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A misstep that leads to a missed tackle or a swing that's a second too late: in competition, a single second can be the difference between a win and a loss. Athletes need strength, endurance, flexibility, balance, agility and coordination; but on game day, it often comes down to who reacts quicker. (See Working on Reflex Reaction With NHL Goalie J.S. Giguere.)
"Reaction time " is the time between the starting point of an event and the beginning of your reaction to it. In our daily lives, it's the time between when you see a car swerve in front of you and when you step on the brake or turn the steering wheel. In the sporting world, it's how fast you react to your tennis opponent hitting the ball, or the opposing pitcher throwing a baseball, or your opponent's move to the hoop or the goal line. (See also Three Ways to Increase Reaction Time.)
Improve your reaction time with the following reflex drills, and you'll never have to worry about coming up short against your competition.
Upper-Body Reflex Drills
Old-school favorite games like table tennis, badminton and racquetball are great ways to develop eye-hand coordination and speed.
Sit in a sturdy, straight-backed chair. Bend your elbows to 90 degrees and keep your hands closed. As quick as you can, open and close your hands five to 10 times.
Partner Hand Taps
Just like in the playground back in the day. Sit in a sturdy, straight-backed chair and place your hands face down on your friend's palms. Your friend quickly tries to tap you on the back of your right or left hand before you can move your hand away. Your goal is to move your hand away before being tapped. The goal of the exercise is not to strike the hand hard but as quickly and lightly as possible.
Quick Hand Ruler Catch
Sit in a sturdy, straight-backed chair. Bend your right elbow to 90 degrees and space your index finger and thumb one inch apart. Have your friend hold a flat, 12-inch plastic or wood ruler vertically just above the top of your right index finger and thumb. Your friend drops the ruler one to three seconds after saying "get set." Your goal is to react as quickly as possible to the movement of the falling ruler and catch it. After several trials, compare how quickly you are reacting by seeing how many inches on the ruler it takes you to catch it. Repeat on the other side.
Start with two small juggling balls (or any soft object) and work your way up to three or four. You get the picture.
Stand in athletic-ready position, hips and knees bent and feet shoulder-width apart. Your friend throws a reaction ball toward you, and you try to catch it by anticipating the direction of the bounce.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold one ball in your hand and throw the other ball (attached to elastic cord) away your body and catch it quickly. Use a variety of patterns of throwing and catching.
Lower-Body Reflex Drills
Play games like dodgeball to improve coordination and speed.
Sit in a sturdy, straight-backed chair with both feet on the floor. Straighten both legs at a 45-degree angle to the floor (or one leg if straightening both causes back pain) and point your toes away from you. As quickly as you can, bend your ankles in both directions five to 10 times.
Stand in the athletic-ready position. Have a friend call out right, left, front, or back, and you react by moving five yards in that direction. Then try it with only hand signals for each direction.
Stand in athletic-ready position. A friend shines a laser on top of your right foot, then moves it to the right, left, or front of your foot. You have to quickly step on it and go back to ready position. Repeat on left side.
Lower Body Juggling
Use a Hacky Sack, Footbag or soccer ball so that your foot reacts to the various bounces.
Stand in athletic-ready position between cones spaced five feet apart. Have a friend quickly roll or bounce a tennis ball toward you from ten feet away. Try to stop the ball using only your legs.
Stand in athletic-ready position in an open area with either 12 numbered cones or flat rubber discs around you like a clock. The distance away from you can vary from five to 10 feet. A friend calls out a number or shows you a number on a card, and you must react quickly to touch the correct cone or disc and return to starting position.
 American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 8th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2010.