What is the difference between reading and reacting?
I recently asked a friend of mine who is an expert in Skill Acquisition about reading and reacting. My exact question was: "What is the difference between reading and reacting? Is reacting even a thing?"
As usual his reply was excellent, illuminating, and managed to avoid scientific terminology so it was easy to understand. The response in full is:
In the literature it is called the perception-action coupling, and refers to how your brain (using mainly your eyes) takes in information and then uses that to make decisions. It is important to note that this process is continuous, and not as ‘isolated’ as we might conceptualize in sport. This read and react continues multiple times per second as we perform the task, continuing to use information to shape our movement. So in a soccer example, you have the ball and ‘read’ the options, you make your decision, but are continually perceiving information to make sure that it is the right decision, and continually using that information to shape how you actually perform the pass (speed, height, time to defender reaching you etc.)
A really important differentiation between ‘reading’ and ‘reacting’ exists. The research shows that for one to ‘perceive’ or someone to ‘perceive and then act’ they use different pathways through the eyes and brain. This has significant implications for training, as for example, watching sport to learn decisions doesn’t activate the same physiological effects as actually making decisions while physically moving. This is often why the ‘armchair expert’ or worse ‘analytics guy’ finds it weird that athletes don’t learn patterns like they do. It’s because actually doing something uses a different method.
In terms of reading and reacting, in all circumstances we gather information from the environment to make our decisions (or make an action). This again, is a continuous and subconscious process. The ‘reacting’ usually refers to a situation in which time is more limited, and therefore less information is gathered before we act. The better athletes who ‘react’ better are usually those that gather the most important information in that short time. For example, they know where to look for the best cues. Boxing is a good example where their eyes pick up information from the opponents hips or torso around which punch is coming, as opposed to the poorer ‘reactors’ who take information from the glove or arm.
In training we can ‘teach’ athletes where to look for the best information source. Often using bright colors on certain body parts to draw attention, or using video examples which teach them where to look. However, when using video, a physical act needs to be tied to the perception, otherwise it won’t transfer.