Situational reflex: the key to martial effectiveness


In a recent post I discussed a query from a Traditional Fighting Arts Forums member, Emero, about how to deal with circular kicks such as roundhouse kicks, spinning kicks and crescent kicks. In particular Emero wanted to know how he could improve his responses to his master’s use of those kicks in sparring.

Clearly, the goal for a martial artist is to develop reflex reactions. Emero’s goal is to do better when sparring with his master. Specifically, he wants to move forward, at the right angle and at the right time, into his master’s circular kicks so as to negate their effect. He’s tired of “eating” them.

How can he get his body to do this in sparring?

Reflexive response

Clearly, Emero doesn’t have time to “think” about each kick as it’s happening. He needs to act subconsciously, reflexively, automatically - pick your own adverb. There simply is no time for logical “planning”.

In this regard Emero is no different to a tennis player who is trying to develop good ground or volley skills. If you watch a professional tennis player, you’ll see all sorts of apparently “intelligent” plays; set-up shots that seem to be calculated well in advance, like an elaborate game of chess.

Except we know that the speed at which the game is being played makes “intelligent” or “logical” thought processes impossible. When someone like Roger Federer displays his genius on the court, he is not “thinking things through”. The speed of the exchange makes such conscious thought processes impossible.

Some of Roger Federer’s amazing tennis shots - featuring “intelligent” play. And yet, we know there simply is no time to be “intelligent” on a conscious level…

You could show a less-abled tennis player a few of Federer’s tactics from the above video. But isolating and examining these tactics doesn’t help you acquire them - not by itself anyway. At this point the less-abled tennis player is no different from Emero; he’s been told what he needs to do - now there is the “small” matter of getting his body to do it under speed and pressure in an unscripted environment! Both the tennis player and Emero need to be able to act appropriately even though there is no time for intelligent planning or other conscious thought. How do they acquire this ability?

Reflex vs. reaction time

At this point I’d like to draw an important distinction between two variables: reflex and reaction time. All too often these are conflated. But they are not nearly the same thing.

Let’s consider Emero. I don’t know him, but I gather that he is a young man, possibly in his early 20s. That would mean that he has a fairly fast average reaction time. Your reaction time is something you are born with - some folks are naturally faster in their reactions, some are slower. But we know that it is going to be pretty good for most people in their 20s. For a young man of Emero’s age, this could be anywhere from 0.16s to 0.20s.

The sad news is that once you pass your physical peak (in your late 20s) your reaction time starts to decline. For example, mine is currently 0.28s or so on average.1

In any event, let us assume that Emero has a fast reaction time suitable to his age. Clearly this doesn’t mean he can read his master’s movement and thwart his kicks. After all, he says he is still “eating them”! He has a fast reaction time, but something is missing. What?
    The answer is that he is missing an appropriate reflexive response.
The problem isn’t that Emero doesn’t react quickly enough: The problem is that he doesn’t react at all - at least not in a useful way. He has the potential to react very quickly indeed. But that potential does not, of itself, confer upon him any advantage in the present circumstances.

Situational reflexes

Consider this example:

Recently I was walking down the fruit and vegetable aisle of the supermarket, pushing my trolley. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a ripe mango starting to fall. My hand shot out and grabbed it just before it hit the ground. A man standing nearby exclaimed: “My, you have a fast reaction time!”

But he was wrong. In truth, I had reacted relatively slowly - the fruit had almost hit the ground. What surprised him wasn’t the shortness of my reaction time, nor the speed of my hand movement.
    What surprised him was that I reacted in the first place.
He was surprised that my subconscious even had an automatic reaction to a piece of fruit dropping. After all, his didn’t. He was nearer to the falling fruit than I. He was younger than I am and probably had a faster reaction time and a faster hand speed. Yet he didn’t so much as twitch when the mango began to fall. In other words, he had no reflex reaction for that situation. But, for whatever reason, I did (being a parent of young children who are continually dropping things might have something to do with it!).

And so what Emero is missing is not speed nor reaction time.
    He is missing what I call a “situational reflex” - an appropriate reflexive reaction for the relevant situation.
Faced with the circular kicks, his body does not do anything. If it does anything, it is probably some kind of unproductive flinch - eg. a cower, an outward movement of the hands or both (see my article “The flinch reflex”). But there’s a good chance it doesn’t even do that. Just as the man in the supermarket didn’t have a “falling fruit reaction” Emero doesn’t have a “circular kick reaction” - yet, anyway. It’s that simple.

“Situational reflex blind spots”

Lest Emero think I’m picking on him, I must point out that we all have our “situational reflex blind spots”. In other words, all martial artists face situations for which they don’t have an appropriate reflex. It is a fact of life.

Consider the fight between Lyoto Machida and Randy Couture. Machida won that fight with his infamous “Karate Kid” kick as depicted in the adjacent animated gif. It is clear to me that Couture did not have a reflexive response to the set-up moves initiated by Machida - at least, not one that was remotely appropriate. Machida starts to make a fairly big jump. During the whole jump all that Couture’s flinch reflex does is to make him draw back and down a little. Simultaneously he starts to raise his left arm in a triangle shield.2 Meanwhile Machida is flying into him with a jumping kick!

I raise this example not to belittle so fine a fighter as Couture, but to point out the manifestly obvious - he did not have an appropriate reflex response to a jumping kick executed in this type of situation. Instead, his body defaulted to a more generic flinch reflex, which was manifestly inadequate for the task.

An appropriate situational reflex would have had Couture pushing forward or backward the moment Machida started to jump. Instead, Couture was caught flat-footed in no-man’s land. It just goes to show that even the best fighters can have “situational reflex blind spots” (Couture is still most certainly one of the best fighters in the world).

I’ve previously discussed how the front snap kick is a very effective weapon - and how I pass by a certain boxercise school practically every day only to see people circling each other while standing directly in the firing line for a front snap kick - clearly oblivious to that fact. In this case I think it is self-evident that their training is not providing them with a reflex to deal with front kicks. Instead they unknowingly working around a “situational reflex blind spot”. This is not an issue in a boxing/boxercise environment. But if one wishes to expand one's fighting skills to kickboxing, MMA or civilian defence, then this blind spot needs to be addressed.

It is precisely this blind spot that we see in the Anderson Silva front snap kick knockout of Vitor Belfort. The two fighters are squared off facing each other. I could see immediately that they were standing in prime front snap kick territory. Belfort however was oblivious to this. Silva was not. He launched a front kick and Belfort just stood there - he barely reacted at all.

Belatedly Belfort raised his right knee - most probably because his reflexes expected a roundhouse kick to his thigh; this was the “closest fit” reflex his brain could muster. But really, like Couture, he was caught flat-footed in no-man’s land. Why? Because the technique that caught him - the front snap kick - was not something he typically trained for. And he had no appropriate situational reflex for that technique, launched in that circumstance.


So martial arts training involves much more than training for speed, strength or endurance. It involves more than trying to “speed up your reaction time” (which isn’t really possible) or “improving your reflexes” in a general sense.

Rather, what Emero, the budding tennis player, Couture and Belfort - in fact, all of us - want to do is to acquire an appropriate reflexive reaction for each potential situation we might face. In other words we need a well-rounded, comprehensive set of situational reflexes.

How can we get these? I propose to deal with this specifically in coming articles.

Next: Rhythm and its importance in developing situational reflex


1. If you want to test your reaction time, try this website.
2. It is apposite to note that this withdrawal of the body and protective movement of the arms is more or less the default “flinch reflex” (altered a little to the MMA environment, as evidence by the triangle shield) - see my article on this topic.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic


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