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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

That quick response to your athletes' training needs. - By Ken Mannie

Ken Mannie is the Head Strength/Conditioning Coach at Michigan State University. email:

Reaction time is a commonly overlooked or underestimated element of the coaching program. What we refer to as "explosiveness" is usually just great reaction time. Every sport we watch is constantly marked by exciting reactions to auditory
and visual cues. The athlete's ability to respond quickly and precisely to the message being sent to his mind and body is of the utmost importance in the conditioning protocol.

Before outlining a game plan for the training process, we would like to clarify a few vital points. The term "reaction time" (RT) actually has a different meaning than the context in which it is usually couched In the motor-learning literature, it is defined as "the interval of time between the onset of a signal (stimulus) and the initiation of a response." It is important to note that reaction time does not include the movement itself, but only the time prior to the beginning of the movement.

Whereas the term movement time (MT) is used to define the interval of time between the initiation and completion of the movement, response time refers to the total time interval represented by RT plus MT. As you can see, the improvement in response time involves RT, MT, or both. Four factors can help athletes develop a strategy for improving their response time to various cues.

Proper training with visual cues can hone your player's reactions and improve his performance:


The task can be accomplished in various ways, with some being better than others and a few being considered the best.

The fact is that the average person has a limited ability to acquire, store, and use meaningful information in learning specific tasks. The wise coach will focus on teaching a few things very well rather than a lot of things poorly or just adequately.

Choices will often have to be made on the run, especially in "open skills" - those that depend heavily on feedback, particularly after movement has been initiated.

Unlike a "closed skill," the open skill involves much more than merely moving from Point A to Point B with no concern for making adjustments in between (such as running a 100-m. dash).

The option play in football offers another prime example. When the QB has to make a decision while on the ran, it becomes imperative to focus on a specific key to make the decision.

Football coaches know that a good option game must be defended with numerous "looks" and change-ups; and since this obviously calls for a lot of extra preparation time, it makes limited response choices all the more important.

Experienced players tend to make better use of vital cues in determining their responses, as they are more capable of penetrating the "surface" of things. This enables them to process the information quicker and make better responses to what they see.


How often have you heard an athlete say, "I knew what was coming because they telegraphed it."

What actually happened was that the athlete had more time to prepare a response because he anticipated the opponents' move. The more predictable the stimulus, the quicker and more accurate the response.

This element is closely related to the minimization of stimulus responses, as the athlete learns what is important and what is not before being required to make a response. In other words the visual cue (or other sensory indicator), such as a "pre-snap" read by the QB, will often narrow the possible options to one or two good ones.

A study by Christina et al (1990) investigated the effect of a four-week videotape training program designed to improve the linebacker's response-selection mechanism ("reading") without sacrificing speed.

The player was asked to view 20 different plays taped at angles corresponding to the LB's views from the field. The player had to respond as quickly and accurately as possible to each cue by moving a joystick in the direction he'd take in a game.

Question: Could this mental practice benefit the player's cognitive ability? Answer: Yes. The subject improved his response selection with each training session, while maintaining his response speed.

It was more difficult to ascertain whether this type of mental practice would transfer to the field - enable the athlete to make his game read and response as quickly and accurately as he did in practice.

The principle of specificity holds that the practice situation must be exactly the same as the game situation for a positive transfer to occur. In this case, the coaches concluded (subjectively) that the training program had a positive effect.

The main reason we study our opponents so intensely (through game tapes, scouting, etc.) is to identify these predictors and utilize them in our preparation scheme.


Get fired up! How often have you heard that exhortation before or during a game? We are speaking primarily of an emotional mind-set, an intangible product of motivation. Many coaches believe that athletes can improve their performance in direct proportion to their increase in arousal.

Coaches must be careful, however. Emotion can carry you just so far in a contest, and emotion without proper preparation and confidence can negatively affect performance.

Proper preparation breeds confidence and confidence usually produces successful performance - "all other things being equal."


Once the best responses have been defined for the situations to be faced, the players should be drilled on the correct cues (keys) and reactions.

Game situations offer the best way to develop motor memory. Proper (specifically designed) practice will reduce uncertainty in situations involving unfamiliar stimuli or extremely complex tasks.

Most game situations require the athletes to adjust their techniques to cues received while on the move. The motor-learning literature refers to this variability as "forced-paced" actions, and these add tremendously to the difficulty of both the teaching and learning processes.

To get the desired result, coaches are obligated to practice under the anticipated game conditions.


Improved reaction (response) time doesn't happen by chance, nor is it just a matter of physical enhancement. With proper planning and the proper specificity of the training medium, you can make inroads in the perceptual, sensory, and motor aspects of performance enhancement.


R.W. Christina, J.V. Barresi, & P. Shaffner: The Development of Response Selection Accuracy in a Football Linebacker Using Video Training. Human Kinetics: The Sport Psychologist, Champaign, IL, 1990. R.W. Proctor & T.G. Reeve: Research on Stimulus-Response Compatibility: Toward a Comprehensive ACcount. In Stimulus-Response Compatibility: An Integrated Perspective, Elsevier Science Pub., The Netherlands, 1990.