by Mike Mejia, CSCS
Out on the field of play things can, and do change in an instant. And while it's great to be fast and have lots of multi-directional speed, how quickly you can react to a given situation will often determine whether you make the play, or not. So, in this third installment of our series on improving first step quickness, we're going to take a look at one of my favorite drills to help improve reaction time.
It's called the tennis ball drop, and it's about as low-tech as a drill can be- yet still amazingly effective. With this one, a partner or coach simply holds a tennis ball several feet in front of you. The further away they stand, the more difficult the drill will be. Begin by getting into a sprint ready position, with one foot just in front of the other and your back heel off the ground. Keep a nice long torso and hinge forward at the hips to get the proper body angle. Once you're set, your partner will then extend his, or her arm out just above shoulder's height, so that their arm is in your running path. Next, with no cue whatsoever, they'll drop the ball and you will have to retrieve it after just one bounce.
In order to effectively execute this drill, you'll need to put force into the ground with your lower body so that you can explode forward into a linear, or straight ahead sprint. What you don't want to do is slide your lead foot back in an effort to get moving. Doing so would actually be wasting a step, as you're already in a sprint ready position and simply need to work on imparting force into the ground.
Work with your partner and experiment with different distances until you can find one that really challenges you. Then, as you get better at the drill, you can increase the distance between the two of you. Please do be sure however to start with a different leg leading each time. It's important that you try and work both sides for more balanced development.
In addition to using a sprint start, I'd like you to try the drill from a ready position as well. Now here, because your feet will be about shoulder's width apart, you won't be in the best position for linear speed development. So that's where something known as a "plyo step" will come into play. This is a quick back step in order to reposition your center of gravity and get your feet set in the right position for developing straight ahead speed.
If you try to simply drive forward from the wide stance, your first step will actually end up being slightly diagonal and take you off the track of your target (in this case, the tennis ball). By using this very quick plyo step, you'll be in a much better position from which to generate speed. It may seem somewhat counterintuitive to take a step back before forward movement, but it's really all about re-positioning yourself and taking advantage of your bodies natural ability to react.
Check out the accompanying video to see the drill in action:
Try 2 sets of 6-8 reps of each position: sprinter's stance right foot lead, sprinter's stance left foot lead, and ready position with a plyo step (alternating which foot steps back each time).
And be sure to keep an eye out for the next installment of this series, where I'll show you how to improve reaction time when moving both laterally, and backwards.
For more on Mike Mejia's BASE Sports Conditioning program click here.
You can also hear Mike's recent interview on WFAN by clicking here.