40-Yard Dash by Athletic Design

Pick two keys on your keyboard and hit them alternately as quickly as possible to run as fast as possible. Press the How To Play-button inside the game to see a video on correct tapping technique!

Just like a NFL Combine 40-yard dash, you don’t wait for the sound of a gun but start when you feel ready. Unlike the NFL Combine, the timer starts at once (more about timing ‘controversies’ in the text below about Usain Bolt). Also, you run with spikes on a beautiful sundrenched tangerine track rather than a green football turf.

Please note that leaderboards are disabled for technical reasons for all our Flash-games including this one. But at least you do get a grade/comment on your time after each run.

These games are still being played so we mean to enable leaderboards again when new technical solutions for Flash-games like Newgrounds’ Ruffle appear. In the meantime we are happy that the SuperNova browser extension make playing Flash-games almost hassle free.

40-yard dash is not a competition distance

The shortest championship distance in the sport of track & field (internationally known as athletics) is 100 meters for outdoors competitions and 60 meters for indoor competitions. Shorter distances, like the rare 50 meters, do occur in non-championship competitions. Other short distances may be contested at the youth level or in the American college system. In training it is common to run 30 meters from a stand (to evaluate acceleration ability) and from a flying start (to evaluate top speed ability)

40 yards equals 36.58 meters and is a distance used by coaches and scouts to evaluate speed relevant for the sport of American football. It is a test of acceleration rather than top speed as good runners do not reach top speed until after 40 yards. The annual NFL Scouting Combine is the closest thing to an actual competition for the 40-yard dash.

Usain Bolt vs. fastest footballer?

Naturally it is then tempting to compare the best track & field sprinters and with the fastest American football players

It should be said that almost all fast American football players have competed in college track & field earlier in their career.

There are numerous pitfalls to avoid though.

The most blatant mistake is to compare the average speed so that Usain Bolt’s 100 m world record of 9.58 would equal 9.58*36.58/100 = 3.50 s in the 40 y. The average speed of a 100 m race is of course much faster as 40 yards is not long enough to even reach top speed.

A better option is to estimate the split time at 36.5 meters of a 60 m or 100 m race. The fact that the goal of these races is not to clock the best time possible at the split distance is not really an issue. There is little, if anything, to gain by adopting another strategy. A 100 m sprinter goes full out from start.

It is possible to estimate a split time by the way of ordinary TV-footage with reasonable accuracy. In some competitions, split time is actually recorded by sport scientists. In Usain Bolt’s record race, split times was measured by laser and published for 10 m intervals. From these a split time at 36.6 meters can be estimated with, again, reasonable accuracy at 4.36 s.

Several football players were timed faster than that in the 2010 Combine. Case closed? Not at all as the timing methods are very different.

Timing differences explained

Track & field uses a fully automatic timing (FAT) system. The timer starts as the gun goes off and a camera at the finishing line is connected to the timer. The time when the runner’s torso (arms and head do not count) crosses the line can be established by studying photos. (The mentioned split times were, however, established by a laser ray that was shot from a fixed position behind the runner and reflected by the lower back of the runner.)

No gun is used in the 40-yard dash. The runner starts at the time of his own choosing. This eliminates the reaction time of the athlete as a factor of the race time and sort of makes it more a test of pure speed. Sort of, because the timer is started manually by an official at the first detected movement of the runner, so instead they add the reaction time of the official as a factor of the race time. The slower the official, the better the race time. The start of the manual timer is therefore delayed by at least 0.40 s compared to the gun triggered timer in track & field.

Take a look at the graph below to understand why it adds up to 0.40 s. If we adjust for this, Usain Bolt’s time would dip below 4.00 s!

The timer is finally stopped either manually or electronically. The manual method is obviously not reliable down to the 0.01 precision but neither is the electronic variant. The timer is stopped by any body part that crosses a laser ray aligned with the finishing line. With a bit of luck the arm can stop the timer about 0.05 s before the torso.

Actually, there are three times for every runner & race at the Combine. Two times are “hand-held” and one is “electronic”. These names refer to the method of stopping the clock - all three times are manually started. As every runner races twice they are in total given six different times. By cherry-picking the best one, the advantage compared to a Fully Automatic Time is likely to exceed 0.40 s by far. The best time of the 2010 Combine was Trindon Holliday’s 4.21 which was a hand-held time. The other hand-held time of the same race was 4.24 while the electronic was 4.34. In his second race the hand-held times were 4.32 & 4.40 while the electronic was 4.38. His best electronic time, 4.34, became Holliday’s public/official time of the 2010 NFL Combine.

