Is The Perceived Reaction Time of Athletes Created Equal? Maybe Not.


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Though I've always played sports, whether with my brothers in the backyard or on an intramural or club team, I am the first to admit that athletics are not my strong suit. My foot never seemed to kick the soccer ball the right way, cradling a lacrosse ball seemed to defy physics and I could never quite clear the hurdles at track practice. During team drills, the older and more skilled girls would always try to help me, the less fortunate teammate. But these girls always seemed to have a certain skill I lacked (besides coordination of course). For them and other great athletes, it always seemed as though time slowed down as they went to hit a ball, catch a football or save a goal. What I experienced on the field was a moment of panic spent considering my many options. What those other athletes seemed to have was a sense of preparedness, which allowed them to make a quick and effective move.
At University College London, some neuroscientists have found that elite athletes may have a slower perception of time before they make an action. This psychological perception is actually believed to be related to how the brain uses what it sees and the comprehension of what an athlete is seeing. The more prepared an athlete is, the more perceived time they have to make a decision. Dr. Nobuhiro Hagura published his study entitled Ready set slow: action preparation slows the subjective passage of time in Proceedings of the Royal Society B this month. He cites tennis player John McEnroe and Formula 1 drivers among the many athletes who experience this slowing passage of time before they make an action.
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What I found most interesting about this study is how Dr. Hagura and other researchers measured such an almost intangible dependent variable. How do you measure perceived time? The article published by BBC News about the study explained the testing procedures very well. Essentially, arm movements were the independent variable, as participants were asked to react to a flashing light on a screen. Researchers compared perceived amounts of time between participants asked to move versus those without arm movements.
For those interested in this issue, there is also a book about the subject that was published last year. This topic really hit home for me, as I've always played sports with athletes who seemed to have an incredible reaction time to sometimes unexpected events. I always thought they had some natural ability I simply lacked. If there is a training facility out there to improve this perceived reaction time, then please, someone sign me up!

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