Friday, February 22, 2013

To Excel in Sports, Don’t Just React—Anticipate

   In most sports, the ability to react quickly in a controlled way is a valuable physical trait. Speed and quickness often trump other physical characteristics such as size and strength. As many coaches are fond of saying, “Speed kills.”

Getting somewhere or to something before your opponent—either through speed, quickness, or a combination of both—provides you with a competitive advantage. With quick reaction time, you can better defend your opponent, get to a ball or location before others, separate yourself from an opponent, and make instinctive physical movements that benefit your play.

But there is another way to get somewhere before others do—one that lies in your head, rather than your body.

Anticipate Events

Instead of relying strictly on your physical skills to respond, you can anticipate an event and begin moving earlier, in the best way, and ahead of an opponent’s action. You can process information more quickly and accurately. Where others miss important clues, you can visualize a ball’s current and future trajectory, read an opponent’s body position and “game”, and recognize time/space relationships of player and ball movements—all of which signal you that a specific event is about to happen. And with this information, you can begin reacting before the event occurs.

Here are some examples of the role anticipation plays in different sports when played at their highest level:

  • Basketball players (when rebounding a ball) know exactly where a missed shot is going, even before the ball hits the rim.

  • Baseball outfielders react immediately after the ball is hit—selecting the direction and rate of speed needed to get to where they expect the ball will eventually land.

  • Tennis players returning a serve evaluate the server’s motion before the ball is hit to determine both the type of serve and targeted location. This information enables players to more quickly reposition themselves, providing more time to play the ball.

  • Hockey players skate to where the puck is going to be—not where it is.

  • Soccer goaltenders instantaneously process key information as players attack the goal—evaluating their movements, relationship to each other, and any other clues that suggest which player will take the shot and what area of the goal they will target. Hope Solo’s diving save against Japan in the 2012 Olympics gold medal match is one example. Protecting the near post, she anticipated the Japanese player’s shot to the far side.

A Learnable Skill

How does one obtain this skill? A few players seemingly have a knack for instinctively anticipating patterns of play. One of the best rebounders in the history of the NBA, Dennis Rodman, was much smaller than most of his opponents. Yet he led the NBA in rebounding for seven straight years, in no small part due to his ability to know where a missed shot would go before others did. For players like Rodman, their uncanny ability is possibly a gift, similar to another player’s natural athleticism. But anyone can improve their ability to recognize patterns of play and anticipate events. It’s a learnable skill.

Like your physical sports skills, this ability is best realized when it becomes a subconscious process. You need to reach the point where you “feel” the patterns of play. You “know” something is about to happen before it does. Your eye and mind pick up subtle clues, recognize patterns, process the possible alternatives, and generate an almost instantaneous response—without using the conscious part of your mind.

Warning: Although anticipation can improve your reaction time, beware failing to act because you anticipate an event that doesn't happen (e.g., an official’s call, the ball going out). Always play hard “to the whistle” and act when in doubt!

Repetition Generates Reflexive Response

As mentioned above, the good news is that your ability to reflexively interpret patterns of play (instead of experiencing a blur of disconnected detail) is learnable. The bad news is that there appear to be few shortcuts to obtaining this ability. You only develop this information processing ability through many hours of play and practice. Analysis and observation can help you recognize possible event triggers (“keys”), but experience is the driving factor in developing the needed real-time recognition and reflexive response.

So if you want to improve your virtual reaction time through anticipation, you need to experience more repetitions. Although you may benefit from specialized drills or simulations, the easiest way to increase repetitions is to simply spend more time playing and practicing your sport (or other sports with similar patterns of play).

Copyright © 2013 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)

Copyright 2009-2012 Jeffrey S. Rhoads; All Rights Reserved


Wendy LeBolt said...

Another interesting topic, Jeff. I admit I was surprised to read that this is quite a science for coaches of players in the pro football ranks. They train their players to take cues from the slightest shift in foot position or head position and "react without thinking." Because reaction times are so short, the payoff for being first is huge. It makes me wonder how much of our "instinct" really is our brains indexing cues we don't know we notice. Kind of like knowing that guy in front of us is going to change lanes before he does it - even though he's not using his turn signal.

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