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Improving Reaction Time

February 3, 2004 02:29 PM

By Jim Brown, Ph.D., Executive Editor, Sports Performance Journal (www.athletesperformance.com)

Have you seen football teams gather during pre-game warm-ups to conduct a series of quickness drills? On command, hands move at warp-speed from heads to knees to shoulders to other parts of the body. The drills look good, but has there ever been any evidence that the movements actually made players react more rapidly in game situations? Not much.

Those attempts at improving quickness may be misdirected, but the intent has merit. Study after study has shown that reaction time — that period between the introduction of a stimulus and the first observable response — can be improved. Reaction time, reflexes, quickness, or whatever the response is called, is a complex function that includes mental, physical, innate, and learned components. There will always be individual differences, but each tennis player can learn to improve reaction time.

Researchers in France found that world-class sprinters’ reaction times were progressively quicker as race length shortened from 400m to 60m. Reaction time improved as sprinters moved through elimination heats to the finals. That decreased reaction time is not observable in less experienced sprinters. They also observed that experienced sprinters in 60m and 100m events tended to anticipate the starter's gun, while those in longer races (4 x 400m relay) were content to respond to the sound of the shot. Based on all of these findings, reaction time has to be considered a skill dependent upon experience and learning.

Sport-Specific Training
For the moment, put reaction time aside and think about sport-specific training. There is ample evidence that strength training, aerobic and anaerobic development, and sports skills (including tennis) should be practiced in a manner that simulate game or match conditions.

Movements that are practiced in game-like situations are the ones most likely to be used in competition. However, non-specific drills that still occupy valuable training time should be questioned, but not necessarily discontinued. Some of them may be defended on the basis of conditioning, flexibility, variety, or developing motor abilities. But many things that happen during games, matches, or events show little or no connection for what goes on in practice. One example is doubles players who spend more time practicing groundstrokes than serves, returns, volleys, and smashes. Another is distance running after practice even though most of the running in tennis consists of short bursts of three to four steps.

Implications for Tennis Players
Nevertheless, there is a place in the training routine for less-than-sport-specific activities. If a tennis player doesn’t have basic motor abilities, he or she won’t pick them up just playing tennis. Playing tennis doesn’t automatically improve his speed, quickness, agility, or acceleration.

If track athletes can become quicker through experience and anticipation, so can tennis playeres. It’s even more valuable if they practice reaction time in the context of game situations in their respective sports. Examples in tennis would be rapid-fire volley drills and service return drills.

There are three take-home ideas here. The first is to develop ways to do something with your body to react to a stimulus. The second is to develop basic motor skills that are needed to play a sport. And the third is to incorporate both components into competitive tennis situations.

© HMS Publishing, Inc.
Jim Brown will be contributing new content to this site on a monthly basis. If you have a question for Dr. Brown please feel free to email him at




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