Anders Hansson, 2010.

Update, January 2, 2020

Almost ten years has passed since the original text. Usain Bolt retired from sprinting after the 2017 world championship. He never bettered his 9.58, which is still - by a wide margin - the world record. The world champion of 2019 is Christian Coleman. Coleman possesses a blazing acceleration and while he has not come close to Bolt’s 100 m times, he is the current world record holder in the 60 m and should be considered Bolt’s equal in very short races like the 40-yard dash.

Bolt did not compete indoors and never ran the 60 m. As Jamaicans are able to train outdoors all year and as indoors competitions are of less prestige, this is not surprising. Especially as Bolt’s major strength undoubtedly is in the second half of the 100 m race.

In March 2017 John Ross ran an “electronic” 4.22 and set a new “official” NFL Combine 40-yard dash record and subsequently called out Usain Bolt. While Bolt laughed it off, upcoming star Christian Coleman wanted to make a statement and posted a video of him running a 4.11 40 yard-dash done NFL-style, i.e. a hand/manually timed start and on football turf instead of running track.

And finally in February 2019 Bolt did run a 40-yard dash! At a NFL event the retired sprinter very casually ran a 4.22 in sneakers and sweatpants. Can we trust that time? No.

The bottom line is: NO hand timed time can be trusted.

Short history of device thrashing

In the 1978 coin-op, Atari Football, you outran your opponents by rolling a trackball as fast as possible. In Microsoft’s 1981 home computer game, Olympic Decathlon, for the Apple II, on the other hand, you controlled the speed of your athlete by tapping two keyboard buttons alternately. 1983 then saw the release of Activision’s Decathlon for the home video game system Atari 2600. This time you used a joystick that you frantically waggled left-right to increase speed. Later that year Konami released the successful coin-op, Track & Field. Like its arcade stablemate, Atari Football, a few units were equipped with a trackball. Most units, however, simply had two digital buttons that was supposed to be alternately pounded with the left and right hand drum-roll style.


The common neurophysiological factor

Different input devices aside, these control methods all depended on the alternating firing of the muscles of a muscle pair. While one muscle contracts the opposing muscle relaxes, causing movement in one direction. The roles of the muscles then shift, causing movement in the other direction. Repeating this produces a shaking movement.

When tapping a finger to press a key the downward stroke is produced by the contraction of a muscle in the palm side of the forearm, while the upward stroke is produced by a muscle at the knuckle side of the forearm. An average maximal frequency is about 6 taps per second. It is however possible to press the key by using muscles around the shoulder instead. This causes the whole arm to shake, but is actually superior for producing a high frequency shake and will allow our average subject to reach a frequency of 7 taps per second. This also transforms the key tapping into something very similar to joystick waggling.

The double finger tapping of Olympic Decathlon or the double arm pounding of Track & Field is slightly more involved. Now two pairs of muscles (i.e. 4 muscles) must work together in a coordinated fashion. This may explain while double finger tapping produces a frequency not quite double that of single finger tapping – say 10 taps per second instead of 2×6 = 12 taps per seconds. Double arm pounding is more coordinative demanding as the left arm is controlled by the right side of the brain and vice versa. Only trained individuals are able to come anywhere close to double the rate of single arm pounding.

Now, these kind of games do not simply meassure tapping frequency. They aim to offer a fair and fun game and are visually represented by a runner (not a mere number). The algorithm that takes the input frequency and generates the running speed is probably more complicated than you expect.

The problem of counting the presses

First of all the algorithm must decide what qualifies for a good press. This may sound obvious for double finger tapping – any press that is on the same button as the previous press is disqualified. But this simply won’t suffice as it would make it possible to achieve superior times by hammering with two fingers of the same hand (see the center video in the How To Play-panel) as one finger can be positioned so that it almost always hits its key before the other finger hits its key.

In Track & Field, which uses two buttons, it is actually perfectly valid to press only one button repeatedly. Instead the game disqualifies a button press that occurs while the other button has not yet been released. This, in effect, punishes random button bashing and encourages strictly alternate left-right pounding. However, this rule would make double finger tapping very hard and awkward as the range of motions of the fingers are so small compared to the motions of double arm pounding.

