How to Build Better Reflexes: Forget Speed and Focus on Information


We love quickness.

We love it when an improv comedian makes a lightning-fast comeback.  Or when a soccer player slices open a tough defense with the perfect pass. Or when an investor spies a great opportunity in a fast-moving market. We love those moments because they contain the essence of talent: instant, uncannily precise reaction to a complex situation. These people succeed, it seems, because their reflexes are quicker.

What’s even more interesting: science is showing us that our instincts about quickness are wrong. The best performers, it turns out, aren’t reacting more quickly (thanks to limits of nerve-conduction speed, human reflexes are pretty consistent). The best performers are using time differently — namely, they’re using it to get more information.

For example, let’s take the classic case of a tennis player returning serve. You would instinctively think that the best returners are the ones who react the quickest. But you’d be wrong. Experiments show that the best players succeed because they wait longer before they make their swing. They use that time to gather information about the ball, the spin, the opponent’s position, and make decisions about it. And in tennis — as in many other areas of life — the better data you have, the better result you tend to get.

In other words, being quick isn’t about speed; it’s about information. It’s about learning how to wait.

This case and many others like it are discussed in a fascinating new book by Frank Partnoy called Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. The basic message is that the most successful performers in many skills (business, military, medical, writing, acting, among others) follow a similar pattern, which has three steps.

  • 1) observe — take in all the relevant information.
  • 2) process — analyze the patterns, and pick a course of action
  • 3) act — deliver the action

The central insight is that the best performers get really fast and proficient at #3 — performing the action — so they can invest time and attention in steps #1 and #2. Time isn’t a handicap for them; it’s more like a lever; a selective advantage.

I love this insight because it sheds light on the sense of stillness you see in a lot of top performers.For example, picture Cristiano Ronaldo or Stevie Ray Vaughn or Stephen Colbert. Their skill comes from a foundation of calm. They look at the world through a the cool, ascertaining gaze. They’re never hurried or frantic; they’re constantly vacuuming their surroundings for good information, and when they decide to make their move, they make it decisively, with full commitment. They’re managing time, not being managed by it.

How to put this insight to use? The best way is to isolate each step of the process, and practice it by itself.

  • Step 1: Immerse yourself in pure observation. Take in the patterns; swim in the information. Watch “game film” of whatever game you happen to be playing.
  • Step 2: X-ray the information. Systematically figure out the underlying patterns; the if/then decisions that lay beneath the surface. If X happens, what’s the best response? If X and Y happen, what’s the best response?
  • Step 3: Isolate the key actions and practice them. The goal is to make the action perfectly automatic and fast, like you’re pressing a button.

Or, as John Wooden put it, “Be quick, but never hurry.”

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17 Responses to “How to Build Better Reflexes: Forget Speed and Focus on Information”

  1. Rakesh Shukla says:

    It all comes down to pattern recognition.

    … and how do you get good at pattern recognition?

    … good, meaningful practice, of course .. you have to put in the work.


  2. Craig says:

    SRV 🙂

  3. Walter Stemberg says:

    Wayne Gretzky comes to mind here. If you ever watched him play you would wonder how he could be one of the greatest of all time. Seemed to skate hunched over, not overly fast or big. However, i once read that he said everything seemed to move slow for him on the ice when he was watching. His anticipation and timing were remarkable.

  4. Yilcan Guzelgunler says:

    I think these three steps are widely recognized and they are almost common sense to me. However, the critical thing here is how to take in the relevant information. What is relevant information? Once that is accomplished, the rest almost comes intuitively.

  5. djcoyle says:

    Good point. Like so much common sense, the trick isn’t in knowing it but in executing it well.

