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How to Improve Reaction Times

As competitive drag racers we all understand the desire for quicker and/or more consistent reaction times.  While there are plenty of variables at every level of our sport, there are arguably none more important and almost certainly none more actionable from a driver’s standpoint than quality reaction times.  Yet many of us look at the process of improvement on the starting line as a mystery.  It doesn’t have to be. 

The first obvious (and relevant) thought that comes to mind for improvement should be the regular use of a practice tree.  Within our exclusive membership community, ThisIsBracketRacing ELITE, Kevin Brannon, Justin Lamb, and myself present practice exercises every week and challenge our members to perform them. It’s a big part of our program.  In addition, we host a free public group every offseason in which we detail training routines every weekday for a month.  The 2019 version is happening right now, to join visit ThisIsBracketRacing.com/practice.

While consistent practice is a huge contributor to measurable improvement and sustainable success, it’s one piece of a larger puzzle.  Racers like to say that seat time is crucial to becoming a great driver.  I’d qualify that statement to read: “Seat time is a crucial component to becoming a great driver.”  If a driver doesn’t have any idea what they’re trying to accomplish on the track and/or they believe that there is nothing left to learn from competition, he/she will not benefit from 100,000 passes down the track.  If instead, a driver is willing to invest in a base knowledge to fully understand what’s supposed to happen and why, they can essentially learn how to learn.  Then (and only then) the growth curve can accelerate rapidly.  We should learn from every single pass down the track, assuming that we have the tools to look back and honestly evaluate our performance based on some level of understanding of the game.  Likewise, practice time is really only beneficial when we commit to practicing in a productive manner.

Whether we’re utilizing a transbrake button (with a delay box or on the bottom bulb), releasing a brake pedal, clutch pedal, or hand brake, when you boil down reaction times to their simplest form we’re essentially all doing the same thing: reacting to a stimulus.  In theory, it’s not difficult at all.  See light, release button/brake pedal/etc.  Let’s be honest: we could probably train a monkey to do it!

That idea illustrates the fact that having excellent, consistent reaction times doesn’t necessarily require a ton of thought.  In fact, I’d argue that conscious thought only gets in the way of the lights that we strive for.  In his book How Champions Think Dr. Bob Rotella relates this to putting golf ball or shooting a free throw (both are controlled actions that are really similar to what we do on the starting line). 

“Once an athlete has learned a skill – as Lebron (James) had learned to shoot a basketball – he needs to trust that skill, focus on the target, and let the shot go without thinking about how to do it or being concerned about the result.  In slightly more scientific terms, the subconscious areas of our minds do the best job of controlling motor skills.  When the conscious brain gets involved, our bodies tend to become awkward.”

This idea is something I’ve tried to apply in my own performance, and teach regularly within ThisIsBracketRacing and our ELITE community.  Essentially, the more regimented our routine and mechanics, the more we’re on “auto-pilot” on the starting line, and the better we become.  Conscious thought is typically a hinderance.  That sounds simple, but how do we get there?  Lebron James got there (according to the book) by committing to making 200 3-point jump shots every day.  We can do the same in our own practice.  Yet again, we have to make sure that we’re practicing the right things.

In a recent meeting with some of our ELITE members, I had a really interesting discussion.  One of our members noted a self-observation that many of you may be able to associate with.  He said that he struggles with his mind wandering.  The example he used was reading a book or magazine, he’d often finish a page and feel the need to re-read it because he had no idea what he’d just read.  His mind had ventured off into other areas.  He’s not alone, I do that all the time.  I related my friend’s issue to my own recent interest in meditation.  In theory, meditation is so simple, yet in practice it’s really difficult!  One of the focal points of meditation is to focus on the breath.  It sounds so simple: just think about my breath.  You’d think I could retain that focus for what, 100 breaths?  1000?  Speaking for myself (and most beginning meditators) the realistic number is 3.  Maybe 5.  Five breaths until my mind wanders into some other, typically completely unrelated territory.

A version of the same thing happens to most of us on the starting line from time to time.  Our minds can wander for a variety of (often inexplicable) reasons.  This even shows up on the practice tree.

So how do we overcome that, or at least minimize it?  The key is rooted not only in practice, and not only in understanding how to practice.  The key is having the capacity to analyze and learn from your practice.  The beauty of practice is that the stakes are low.  It’s a great opportunity to not only build confidence, but to experiment and tweak your routine.  In my practice, I work hard to treat each “hit” as a separate event.  I don’t think making 100 hits in a single, 30 minute session has much value.  Instead, I go through the motions of each hit as if it were an actual round of competition (I actually do this in my race car, suited up and strapped in, with the practice tree wired into my button and delay box.  Note: this is easily done with the PortaTree NexGen practice unit).  For each rep, I go through my physical and mental pre-race routine.  I pump the brake pedal to bump in and stage, then I set the button and hit the tree.  In the process of doing so, I can tweak various facets of my routine and think about what movements and/or thoughts tend to trigger me in a positive way.  I can also ask myself: “What movements and/or thoughts trigger me in a negative way?  What role do variables like breathing, vision, physiology and mechanics play?  These are things that I NEVER want to be thinking about on the race track, but that I can hammer out in regular, regimented practice, so that they become second nature (subconscious) in actual competition.

My hope is that these words have spurred some thought in regards to your own starting line habits.  If so, believe me: this is the tip of the iceberg!  Learn more at ThisIsBracketRacing.com/practice.

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