Reaction Time and Decision Making in Sports

A tennis player sees an opponent serve the ball and prepares to return it. Reaction time is the brief interval of time it takes for the player to determine how to play the ball before he or she ever begins to move.

An athlete's ability to react shows how quickly and effectively her or she can make decisions and initiate actions. Key strategies can accelerate the decision making process to give athletes an edge in competitive situations.

Processing time is longer when there are more choices that require different actions. Delays in responses can make the difference between winning and losing. For example, if a batter is indecisive about how to handle an oncoming pitch, he or she could miss the ball completely.

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Tips to Improve Reaction Time and Decision Making

1. Study Opponents' Patterns. Understanding opponents' capabilities, skills, and preferences can narrow the number of choices and appropriate responses to their moves.

2. Identify Cues. Spotting cues from opponents can telegraph their next move. Responding to cues narrows the choice of responses and speeds up decision making.

3. Practice Responding to Different Competitive Conditions. The amount and quality of practice can reduce the amount of time it takes for an athlete to make an appropriate decision.

4. Anticipate Opponents' Actions. An athlete's ability to predict what an opponent will do in certain situations and when they will do it speeds up planning and decision making.

Athletes intending to deceive opponents can use anticipation to their advantage by making movements unpredictable. If opponents are unable to anticipate a move, processing a response is slower.

5. Find the Optimal Performance Zone. Reaction time and decision making are influenced by how aroused or stressed athletes are. Athletes at a high arousal level may detect a limited number of signals because their focus narrows.

Coaches can help athletes maintain an optimal arousal level through the use of breathing exercises, progressive relaxation, visualization, and meditation skills. Achieving the "zone" promotes effective information processing, minimizing the adverse influence of high level competition on decision making.

Related Pages:

Coaching Feedback

Mental Practice

Sport Skills

Sport Memory

Stages of Learning

Training Variation

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Schmidt, R.A. & Wrisberg, C.A. (2008). Motor learning and performance: A problem-based learning approach (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Schmidt, R.A. & Lee, T.D. (1999). Motor control and learning: A behavioral emphasis (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Wrisberg, C.A. (2007). Sport skill instruction for coaches. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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