In a conversation with Sunil Chhetri in 2018, I asked him about how he manages to connect volleys better than any other Indian player, even when he had turned 34 (then). He had said that it is all down to muscle memory that he had included with years of training and sweating it out during practice.
That man has grown like fine wine. At 35, he still keeps scoring a lot of goals for both club and country. While writing, Chhetri stood at joint-second on the ISL top scorers table for 2019-20, with five goals. Sergio Castel has scored the same, and only Roy Krishna has one more than him.
What then, is this muscle memory that he stresses upon so much?
In simplest terms, muscle memory refers to the ability to perform a skill without any conscious effort.
Once players are able to commit proper techniques to muscle memory, they don’t have to spend too much time thinking about how to kick or control the ball. It allows them to not only keep up with the fast-pace of the game but to also think about other aspects.
Instead of focusing on how to kick or shoot or control, they can think about the position of other players, how to control the speed of the game, and to find spaces on the pitch. It helps a player mature, allows him to go beyond just his time on the ball, and he becomes a leader on the pitch. The coach looks for such players to pass information for the entire team.
Xavi, for example, had such tremendous muscle memory of short passes that he did not even look at the ball while passing it to nearby teammates on several occasions. All he concentrated on was swift-moving into space, allowing that same player (mostly Andres Iniesta) to find him again so he could open up the game with an incisive pass. Not for nothing is he regarded as one of the finest midfielders of our generation.
Once you train right for muscle memory, the body position adjusts itself to suit conditions and attacks/receives the ball correctly. For instance, Zlatan Ibrahimovic had one of the fiercest volleys in the game, and his teammates vouched that he practiced them as his life depended on it. At Manchester United, even when he was 36, he used to hit fearsome volleys against some of the world’s best goalkeepers.
Thus, muscle memory helps a player do what he wants to do on a football pitch better, with more effectiveness, with more ferocity and without causing injury. It is one key element that separates the good from the ordinary, and the best from the good. Training sessions of Leo Messi showcases the brilliant effort he puts on the field, comes from years of training. His muscles react in sync with his mind, and that’s what puts him above the rest.
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