To appreciate how our interactions with players influences their development, it can be helpful to better understand how ‘memory’ actually works. Most of us think of memory as simply what we can consciously ‘remember’ about events from the past. But memory is all of how our responses are changed by experiences, even if we don’t consciously recognize how these events have impacted us!


How We Remember…

From a brain perspective our memory works by making, strengthening, or changing connections among the brain’s building blocks, called neurons. So memory is simply the way the connections between our brain’s neurons change through experience. Our memories form in three basic ways:

1.) Making Connections: When a life experience causes neurons to fire at the same time, they connect. So, in terms of making neural connections to form a memory, “what wires together, fires together.’

2.) Strengthening Connections: As an experience is repeated the neural connection strengthens like exercise strengthens muscles. And the more neural connections are strengthened, the more likely this pattern of connection is to fire in the future. This is how players form habits of response, whether psychological (e.g., responding to pressure) or physical (e.g., a forehand swing pattern). But if an experience is not repeated, the neurons and their connection dies just like muscles shrink without exercise.

3.) Changing Connections: Through different experiences neurons change their pattern of connection just like different types of exercise change how muscles form.

So memory is how what is happening now, will change the way our neurons will fire in the future, as a result of current experiences. Just like our past experiences have shaped how our brain fires now.

Player Development and Implicit Memory..

Implicit memories are memories that are created without us knowing we are remembering something…

One type of implicit memory is called ‘procedural’ memory that relates to skill development. A simple example would be learning the forehand. As children ‘do’ the activity of attempting to hit forehands in the court their procedural memory system is tracking the skill requirements automatically. As they adjust their movements to match the requirements of the task they are not aware that those adjustments are a result of their implicit memories from previous attempts. But, of course, they are.

But another type of implicit memory vital to how players come to habitually respond in competition involves learning from emotional experiences. Consider this example; if you had previously been bitten by a dog and were to later come across a similar looking dog you would likely automatically see the dog as dangerous, experience anxiety, and have an urge to run away. So being bitten by a dog later influences your response to a similar looking dog without feeling like a memory of the day you were bitten. Our brains adapt to all types of ‘emotional implicit memories’ by continually automatically preparing us for the future based on what has happened in the past, invisibly guiding our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In this way our brains act like an ‘anticipation machine,’ funneling and filtering incoming information through the lens of our past experiences influencing how we come to ‘see’ and ‘be’ in future situations.

This memory flavor is vital when considering the importance of our interactions with players. Emotional interactions that we have with players will influence the way they automatically respond to similar future situations, without them realizing that they are experiencing aspects of memory from interactions with us. So, how players come to perceive and respond to the numerous competitive challenges presented in tennis is largely a result of the accumulation of ‘emotional implicit memories’ from interacting with and observing parent and coaches. As coaches and parents, it is also important to understand that, without our awareness, our own past experiences have shaped how we will interpret the competitive circumstance of players whom with we interact.

Mentally Tough Tennis

Mentally Tough Tennis is an organization, developed by Anthony Ross, committed to advancing the knowledge of coaches, players, and parents regarding the development of mental toughness in tennis. They offers cutting edge free information for coaches, players, and parents.

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