Reaction time

Recently, I found on the 'net an applet ( that measures (raw) reaction time; which inspired me to write this article. Some people obsess about their reaction time, want to 'train it', brag about it etc.

The question is: How important really is raw reaction time(RRT) in fighting, sports, and in life in general(say, when driving)?

The answer is, not much. People who think RRT is important usually do so because they do not understand the way human being really reacts.

RRT of most people is between 0.23 and 0.3 - that is in perfect, laboratory condition. It is probably pointless to try to shorten it further - it simply doesn't work. In real situation, it will be probably a bit longer.

Nevertheless, some attacks take around 0.23second to complete. That means, if you react to them using your RRT, the way you waited for the 'green screen' in the applet, you get hit in the nose every fucking time! And we are only talking about perceiving the attack. To do a defensive movement takes another 0.3 seconds or so. If you use your 'raw reaction time' (0.23s), there is just no way your are going to act in time.

So how come you actually CAN block an attack? How come a tenis player actually can hit the ball?

That is because most trained reactions are in fact predictions. You do not react to the blow itself; you react to your prediction of what will happen in a future. This type of reaction is called 'multisignal reaction'. In martial arts, this is related to 'telegraphing'. It means that even before the attack is launched, there are preparatory movements that can be used to predict what will come. This is true in all sports - a good goalie can predict where the shot will go from the position of the opponent, his angle etc.

When I trained regional, I used to have a very terrifying rasteira(sweep) against kicks. When the opponent tried to kick, bam, he was on the floor as I swept his standing leg. Was it because of my small RRT? Nope, were it to react to his kick, I you never be able to get there in time - my step and sweep were certainly slower than a fast kick. The thing is, I was able to detect and predict the kick before it was launched.
It sounds paradoxical, but it is true: I started moving even before the kick was thrown!

This was because of the predictive ability I gained by watching (and sweeping) people's kicks.

On the contrary, if there really is nothing to predict future movement from - for example, as in the case of white background changing to green in the applet - you only react to what already happened. This is called 'quasisignal reaction'. It is quasisignal reaction that is measured by RRT.

If you use quasisignal reaction in real situation, you get hit! In order to react in time, you must use multisignal reaction.

People that are said to have 'great reaction' - be it in fighting or sports - have, in fact, great predictive abilities! Their RRT might suck.

It also shows why attempts to train your 'reaction time' using some machine are almost meaningless. What you need to train is your ability to predict - and that must be trained in concrete situations. If you want to train your reaction to punches, you must train blocking punches. It is as simple as that.

From the above, you can see that what is really important is prediction(multisignal reaction), not reaction(quasisignal reaction). Let other people obsess about their RRT, and train your prediction instead!


Excursus 1.

What would happen is the opponent threw some kick I wasn't used to? I wouldn't be able to sweep it, very simple.

This gets us to the problems of multisignal reaction.
First, you have to know the attack you are predicting. If the opponent attacks by something you have never seen before, your prediction fails.

Second, your mind has to be clear to realize the difficult task of prediction. That is why in streetfights, where people are overwhelmed by anger, fear, etc., their reaction - actually, predictive abilities - very often goes to shit. This is also why eastern masters stress having 'clear mind' in a fight - they intuitively knew that with a clouded mind, you cannot use multisignal reaction.

And without multisignal reaction, you get hit! Quasisignal reaction is simply too slow.


Excursus 2.

Modern self-defence schools actually (unknowingly) try to solve this problem:
Quasisignal reaction is too slow. Yet, most people are unable to react multisignally in a street fight.

So, what can you do?

Note that you CANNOT ESCAPE this problem by ignoring it. It is universal for all martials arts that involve humans.

