Fitness, Science

The Problem With “Reaction Time” Training in Soccer – And What to do About It

There is girl in the United States that can strike out any Major League Baseball player.  Easily.  This is not a joke.

In The Sports Gene, a 2013 book written by David Epstein which should be required reading for any sports scientist or fitness coach working with athletes, the author discusses sport-specific anticipatory and reaction abilities, and how they apply to the learning of sports skills.

Epstein describes a famous United States National Women’s Softball pitcher named Jennie Finch.  She played some exhibition games in the early 2000’s where she pitched against top men’s baseball players like Albert Pujols, Mike Piazza, and Barry Bonds.  Although all of these players are expert hitters, who presumably possess exceptional “reaction” skills that allow them to routinely hit 100+ mph overhand fastballs in their own sport, none of them were able to hit Jennie Finch’s 50-60 Mph, underhand, softball pitches.

How can it be that the professional athletes considered to have the world’s best “reaction time” cannot hit an underhand pitch travailing at 1/3rd the speed they are accustomed to?  The reason Finch’s pitches are un-hittable for Major League Baseball players is not because she is possesses any super-human strength or power.   It is because men’s baseball players – even the elite ones – have no experience in softball or in facing underhanded softball pitches.

Over time and through the accumulation of repetitive practice, Major League ballplayers have been exposed to hundreds of thousands of overhand fastball pitches, and as a result they have developed the ability to accurately predict where the ball will end up – to “anticipate” – at about the time the pitcher cocks his arm backwards.  If the same players were to wait until they could actually see where the ball from a fastball pitch would travel, and then try to “react” to it, the ball would already be in the catcher’s glove by the time they would have started their swing.

As a function of their training and experience, elite professional baseball players are able decide where and how they are going to swing at fastball pitches – again, to “anticipate” rather than to “react” – with enough time to actually hit the ball.  This unique anticipatory ability, which has been studied extensively in sports science research, has been proven to be much faster and more developed in professional versus amateur ballplayers, meaning that elite players are able to “see into the future” far sooner than sub-elite players, and the extra time gained from this ability allows them to have a much higher success rate in hitting the ball.

Unfortunately, because these same players have never been exposed to underhand softball pitches, they have not accumulated enough experience to develop the ability to accurately predict where Finch’s underhand pitches will go quickly enough to react to them.  Their anticipatory skills are very specific to the type of movements and plays they have been exposed to in their particular sport, and are not effective in softball.  So they strike out.  Every time.

The Sports Gene cites several different research studies that have examined elite athletes in several different sports (including soccer) and the results are always the same.  Elite professional athletes are able to predict – accurately – what is going to happen in their own sport before it actually happens.  And they are able to do it quicker than their opponents.

There are a few caveats, however.  Firstly, elite athletes’ anticipatory skills in their own sport are not transferable to other sports.  In all the studies cited in The Sports Gene, when elite athletes (with exceptional anticipatory ability from their own sport) were asked to predict the outcomes of plays from other sports, they showed no significant differences in predictive ability as compared to average, sub-elite performers (and in many cases they were worse than sub-elite performers).  Furthermore and perhaps more importantly, elite athletes from every sport who were tested, including soccer, were not shown to have any significant differences in actual “reaction time” – the time taken from the perception of stimulus to the initiation of movement reacting to the stimulus – than either sub-elite athletes, or even from non-athletic members of the general population.

Thus, anticipation, and not reaction time, is the ability which separates elite from sub-elite athletes (and it is also the reason than no Major League ballplayer will ever hit Jennie Finch’s underhand pitch).

Armed with this information, how can soccer coaches and fitness coaches train their athletes to improve sport-specific anticipatory skills?  The good news is that the answer is very simple.  Research and science in skilled performance and motor learning has indicated that the best way to improve these abilities in athletes is not to use fancy “reaction time” or “agility” drills.  Instead, players need to play soccer, or conditioned small-sided versions of the soccer, as much as possible.

Through repetitive exposure to hundreds of thousands of instances where soccer-specific anticipation is required (for example, determining where a pass from a teammate or opponent will end up), players can develop and improve their ability to accurately predict what will happen, position themselves accordingly, and increase their chances of success.

When designing training sessions and exercises, coaches and fitness coaches should determine which anticipatory skills they would like to develop, and then select an appropriate small-sided game with the appropriate conditions (for example, field size, number of players, rules of the game, etc.) in order to help them to bring these skills out in their players.  If the goal of training is to the ability to dribble and beat an opponent forwards, use a 1 vs. 1 game with players attacking defenders head-on.  If the goal is to improve players’ ability to ability to connect passes and make combinations such as wall-passes, use a small-sided game like 3 vs. 3 or 4 vs. 4, and perhaps add one extra attacker to help teams in possession outnumber defenders around the ball. If the goal is to improve a goalkeeper’s ability to stop shots from medium-range, use a small-sided game with large goals and a relatively short field length that will encourage players to shoot.  You get the picture.

Eventually, through the accumulation of enough repetition and experience, players will improve their ability to accurately predict what will happen (“anticipate”), and take the action (“react”) that will give them the highest chances of success.  They will decrease the mistakes they make by improving their positioning and decision making.  And the team will play better as a result.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

4 thoughts on “The Problem With “Reaction Time” Training in Soccer – And What to do About It

  1. Mario

    Great article! Now with this in mind, do you think reaction time drills should be neglected or is there still a place for them in training soccer players? Maybe during a general prep phase the athletes can benefit?


      Hi Mario,
      thanks very much for your reply and I am glad you liked the article!
      I think the main idea with training for reaction is to try to make it as specific to actual soccer as possible. Since periodization theory uses a progression from simple-complex, and from general-specific, then I think starting out in the first phase of training with “general” reaction drills might be ok for a few weeks, but try to progress to “specific” exercises as soon as possible. Most elite level goalkeepers will tell you, for example, that on penalty shots they try to make their decision where to dive based on the positioning of the non-kicking leg of the kicker (meaning they have learned, through repetition, how to anticipate and predict where the ball will go based on these cues, and they do not trust their ability to “react” to it). I think the same would be true of a lot of other typical plays in soccer.
      Thanks again and please feel free to share with your friends/colleagues!

  2. This is why our collegiate players in the USA have to try & find environments in which to PLAY during the summer. All the fitness drills, agility drills, individual skills exercises, will not make them better soccer players, who can react to different tactical environments. Since tactical cohesion is probably the number 1 factor in a team’s ability to play well, we have to find environments where the players are challenged tactically, I.e. Where they are forced to make decisions & react to various situational demands on them.


      Thanks very much for your reply!
      I like what you have said about college players. In Canada there is a similar issue, and some of the more successful teams have been able to stay together as a team, and enter into an adult league, during the summer months (so they can train together and play 1 game per week). The same is true for younger players, especially players between the ages of 8-12, which is the age range with the greatest capacity for improvements in motor learning. Please feel free to continue to post / reply!

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