How to Improve your Reaction Time:
Quickness, speed and lightning-like reflexes are often terms used to describe the instantaneous response of an athlete in action. People are in awe and marvel at the seemingly instant reaction and fluid movement of certain athletes. This is a phenomenon that has been termed instinctive technique or IT (Ross, 2016). As a lifelong martial artist the reduction of reaction times has been a deep concern of mine. In competition, you may gain or prevent a score or secure an advantage; but in a self defense situation, the result may be whether or not you survive the encounter. It is a given that action is faster than reaction. So how does an athlete compensate for this? How does one develop the ability to overcome this obstacle? The most effective manner is through reduced reaction time (RT) and economy of motion. The reduction of RT is best accomplished through a combination of movement selection reduction and the repetition of gross motor skills. Finite, complicated movements add time and variables which hamper performance.
Reaction time (RT) is comprised of three basic components: stimulus identification, response selection and response programming. The variables that affect time required for stimulus identification recognition are dependant upon the stimulus clarity, intensity and the whether the stimulus is visual, tactile auditory or a combination. Visual stimuli are the slowest and combined stimuli shorten the overall RT (Schmidt & Lee, 2011). Other factors such as pattern recognition shorten RT and reduce spatial trajectories. Practice and skill acquisition shorten response times and also aid in the response selection (Georgopoulos, Kalaska, & Massey, 1981), (Schmidt & Lee, 2011). The smaller the stimulus response selection the less time it will take to respond. According to the cognitive psychologist, George A. Miller, the magical number seven, plus or minus two, is a key concept. Miller’s Law asserts that humans can only hold seven objects, plus or minus two, in their working memory (Miller, 1956). So if we were to apply this notion to our practice, we’d be able to narrow the response selection, thus enabling us to reduce our overall RT. There are many aspects that affect response programming, age, movement complexity, duration of the movement, required accuracy and training, otherwise known as practice (Schmidt & Lee, 2011). In an effort to reduce RT, we would need to employ simple movements, limit the duration of the activity, and lessen the accuracy requirement as well as practice. Repeated gross motor movements reinforce these patterns.
The martial art of Bando’s core weapon is a short, curved sword called a Kukri. This is the choice weapon and tool of the Gurkha soldiers of Nepal. The Bando recitation regarding the use of the weapon goes, “Practice draws, cuts and blocks. Practice steps, turns and locks, until sword frees from thought” (Ross, 2016). There is also a well known proverb by the great Bruce Lee, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times” (Ross, 2016). Martial artists, warriors, athletes, coaches, musicians, etc... all know that practice shortens the RT. In the Bando passage, the Gurkha must practice so pointed and often, that the movement of the sword is no longer in the conscious mind, but ingrained into the subconscious. There is no time to think, only react. It is not surprising to learn that Bando is based on the principles of 9’s, making the premise of the training congruent with Miller’s Law. Consider the proverb by Bruce Lee; practicing a kick 10,000 times will create muscle memory and enable the practitioner to execute the technique without hesitation or thought. When the martial artist is trained at this level, IT takes over. The axioms espoused by martial artists for decades and even centuries are proven through the experiments conducted by scientists of current times as well as the previous century. How do we leverage the combined knowledge of the science today with the proven training methods of the martial arts masters from centuries ago to aid us in reducing RT?
The factors that reduce RT are practice and simplicity of movement. Gross motor skills are far superior to finite, complicated skills, especially in a stressful situation. The human mind and body will only be able to recall the “Magic number 7, +/- 2” in response to the stimuli. There are other contributing elements such as the release of adrenaline and noradrenalin (aka: epinephrine and norepinephrine, respectively) that heighten the senses, increase the heart rate and cause tunnel vision. All of these factors contribute to increasing the RT, but proper practice and focusing on a limited amount of potential responses during that practice lessen the effects of the hormonal release.
All humans are subject to stimulus identification, response selection and response programming when faced with responding to an occurrence requiring a response. How we minimize our overall RT is dependent not only on practicing the skill but on how the skill is practiced. The choices of responses practiced greatly influence the speed and effectiveness of the response.
Georgopoulos, A. P., Kalaska, J. F, & Massey, J. T. (Oct. 1981). Spatial trajectories and reaction times of aimed movements: Effects of practice, uncertainty, and change in target location. Journal of Neurophysiology, vol. 46, no. 4.
Miller, G. A. (1956). The magic number seven, plus or minus two:Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The Psychological Review, vol. 63, pp. 81-97.
Ross, P. (2016). Survival strong: A guide to street survival and strength. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris.
Schmidt, R. A., & Lee, T. D. (2011). Motor control and learning: A behavioral emphasis (5th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.