A general way to describe reaction time is Sense > Process > Move. It starts with gathering information from our surroundings with our 5 senses, then processing that information with our brains, and finally moving our bodies in response. This is how all animals move about and make decisions in the world. This definition fits all animals because it generalizes the ‘sense’ part. Every animal has a brain to process information and a body to move around, but different animals use their senses in different ways. For example, dogs rely heavily on their acute sense of smell. It’s their dominant sense so they wisely use it to make important decisions. Bats hunt at night despite not being able to see very well, so they use their dominant sense of hearing to follow sound waves they emit in a process called echolocation. For humans, it’s the same concept: we use our most dominant sense to decide and react. For us it’s sight. In fact, our brains use our keen sense of sight more than the other 4 senses combined!
Our sight, which involves many vision skills, plays such an important role in our lives that it reaches every lobe of the brain for processing. This means the brain uses visual information for attention, short and long-term memory, motivation, spatial awareness (proprioception), motor control, cognitive function, perception, hormone regulation, self-awareness and much more. Our eyes are almost always busy, even when we dream! REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is characterized by more dreaming, more bodily movement, a faster pulse, and faster breathing. It could be said that our vision even helps us react in our sleep!
For humans we define reaction time more specifically as See > Decide > React. Information is gathered initially through the eyes, sent to the brain for processing, and then to the nervous system to stimulate a motor response. This process is very quick, so a fraction of a second makes a huge difference especially when on the move. An easy example is driving a car. Things happen fast, and if the driver takes a little too long to decide what to do they could react too late and end up in an accident. For athletes this process is even faster.
Except for a few who were way ahead of their time, like Ted Williams, most athletes spend all of their time training the very last part of the reaction time process, or the performance process as we like to call it. The third part (physical body) is significant in order to be a great athlete, but if there isn’t a solid foundation to build that physicality upon then those athletes will top out sooner than they really need to. Like a really nice-looking car with a bad engine or a sleek computer with a slow internal processor, an impressive body needs an effective brain to guide and control it.
If the process is so quick, then how much of a difference can training vision and brain processing skills really make? Have you ever heard somebody say that football (or any sport) is a game of inches? I’m sure you have. I’ve even said it a million times. Well if we’re talking about a quarterback trying to hit an open receiver, that inch equals the slightest fraction of a second. If he holds on to the ball that much longer to process what he sees it could be the difference between a great pass and an interception. If a hockey goalie processes what she sees in a shot on goal a fraction of a millisecond too slow, then her glove may miss the puck by half an inch.
The speed of the performance process is the easiest to grasp. See it, think about it, then do it. Simple as that! But it doesn’t stop there when talking about vision because we use over a dozen visual skills. For example, let’s say we have an athlete who’s in great shape, reacts at the speed of light, and makes good decisions but always ends up in the wrong place. He moves his feet and stumbles, he reaches for a ball and misses, he takes bad angles and completely misses plays. He knows where to go and is very intuitive, but his quick reaction time doesn’t seem to be helping him very much. His other visual skills are not there. Depth perception is a common one that many of us are familiar with. Depth perception is the two eyes locating an object in unison to judge how far away it is, how fast it’s moving, where it will end up and when it will get there. This skill is crucial for timing and coordination. It allows our speedy athlete to step accurately, to guide his hands to the ball, and to take good routes.
Another example of well-known visual skills involves peripheral awareness and balance. Have you every noticed how much your vision means to your balance? Try standing on one leg, gain your balance, and then close your eyes. Pretty difficult to stay balanced isn’t it? Good peripheral awareness helps our balance tremendously. It helps us to stay relaxed and aware of our surrounding environment, making it easier to move about with grace. All the information from our peripheral vision needs to be processed along with everything else we see! If an athlete isn’t able to process all the peripheral information outside of his central focus, then he is likely going to run out of bounds, into a player or boundary, or get blindsided at some point.
Athletes know they need to take every opportunity they can get in order to gain an edge on their opponent. Dedicated athletes work out and train physically all the time. While that remains true the trend is starting to shift as we understand more about the performance process. Smart athletes are beginning to pay more attention to the first two aspects of the performance process: vision and brain processing.