Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Reaction-Time Training and Hand-Eye Coordination Improvement Drills

              Hand-eye coordination and reaction-time training usually go hand in hand when it comes to athletic performance and sports.  So I am going to touch on some of the most popular drills to help you improve both of them simultaneously.  The two don’t always go together of course:  Reaction-time training is all about reducing reaction time and improving quickness, while there are many relatively slow and deliberately methodical activities that still require tremendous precision and incredible hand-eye coordination, such as painting, playing a musical instrument, or brain surgery!  In sports however, hand-eye coordination usually involves speed and timing, like with ball and racket sports.  Catching, throwing, hitting, passing, shooting and driving all require tremendous amounts of hand-eye coordination, usually in a reactive, time-critical situation.  Depending on the sport, balls can be traveling at 90 miles per hour or faster, bouncing and spinning along the way.  Perhaps a better way to look at this is body-eye tracking coordination, or neuromuscular mapping and reaction.  Because in most sports, it’s not just our hands having to react, but usually our entire body.  Our feet must first transport our bodies into position to make the play with our hands or rackets!  The good news is, all this can be trained and improved with practice and very simple drills, though apparently much of the foundation is laid when we our kids.  So if you played multiple sports growing up as a kid – good for you!  Your neuromuscular connections, reactive-timing, hand-eye coordination and muscle-memory will always be there for you, albeit a little rusty if you haven’t been on the court in a while!
               Before I get to these basic drills, you should know that the most fun way to develop your hand-eye coordination and improve your reaction-time is to just go out and play the sports you love!  You’ll be much more motivated if you’re having fun and are going all out to make the play or win the game.  The adrenalin, endorphins and dopamine boost we get only through the passion of being immersed in the game will greatly improve your performance and fitness too.  Some of the best sports to improve hand-eye coordination and reaction time are certainly not the most physically demanding: Ping Pong or Table-tennis, and most racket sports require equal parts hand-eye coordination, reaction, and timing.  If you like the beach, I recommend checking out SmashBall beach tennis – another great option!  Peppering or bumping the volleyball is great too.
Above - a reaction training 'ball'

Some of these drills are so simple, you can do them most anywhere including your office if you have a cool boss.  Here are some of the most popular, yet simplest drills – some can be done solo but all are more effective when done with a partner or trainer:
1.      Tennis Ball drills:  Everybody owns a tennis ball – the original reaction ball!  Dribble the tennis ball; toss it against a wall and catch it, alternating between hands; juggle the tennis ball; hold a racket flat and horizontal and bounce the tennis ball off it, alternating hands.  Have a partner or coach throw balls at you to catch one after another in rapid succession.
2.      Reaction Ball drills:  Available at all sports’ stores, the Reaction Ball was literally created for performance drilling (See photo).  It is a ‘ball’ (sort of) with many lumps & bumps on it so that when it is thrown against the floor, the athlete won’t be able to predict or anticipate what direction it will rebound, and thus has to solely rely on their reaction to catch it.  It is reactive-training in its purest form.
3.      Card-catching drills:  This drill requires a coach or a partner to take a deck of playing-cards and stand above the athlete on a platform and toss cards in rapid succession to the athlete.  As the card flutters and spins towards the ground unpredictably the athlete has to catch it, just as the next card is tossed at them.  Plyometric or agility exercises can be done in between catches to improve fitness and make the drill more athletic.
4.      Punching-bag/Speed-bag/Boxing drills: This is great not only for hand-eye coordination but also for fitness value and venting stress!  Be sure to bob and weave between punch combos, to make it full-body training.  However a lot of times hitting the bag may not be reactive in nature, unless it is the speed-bag.  Remember, ideally we want our hand-eye coordination drills to be reactive in nature…unpredictable, so that we can’t anticipate our next move and are forced to react!
5.      Darts/Shuffle Board/Foosball/Billiards (Sports Bar drills!):  While there may not be much fitness value in these popular sports-bar games, usually accompanied by a few pitchers of beer, (which slow our reaction time!), there is absolutely no denying they are great for improving hand-eye coordination.
6.      Video Games:  I cannot believe I’m including this, as I never advocate video gaming, especially for our kids, but there is no denying the hand-eye coordination improvement that video games deliver – all the research backs this.  But again, your overall fitness will suffer – so limit your virtual athlete and get outside and unleash your true athlete when possible!

In my opinion, nothing beats playing your actual sport for specific improvement in that game’s skill-set as well as maximizing fun-factor, but as a general rule we know cross-training is essential for all athletes for injury prevention and drills are excellent ways to isolate and target specific skills.  Plus we don’t always have time or access to play the sports we love and this is where drills and gym-days come in handy.  At some point we all have to put in gym-time, drills and blander workout days so that we will be in top condition on game-day!