What Separates Elite Athletes from Novices?

Among other things, elite athletes are known to have amazing reflexes and quick reaction times. Many wonder how reaction time can be trained, and below we break the science down to show what works and what claims are false.

First is terminology. Before we explain the mechanisms of reaction time and quickness, familiarizing the terms will help with understanding it all.

  • Reaction Time –the time it takes an athlete to (1) identify a stimulus, (2) decide what response to make, (3) select what movement to perform, and (4) perform the selected movement


  • Foreperiod– the time between the occurrence of the stimulus to the recognition of the stimulus


  • Movement Time –the time it takes for the individual to complete the desired movement chosen to react to the stimulus


  • Projectile Path – the path that an object will travel after projected in motion


  • Contextual Interference (CI) – the theory that having multiple experiences of a task improves the ability to complete the task when variables are changed. For example, if a tennis player hits multiple balls coming at several different angles, it will improve the chances of her quickly and successfully hitting a ball that travels at an angle they have never seen before.


In the strength and conditioning world, many companies and programs state they can “improve reaction time”, but they often aren’t telling the whole truth. They are usually improving movement time. Any program that physically builds up an athlete’s acceleration and speed will increase their movement time, but not necessarily their reaction time.

The only way to improve reaction time is to train the eyes to detect the stimulus sooner and then speed up the cognitive decision-making process that dtermines the movement. Doing so will decrease the foreperiod and aspects 1-3 of our reaction time model; all of which occur before the athlete even moves a finger!

This is where sensory vision training comes into play. Sensory Vision Training enhances visual detection and awareness by improving the eye muscles’ speed (recognition), endurance (fatigue), control (motion tracking), and teamwork (depth perception). After these skills improve the athlete must work on relaying this information to the brain, so reactions can be fast and seemless! Sensory Speed works with athletes to improve their reaction time because milliseconds are crucial in all sports (Hunter Pence Training).

Another aspect of reacting to an object is precision. Athletes have to be able to predict the precise location where the object or opponent is going. The best ways to do this are practicing your sport repeatedly and performing a task in multiple ways, and improving your eye-hand coordinationContextual Interference is one mechanism that helps athletes predict any ball. This improvement can be done at home and at practice, since it is highly influenced by volume and variation of training. Eye-hand coordination is greatly improved as one’s visual system is improved. The eyes lead the body, so if the eyes are accurately leading the movements of an athlete then she is more likely to move precisely in her sport.

In short, many athletes are only improving their movement time and precision due to performance training and contextual interference. In order to improve reaction time, sensory training must be done to detect, predict, and react to objects faster and more accurately. At any level of play, the detailed attention to these skills separates the all-stars from the typical athlete. We see it happen everyday!


Abernethy, B., & Wood J.M. (2001). Do Generalized Visual Training Programmes for Sport Really Work? Journal of Sports Sciences, 19, 203-222.

Magill, R. (2010). Motor Learning and Control. McGraw-Hill Education: Europe.

Panchuk, D., and Vickers, J.N. (2006). Gaze Behaviors of Goaltenders Under Spatial-Temporal Constraints. Human Movement Science. 25, 733-752.

Rodrigues, S.T., Vickers, J.N., and Williams, A.M. (2002). Head, Eye, and Arm Coordination in Table Tennis. Journal of Sports Sciences. 20, 187-200.



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