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.