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Myelin Farming: It Ain’t Sexy, But It’s How We Learn

Myelin Mindset

This morning we started our 8:00 am ARMory training session like we start every session—with a 10-15 minute mindset segment. It usually involves and inspirational video or some other motivational discussion. It’s an important part of what we do. It sets the tone for every workout, and it helps us foster an environment of mind and body expansion toward greatness. We never miss it.

Today, however, I went outside the norm. Instead of a motivational piece, I showed a clip from a 2009 ABC Nightline episode that discussed Daniel Coyle’s mind shattering book The Book Talent Code.

In my opinion, if you are a coach or a manager, or a human being, this is must read material.

If you’re interested, here’s the clip I showed.

It’s not exactly pump you up material, but I believe it’s critical for our guys to understand the “why” of what we do. There will come a point where every pitcher has to become his own best coach. I don’t want to create players who depend on ME for their success.

But Wait! There’s More!
Last December I wrote a book called Building the 90mph Pitcher. It’s a companion manual to the ARMory Workout DVD featuring our guys demonstrating a 5 second clip every exercise we had in our arsenal at the time of production. We’ve added a few things since then, but it’s a great place to start. We still have a few copies in inventory. If you want one, shoot me an email.

Here’s an excerpt from the section called “Maximize Myelination”.

“In his game-changing book, The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle reported the revolutionary research on myelin as the key to the learning process. Here’s how myelin works: In the nervous system there are millions of cells floating around between the nerves with a very specialized functions. Their job it is to insulate recently fired nerves. In the central nervous system, these cells are called ogliodendrocites. In the peripheral nervous system, they are called Schwann cells. Whenever a circuit is fired, these cells rush to the smoking hot nerve and wrap themselves around the axon secreting a milky white substance called myelin.

Each time the nerve is fired, it receives a layer of myelin. This myelin serves as an insulator of the wire. If you know anything about electrical physics, you know that impulses moving down insulated wires travel faster and with less resistance than those traveling on non-insulated wire. The more layers of myelin deposited onto a nerve (or a series of nerve-muscle connections) the less resistance is offered by that pathway. Since electrical impulses will always follow the path of least resistance, the circuit with the most myelin is the one that will most likely be repeated. Keep in mind: your body doesn’t differentiate between right or wrong patterns. The circuit you fire the most, receives the most myelin–period. Coaches used to call this “muscle memory.” Now we have a more clear understanding of its operative mechanism.

Myelin is at the core of all learning (motor and cognitive). It is the central component in habit forming. Aristotle had it right. “Excellence is a habit. We are what we repeatedly do.” The take home message is that we must be careful to add myelin only to the correct circuits, because with the exception of some horrible diseases and the effects of aging, nerves cannot be demyelinated. Once the myelin is on the nerve, it is there to stay. As pointed out by Charles Duhigg, in The Power of Habit, “Habits cannot be removed, only replaced by more powerful habits.” Therefore we must strive to repeatedly perform correct movement patterns as many times as possible.

But hold on, there’s more! The limbic system of the brain is responsible for processing all our human emotions. Any emotion you can think of runs through the limbic system. In a 1982 book called The Hedonistic Neuron, A. Harry Klopf theorized that adding an emotional kick from this system would make a nerve more likely to be fired. His theory was developed before the breakthrough of myelin research in the early 2000s. Although he didn’t completely understand the process of myelination, Klopf’s proposed increased propensity for nerve firing could be explained by an increase in the activity of the ogliodendrocytes and Schwann cells. This would exponentially increase the rate of myelination.

Think about this. The same process at work in motor learning is present in memory formation. Don’t you more readily remember those items and experiences with strong emotional attachments? We don’t know exactly to what degree the addition of emotion accelerates the process. It is likely not an absolute value, but a continuum whereby a more powerful emotional response elicits a greater level of myelination. For the sake of argument, let’s assign it a value of around 12 times the amount of myelination as compared to an unemotional event. Just as the body doesn’t differentiate between right or wrong patterns, the limbic system doesn’t differentiate between positive or negative emotion.

The Emotional Booster
Now let’s say you’re the kind of pitcher whose typical response to a bad pitch is to curse, shout, snatch the ball back from the catcher and pound your mitt. Or maybe you’re the coach who likes to berate a player on the mound making bad pitch after bad pitch. It is important to understand that the reason for the bad pitch was the firing of an aberrant series of neuromuscular impulses. By adding emotion to the equation, the errant circuit gets 12 layers of myelin as opposed to the single layer it would get without the emotional add on.

This almost guarantees repetition of that pathway (i.e., another bad pitch). Ironically, it produces the exact opposite of the intended result. Turn the equation around and it seems reasonable that we can use the same to system to accelerate learning and enhance performance by adding a positive emotional celebration when we make a great pitch.

For this reason, at The ARMory, we openly and emphatically celebrate every personal record on every drill, exercise, or throw. When we do something right, we have a short, but over the top mini-party with the intent of packing myelin onto that neuromuscular circuit. This increases the likelihood that the correct movement pattern will be repeated. By using emotional input as a throttle for myelination, we control the rate of learning. Simply put, we ignore poor performances and celebrate good ones. Thus, each training session becomes an exercise in myelin farming. The more myelin we can pack onto the most efficient circuits, the better our players’ performance becomes.”

Uh…Thanks Coach.
After I played the Nightline clip this morning, I asked the guys for some feedback.

“How’d you guys like this mornings mindset segment? Honestly.”

After an initial awkward moment of silence and guys glancing at one another, Carson politely stated, “Coach, I learned a lot, but if we did that kind of stuff every day, I ‘d show up late.”


Tomorrow we’re back to the inspirational stuff.

Until next time,

“Fan that flame…Take your time pumping it up!”- Kent Murphy

Randy Sullivan, PT
CEO, The ARMory Power Pitching Academy

  1. Dave TurgeonDave Turgeon04-21-2016

    Great stuff Randy!

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