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Reaction Time

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

Coach and athletes need to analyse the type of skill and the requirements of their sport and decide where response gains can be made. Reaction time is an inherent ability, but overall response time can be improved by practice. 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 is a strategy athletes use to reduce the time they take to respond to a stimulus, e.g. the tennis player who anticipates the serve the opponent will use (spatial or event anticipation). In this case, the player has learned to detect specific cues early in the serving sequence that predicts the potential serve. There are dangers for the tennis player in anticipating this way, but the advantages of getting it right are significant. It means the player can start to position themselves for the return earlier than usual and give themselves more time to play the shot when the ball arrives.

Factors influencing response time

Response time is the sum of reaction time plus movement time. Factors that may influence the performer's response are:

  • Gender and age (see diagram - Davis (2000)[1])
  • Stage of learning
  • Psychological state
  • Level of fitness
  • Number of possible responses
  • Time available
  • The intensity of the stimuli
  • Anticipation
  • Experience
  • Health
  • Body Temperature - colder the slower
  • Personality - extroverts react quicker
  • State of alertness
  • Length of neural pathways

Reaction Speed Drills

The objective of the reaction speed drills is to improve your reaction time to a stimulus. The exercises can include controlling 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 - a starter's pistol 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 to 30 metres 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 while controlling the ball, and then return to easy running
Notes The 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 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 dorsiflexed
  2. The arms are brought to the sprint position
  3. The athlete rises 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 The coach standing in front drops the ball from shoulder height
Action To sprint and catch the ball before its second bounce
Notes We need to adjust where the coach stands to make the exercise most effective


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

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (1998) Reaction Time [WWW] Available from: [Accessed