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
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
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
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.