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Train that brain to be quick

The ability to react swiftly is what sets apart a great athlete. It also makes for a more alert you
By Neha Dara
PUBLISHED ON APR 24, 2010 07:45 PM IST
The instinct that makes youduck when you see a fist flyingtowards your face - that'sreflex. For most of us, it's partof a self-preservation instinct,acting instantaneously without waitingfor the brain to send an instruction.Touch cup; realise it's hot; pull handaway immediately before it burns. Butathletes hone this instinct to the pointwhere it becomes a weapon in theirarsenal, giving them the ability to see,assess and react quickly.

Reflexes are controlled by the nervoussystem. There are nerve ends inthe skin, in the connective tissue of muscles,in muscles themselves and in tendonsthat are continually sending backinformation to the brain, which thendecides what to do. Some reactions, likethat to danger, are involuntary; othersare deliberately chosen by the brain.

Reaction time is a measure of howquickly you react to stimuli. In officiallingo, this is called speed of reaction.But this is just one half of what makesan athlete quick. Once a stimulus hasbeen seen, assessed and a decisiontaken, you also have to be able to movein time to implement it. This is calledspeed of movement.

The latter is a thing that some areborn with. Even by looking at the speedwith which a toddler crawls on the floor,an experienced eye can tell whetherhe's born with fast twitch fibre, whichwill enable him to move fast, or withslow twitch fibre, which will give himgreater endurance.

For an athlete, the ability to see,process and react quickly is key to beingsuccessful. This skill has to be honedto perfection over time. According toDr Vece Paes, physician for the DavisCup team, for professional athletes, thismeans employing the Rule of Ten -- 10years of 10,000 hours of practice with20,000 repetitions that are deliberatelyand perfectly done.

"With repeated practice a tennis playeris able to see the flight path of theball, even as it leaves the opponent'sracket," says Paes. He recounts RogerFederer's reply, when he was asked howhe sees a ball so quickly, "I don't see theball. I pick up its path and react to that."

On the racetrack too, where even survivaldepends on a decision taken inmilliseconds, racer Narain Karthikeyanstresses the importance of repetition."The more often you perform a task,the more efficient you become at it. Ifind that when I'm in a racing car, I amable to process other information, whilemy body takes care of the physical actof driving. That allows me to focus onstrategy, fuel and tyre management."

The physiology of speed
An action that takes place on the cricketfield in just 550 milliseconds can bebroken down to a five-step process.

The first is orientation. This is theplayer's stance of attention and anticipation,when he's ready to assess sensoryinputs. The second step is one ofreception, whether the player observes,to use a cricketing example, the bowler'sstance, his speed, even the direction inwhich his feet turn. The third stage,called integration, is one of analysis.This is when the brain is informed ofwhat is happening, processes the inputon the basis of past experiences, anddecides upon an action.

In stage four, called expression, thebrain informs the muscles what is tobe done and the action is performed.The final stage is one of feedback, whenthe mind processes what has happenedand starts adjusting to the bounce ofthe pitch, the amount of dew, etc.

Perfect the sporting brain
An athlete's ability to react quickly doesn'tmean that he can see better thanthe rest of us. It means that he canrecognise stimulus, take a quick decisionand rapidly follow it through withan action. This is what is known as the'sporting brain'. While the recreationalplayer cannot put in the kind of efforta pro does, there are still some tricksof the trade that can be borrowed.

Simple games with a ball can helpyou improve your speed of reaction.Right from playing catch (simple reflex)to having two differently coloured ballstossed at you and having to catch theone of the colour called out (think andreact) to have to catch that ball and tossit into a bin assigned to the colour (think,react, follow through with movement).

To improve speed of movement, youshould sprint and do interval training,running short bursts at fast speeds.Also, practice your sport as much asyou can.

While the pros use proper stimulations,you can also use video games,especially those patterned after yourown sport. According to HeathMatthews, physiotherapist with MittalChampions Trust, while there is littleresearch into their effect, the generalconsensus is that "video games are beneficialin improving hand-eye co-ordinationand in training the brain to assimilateinformation 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.

Start gaming
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.
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