Reaction Time for Basketball


Initially, it was believed that the body and mind were powerfully connected; once a human mind made a decision, the body acted immediately. Galileo Galilei, endeavouring to prove that the speed of light was finite, estimated a human reaction time of 0.5 seconds in the seventeenth century, which was lowered to 0.2 seconds in 1905 by Edward Titchener (Foschi & Leone, 2009, pp. 1255-7). Within the confines of a basketball court – ninety-four feet long and fifty feet wide – both players receive information at the same time and it becomes a matter of who reacts better.

People need about 0.2 seconds to react to an event that occurs in front of them. Given that time, the offence has an edge because they know what will happen next, before the defence can adjust. The quick player, can take the first step towards blowing by the defence, plants and change direction, make a ball move or fake a shot-blocker. The quicker the player, the greater their lead by the time the opponent reacts.

On the other hand, the quick defender can recover in less time. Even though they start behind the offence, after they perceive what has occurred and decided what to do they can catch up to a slower opponent. Controlling a loose ball or rebound, getting a hand up and blocking a shot, or dropping down to help a teammate are all occasions when quickness permits the defence to overcome their delayed reaction.

Changing Direction

When players develop their hamstrings, quads, and hip flexors they can exert a powerful force on the ground and change direction as part of a crossover dribble, a V-cut, or a step-back jumpshot, among other moves. The defensive player can apply a lateral force to stop their momentum, drop-step, and push off in the new direction. The stronger the forces, the quicker the movement to get open or catch up to the check.

Technique remains imperative. The dribbler who can’t efficiently change direction is liable to encounter a defender who has beaten them to the spot, the difference between the two proving to be the ability to stop and change course on a dime. Plant the lead foot, pivot, and push off in the new direction. The shortest route in the limited confines of a basketball court is a straight line.

Foul Trouble

Defenders foul when they reach for the ball and miss, obstruct or hold their check, or contest the shot and contact the shooter. Quickness proves beneficial in these situations, allowing defenders to keep pace with their opponent and shut them down instead of fouling to prevent a scoring chance.

Similarly, if the offence is able to force the other team into a weak defensive position, they create the opportunity for more fouls. Linear, lateral, and vertical acceleration are all required to defend someone straight-up, within the rules. Likewise, all three types of quickness come in handy when attacking the defence and putting them on their heels.



A coach needs to teach proper position, in concert with the team’s philosophy and the skills of each individual. Anticipate and prepare before the ball arrives was emphasized. Rather than wait to catch the ball and make a move, Ettore Messina suggested that post players place their feet into position beforehand to save a step and a half-second (Messina, 2008). Jasmin Repeša linked staying low and balanced with a quick and powerful first step (Repeša, 2009).


Players should understand what is likely to happen next, based on geometry, the scouting report, and decision-making under pressure. Senseless risks on defence, such as trying to steal the ball by jumping into the passing lane, have a low chance of success. If a defender misses, they are out of the play and teammates must rush to help. An open shot may result. When the mind is not engaged, the risk is rarely worth the reward.

When Michael Jordan stole the ball from Karl Malone in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, he was not gambling. Knowing that primary option of Jeff Hornacek’s low screen for was a post-up for Malone so he lingered under the basket. Seeing how Rodman was playing Malone on the high side, Jordan swept in along the baseline and stole the ball from below.

In the Moment


A player cannot make an aggressive move, offensively or defensively, when they are not balanced (Repeša, 2009). When faking or being faked, players should stay low and in balance so they can make the next move. Waiting for an opponent to make a move is too passive; players should take initiative and force the action. An offensive player should stay balanced while scanning the court, pivoting, and making fakes. A defensive player should stay balanced while pressuring the opponent and making constant moves for the ball.

If coaches teach correct body position to players and trains the performance factors required, such as legs and hip flexors. We want players to push off the correct foot, not take a step back into order to plant themselves, twist their hips to change direction, and stay balanced instead of reaching (MacDonald, 2009).


When training performance factors, coaches also need to develop the mental connections required (Balyi, 2009). It is one thing to improve speed but the part of the brain which tells the body to sprint at maximum intensity must also receive attention. The coach should give quick instructions that force athletes to react and move.



Coaches should stress that when one play is over, players should rush to their next positions. The time for congratulations is after the game. It is the responsibility of the coach to ensure the players know their job; it is the responsibility of the player to get in position as quickly as possible and do their best.

After the ball is moved, a player should shift their position instantly. The on-ball defender should jump to the passing lane, the strong-side defender should make a decision and defend the ball, the weak-side defender should move under the airtime of the ball and closeout.

The ballhandler should try to attack the basket with an aggressive first step. The passer should cut or screen. The other players should read how the defence moved and endeavour to make something happen.

Roger Federer begins his recovery immediately after striking the ball and is so efficient that he uses one or two extra steps. Federer trains his legs so that he has the strength to plant either foot and push off quickly, giving him an advantage. If his opponent returns the ball, Federer is balanced and ready to move (MacDonald, 2009).


Andy Murray, coach of the St. Louis Blues, admires Tiger Woods because of his ability to recover. He never wants players to give up on a shift and devotes mental training so that regret never stews on the bench, affecting future sequences (Murray, 2009). Mike Krzyzewski used the motto “Next Play” for Duke’s 2001 National Championship team (Krzyzewski, 2006, pp. 112-6).

Never stop moving. Never stop talking. The team recovers together because of instant communication and good positioning.

Resting on one’s laurels allows the opponent back in the game. After a failure, anger and frustration increase cognitive anxiety. Players need to know what to do strategically and emotionally. Coaches and teammates can help on the bench so that their minds are clear during their next shift.


The shot-clock is twenty-four seconds. A team that is physically and mentally prepared can react in 0.15 seconds instead of 0.2, creating an advantage whenever the ball moves. That edge may allow time for an additional pass or dribble as the shot-clock winds down. A slower player who reacts quickly may have time to start their movement earlier and catch up to a faster opponent. Better reaction allows a team or player to initiate the action and control the play.

Reaction Time Exercises

Reacting to a play is as much a physical performance factor as strength, speed and quickness. Basketball is a chaotic sport that demands that players react mentally and physically to what is happening. Select one or two drills to work on at game intensity and quality. The coaching staff should ensure that players are forming good habits, such as thinking under pressure, communicating and anticipating the next play.

The work:pause ratio is 1:1.




Other Athletic Abilities


  • Balyi, I. (2009, February 20). Changing Coach Paradigms. (Ontario Coaches Conference).
  • Foschi, R., & Leone, M. (2009). Galileo, measurement of the velocity of light, and the reaction times. Perception , 1251-1259.
  • Gay, Timothy (2004). Football Physics. Emmaus: Rodale Books.
  • Krzyzewski, M. (2006). Beyond Basketball. New York City: Hachette Group U.S.A.
  • MacDonald, G. (2009, August 31). Federer’s Footwork: Artful and Efficient. Retrieved October 10, 2009, from New York Times:
  • Messina, E. (2008, October 11). Post Play. (O.B.A. Clinic).
  • Murray, A. (2009, January 31). 4 Questions with Andy Murray. The Globe and Mail , p. S4.
  • Repeša, J. (2009, October 9). Personal Balance. (O.B.A. Clinic).