We chose instead to ban a press if it occurs less than 25 ms after the preceding press. This allows for extremely tight double finger tapping while putting a stop to two-fingers-of-one-hand tapping. It will also make double arm pounding harder as only very skilled individual can do double arm pounding with the steady, precision of double finger tapping. However, skilled individuals (e.g. drummers) definitely can and because arm pounding is faster than finger tapping, they will achieve exceptional times with that method.

One can argue that the challenge of inventing and experimenting with different input methods is part of the appeal of these games. And there certainly is rich tradition of player creativity. External tools have always been popular, but world class Track & Field players display even more ingenuity when it comes to utilizing the dexterity of their bare hands. Some use a combination of quadruple finger tapping and double arm pounding! We want this game, however, to simply be a fair test of double finger tapping. In vain, no doubt. Besides the double arm pounders, we expect the leaderboard to be filled with results of button tapping robots, scripts, special input devices, and so on.

The problem of converting the presses to the speed of the character

Secondly, there is the part of the algorithm where a press is transformed to the motion of the athlete on the screen. Typically, a good button press will increase the speed of the athlete and typically the size of the speed increment will depend on the previous speed. This will produce a realistic velocity-distance curve for the athlete and this was the method we used in our game Fila Decathlon for the Gameboy Advance (read more about this procedure here). Accordingly the value of a button press is not fixed, and hence there is not a perfect correlation between average tapping frequency and the race result. The frame rate will also influence the timing and consequently the value of presses, which is unfortunate for Flash-games as they can never be trusted to produce a fixed frame rate.

A different approach is to let a certain number of presses correspond to a certain distance. In this game you will have run 40 yards when you have made 60 good presses. It would however look very odd if the athlete just stops and waits for the next press. For that reason there is a minimum speed of the athlete and as a result it is possible to cover the race with much less than 60 presses, albeit with a less than stellar result.

With this information you can easily convert your time to your average tapping frequency. For example, a time of 5 seconds equals 60/5 = 12 taps per second.

It should be noted that a maximal tapping frequency can only be sustained for a very short time. Not even for five seconds. If this game instead was a 100 meters race, the average frequency certainly would be lower.

What influences the tapping frequency?

Finger tapping is actually a common clinical test of the intactness of the nervous system. For healthy subjects, myelin, the insulating substance around the nerve cells, is said to correlate with tapping speed. These tests have also shown that males produce better than females and that tapping speeds begins to decline slightly after the age of 40. The underlying physiological factors of a fast tapping frequency are probably common to the factors of a fast reaction time. You can read more about that in our companion game On Your Marks!. However, so called biomechanical parameters such as strength of the involved muscles, lever arms of their tendons, and the weight of the vibrated body part have more prominent roles in tapping tests.

Also, your tapping frequency is more trainable than your reaction time, especially for the more coordinative demanding tests of double finger tapping or double arm pounding.

In the more basic test of single arm pounding/tapping and single foot tapping, it was found that elite sprinters performed considerably better than the students in the control group. One of the sprinters made 180 right arm taps in 20 seconds. This may very well reflect an innate quality rather than a trained one as it is a movement very different from anything in a sprinters training. This is emphasized by the fact that drummers do not perform better than non-drummers in single arm pounding.

In a study of single finger tapping and double finger tapping it was found that pianists were clearly faster than the non-musician control group. Their advantage was especially large for other double finger combinations than the normal middle-index and it was found that this was due to less involvement of the brain cortex (i.e. less needed "thinking").

For double arm pounding the cortex involvement is more complex as left and brain halves need to communicate. To win the World’s Fastest Drummer competition, you surely need both exceptional natural talent and lots of training. The best scores are above 1200 beats per minute. Their raw ability is demonstrated by their maximal single arm tapping frequency of 10 taps per second - the highest ever recorded. Their training has enabled them to double that by utilizing two hands and to, amazingly enough, keep the pace for a whole minute. Perhaps surprisingly it has been shown that drum and sticks does not enhance speed of tapping for ordinary drummers. The technique of the super fast drummers is however slightly different with a more loose wrist and it seems likely that this is facilitated by the drum and sticks.

Double finger tapping is more restricted techniquewise but you can always experiment with the range of motion of the fingers and the tenseness/looseness of the hand & arm. Naturally the keyboard plays an important role. You want the keys to offer very little resistance and they should only have to be pressed a very short distance to achieve switch closure. Most laptops should work fine.

Anders Hansson, 2010-2014.