How to improve your reaction time in sports

For an athlete, even a five percent improvement in reaction time can make an immense difference between an average and a great performance.

Think of a player returning serve in tennis. When your body perceives a stimulus it has to react to, a signal is sent from your visual and/or auditory sensors via neurons to the brain.   -  AFP

Reaction time is a talent that often goes unnoticed in sport. It simply means how fast an athlete is able to respond to stimulus. Think of a batter facing a pace bowler in cricket, or a player returning serve in tennis, table tennis or badminton, or on the starting grid in racing. When your body perceives a stimulus it has to react to, a signal is sent from your visual and/or auditory sensors via neurons to the brain. These signals are then processed by the central nervous system and a decision is made. The signal from the brain is then sent through the efferent motor neurons to the muscles, which then execute the instruction. All of this happens almost instantly, in a millisecond. Our reactions are determined and controlled by our nervous system.

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For an athlete, even a five per cent improvement in reaction time can make an immense difference between an average and a great performance. For example, a batter has only a fraction of a second to see the ball leave the bowler’s hand, send that visual information from the eye to the brain, process the information, make a decision on how to play it, and then physically start the movement required to play the ball. By increasing the speed at which the brain processes information, athletes gain extra milliseconds to make better decisions on the field. In professional sports, every millisecond counts and could be the difference between winning and losing.

So what is reaction time? It’s the ability to detect, process and respond in the shortest duration of time.

But what is a reflex? It’s an involuntary action that is used to protect the body and is faster than reaction time. Reflex action helps in maintaining homeostasis — ability to maintain a relatively stable internal state that persists despite changes in the world outside.

Reaction and reflex seem similar, but they are different in many ways. How? For example, a batter attacking, leaving or defending the ball is a fast reflex, which takes place through thousands of neurons working together like a symphony. The choice to make that quick decision is reaction time.

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Factors affecting reaction time

Perception: Optical, auditory or sensory stimulus with certainty is essential to having a good reaction time. Example: When a ball is served to a player, he or she perceives it on the other side and reacts to it.

Processing: In order to have a good reaction time, it’s necessary to be focused and understand the information well. Example: A batter after seeing the ball will be able to distinguish it from other background elements (visual cues) and know that it is time to start reacting or processing the stimulus.

Response: When a batter perceives and correctly processes a signal, he or she starts moving the body, or hands or legs, in response to the stimulus. Motor alertness is the key to reacting and have a good response time.

If any part of these processes is changed, the resultant reaction time will be affected. That is why having a good reaction time is associated with having good reflexes.

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Variability of reaction time and reasons

Complexity of the stimulus: The more complex the stimulus, the more information that has to be processed, and the longer this process will take to respond to the stimulus.

Acquaintance, preparation and anticipation: Responding to known stimuli means a lower reaction time. The less information that has to be processed, the lower is the reaction time.

Bio state: The factors affecting stimulus detection are many — a lack of sleep, fatigue, age, alcohol, drugs, et cetera. These affect response in a negative way.

Different sensory stimuli: The response to optical and auditory stimuli vary in processing time. Each stimuli’s reaction time is different because of so many variables and the many different types.

How to measure and access response time? Reaction time plays a role in the majority of our day-to-day activities. We are able to measure different cognitive functions, including reaction time, with varied specialised equipment and tests. Speciality equipment to test and train this specific aspect of mind and body synchronisation plays a humongous role in delivering cutting-edge excellence. Varied sensory stimuli can be created depending on the sport and skills to develop efficient neural pathways.

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How you can improve response time

Having a quick reaction time is a helpful skill in many sports and activities. This can be improved through various drills and protocols, such as:

1. Movement on signal: Get a training partner to help you practise explosive movement with a coloured light signal. Keep the light signal irregular to really test your reactions. Over time, your body will learn to process stimuli faster.

2. Slow movement technique training: When you practise certain exercises slowly, your body gets used to the movements and develops kinaesthetic awareness. When it comes to performing them at speed, your brain and body already know the drill patterns, and this helps in improving reaction time.

3. Plyometrics: Being explosive is an important element for a good reaction time. Plyometric exercises such as split squat jumps and depth jumps force your muscles to exert maximum reactive force as quickly as possible, developing explosive strength and power.

4. Varied terrain runs: Running on varied terrain is another effective way to train your brain to react quickly to obstacles or changes in ground patterns. With soft, hard, undulated or even marshy ground conditions, your body is forced to respond and process signals quicker, speeding up your reactions. For all sports, reflex tends to be an involuntary response, so you need to develop your muscle memory and make those reactions second nature.

We all are aware of the mind-and-body sync. Even if you can jump really high or run very fast, it’s not a guarantee that you will outsmart and outperform your opponents. At times, even stronger and fitter athletes are outsmarted by less physically gifted athletes due to their mental agility. This is a reality. Equipped with this unique attribute, the less-gifted athlete knows the next move of the opponent exactly and outmanoeuvres him or her. Similarly, when physically tired, the ability to make quick decisions and reacting becomes a nightmare. One needs to sync both mind and body in training mode and prepare for the competition at every stage.

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A few tips to increase both mind and body reaction time

Stay relaxed: Stiff muscles are a bane for quick reactions. Stiff muscles move slowly and respond to stimulus slowly. Staying relaxed but being alert can be achieved through visualisation, meditation, pranayama, good recovery protocols, et cetera.

Play a brain teaser game: This may not seem like a workout routine, but it helps to relax the mind and boost one’s mental agility, information processing and strategies for new moves, and has many more benefits. Play a game of chess or one that requires quicksilver thinking or reactions.

Meditation and yoga sessions: Meditation eases stress and increases the attention span. Being attentive can help in receiving and processing information to stay alert and act on quick notice. This can be a game changer sometimes. Yoga can also help you preserve your mental energy.

Use coins: You can use your coins to help speed up those reflexes. Various simple as well as complex drills can be performed with coins.

Reaction ball: Use a six-sided ball called a reaction ball. You can ask a friend to throw it at you while you practise dodging — use it on different surfaces to produce random movements. You can have varied drills using a tennis or golf ball.

Good sleep: A lack of sleep can have a huge effect on reflexes and split-second decision-making. Researchers have found that sleep deprivation can make you almost as sluggish as a few alcoholic drinks. Eight hours of sleep is of utmost importance.

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