Muscle Memory

Contrary to most people’s common sense I was asked back to coach Allie’s soccer team for a second season. Since the team members are only seven years old I am still considered qualified to be the coach—the primary, and maybe only, requirement being that I am available on Tuesdays at 5:15. Actually, I have a great time with the girls. The league really downplays competition and focuses on basic skill development. The games are four on four and everyone plays. I have a wonderful team.

The objective, as far as I understand it, is to give each girl as many touches as possible. That means they need to be kicking the ball all the time. At practices we do not line up and practice specific skills, as I had anticipated, but play games that encourage them to run and dribble the ball. The games are based on movies or stories they know—like Cars, and Shrek—or animals—like Fox and Rabbit or British Bulldog. The only problem is that most of the games involve the coach as the ogre, or the fox, or “it.” Have you ever tried to catch seven-year old girls who do not want to be caught? Needless to say, I do not need to go to the gym on practice days.

The real joy is that they are starting to get it. They can dribble the ball and they are starting to keep it under control. Amazing! The only thing more fun than watching them play is seeing the excitement in their faces as they do something right. The skill development they are experiencing is due to the repetition in practice. We do not spend time talking about, or even demonstrating proper technique, but through much repetition, many touches, as we play our make-believe games, the girls learn how to kick the ball. They are learning naturally while having fun.

I am no expert on this, but it seems that the movement of kicking the ball becomes part of their muscle memory. So they no longer have to think about kicking, they just do it. This is how we learn most every physical skill, from keyboarding, to driving, to skiing. It also seems, we are finding, how we learn about spirituality.

Our book group is reading “When God Talks Back,” by T.M. Luhrmann, in which the author applies her anthropologist skills to understanding how evangelical Christians develop a personal relationship with God. She contends that regular prayer changes the way a person thinks. “We often imagine prayer as a practice that affects the content of what we think about — our moral aspirations, or our contrition. It’s probably more accurate to understand prayer as a skill that changes how we use our minds.” You can see some of her work in this NY Times Op-Ed, “Is That God Talking?” Prayer changes our thought patterns, the way repeatedly kicking a soccer ball changes our muscle memory.

I often refer to church as the practice field for our spiritual work in the world outside the sanctuary. What I have meant is that we develop our values and spiritual practices to keep us focused on God and God’s dream for the world. If Luhrmann is right, regular praying and worship may go even deeper to actually shape the way we think. This is wonderful news. If repetitive actions shape our mind, then I would much rather shape the world toward the views of the one who promotes peace and justice and compassion for the world. This may be what we are doing in church. And, like seven-year-olds on the soccer field, it is pretty awesome when we get it.

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