A tennis player intently focuses on an opponent serving the ball and anticipates how to successfully return it. Reaction time is the brief interval of time it takes for the player to determine how to play the ball before he or she ever begins to move.
An athlete’s ability to react determines how quickly he or she can make the right decision. Delays in responses can make the difference between winning and losing. Athletes who can accelerate the decision-making process have a competitive edge over their opponents.
The more possible moves an athlete can execute in a specific competitive situation, the more time it takes for an opponent to react successfully. This relationship is known as Hick’s law.
Tips to Improve Reaction Time and Decision Making
1. Study Opponents’ Most Likely Plays. When athletes know an opponent’s typical strategies or moves, they can narrow the number of possible counter plays. Scouting reports give valuable information to coaches who can help their teams anticipate opponents’ plays that signal planned counter moves.
2. Key in on Opponents’ Personal Cues. Spotting an opponent’s personal cues (e.g., their stance, where they focus) can telegraph their next move, narrowing the number choices and, thus, speeding up the athlete’s correct reaction.
3. Simulate Competitive Conditions. The amount and quality of practice under competitive conditions can reduce reaction time. Scrimmages and contest simulations teach athletes to make correct decisions under the added complexity and heightened anxiety levels of game conditions. For example, a black belt in a martial arts contest can accurately counter a variety of oncoming strikes from an opponent with minimal delay, particularly when familiar with the opponent’s actions under pressure.
4. Anticipate Defensive Players’ Actions. Offensive players can deceive opponents by luring them into responding to predictable moves . If opponents are unable to anticipate a new move, processing is slower. For example, a volleyball player may signal a spike, then suddenly execute a dink, effectively catching the defense off guard.
5. Find the Optimal Performance Zone. Reaction time and decision making are influenced by how aroused, or pumped up, athletes are. Athletes whose emotions too run high in competition may detect a limited number of key signals because their attentional focus narrows under pressure.
Coaches can help athletes maintain an optimal arousal level through the use of breathing exercises, progressive relaxation, visualization, and meditation skills. Achieving the optimal arousal zone promotes effective information processing, minimizing the adverse influence of high level competition on decision making.
Schmidt, R.A. & Wrisberg, C.A. (2008). Motor learning and performance: A problem-based learning approach (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Schmidt, R.A. & Lee, T.D. (1999). Motor control and learning: A behavioral emphasis (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Wrisberg, C.A. (2007). Sport skill instruction for coaches. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.