| By Xavier Luna
Photo credit: Adam Gault

"The highest reward for a person's work is not what they get for it, but what they become of it."—John Rushkin

Did you ever watch a professional tennis match and wonder how the players make their extraordinary shots look so effortless? Perhaps you even thought it looks so easy that you should be able to do it yourself. The very fact that the pros make it look simple explains the importance of "muscle memory."

Tennis is a habitual sport, meaning that the forehand and backhand swings that players execute throughout a match are practiced repeatedly until these movements become natural. That's where the innovative learning strategy of muscle memory comes in. Muscle memory is a term given to the procedural memory that can be acquired from making something a physical habit.

In terms of tennis, practicing backhand and forehand swings repeatedly teaches the brain to signal the body to reproduce these motions as ingrained habits. However, keep in mind that if you are practicing incorrectly and developing habits based on your flaws, your game will be flawed. That's why it is important that your "muscle memory" is fundamentally sound. Here are some ways to ensure this:

►Coaching: Take the time to learn proper logistics and form. Don't take shortcuts and don't allow bad habits to continue.

►Patience: Muscle memory can also be achieved individually, but it takes patience. Get your form down, then stay in this form throughout your play, so that it becomes natural to you.

►Practice, practice, practice: Spend lots of time on your own hitting tennis balls. Make each shot feel natural and not "forced." It's an old cliché, but practice really does make perfect. Some may argue that "perfect practice makes perfect," and this is true when it comes to building effective muscle memory through habit. If you're practicing incorrectly, you won't get the most out of your practice hours, which will lead to frustration on the court. Check your form from time to time to make sure you're still practicing perfectly.

Muscle memory is stored in the part of the brain known as the cerebellum, and practicing the same thing repeatedly essentially embeds the technique into this part of the brain. Note that while the cerebellum is only about 10 percent of the overall brain, it contains about 50 percent of the total neurons in the brain. As you may recall from science class, neurons process and transmit information through chemical and electrical signals. The plethora of neurons in this part of the brain is why it's so essential to long-term muscle memory. So when you practice, practice and then practice some more, what you are practicing becomes engraved, essentially, in your brain as muscle memory.

One example of a tennis great who has mastered the technique of hitting balls over and over again until the strokes become cemented in the brain. Consider the case of Roger Federer, whose 17 Grand Slam singles titles certainly put him in running for "best tennis player ever." The practice and discipline that Federer displays on the practice court carries over to his matches. Federer has mastered the muscle memory technique and has capitalized on its benefits, thanks to rigorous practice and discipline. So the next time you hear the words "practice makes perfect," keep in mind that there is a great deal of truth to the popular phrase.