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Reaction Time

Reaction time is the interval time between the presentation of a stimulus and the initiation of the muscular response to that stimulus. A primary factor affecting a response is the number of possible stimuli, each requiring their own response, that are presented.

If there is only one possible response (simple reaction time) it will only take a short time to react. If there are several possible responses (choice reaction time) then it will take longer to determine which response to carry out.

Hick (1952)[2] discovered that the reaction time increases proportionally to the number of possible responses until a point at which the response time remains constant despite the increases in possible responses (Hick's Law).

Improving Reaction Speed

Reaction Time

Reaction time itself is an inherent ability, but overall response time can be improved by practice. Coach and athletes need to analyse the type of skill and the requirements of their sport and decide where overall response gains can be made. Consider the following:

  • Detecting the cue - in a sprint start, focusing on the starter's voice and the sound of the gun and separating this from background crowd noise and negative thoughts
  • Detecting relevant cues - a goalkeeper learning to analyse body language at penalties
  • Decision making - working on set pieces and game situations
  • Change in attention focus - being able to switch quickly from concentration on the opponent to concentration on the field of play in invasion games
  • Controlling anxiety - which slows reaction times by adding conflicting information
  • Creating optimum levels of motivation - 'psyching up'
  • Warm up - to ensure the sense organs and nervous system are ready to transmit information and the muscles to act upon it

Anticipation

Anticipation is a strategy used by athletes to reduce the time they take to respond to a stimulus e.g. the tennis player who anticipates the type of serve the opponent will use (spatial or event anticipation). In this case, the player has learnt to detect certain cues early in the serving sequence that predicts the potential type of serve. This means the player can start to position himself or herself for the return earlier in the sequence than usual and thus give themselves more time to play the shot when the ball arrives. Obviously, there are dangers for the tennis player in anticipating in this way but the advantages of getting it right are great.

Factors influencing response time

Response time is the sum of reaction time plus movement time. Factors that may influence the performer's response are (Davis 2000)[1]:

  • Gender and age (see figure opposite)
  • Stage of learning
  • Psychological state
  • Level of fitness
  • Number of possible responses
  • Time available
  • Intensity of the stimuli
  • Anticipation
  • Experience
  • Health
  • Body Temperature - colder the slower
  • Personality - extroverts react quicker
  • State of alertness
  • Length of neural pathways
Reaction Graph

Reaction Speed Drills

The objective of reaction speed drills is to improve your reaction time to a stimulus. The drills can include the control of an object (e.g. football or hockey puck). The cue for the reaction to take place can be visual (movement of an object) or a specific command (voice) or sound (starter's gun). The cue should be appropriate to your event or sport - starter's gun for a sprinter.The following are examples of reaction speed drills to an external stimulus.

Applicable to any event or sport where pure speed over the ground is important
Starting position Lying on the ground on their back or front
Command Voice or sound
Action To get up and sprint 20 metre to 30 metre to a designated point
Notes The designated point could be the coach who moves from point to point so that the athlete only has the sound of the command to initially determine where the coach is positioned

For sports where a ball is to be controlled by the athlete
Starting position Easy running controlling the ball
Command Voice command of left, right, back or forward
Action To sprint in the direction of the command for a designated distance, whilst controlling the ball, and then return to easy running
Notes Drill can be repeated 3 or 4 times bringing the athlete back to the starting point to pass the ball to the next athlete.

For sprinters to improve their reaction to the starting gun
Starting position Standing tall and relaxed
Command Blow on a whistle or clap of the hands - given from behind the athlete
Action The following should all happen together:
  1. The right knee is brought sharply up to a position where the thigh is parallel with the ground, the lower leg is vertical to the ground and the foot is dorsi flexed
  2. The arms are brought to the sprint position
  3. The athlete rises up onto the toes of the left foot
Notes It is assumed that the right foot is placed in the rear block of the starting blocks on a sprint start - if it is the left foot then change the leg action above

For sports where a ball is involved
Starting position Use any static position - standing, sitting or lying down
Command Coach standing in front drops a ball from shoulder height
Action To sprint and catch the ball before its second bounce
Notes Need to adjust where the coach stands to make the exercise most effective


References

  1. DAVIS, B. et al. (2000) Physical Education and the study of sport. 4th ed. Spain: Harcourt. p. 312
  2. HICK, W.E. (1952) On the rate of gain of information. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 4, p. 11-26

Related References

The following references provide additional information on this topic:

  • PAIN, M. T., & HIBBS, A. (2007) Sprint starts and the minimum auditory reaction time. Journal of sports sciences, 25 (1), p. 79-86
  • ECKNER, J. T. et al. (2010) Pilot evaluation of a novel clinical test of reaction time in National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I football players. Journal of athletic training,  45 (4), p. 327
  • ASHTON-MILLER, J. A. et al. (2014) U.S. Patent No. 8,657,295. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
  • DEL ROSSI, G. et al. (2014) Practice Effects Associated With Repeated Assessment of a Clinical Test of Reaction Time. Journal of athletic training.

Page Reference

The reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (1998) Reaction Time [WWW] Available from: http://www.brianmac.co.uk/reaction.htm [Accessed

Related Pages

The following Sports Coach pages provide additional information on this topic: