Muscle Memory

By Pete Robbins

While on vacation at El Salto, I read “The Arm” by Yahoo baseball writer Jeff Passan. Actually, since days at El Salto consist of 11 hours of fishing, punctuated by margaritas, delicious high calorie meals and short siestas, I read very little of the book there, but consumed substantial portions of it on the plane rides to and from Mexico.

The book describes how little we know about how to maintain and preserve Major League pitchers’ arms while simultaneously getting the most out of them, despite the billions of dollars invested in them every year. Every crackpot, coach, scientist and baseball executive from the U.S. to Japan to Latin America has theories on what can be done to prevent pitchers arms – specifically, their elbows, and more specifically their ulnar collateral ligaments (UCL) – from blowing out. While the beliefs and the body of research are substantial, well-documented and varied, they all seem to fall apart at some point when a prize pupil ends up getting Tommy John surgery.

The book is a fast read and a fascinating one, but this being me, I had to relate it to bass fishing somehow. One afternoon, post-lunch but pre-siesta, I read a passage about how hard it is to change a rehabilitating hurler’s presumably unhealthy arm motion. Think about it – this guy who started out throwing in Little League at eight or nine years old, progressed through high school, possibly college, the minor leagues and then to the majors, and he’s known nothing but success along the way. Using a motion that is in some way unique to him, he has thrown tens or hundreds of thousands of pitches and has refined his mechanics to a point where his wind-up, release point and arm angle are all second nature. He doesn’t have to think about it anymore. It simply works.

Then he blows out his arm. After a grueling rehab session of somewhere from one to two years, he comes back, gets his velocity back up to the upper 90s, starts striking out major league hitters once again and then…a pop, a tear, a rip. As they say in Mexico, no bueno.

So the pitcher comes back, and in order to avoid another blowout, his coaches and trainers spend months reworking his motion completely. They tweak some things slightly, alter others substantially, in order to prevent strike three to the athlete’s pitching career – but it’s hard to rework something that has become an ingrained part of your muscle memory. The pitchers can be taught, but it’ll rarely if ever become as natural to them as that long ago developed pitching motion, and while it may keep them safer, it may make them less effective, too. Or it may make them just as effective, but no more safe. It remains a mystery.

Here’s where it relates to fishing for me: Over the course of the last decade my wife has become a very competent angler. She can flip and pitch and almost skip. A couple of fifty-something dudes approached her at dinner one night to comment that they’d seen her cranking a 10XD for hours on end, and that there was no way that they could’ve kept up.

Nevertheless, if there’s a weak point to her game, it is her hookset. It is tentative and it is inefficient and it costs her fish. It’s not bad, it’s just not commensurate with the rest of her game.

I have worked with her on it, others have tried to help, and while it has improved, despite four fish over 9 pounds, it remains her weakest link. So my question is whether after a decade of fishing, and thousands of fish into the boat, how do you remake a part of someone’s game? Can her hookset be rebuilt completely from scratch, and if so, how do you do it? She wants to be better. She’s open to instruction. When she’s fishing a Texas rig, a Carolina rig or a jig, you can see the cogs in her brain spinning to ensure that she’ll hammer the hook home properly, and sometimes it’s picture-perfect, but more often it reverts to that tentative pull that results in insecure hooksets.

If there’s a plan to be implemented, I’d love to hear it, because unlike most of the hairy-legged male anglers, she’s teachable. Nevertheless, I’m sure at some point this service could exist – physical coaching specifically for angling – but few dudes would subject themselves to it. Most guys I know who’ve been fishing for decades, and have experienced some level of tournament success, are not going to refine their flipping motion or their cranking cadences based on the recommendations of some egghead. Even if they did, there’s no guarantee that the end result will be any better than the status quo.