The quick and the dead…. (improving reaction times)

I am going to run through a few reasons you want your athlete to improve reaction times and then I will give a couple of examples of fun activities to help coach them for it and keeping them engaged while doing so.

So obviously getting off the starting block first in a race of any kind is an advantage but if we are talking about any race over a 50 freestyle you might be thinking, “it’s not THAT important”, having witnessed a tie for first place in a 1500m at the UK School Games when I swam I feel in every race there is a need for a fast reaction, here are the top reasons why it is important.


Number one, confidence. There is nothing that will ruin a race quicker than a bad start, it can be a slight hesitation or a mistake like a slip on the block itself but a swimmer mentally will not fully recover. It changes their mindset from their first underwater to their first few strokes and can literally ruin any race. I have seen 200 freestyles where a bad reaction led to a misplaced first 50 and then the swimmer was too tired to complete their race at usual speeds. The nerves of a swimmer are settled with a good reaction and once they are in the water they can go about their business, if the start is a worrying area then it can drain their confidence on the entire event.


Number two, waves. A hesitation on the start can put you in the worst position in swimming, just behind enough to catch every wave from the opposition. This can make the beginning of a race mush more hard work, cause you to miss a breath or take in water and in shorter races it can be an unsurmountable deficit.

Number three, it’s free time. If there is a way to go faster in the pool by exerting no more effort, you would be foolish to not take advantage of it. That is what a fast reaction does, with the amount of time spent on perfecting turns, underwater kicks and finishes just to drop a fraction of a second this free time available needs to be utilized by every swimmer.

Constantly forcing swimmers to learn skills in the pool can cause mental fatigue and they switch off and perform worse so I believe the best way to work on things like this are to try fun activities outside the pool where they don’t even realize they are working on it. As a finisher to a dryland practice is the Tennis Ball Biggest Fan game.

How to Play;
Split the team into pairs, each pair is given two tennis balls. Swimmer 1 holds their arms out straight in front of them with one ball in each hand and Swimmer 2 takes up the same position with their arms straight in front of them and their hands placed on top of the other swimmers hands. Swimmer 1 then randomly drops one tennis ball and swimmer 2 must react and catch the ball before it hits the ground. Once they have practiced this a few times they each take three turns and the best score of successful catches wins, in the event of a tie they play sudden death taking one turn each until one drops and one catches. Then the winning swimmer will find another winner to challenge, the losing swimmer becomes a fan for the swimmer they lose to cheering them on in the tournament. If you are cheering for someone and they lose you then join the fan base for the swimmer who beat them.

Eventually you end up with a grand finale of your last two swimmers and your team divided into two groups all cheering on their team mates to catch tennis balls. It gets competitive, it gets loud and it is really fun to end a session with all while working on swimmers reactions and also developing a great team atmosphere to lead them into their pool session.

So, You Think You Can’t Swim? Guess Again!

I was eight the first time I dove in and swam a full length of the pool. Since then, I’ve swam competitively and non-competitively, and racked up more laps than I can count – or remember. While I have never been fast swimmer, I have always loved the feeling of being immersed in the water as my arms and legs work in tandem to propel me from one end of the pool to the other.

Simply put – I love to swim.

When I talk or write about swimming, I tend to get two distinct responses. The first is from other swimmers who smile, and then add their own description of what it feels like to slice through the water as they accumulate yardage and test their speed. The other response I get is from people who wistfully say, “You make swimming sound like so much fun. I wish I could swim, too.”

This article is for those folks.

Swim Lessons

For those in the U.S., the American Red Cross offers adult swim lessons in locations around the country, as does U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS offers a list of individual swim instructors as well as pools where adult lessons take place). In Australia, State Swim Swimming Schools offer lessons for all ages, and the Aquatic Center in Sydney offers adult swim lessons.

For many folks, swim lessons that cover the basics are the first places to start. While it may initially feel strange to sign up for lessons, the investment in learning how to properly perform the basic strokes will be worth it. It will make lap swimming much more enjoyable, and lower the risk of swim-related injuries.

DIY Swim Programs

For those who may have a little background in swimming or those who aren’t keen on signing up for lessons, there are other options. One of the most touted programs is renowned NCAA coach Terry Laughlin’s Total Immersion Swimming Technique. The program is based on the premise that there is more benefit to approaching swimming as a skill, rather than as a test of endurance.

Butterfly Stroke - SwimbetterLaughlin’s program focuses on the three C’s (comfort, control and confidence), taking the path of least resistance (streamlining form and not making waves), and moving from the core (better integration of strokes and core support). One of the most compelling testaments to Laughlin’s method can be found in Tim Ferris’s blog article detailing how he learned to swim in ten days using the Total Immersion method.

Swim Clubs and Clinics

If you’re someone who has a little more experience swimming, but just doesn’t know where to start in terms of training, there are many local clubs that welcome swimmers of all abilities. The benefits of joining a swim club are that you’ll get coaching support and regular workouts designed by someone who understands the need for adapting workouts to different levels. You’ll also be swimming with swimmers of varying levels, and who will often offer advice regarding stroke and breathing techniques. Swim clubs can also provide additional motivation for those who want to get into the pool, but have trouble making time for the workouts.

For those looking to improve their skills, but not able to invest the time in lessons, U.S. Masters Swimming offers regular stroke clinics around the country. Designed for every level of swimmer, the stroke clinics offer an evaluation of all four strokes (though swimmers aren’t required to swim all four strokes) by top area coaches. The goal of the clinic is to help swimmers improve stroke technique and to teach them drills that will enable them to continue to refine their strokes as they swim.

No matter what level swimmer you are, there is a program that can help you find a way to enjoy swimming, and reap the benefits of what many consider to be the perfect exercise!