Form follows function. As an athlete plays a sport, their systems specialize per given demands, including anticipation and reaction. The athlete’s specific work-capacity increases, not only fitness, but also sport-specific strength, power, and speed.
Lately, hoping to mold the perfect athlete, the strength and conditioning community have been developing these demands separately. As seen in the NFL Combine, each demand is evaluated separately in an effort to predict an athlete’s success. However, these tests can be gamed and taught as skills in themselves. Thus, the essence of sport is lost in these evaluations, and subsequently, during training.
Often overlooked because of its difficulty to quantify, two tools are better markers for field sport success: 1) Quickness and 2)Praxis. This article will investigate quickness and what a coach needs for the application of quickness training.
A muscle’s ability to rapidly produce movement manifests itself in the form of quickness. This is the ability of the central nervous system to contract, relax, or control muscle function without a preliminary stretch. This weapon produces fast movement without encountering large external resistance or requiring great strength, power, or energy consumption – a primary factor for moving seamlessly and effortlessly through space.[s2If !current_user_can(access_s2member_level1)]
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Quickness is measured as reaction time between stimulus and response (initiation of movement). Reaction time consists of two stages:
- 1. A latency phase between receiving the stimulus and the appearance of electrical activity in the required muscles
- 2. A response phase between appearance of the electromyography signal and the motor reaction.
Two electrical transmission lags associated with the reaction time:
- 1. The time taken for the sensory input to reach the central nervous system.
- 2. The time taken for a motor impulse to travel from the central nervous system to the muscles.
Average Reaction Time for simple tasks are (Siff, 134):
- –0.142 second for auditory stimuli (Auditory-Motor Coordination)
- –0.155 second for tactile stimuli (Sensorimotor Coordination)
- –0.194 second for visual stimuli (Oculomotor Coordination)
Speed VS Quickness
Quickness is not speed, and is therefore trained differently. Reaction and instinctive drills must be included in a field sport athlete’s regimen to help bridge gaps among power, speed and quickness developed in training with performance.
An extremely coveted weapon, speed is an adaptation that can be driven through effective training. Unlike speed, quickness, particularly the latency phase, is determined largely by genetics and is minimally affected by training (Siff, 138). The key to improving quickness then becomes focusing on modifying the reaction. Neuromuscular skills such as body control through space, CNS efficiency, and kinesthetic awareness are paramount to establishing this default position and reaction during training. Regular practice makes them instinctive.
Creating a Default
No one ever rises to the occasion; they fall to the level of your training.
Step one in training an instinctive reaction is introduce the proper posture and position. Every warm up is a coach’s opportunity to reinforce this default. Gradually add new movements to challenge this default position. These include different axis of rotation of the hips, changing body orientation or moving through different planes of motion. An athlete must be stressed to progress, BUT the integrity of the position must remain constant.
Training quickness is strongly influenced by motor coordination and precision of movement. Precision is the ability to execute a single task with the smallest degree of error or minimal unnecessary movement. ‘Quickness’ with a lot of wasted movement is not quick. When focusing on quickness in training, emphasize task precision under stress. Neural patterning only requires ONE episode, and occurs when a certain stress is imprinted on the CNS. Be cautious, this can be negative with poor movement patterns as well. Perfect practice makes perfect! Steady is smooth, smooth is fast!
Quickness does not always require great strength or endurance, so do not impair it with useless work. A common mistake is prematurely adding stress before the quality default position or proper movement pattern is ingrained. To boost or maintain a true reactive default, an athlete’s position must be gradually exposed to higher and faster forces. The best training methods are plyometrics, ballistics, and true eccentrics immediately followed by dynamic movements.
Understand, the nervous system is not a muscular system. Sub-maximal eccentric training, using concentric loads is not true eccentric training, and has a negative effect on intramuscular recruitment and quickness (Francis, 141).
Gretzky, a phenomenally mediocre athlete as far as modern physical testing goes, said it best, “Everybody else skates to where the puck is. I skate to where I think the puck is headed.”
The ability to strike, catch or block a rapidly moving object depends strongly on an athlete’s ability to accurately anticipate an object’s or opponent’s trajectory, rather than on a rapid reaction time alone. Reaction time includes sensing and deciding, the latter improving through regular application of neuromuscular skill training. As an athlete’s skill improves, their muscle tension in stressful situations decreases, allowing for the CNS to anticipate more freely and effectively (Siff, 138).
Quickness training should begin with simple tasks that include oculomotor, sensorimotor, and auditory reactions. Simple reaction tasks require an athlete to react to a single stimulus. For example, a starting whistle or first movement of an opponent. Complex tasks combine more than one stimulus or include tasks to complete. An example of this would be to react off a starting whistle and then mirroring the moves of an opponent. A sport example of a simple reaction drill seen in practice is a linebacker’s guard reads. Adding complexity to these drills would include adding a running back to react to following the guard read.
Once competency in simple tasks becomes consistent, progress to more complex tasks. Especially since Game Day requires quickness in complex situations. Distinguishing quickness in simple and complex tasks, and quickness in single versus repeated movements should be included in training.
Complex motor responses require evaluating the situation for a suitable response, creating decision time. A strength coach should prepare oculomotor, sensorimotor, and auditory-motor coordination to not only prepare an athlete’s body, but also their mind and nervous system. Building skill on skill and adding variation in movement and reaction development should occur during training, and if done correctly, the time needed to perceive and respond to a stimulus will decrease, increasing their praxis.
Simple Reaction Training Examples
Below are some examples of simple reaction drills that can be applied in training using the Push Up Start as a reactive position and initiation tool.
Push Up Start Reaction Drill
Emphasis of this drill is train an instinctive ‘dive and drive’ reaction when initiating a sprint.
Open Step Reaction Drill
This drill teaches an explosive lateral first step. Initiated after first sight of movement with a push off the back foot and diving over the lead leg into an aggressive lean and arm swing.
Turn and Run Reaction Drill
This drills challenges an athlete’s agility by having them get their hips around quickly and into a full stride with the push up start initiator.
Praxis is the process by which a theory, lesson or skill is enacted, embodied, or realized. Despite continuously challenging posture and position in training, the sporting arena almost always presents new tasks to every athlete. Praxis is their ability to apply their training and successfully execute said new tasks under pressure, with perfect posture and position, and no coach in their ear. Anyone can run 40 yards fast, but can they replicate in a chaotic environment?
Quickness is not speed, nor is it a predetermined number of steps in the Combine’s Pro Short Shuttle. It is the muscle’s ability to rapidly and effortlessly produce coordinated and precise movement with the smallest degree of error in simple or complex situations. Success lives and dies in moments when athletes need to call upon their abilities, especially when faced with new reactive situations. Introducing a default position and gradually developing motor coordination and athleticism as a whole (not in pieces), while decreasing the response time will do more for truly developing athletes, than strictly training with weights or an agility ladder.
Include reaction and quickness drills in training to challenge posture and position at near maximal velocities. Pit your athletes against one another and make these reaction drills competitions to prepare as close to game speed as possible, truly creating a default reaction position for Game Day.
1) Francis, Charlie (2008) Key Concepts: Elite Edition. High Intensity Training: Expanding of Limits of Performance. Charliefrancis.com
2) Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. (2009). Supertraing: 6th Edition. Rome: Ultimate Athlete Concepts.
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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