’s just say you don’t want to play Frisbee with me unless you are part Labrador and love a good game of fetch.
One sport where my talentlessness always really shined was basketball. Oh, I could dribble up and down the court in a no-nonsense, by-the-book kind of way. And I could pass pretty well, as long as I paid attention to who I was passing to so I didn’t accidentally pass to the other team (which I think I only did once). And I never forgot a rule once I learned it, but I seemed to only learn one at a time as I was being informed that I was breaking it.
My weakest skill was one of the most important: shooting. I had/have terrible aim. And even if, due to some mystical aligning of the planets, I managed to make a basket, it was generally just a fluke. I could never duplicate it. All of this led me to the only logical conclusion: muscle memory is a myth! Yeah, they say that if you do something a bunch of times, your body will learn to do it without you having to think about it. Nope. Doesn’t work. Must be one of those things people tell you to justify making you do some kind of drills. In fact, if Einstein really did say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, it was probably after watching me try to make a free throw.
So, I was never on a school team (because I may have been bad, but at least I was aware of it). But, I did play on a church team. Not exactly the NBA, I know, but I tried. And then came that bleak Monday in February. (All of our games were on Saturdays and I have no idea what month it was, but Mondays and February are both so bad that I’ve rescheduled this memory to allow for an appropriate setting.) Anyway, that Monday the ball was under the other team’s basket. I was staying back at about half court, looking for a way to be useful, when suddenly the ball shot out of the crowd of players under the basket and found me quite alone. I caught it and dribbled quickly and purposefully to our basket.
As you imagine this scene, you are probably thinking how lucky I was to find myself with such an easy lay-up opportunity. Oh, you. So cute. So full of misplaced optimism. A lay-up was not exactly in my wheelhouse. But I was totally alone, so I felt like even I could probably just stop and take a calm shot from right under the basket. So I did. The ball sailed up past the rim… and then came right back down into my still up-stretched hands.
Embarrassing, yes, but I glanced at the two teams worth of teenage girls bearing down on me from the other end of the court and judged that I still had time. I made a slight adjustment and shot again. Does Einstein have anything to say about doing DIFFERENT things but ending up with the SAME result? Because I couldn’t have copied that first shot better if I’d been trying to. (Because if I’d been trying, I wouldn’t have been able to.) Up it went, and down it came. The attacking herd was closing in. Just enough time for one more shot. Again, a perfect reenactment. Up and down. At this point, having missed three times from a foot away, I decided to accept the inevitable, and just found a teammate to pass to.
I have thought about this experience over the years and I have come to another conclusion: muscle memory isn’t a myth. I just have something akin to muscle Alzheimer’s. My arms don’t make new memories. They do something once, and then they forget it ever happened. Even just moments later, they can’t seem to rustle up even an inkling of what they have just done, let alone recreate it. However, every once in a while, they have a surprisingly clear, and frustratingly persistent, moment of memory. It’s kind of the equivalent of your senile great grandfather suddenly and repeatedly telling a story about something that happened when you were 12. But, in the case of MY muscles, the story is never one of the good ones. It’s usually something weird and vaguely inappropriate that you wish he had forgotten. He can’t remember that you won a Nobel Prize, but he keeps telling the story about the time you wet your pants at the family reunion. And I couldn’t hit a ball with a bat if my life depended on it, but you just watch me drop the same piece of bread on the floor four times in a row. Oh, yeah. I’m impressive.
Now, that basketball game happened about 20 years ago. It wasn’t really a major life event or anything, so why do I bring it up now? Because that’s exactly what my brain does to me. At random times and in random situations, it will suddenly present me with a memory of something that happened a long time ago. And as bad as my physical muscle memory is, my emotional muscle memory seems nearly eidetic. So I don’t just have some vague recollection of what happened. I remember it all in perfect detail, including just how stupid I felt. And I can’t just stop at REMEMBERING how dumb I felt. My brain decides I need to feel just as stupid all over again. And so I stand there in the middle of the pasta aisle, feeling like an idiot because I called my fourth grade teacher “Mom” that one time.
So, in the end, it seems like muscle memory, physical or otherwise, is a thing. The more you do something, the more likely you are to do it again. The more you think about something, the more likely you are to think about it again. And it seems, in my case at least, that the more you try to control what you do and what you think about, the more you realize that you can’t and that you just seem to be along for the ride and that you’re not really sure who’s driving. But it’s okay, because at least there’s a lot of interesting scenery to see along the way.
Life Lesson Learned: Ooh, remember the time you got really car sick driving on that really windy road and threw up all down the side of your friend’s mom’s minivan and felt really awful about it? Well, now you do.
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