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Reflexes

Intro

To effectively defend and attack, you must have sharp reflexes (quick reaction time). Reflexes may be developed through repetitious training. Through proper training, an action may become almost instinctive and happen without conscious thought. Reflexes depend on the nervous system of the body.

Nervous system

The nervous system detects a need to react and provides stimulus to the muscles.

Sensory nerves

These nerves involve the five senses: sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell. They provide information to the brain so it knows what action is required. Sometimes the information is intercepted in the spine and sent directly to the muscles (instinctive action).

Some people also believe that there is a “Sixth Sense” that involves a heightened mental state but this is pure speculation. However, there are three more senses that some think should be added to the original five: balance, proprioception, and direction.

Ways to use these senses in martial arts:
  • Sight. Watch for the opponent’s movements to try to assess when and how he or she will move. Watch yourself for errors as you perform, especially while in front of a mirror. Sight affects our senses of balance and direction as well.
  • Hearing. Use it to hear sounds the opponent’s movement makes, such as shuffling feet or the breath getting heavy when an attack is imminent. Listen for the command to begin fighting, if you can react quicker than the opponent you may score.
  • Touch. This is useful when in contact with an opponent, particularly during wrestling or ground fighting. Use touch to detect muscles that are preparing to move, detect filches that indicate pain, and to gauge the power techniques.
  • Smell. Use it to detect an odor of alcoholic beverage or other drugs.
  • Taste. What is that liquid on my lip? Is it blood or sweat? Is it mine or my opponents?
  • Proprioception. This gives you an awareness of how much tension is in the muscles. It lets you sense the amount of force you are receiving or are applying.
  • Balance. Used it to maintain your balance when stepping, shifting, or kicking. 
  • Direction. The sense of direction, in combination with several others of the above-mentioned senses, allows you to orient yourself in the fight.

Motor nerves

These nerves control muscular action, i.e. movement. Once the brain has determined what action is required, the motor nerves direct the muscles to contract and act.

Vision

While sparring, a fighter's reactions are usually triggered by what the fighter sees. Two major pathways lead from our eyes to our brains. The slower parvocellular (p) pathway carries complex information, such as colors, contrast, as brightness. The faster magnocellular (m) pathway transmits information about motion and triggers fast reactions. Therefore, if you can avoid triggering your opponent’s m-pathway you may be able to add about one-tenth of a second to the opponent's reaction time, which may mean the difference between a blocked attack and a point.

To avoid triggering the opponent's m-pathway, you should avoid any extraneous movement that signals an attack. A fist whose only movement is directed at the opponent's face provides little clues to its movement. To the opponent, the fist appears to be getting larger as it gets closer, but this subtle change may not trigger the m-pathway. Whereas, if the fist makes any lateral movement, the m-pathway is sure to be triggered.

Reaction time

There is a time gap between detection, stimulus, and muscle contraction. This delay is called reaction time. Reaction time depends on the type of reflex action being used.

There are three types of reflex action: unconditioned, conditioned, and trained:
  • Unconditioned. These are instinctive natural reflexes, such as blinking when there is a movement toward eyes or jerking back from a hot surface. This type of reflex has the shortest reaction time since the brain does not process it; however, it is the least useful to martial artists. They must train to resist some of these reflexes, such as blinking when a punch is approaching.
  • Conditioned. These are reflexes that can be learned. An example of this is the classic experiment where Dr. Pavlov rang a bell when he fed his dogs. Over time, the dogs became so conditioned that they began to salivate anytime they heard a bell, even when food was not present.

    This type of reflex has the second fastest reaction time since the brain does not have to process sensory input; it is conditioned to respond directly to the input without conscious thought. Conditioned reflexes may also be learned unconsciously, so they are open to deception, therefore, they are not too useful to martial artists. An opponent may condition you to react to a feint, so martial artists must train to resist this type of conditioning.
  • Trained. These are reflexes that may be increased by repeated practice. It is a conscious reaction to a sensory input. This type of reflex has the slowest reaction time but, with continuous training over a long period, it may be developed to almost an instinctive reaction time. Since this reflex enables you to use judgment before action, it is the most useful reflex to martial artists.

Things that slow reaction time

  • Not being properly trained.
  • Mind or body fatigued.
  • Being absent-minded.
  • Being emotionally upset.
  • Fixating on one thing.
  • Too much sensory input to process quickly.
  • Receiving indirect sensory input, such as an echo or something appearing in peripheral vision.
  • Inhaling when taking an action; the response is quicker and more powerful during exhaling.
  • Being off-balance.
  • Being in a fixed position.
  • Moving in the wrong direction.

Ways to speed reaction time

  • Get the opponent to concentrate on one movement, then change it.
  • Get the opponent to fear attacks from any direction, which slows reaction to any one direction.
  • Reaction time is slower to movements in indirect sight, so attack from the opponent's sides.
  • Attack when the opponent inhales, when reaction times are slower.
  • Attack when the opponent is off-balance.

Factors that affect reaction time

  • Inertia. An object at rest tends to remain at rest and an object in motion tends to remain in motion. It takes time to move an object from rest and it takes time to redirect an object form from its initial direction. The more a person weighs, the greater the inertia and the longer the reaction time and vice versa. Big, strong muscles are slower than wiry, toned muscles. 
  • Stability. If you are unstable (off-balance) then you must regain stability before you can react effectively.

SOURCES
  • Watanabe, J. and Avakian, L. (1974). The Secrets of Judo. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company.

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