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American Athlete: Getting Quint-like Reflexes

Nov 29, 2017

Former Johns Hopkins lacrosse star goalie Quint Kessenich talks to American Athlete about training, improving skills, the importance of muscle memory, and maintaining a balanced workout.

When it comes to perfecting hand-eye coordination, there are few sports that can sharpen reflexes quite like lacrosse. Considered the fastest-growing game on two feet, the sport demands quick reflexes, impeccable hand-eye coordination, and lightning speed. No one knows this better, and has demonstrated greater dexterity on the lacrosse field, than former Johns Hopkins goalie Quint Kessenich, arguably the best to have ever played the game. Now a sportscaster for ESPN, covering lacrosse, horse racing, college football, and wrestling, Kessenich asserts that hand speed can be learned, because it is all about “repetition in order to achieve technical proficiency.” Neurologist Irwin Jacobs, of Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, concurs: “There is no doubt that repetition improves performance.” Kessenich, a four-time All-American lacrosse goalie, did not rely solely on his athleticism to take him to the next level. As someone who would sneak into the weight room to squeeze in an extra lift after a home game, Kessenich combined natural talent with a tireless work ethic to reach his level of stardom. He applies this work ethic to everything he does—whether during a solo workout or as a broadcaster whose honest commentary and critiques have positioned him as an important member of the College Gameday circuit and the primary announcer for men’s lacrosse events. “He’s quick on his feet as a broadcaster while being equally quick on his feet as an athlete,” says Bob Schriver, Kessenich’s longtime friend and a high school lacrosse coach. “He’s always challenging himself, and he is equally that way in every facet of his life.” Challenging oneself, Kessenich believes, is a central factor in trying to develop quicker reflexes. In his opinion, the key to developing hand-eye coordination and agility is found in hard work and preparation. “To me, reflexes are based in muscle memory,” he says. “[As a kid] I was put in the goal, and it was a case of adapt or fade away. You know, I believe in high reps. Quickness or technical proficiency cannot be developed without high reps. You have to physically do the skill over and over again to get good at it.” When an athlete repeats the same motion day after day, muscle movement becomes second nature, and the mind is directed away from an action’s mechanics and onto the overall game where it belongs. The lack of conscious, directed thought before movement means you’ve developed a reflex, and this is an indication of peak performance—whether as a baseball shortstop or a lacrosse goalie. The muscles are working uninhibited by the mind. In terms of brain science, the neural pathway of a muscular reflex is known as the Somatic Reflex Arc, a term which describes the most basic arrangement of elements to elicit response to stimuli—for instance, a goalie’s physical reaction (the response) to defending against a shot (the stimuli). What goes on in the mind at such an instance occurs along a pathway that consists of five components: the sensory transducer (any primary sensory neuron in the eye or even on a fingertip), the pseudo-unipolar sensory neuron (which connects the periphery neuron to the brain), the interconnector neuron (the communication between the brain and the central nervous system), the motor neuron (the signal from the central nervous system to induce a reaction), and finally the effector organ, which is the skeletal muscle (what actually gets moved in the reaction). This process is considered a “reflex arc” precisely because the interconnector neuron, which is the direct link to the brain, is bypassed on the circuit. Such complex medical terminology describes why, for example, after touching a hot stove, you remove your hand immediately. You don’t have to think about it consciously; you just do it. In fact, in such a case the brain actually isn’t stimulated until after the reaction has occurred. Sensing and reacting without thought is an example of direct communication between the pseudo-unipolar sensory neuron and the motor neuron. While you don’t have to teach your body the feeling of pain that comes from the sensation of heat, you can familiarize your central nervous system (CNS) with a motion-based skill. The point is that the more you repeat an action, the less you have to think about doing so. Muscle memory kicks in, which means that the interconnector neuron is eliminated in the reflex arc. In shaving those nanoseconds, your reflexes get faster. As surgeon Ron Caputo, M.D., of Syracuse, New York, emphasizes, “Practice makes perfect works. Period.” In addition to developing reflexes and muscle memory through repetitive motion of a specific skill, Kessenich stresses the importance of being creative with training. “You’ve got to throw yourself curveballs, or else you’ll kind of flatline,” he says, which is why cross training is the other important component of his workout routine. The benefit of cross training is that it forces different muscle groups and parts of the brain to fire ways that they aren’t normally stimulated during your routines. This change-up improves overall fitness and awakens the body’s CNS by triggering different muscle groups all at once. While, as we’ve seen, the development of muscle memory through repetition is crucial to honing a specific skill (like sinking a 20-foot golf putt), the same daily workout does not contribute to an athlete’s general fitness level, and can, in fact, have adverse affects on the body’s health. Cross training allows certain muscles groups to rest while others are being used, thus decreasing the chance for stress-related injuries. Kessenich attributes his athletic consistency, including “never missing a practice,” as he states proudly, to his strong belief in cross training. Despite growing up immersed in lacrosse on Long Island, New York, Kessenich never identified himself strictly as a lacrosse player. “Lacrosse in our town was always a big deal,” he says about his exposure to the sport as a kid. “Growing up, I was a football player, a wrestler, and a lacrosse player, and they were equal thirds. I never looked at myself as a lacrosse player, I was just an athlete who happened to play lacrosse.” It wasn’t until his first year in high school that Kessenich ended up in goal, where he remained throughout his collegiate career. Known for his agility around the cage—especially his ability to outrun a defender for a ground ball, or intercept a pass between two attack men—Kessenich’s ability to dance around the crease made him look more like a boxer than a lacrosse player. That’s no accident, since Kessenich says he gained such agility from another kind of fighting: wrestling. “I always came off of wrestling season in such good shape. You have to put your body through such extremes. You have to survive.” In fact, when he started lacrosse full time at Hopkins, Kessenich employed the same basic training concepts he learned on the mat. “I jumped rope before and after practice, every single day. It was, and still is, one of the most important parts of my training.” In addition to jumping rope, Kessenich minimized the separation between himself and his teammates. While participating in goalie-specific training like getting shot on before a game, or working on full-field clears, Kessenich’s training was not all that different from his fellow teammates, a point he says is crucial in overall conditioning. “I always did sprints and line drills with the team. There wasn’t the separation that you see in hockey or soccer.” Having a multi-faceted approach to training helped Kessenich realize the importance of balance as a training concept during competition. And he believes that emphasis on balance becomes even more important as one grows older, when you must really listen to your body and tailor your workouts accordingly. “I’m in my early forties. I’ve always believed in symmetry and balance—the total body—and the only way you train every day and condition the total body is by changing it up.” Specifically, Kessenich recommends adding low-impact, high-intensity workouts (such as short-distance biking, swimming, or Bikram yoga) to a normal regime. This type of cross training can slow the kinds of deterioration that occur with routine stress on joints and ligaments. He believes that his type of interval workout, one that combines high-intensity periods with limited rest spots, is as beneficial as the workouts that come from playing hockey, tennis, or lacrosse. As games that are played in increments of five to 10 yards, these sports require explosive speed and provide little time for recovery. “I’m a fan of very little rest between workouts,” he says. “Walk to the next machine, or start the next exercise.” Sticking to his point about mixing it up, Kessenich jokes that these days he’s thinking about taking up a new sport. “I can’t play basketball anymore, I get elbowed in the head too much. I’m really good at croquet,” he says, laughing. “Yeah, I think that’s it, definitely croquet.”

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