• Introduction
  • The basics of reaction time
  • Different types of reaction time in sports
  • The physiological factors of reaction time in sports
  • The mental and environmental factors of reaction time in sports
  • Benefits of reaction time in sports
  • Here’s how you train for faster reaction time
  • Final thoughts
  • Sources
  • Complex reaction time: the time it takes to respond to the correct stimulus out of many stimuli.
  • Hick's law: the more information the brain has to process, the longer the reaction time is.
  • Simple reaction time: the time it takes to process and react to a single stimulus.


Reaction time describes the time interval between an external signal and your reaction to it. Unlike reflexes, where the information goes straight to a muscle from the spinal cord and does not involve the brain, reactions need to be processed first. Thus, your brain decides whether the stimulus is important enough to respond to – and how to do it most efficiently.

Reaction time is dependent on three main factors;




Your reaction time is a result of these three components working together. If one of them is hindered, your reaction time will suffer as a result. Bear in mind that since reaction time requires a physical response from your muscles, it is not the same as processing speed (how fast you can detect a signal). That is why fast reaction time is often associated with good reflexes.

This post explains the basic mechanisms of reaction time, and what makes it such a crucial component in athletic performance.

The basics of reaction time

In a sports context, a stimulus can be either visual (seeing), auditory (hearing) or tactile (touch) depending on the activity. Once the signal is perceived through the sensory system (part of the nervous system responsible for processing sensory information), your brain quickly processes the information and responds by sending a message down the spinal cord to the right muscles. Thus, creating a physical response.

The time it takes to respond to the stimulus is dependent on the complexity, type (seeing, hearing, etc.) and the strength of the stimulus. That is also why reaction time can be divided into simple reaction time, recognition reaction time, and choice reaction time.



Simple reaction time

A single response to a single stimulus. For example, reacting to a starting pistol during a 100m sprint is a simple reaction time task.

Recognition reaction time

Several stimuli with one correct response. For example, only reacting to a starting pistol out of many auditory stimuli (whistle, horn, voice, etc.) is a recognition reaction task. 

Choice reaction time
(complex reaction time or compound reaction time)

Multiple stimuli with differing responses to each stimuli. For example, having multiple auditory stimuli (starting pistol, whistle, horn, voice, etc.), each determining which direction you sprint.

Simple reaction time produces the fastest response of the three (around 0.13-0.18s), whereas choice reaction time takes the longest. This is due to the fact that the more information your brain has to process, the longer it takes to respond (Hick’s law).

Although it is unlikely that you can improve processing speed with practice, there are several things you can do to maintain and improve your reaction time. For example, learning to anticipate where the stimulus might occur, being well-rested and alert, reducing in-game distractions, and keeping your mind sharp with cognitive exercises can help your brain process information better.

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Reaction Time

Your ability to perceive, process & respond to a stimulusRelies on the input from the sensory systemThe more information the brain has to process, the slower the response isAffected by genetics, alertness, IQ, experience, complexity & strength of the stimulus, etc.

The sensory system

The sensory system is a part of the nervous system responsible for processing sensory information. These systems include the visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), gustatory (taste), olfactory (smell), somatosensory (touch, pain, temperature, proprioception), and vestibular (balance, spatial awareness) systems. 

The main role of sensory systems is converting information into neural signals that can be interpreted by the nervous system. Although most of these signals come from external sources from your environment, some sensory systems detect internal stimuli. For example, proprioceptors (Golgi tendon organs, muscle spindles, etc.) in the muscles and tendons detect information about muscle length and limb position.

After receiving an appropriate stimulus, the information is transmitted from the sensory organ to the spinal cord and then the brain. The only exception is the visual system, which transmits the information directly to the brain. This information is then sent to different parts of the brain for further processing, which allows for more accurate understanding of the location and urgency of the stimulus – and whether it requires a response.

The physiological factors of reaction time in sports

There are several factors that can affect your reaction time. These include genetics, sex, age, and even body temperature. All of these factors have their own impact on how fast your reaction time is and how well you can improve it.

Genetics and reaction time go hand in hand. Unfortunately, reaction time can only be improved around 10-20% outside of these biological factors. This is due to the fact that reaction time is hardwired into our bodies through nerves and therefore impossible to improve. 

Sex and age can have a small effect on reaction time. On average, both sexes tend to have a similar muscle contraction time. However, motor responses in males are comparatively stronger than females. Thus, resulting in faster reaction times for both auditory and visual stimuli. Both sexes also show a similar age-related decline in reaction time. Some studies have indicated that the brain’s response time starts steadily declining at a rate of ~4-10ms/year after the age of 24.

Some studies have also found that the optimal reaction time occurs at higher body temperatures. Furthermore, as the body temperature cools down, your reaction time will become longer as a result.

