Slip ‘n Slides & Focused Practice
Written by: Coach Evan
Especially now that we’re in the midst of the Open, we all can’t help but wonder, “How are these top athletes so dang good?” One of the coolest things about CrossFit, and the Open, is that anyone can participate. But that also makes it even more mind boggling when you post your Open score and someone has you beat by 10 minutes. It becomes personal when you’re actually competing against the top athletes, something most basketball or football fans never get the chance to do.
How did they get so good?
A large part of the answer is myelin. Myelin is the secret to success and talent. It is in no way a shortcut, just merely an explanation. Inside of your body, myelin is something you can cultivate with the right kind of motivation, practice, and focus. Simply, it is a mixture of proteins and phospholipids that surround nerve fibers and increase the speed at which impulses are conducted. The best part about myelin is you can utilize it right now, today, to become better at anything.
Imagine that a long winding nerve fiber connecting your brain to your muscles is a slip and slide filled with water. Every time you want your muscles to fire, your brain sends an impulse down the slide. These impulses travel fast, so fast you don’t have to think about them. But without myelin the impulses are moving relatively slow. Now imagine soap and oil have been added to the slide and that impulse is now careening toward its destination twice as fast. Every time your brain sends an impulse down that slide, more oil and soap is added to make it even faster. This is exactly what happens to your nervous system. It recognizes your brain using a neurological pathway over and over and wants you to be faster and more efficient when you use it. Enter myelin and the Schwann cells that myelinate the nerve fiber. Every time you perform a snatch, a pullup, hit a drum, strum a chord on a guitar, or even take a step, myelin is being wrapped around the nerve fibers that make it possible to perform these movements. The benefits of myelin are clear AND we have debunked the myth of muscle memory at the same time.
Your muscles don’t have brains; therefore, they cannot remember anything. However, the muscle memory phenomenon can be explained by myelin. We think of muscle memory as the ability of our muscles to perform movements without us having to focus on them. We’ve practiced the movement enough that it is second nature to us. While the latter remains true, it’s not that the muscles have remembered, it’s that myelin has been wrapped around and around the nerve fibers that connect our brain to our muscles, telling us how to perform a certain movement. That’s why it becomes second nature, because the impulses, through myelin, can happen so fast that you truly don’t have to think about them. They almost act on their own accord.
But how do we develop this second nature? How do we get enough myelin wrapped around the nerve fibers to make it “easier”? Through practice. Lots and lots of practice. Unfortunately, just logging the hours doesn’t cut it if you’re looking to become highly skilled at something. It’s a highly intense and focused practice. It’s not just mindlessly performing a movement the same way you always have. Its pinpointing errors with a magnifying glass and fixing them right away, taking a small bit of a bigger piece and perfecting it, then putting other small pieces together until you eventually have the whole puzzle fitted together seamlessly. It’s putting thought into your work. This can make 10 minutes of super intense practicing more effective than an hour of going through the motions. Work smarter, and harder. So, when you find yourself practicing an instrument, drawing, writing, or training in the gym, these are the most important times to be focused and analyzing your actions with that magnifying glass. Move slow and with purpose until the pieces fit together. Don’t just throw a barbell over your head. Think about the best way to get it there.
The top people in any field understand this concept even if they don’t know what myelin is. They engross themselves fully in their craft when they are practicing or creating. Their focus is laser sharp, and when something goes wrong, they know why and how to fix it. All you have to do is put these ideas into action consistently, even just for ten minutes out of an hour-long workout, training, or practice session.
Two more fascinating bits about myelin. The first: although myelination is most important in childhood development, you won’t stop myelinating nerve fibers until you die. The second: once you start the myelination of some fibers, not only does it stay on those fibers for the rest of your life, but it makes myelinating other fibers even easier. This is one reason why people may be gifted in athletics but also in music, or any other pairing.
There is a book called “the Talent Code” written by Daniel Coyle that analyzes the talent of athletes, musicians, and coaches, among others, through the myelin’s perspective. The book has drastically changed the way I approach anything that requires practice. That includes being an athlete and coaching, but also things like writing this article, or dealing with issues in relationships. If this has caught your interest at all, maybe you feel like you’re in a slump or maybe you feel like you need an extra push or an edge, check out that book.