There are several ways people solve it:
a)ostrich tactics - just hope that everything will be OK when you will be attacked. Good luck!
b)attack tactics - these people often cite the stupid maxim 'action is faster than reaction'(as we have seen above, that is not even true). And as such, their strategy is absolutely no defence, only attack, repeatedly and ferociously. While this works against an untrained opponent - what will happen if the opponent is stronger and more ferocious than you are?
You are only gambling your success on luck; that you will do fatal damage before he does it to you. As before, good luck!
c)helmet cover - there are several styles - for example, 'Crazy Monkey Defence' of Rodney King - that use clever arm positions; usually your arms hug your head like a helmet.
That means, if the opponent hits your head, they arm are already 'there', so to speak. _This allows you to successfully use quasisignal reaction_, as the small time it allows you is enough to block with the 'helmet'.

This type of defence is practical; but it has its problems; if the opponent attacks your body, or uses a weapon, your 'helmet defense' might not be optimal. It also usually doesn't allow immediate counterattack.

Nevertheless, I personaly find 'the helmet' a good tactics in the case you are overwhelmed in a fight, and/or cannot use multisignal reaction.

d)flinch - interesting concept that tries to replace quasisignal(and multisignal) reaction with a 'flinch/startle reflex' is Tony Blauer's Spear:

However, there are seem to be several philosophical 'holes' in the system. Let us pick them apart some other time.

e)fully multisignal systems - systems that are designed to allow multisignal reaction in a conflict. They use mental training to allow the fighter to keep clear head; and they also use elaborate strategy to assure you can always use multisignal reaction (ie you are never forced to react quasisignally or not at all). For example, in a multisignal system, you never let your potential opponnent come close to you; as that would not allow you to react multisignally. MS-1 is one of such multisignal systems.

Most of 'classical' martial arts - capoeiragem included - rank somewhere in between 'fully multisignal system' and 'ostrich tactics'. The actual position on this axis depends on the (intelectual) ability of the person who trains them.


Excursus 3 - Tony Blauer

Now, as I said, there are philosophical holes in TB's system; or at least in the part of it he presents.

Let us start with his generic assertion 'action is faster than the reaction'.
To demonstrate, he has an opponent standing close and launching a surprise attack. You cannot defend. Of course, here, action beats reaction.
But that is only because the situation was rigged in favor of action. Let us have different scenario. This time, the opponent is 2 meters away. As he steps in to attack, before he can even throw the punch, I kick him in the knee (or rasteira his front leg). ?!?! Here, clearly, reaction was faster than action.
From that, you can see that action is faster than reaction only if it situation is rigged in its favor.

From this generic refutation, let us move to concrete example. Again, Blauer has an opponent standing close and throwing a surprise punch. Blauer claims that he cannot use a complex motor skill to defeat it; he has to defend with a flinch.

Of course, he is totally right, in the circumstances he presents - but, _why is he standing there in the first place?_. Why did he let the potentially dangerous person come so close?

This is the danger in Blauer's thinking. It solves a situation you should not find youself in in the first place. And as such, it numbs the minds of those involved to the fact that you should not allow said situation to even happen!

More genericaly, it numbs the multisignal thinking in general: You should always anticipate(multisignally) that the person could be a threat, and not let him move into a dangerous position. Instead, Blaeur has you standing there and relying on a flinch.

There are situations in self-defence that are unsolvable. For example, you have a person behind you, hitting you with a lead pipe over your head. How will you defend? You cannot. You will be hit.
The key is, because you understand the above, you have to avoid this situation at all costs.

Similarly, what is better - to try to block a sucker punch with some magical 'flinch' - or not allow it to happen at all? It is said that ounce of prevention is worth the pounds of cure....

However, there is even deeper layer underneath the theory of Spear(tm); the sindefendological(sindefendology is a science of self-defense) layer.
All this nice, 'scientific' talk about using a flinch to block a close-range shot muddles the basic fact: The moment your opponent gets so close, you must attack! You cannot wait for him to do his move. As from this distance, he can launch a strike so quickly you cannot defend it. The moment he steps close, he IS a threat! It doesn't matter what he does; it is as if he already begun attacking - you must attack before he does!

A law that punishes you for this is a bad law. I repeat - the moment the opponent steps so close his potential attack will be unblockable, it is as if he already began an attack. This is a multisignal thinking in action.