  6. djcoyle says:

    Great example, Walter. If I recall correctly, Gretzky consistently tested as the slowest, weakest member of the team. But it ain’t about the muscles. As a kid, he would watch a game on TV with a pencil and paper, tracing the path of the puck as it traveled. Not a bad idea…

  7. Walter Stemberg says:

    Correct Dan. I read Gretzys autobiogrphy and he details a lot of things including the pencil and paper. On the way to the rink his father, would quiz him. Ex: His father would say the puck is dumped into the left corner and you are there first. What are your first two options? Wayne would reply something like. Swing it around the boards to the weak side, OR, get it from the corner face the play and look to pass in front of the net. Very interesting book and a very interesting way Gretzy had of processing things.

  8. David says:

    I think this is correct but I think the key point is that the top performers know what information to pay attention to. My favorite section in the Power of Habit was the one about Tony Dungy. He focused on simple cues to teach the players so they would react automatically. They practiced the reads over and over again until they became habitual. It took an entire year for the habits to take hold. I think the problem in most sports is not only that the coaches don’t recognize the need to do this but they don’t structure practice in a way that will give the players enough reps. I’m working with my son on reading the defender in basketball. I’m pulling in a key idea from music learning which is to slow down. I’m playing defense on him and making him read my body position to make his move. I started really slowly and would make a deliberate lean or shuffle my feet in a manner to make the cue really obvious. Over time I’ve sped up and made the cues more subtle. He has to fight the urge to decide ahead of time what he’s going to do and just burn me with his speed because he’s much faster than I am. It’s a work in progress but I’ve seen him make some automatic reactions in his scrimmages that appear to come from this training.

  9. djcoyle says:

    Hey David, Great comment — and thanks for sharing that story about your son’s skills. It’s all an argument for having a good coach, to direct the gaze toward the stuff that really matters.

  10. Ryan Hockman says:

    This article is the essence of what quarterbacking is. The only part left out is that all this information gathering leads to anticipating. The anticipator is the aggressor. If a quarterback is reacting – not anticipating – then the defenders are anticipating and the QB is indecisive. Indecision not only puts the defense ahead of the QB, it also has a negative impact on mechanics.

    Also, if you look at great baseball hitters, they anticipate well, allow the ball to go deep into their hitting zone so they can diagnose the pitch
    and have great bat speed.

    Interestingly, we teach QBs the same way we teach hitters… instead of checking each swing, we check the throw.

  11. Brad Robinson says:

    A good example of this timing concept is brought out in Andre Agassi’s OPEN (written by JR Moehringer). His father understood timing concept so fired tennis balls with a machine at Andre’s feet teaching him to hit ball on the rise and early. Thus, Andre was able to take shots early on rise, taking away opponents timing and push them around court, dominating mens tennis in 1980s and 1990s(along with Pete Sampras). His Dad, a champion boxer (1) observed most tennis players waiting for ball to drop (2) figured out the pattern of hitting ball earlier takes away timing and (3) taught Andre how to hit ball early with a ball machine as a child. BRILLIANT!

  12. Jim says:

    Just finished watching “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and thought of your blog and books…have you seen it? Amazing…talk about 10,000 hours!

  13. Chuck K says:

    Dan, thanks for the fine work you do. This entry regarding information, and your observe / process / act loop are strongly reminiscent of a military legend, Forty Second Boyd, and his fighter pilot’s OODA loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Read more here, if I’m allowed to share a link:
    Keep it coming, thanks again!

  14. AndyL says:

    If you ever read anything about John Boyd and his OODA loop (Observe Orient Decide Act)he teaches the same thing. My understanding of what he was trying to teach is that the successful teams or organizations are the ones that can complete this loop the fastest. One of the ways of doing this is to try to bypass the decide step with what he called “implicit guidance” which I believe is what you would refer to as mastery.

  15. AndyL says:

    My apologies, right after I sent my comment I see that someone else posted on Boyd as well.

  16. liz garnett says:

    I posted on a similar theme last year:

    I like your point that it is not only the patience that makes a difference, but how that patience permits a finer granularity of perception and clearer judgements about the pertinence of observations to one’s decision-making.

  17. Rene says:

    Piece of writing writing is also a fun, if you be acquainted with after that you can write
    if not it is complicated to write.

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