Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Use It Or Lose It - An Old Guy's Basketball Story

Our community has a small workout facility, which I sometimes use when I'm too lazy to drive to the downtown gym. Recently I climbed onto the treadmill there and noticed something I hadn't seen before: a fully inflated orange basketball.

Remembering that the tennis court nearby has basketball backboards on both ends, I decided to do something I haven't done in nearly 20 years - shoot hoops for exercise.

It was a cool morning, and I was excited as I dribbled on the sidewalk leading to the tennis court. And I was excited as I took my first shot. I had been away too long! But the ball missed wide to the left, short of the basket. I missed everything. Something was wrong. My excitement evaporated in the morning sun.

I tried again and again, with the same result. I tried some free throws and it was all I could do to bounce it off the rim. I was shocked at my inability to throw the ball into the basket. My skill was gone!

Over 50 years ago, in middle school, I had developed some reasonable shooting skills. I was too small to play on the high school team, so I became an enthusiastic fan, showing up only occasionally for recreational shooting. By the time I was 50, I took up shooting at a nearby court, and much of my skill came back to me. I remember hitting 12 for 12 free throws on one occasion.

But on this morning, almost 20 years later, I couldn't do it. There was no muscle memory to reawaken. All my basketball skills were gone.

I knew what had happened. Most of the brain cell connections involved in shooting, after all those years of no use, had finally died away.

I hadn't used them. So I had lost them.

In my writing I have often said that learning a skill is physical. With enough repetition, the brain cells physically connect, making the skill a comfortable, automatic habit. "There is no delete switch in the brain. The circuits are physical and permanent," as I'm fond of saying. Once the circuit is in place, it doesn't disappear. It remains. Like swimming or riding a bicycle, after not doing it for years, you don't have to learn it all over again. It "comes back to you."

This wonderful survival benefit is true...up to a point. As we age, the brain cells that you don't use can eventually "die" and be absorbed by your body. After decades of disuse, you can end up like I did, with most of the connections gone, and a skill you once had lost forever.

Well not exactly forever. To be exact, I can start over, do the reps, haul myself down to the court and shoot hundreds of baskets until I wire my brain all over again. At the age of 69, realistically I could hit 12 for 12 free throws again. If I do the work, it's possible.

But I would have to pay my dues. Like anyone who wanted to build a skill or change a habit, I'd have to "do the reps." That would take commitment.

And well, you know, I'm not sure that I care that much about regaining my shooting touch. Truth be told, even though I missed nearly all of my shots, I enjoyed myself running around in the cool air, feeling the heat from our star at my back. I was breathing hard and working up a sweat as I ran after my missed shots.

And occasionally a bonus thrill - one of my shots would actually go in the basket.

I think this satisfaction was enough. At this time of my life, I have other work to do, other skills and habits to work on!

Other, more important brain circuits to use, so I don't lose them.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .

1 comment:

Camille Harris said...

Love the basketball story, Denny. I used to say I was going to retire at 50 and become a dancer. Well, I didn't retire at 50 - surprise! And I've noticed that I don't have quite the dancing stamina that I had when I used to make that remark! If I'm going to retire at 70 an become a dancer, I better start doing some reps!