The instinct that makes you duck when you see a fist flying towards your face - that's reflex. For most of us, it's part of a self-preservation instinct, acting instantaneously without waiting for the brain to send an instruction. Touch cup; realise it's hot; pull hand away immediately before it burns. But athletes hone this instinct to the point where it becomes a weapon in their arsenal, giving them the ability to see, assess and react quickly.
Reflexes are controlled by the nervous system. There are nerve ends in the skin, in the connective tissue of muscles, in muscles themselves and in tendons that are continually sending back information to the brain, which then decides what to do. Some reactions, like that to danger, are involuntary; others are deliberately chosen by the brain.
Reaction time is a measure of how quickly you react to stimuli. In official lingo, this is called speed of reaction. But this is just one half of what makes an athlete quick. Once a stimulus has been seen, assessed and a decision taken, you also have to be able to move in time to implement it. This is called speed of movement.
The latter is a thing that some are born with. Even by looking at the speed with which a toddler crawls on the floor, an experienced eye can tell whether he's born with fast twitch fibre, which will enable him to move fast, or with slow twitch fibre, which will give him greater endurance.
For an athlete, the ability to see, process and react quickly is key to being successful. This skill has to be honed to perfection over time. According to Dr Vece Paes, physician for the Davis Cup team, for professional athletes, this means employing the Rule of Ten -- 10 years of 10,000 hours of practice with 20,000 repetitions that are deliberately and perfectly done.
"With repeated practice a tennis player is able to see the flight path of the ball, even as it leaves the opponent's racket," says Paes. He recounts Roger Federer's reply, when he was asked how he sees a ball so quickly, "I don't see the ball. I pick up its path and react to that."
On the racetrack too, where even survival depends on a decision taken in milliseconds, racer Narain Karthikeyan stresses the importance of repetition. "The more often you perform a task, the more efficient you become at it. I find that when I'm in a racing car, I am able to process other information, while my body takes care of the physical act of driving. That allows me to focus on strategy, fuel and tyre management."
The physiology of speed
An action that takes place on the cricket field in just 550 milliseconds can be broken down to a five-step process.
The first is orientation. This is the player's stance of attention and anticipation, when he's ready to assess sensory inputs. The second step is one of reception, whether the player observes, to use a cricketing example, the bowler's stance, his speed, even the direction in which his feet turn. The third stage, called integration, is one of analysis. This is when the brain is informed of what is happening, processes the input on the basis of past experiences, and decides upon an action.
In stage four, called expression, the brain informs the muscles what is to be done and the action is performed. The final stage is one of feedback, when the mind processes what has happened and starts adjusting to the bounce of the pitch, the amount of dew, etc.
Perfect the sporting brain
An athlete's ability to react quickly doesn't mean that he can see better than the rest of us. It means that he can recognise stimulus, take a quick decision and rapidly follow it through with an action. This is what is known as the 'sporting brain'. While the recreational player cannot put in the kind of effort a pro does, there are still some tricks of the trade that can be borrowed.
Simple games with a ball can help you improve your speed of reaction. Right from playing catch (simple reflex) to having two differently coloured balls tossed at you and having to catch the one of the colour called out (think and react) to have to catch that ball and toss it into a bin assigned to the colour (think, react, follow through with movement).
To improve speed of movement, you should sprint and do interval training, running short bursts at fast speeds. Also, practice your sport as much as you can.
While the pros use proper stimulations, you can also use video games, especially those patterned after your own sport. According to Heath Matthews, physiotherapist with Mittal Champions Trust, while there is little research into their effect, the general consensus is that "video games are beneficial in improving hand-eye co-ordination and in training the brain to assimilate information quicker."
All you need to know
Gaining an edge
Great athletes are set apart by their ability to respond quicker. This includes two things -- speed of reaction, when you see, assess and decide, and speed of movement, when you perform the action chosen.
Toss a ball
Simple children's games are a great way to build reflexes. You can practice alone by tossing a ball against a wall. Pick up the pace by moving in closer, or using a crazy ball that bounces unpredictably. Add hurdles on the floor to complicate matters.
Call a friend
Ask a friend to hold out their hand in front of you. The object is for you to hit, and them to evade. If that's not your cup of tea, go play dodge ball. Or participate in the quiz; hitting the table quickly when the buzzer goes off is a great way to build speed of reaction.
Gaming helps build reflexes, especially when it mimics the actions of your sport. Nintendo Wii has the Wiimote that's based on motion-sensing. PlayStation 2 has a USB camera that identifies body movements. You can buy steering wheels for racing games.
Eat right and sleep well
Lack of sleep will make you sluggish and slow, so get eight hours of sleep. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and any kind of narcotics. Steering clear of junk food, sugar, rice and red meat will also help you stay alert. Drink lots of water.