Reaction time is one of the fundamental skills an athlete can possess. To reach an elite level in any sport, an athlete needs to continue to improve their coordination skills. Whether they are a rookie or a veteran, an athlete can always improve their reaction time as the below sports stars show.
Exhibit A: Stephen Curry
Two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry’s reaction time has always been good. But it reached elite levels thanks largely to his now seven-year collaboration with trainer Brian Payne. Bleacher Report explored this partnership last year, including some of the devices Payne has utilized to transform Curry in to a game-changer. One such device is FITLIGHT, a system of palm-sized discs that light up one after the other. Both help improve aspects of Curry’s game, including his agility, balance, coordination, and yes, reaction time.
But how, exactly?
The science behind FITLIGHT, according to Curry’s forward-thinking trainer is this: overload the brain so it can process everything at a faster speed. In the case of Payne and Curry, the trainer controls the discs via a wireless remote, lighting certain combinations of discs to signal specific basketball-related moves and shot (e.g., jump shots, lay-in, floater). The combinations become progressively more difficult, forcing Curry’s brain to work harder so it can process information as fast as possible. This, in turn, strengthens the brain, allowing it to digest more information and react accordingly.
Exhibit B: Kawhi Leonard
Another athlete with elite-level reaction time is Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard. Like Curry, Leonard improved his reaction times with lots of training, this time with the help of strobe glasses. The former Spur used strobe glasses while training in the summer of 2016. These glasses project flashing lights within the goggles as the wearer performs specific drills, and these camera-like flashes help the brain do more as it needs to process different visual stimuli — like the sight of a ball mid-flight — and do specific tasks (e.g., dribbling or catching a ball) all while tuning out the flashing lights.
This type of training, referred to as stroboscopic sensory training, helps the brain become stronger, allowing it to process more information in less time. What’s more, the brain will be able to process visual information much faster when the vision is unencumbered by distractions, like flashing lights, for instance. This is akin to the world moving in slow motion, only the world does not actually move in slow motion; what happens instead is that the brain is working in hyperdrive, processing everything at faster speeds. Here’s the science behind it, as explained by Herb Yoo, co-creator of a precursor to the aforementioned strobe glasses: 70 percent of the sensory receptors in the human body are found in the eyes alone, and that translates to 260 million receptors — or 130 million per eye — taking in information via some 2.4 million nerve fibers. This information is then passed on to the brain, which processes them accordingly. The strobe lights in the goggles, in turn, force the brain to do more — again, by having to do things while tuning out the lights. Once the lights are off, the brain will be able to process information much faster as there is no more interference. This allows for faster movement and swifter reaction time. It also improves visual memory retention and perceptual ability explains Dr. Alan Reichow, one of those who helped developed earlier versions of strobe glasses. Bear in mind, though, that as reported here on Globalsport Matters, not all lights are helpful. Case in point is blue light, which is a sleep stealer and an athlete's hidden enemy.
The science behind stroboscopic sensory training has been around for quite some time, and the great Michael Jordan even employed it in the late 1990s. In 2011, the Duke University study ‘Improved Visual Cognition through Stroboscopic Training’ showed that "stroboscopic training can effectively improve some, but not all aspects of visual perception and attention." In the study, participants from two control groups were tasked to perform athletic activities, with one group doing so with stroboscopic eyewear. Key results were as follows:
- Those who wore the eyewear showed an increase in the ability to quickly process visual information.
- Those who wore the eyewear had a 25.7 percent improvement in visual motion sensitivity.
- Those who wore the eyewear improved accuracy performance by 2.21 percent; in contrast, the accuracy performance of those who didn't wear the eyewear worsened by 0.83 percent.
Exhibit C: TJ Carrie and the US Ski Team
Faster reaction times are dependent on stimulating the brain so that it is able to process information as fast as possible. Based off Curry’s and Leonard’s transformation into elite basketball players, stimulating the brain via flashing lights and overloading does seem to work. Other athletes are taking even more drastic measures, resorting to devices that purportedly stimulate the neurons in the motor cortex. The NFL’s TJ Carrie is one such athlete, and his preferred device is the headphone-shaped Halo, which delivers electrical pulses directly to the brain, making it extra receptive to training. These electrical pulses are aimed at the motor cortex, which is the region of the brain tied to controlling and executing voluntary movements. The US ski team have taken the same approach, with sports science advisor Dr. Jim Stray-Gunderson, calling the Halo "potentially paradigm shifting."
Halo Neuroscience founder Dr. Daniel Chao spoke to Medgadget about the device and assured everyone that the brain stimulation, called transcranial direct current stimulationor tDCS, was 100 percent safe. He also explained that the science itself is backed by over 15 years of research. The article ‘Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation and Sports Performance’ first published on Frontiers in Human Neuroscience is of the opinion that tDCS can indeed help improve athletic performance, but only in conjunction with training. The article points out that several studies have shown that tDCS can enhance, to varying levels, various aspects of athletic performance. Some of these aspects include peak power; perceptual-learning paradigm; and cognitive performance and mood elevation.
The Rise of Sports Science
Topflight athletes are physically gifted, and they are getting better thanks to sports science. The Business Insider feature on the intersection of sports and science claims that “science is creating super-athletes” by helping them maximize their brain and body. And you can expect it to continue to be an inextricable part of sports moving forward, with professional teams ultimately partnering with healthcare institutions to improve athlete performance. The Baylor Scott & White Sports Therapy & Research Center in Frisco, Texas, is the first of many future collaborations. DMagazine reports that the state-of-the-art facility offers athletes a range of services, including individualized performance evaluations and sports medicine interventions, as in transcranial direct current stimulation which was discussed in the previous section.
The next frontier, arguably, will be genetics, which according to Very Well Fit can shape one’s abilities to excel in sports. In other words, genetic tinkering may soon be utilized in the quest to make bigger, faster, better athletes as genes have a “large influence over strength, muscle size and muscle fiber composition (fast or slow twitch), anaerobic threshold (AT), lung capacity, flexibility, and, to some extent, endurance.” This type of future in which athletes are “improved” at the molecular level might actually be closer to reality given the advances in the field of genetics. As Maryville University notes in their article ‘Five New Technologies Nurses Should Pay Attention To’, healthcare professionals now “understand more about the outcomes of certain therapies on specific genetic-level diagnoses.” In the context of patient care and remediation, they are able to deliver individualized treatment.
Eventually, genetic intervention may very well be available to athletes, too, although that opens a Pandora’s Box of moral issues, like the fairness (and wisdom) of tinkering with genes to improve athletic performance. That, however, is a different discussion altogether.
Kelly Jenson is a sports scientist and medical researcher. She was a former athlete and is currently compiling literature on the increasing role of neuroscience in sports.