How to Improve Reaction Time

Ever wonder how professional athletes get so good at their sport?

There has been plenty of debate about this, for simplicity lets just say it’s about 50% genetic 50% good training/hard work.

You might think that an ability like reaction time is purely genetic, but there is mounting evidence that you can improve your ‘reaction-time-ability’.

Consider a penalty shot in hockey or soccer, the goal tender has to come up with a NEW and UNIQUE way of moving to respond to the movements of the other players and the puck/ball. Such complex tasks as this are so variable it would seem impossible to imitate and train in the gym.

The processes that occur in the nervous system when we react to an incoming object have been well studied, and when we look at the components of reaction time it allows us to understand how it is possible that you can improve reaction time…


What is Reaction Time anyway?

  • Reaction Time is a measure of the speed of a decision making process : that is, the time it takes for your head to get out of the way of an approaching soccer ball.

There are three major steps in any decision making process

  1. stimuli Identification (input)
  2. Response Selection (decision making in brain)
  3. Response programming (output / action of body)

This link is a visual that will go into more depth about the internal workings of the nervous system while it is performing a complex task.

What the Coach and the Athlete need to do now is analyze the type of skills and their requirements of their sport – and then decide where overall response gains can be made. You must consider the following when testing and analyzing reaction time:

  • ensure proper warm up so the sense organs and nervous system is ready to transmit information, and so the muscles are able to fully act.
  • optimum motivational levels – get psyched (but not too psyched).
  • Controlling anxiety – anxiety slows reaction times by adding conflicting information.
    • Breath control / breathing exercises will go a long way in keeping the mind and body calm in any situation : try ‘box breathing’ and for an extra challenge try it while walking – what you do is breath in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, breath out for 4, hold or 4 – repeat.
  • Detecting the (relevant) cues – must analyze which environmental cues are helpful.
    • if you are able to; detect, remember, and respond appropriately to an environmental cue, your reaction time will dramatically reduce (which is good)
    • this process is trained when you link many different exercises back to back to back – EX: kettlebell swing/clean/press/snatch complex – you are forced to respond to ever changing force vectors and load demands … it also plays a role in the next point….
  • Change in attention focus – being able to switch quickly from one main object of focus to another without losing sight of ‘everything else’.
    • Peripheral Awareness or peripheral vision, declines with age, however there is the possibility of slowing down this presbyopia. Incorporating some simple peripheral awareness tasks into your training will go along way in 1) reducing vision related falls, 2) staying relaxed (focusing on your peripherals is much like the opposite of what happens when you have tunnel vision) and 3) increased ability to identify relevant cues/stimuli = better reaction time.
  • Decision making – involved in all of the above. Good coaching and lots of quality practice is key here.
    • this processes is highly driven by genetics and there are a number of factors to consider when concerning reaction time

Major Factors that effect decision making:

  1. the number of possible alternatives – try to reduce to only relevant alternatives
  2. Practice + the type of movement the response requires – quality massed practice for about 3 months will automate most non-complex movements.
  3. Anticipation – can be trained with practice as well



This is probably too much information and might quickly feel like too much to think about.

If you can’t or just don’t want to figure this all it out yourself feel free to ask me – or at least ask another qualified physical trainer.


Remember, it is MUCH harder to improve than it is to maintain a fitness level.

So, you might as well build up a reservoir of abilities while your young,

so that you can coast on them when your older!


Here is a link to a simple and one of many online reaction tests – finding a baseline in different postures (seated/standing) and test every 4-6 months : Reaction Time Test

don’t do the test too much, you will lose the element of surprise and what should be a ‘test’ will turn into ‘practice’.


I hope this is useful

Cheers 🙂

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