The mental and environmental factors of reaction time in sports

There are also several environmental and mental factors that can affect your reaction time in sports. These include; the strength and complexity of the stimulus, environmental distractions, alertness and fatigue, anticipation and experience, as well as some cognitive abilities.

The strength and complexity of the stimulus are two of the most important factors in reaction time. This is because simple stimuli do not need the same processing power as more complex stimuli. Additionally, even the type of stimulus has an impact on how fast the reaction is – visual stimuli producing the fastest responses, followed by auditory (hearing) stimuli. This also means that any environmental distractions like whistles, chants, opposing players, or poor visibility can significantly hinder your ability to receive and process information and delay your reaction time. 

”Your experience will help you anticipate when and where the stimulus might occur.”

Alertness and fatigue also have a strong effect on reaction time. One theory for this is that fatigue (sleep deprivation, etc.) increases reaction time due to the body’s competing needs – a simultaneous need to sleep, stay awake, and perform tasks. Thus resulting in cognitive impairment (difficulties remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions). Interestingly, some cognitive abilities such as higher IQ have been linked to faster reaction times in some studies. However, the actual mechanism for this is still unclear. One theory is that individuals with higher IQ may show better focus and attention or have more effective information processing in the brain.

Training background can also have a big effect on reaction time in sports. On average, simple reaction time is between 0.16s to 0.2s among most people. However, top-tier athletes have shown reaction times as low as 0.15s. Experience also provides you with a better understanding of when and where a stimulus might occur. Therefore, you will be able to anticipate a situation even before it happens. 

Quicker decision making can slow down the game around you.

Training for faster reaction time

Reaction time can be improved by 10-20% outside of genetic factors. The most effective reaction time training methods are cognitive exercises, physical exercises, and video games. 

Cognitive exercises are by far the most effective methods to improve reaction time. This means using specifically designed exercises that aim to improve your brain’s neural networks. As a result, your brain creates stronger and healthier connections, providing quicker responses with less mental effort. Thus, improving skills like memory, attention, problem solving and reaction time. The most well-known “brain exercises” include various card games, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, chess, sudokus, and math problems. Even learning a new language or playing a new instrument are linked to better cognitive ability. Lastly, different mindfulness exercises can help you relax and increase awareness for better reaction time.

Physical exercises can also be combined with various reaction time challenges. For example, you can perform plyometric exercises or sprints by responding to a specific stimulus (whistle, etc.). Additionally, different hand-eye-coordination exercises, trail running, and reaction ball training have shown good results in improving reaction time. More modern methods such reaction light systems and strobe glasses also show  great promise in improving and maintaining reaction time. However, these still need further research.

Fast-paced video games seem to have a significant connection to better cognitive abilities. This is because most video games challenge you to identify and select relevant visual information, and producing quick motor responses to changing situations. Fast-paced video games also decrease attentional blink (ability to identify visual stimuli in quick succession) and prevent processing of irrelevant information.

Benefits of reaction time in sports

Reaction time can have an enormous effect on your athletic performance as well as your overall wellness. This is especially apparent among the older population where lower reaction time can lead to falling or slipping, which can cause severe debilitating injuries.

In a sports context, reaction time can help you react to each situation better and reduce injury risk – including concussions. It can also be a significant contributor to success in several sports. For example, in badminton (the fastest racket sport in the world) elite players are able to smash the shuttlecock at 418kmh/253.33mph. In tennis, the average first serve is around 185kmh/115mph



Accident prevention

Being able to quickly respond to changes in your environment can significantly reduce accidents and injuries. For example, dodging a moose on the road, regaining balance after slipping, etc.

Concussion prevention

Peripheral awareness and improved field of play can reduce risk of concussions. This is often sport-specific with some sports benefiting more than others.

Better performance

Better hand-eye coordination, faster reaction and more efficient processing can also slow the game around you.


Faster physical response to a stimulus can help you move quicker according to a stimulus. For example, being the first on the ball in football.

In a way, quicker decision making can slow down the game around you and help you maintain balance in sudden situations. It may even help you read your opponent’s bodily cues to instinctively make the right move at the right time.

The faster your reaction time is, the more time you have to process what happens on the field - and make the right decision.

Final thoughts

Quick reaction time is not only crucial for athletic performance but your overall wellness as well. Being able to quickly adjust to suddenly changing situations can have a tremendous impact on your overall health. Avoiding these issues and possible injuries can help maintain a healthy life and avoid surprising healthcare costs at the same time.

As far as athletic performance goes, fast reaction time can have an hugely beneficial effect in sports that require short spurts and quick thinking. This includes a huge variety of esports, court-based sports, field sports, motorsports as well as track sports.

Remember, consistently training each fitness component is not enough to improve your progression. You must maintain a balance between training, nutrition, and sufficient rest. Only then you can expect good results from your training program.

Did you learn anything new about reaction time in sports? Let us know in the comments.


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