When the Gun Goes Off...

July 30, 2012

Torah Kachur

If there is one thing that gives athletes the heralded 'edge' in all sorts of sports in the Olympics - it's reaction time.



From being first off the blocks in swimming or the show-stopping 100m men's sprints, or being able to react to the changing pace of a dive, a horse jump or a boxing glove aimed at your head.  Reaction time gives athletes something that can't be doped or duped.


Science calls it mental chronometry.  Because we have to make even the coolest things sound super boring.   Reaction time is simply the time it takes for your brain to process information and your muscles to react to that information.  This can be considered as a form of intelligence where your brain is actually acting faster than your counterparts and your muscles are also responding.  So much for the 'dumb jock' stereotype.


Improving your reaction time comes down to training, it's a form of memory that hones your brain-muscle pathways to remember how to react when the cyclist in front of you swerves, or the judoka kicks out towards your mid-section.  With every instance where you are expected to react, you are required to encode that information, compare the new information with previous information (hence the idea of it being a memory), select the appropriate response and compare that response with potential for errors, like the dreaded false start.  All in that split second as the gun goes off. 


This mental chronometry can be trained and improved by simply repeating the appropriate response to a stimulus so that the time it takes to process how to react is shortened to the point where it looks effortless.  The muscular response also requires honing - this is the motor ability that peaks when people hit 20 years old and starts to decline nearing middle aged (except apparently for that crazy 39 year old grey-haired Bulgarian gymnast that gives me so much hope to be an Olympian some day).  Young muscles are fast muscles and are trained as 'muscle memory' from a young age.  The more times you explode off the blocks, the faster you get at it.


My dreams to be an Olympian may be dashed, I'm too old and probably just too darn fat.....except maybe trap-shooting...I may have a future there.  Time to start training that trigger finger.....



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