The Cowboy Gunslinger and Speed Punching

Speed and quickness are generally important in martial arts in terms of movement and striking; footwork and speed punching/kicking training drills are common place. Attempts to address punching speed at the initiation of a strike are less common. Steve Morris tackles this area in a number of ways, one of which involves reading cues and beating the incoming punch. I don’t want to say it’s impossible but I’ve not managed to beat him to the punch, he always puts his punch in the gap between initiation and finish.

Morris is very good at reading cues and acting on them, this definitely contributes to his speed. Another contribution maybe the inherent speed of reacting to environmental cues. One of the blokes who trains with us put me onto some recent research from the University of Birmingham (UB), who were testing for speed differences between self initiated actions and reactions to events in the environment.

This research was motivated by renowned Danish physicist and Nobel laureate, Niels Bohr, who had an obsession with western films. He wanted to know why the bloke who pulled the gun first always lost. He tested this with toy ‘cap’ guns but in the study at UB they used pressure pads. The results show that reacting to the opponent produced quicker reaction times in comparison to when a subject initiated the action.

So what!

Well this finding shows that human beings are able to react to environmental stimulus more quickly than if they plan the action. This quicker reaction is at the cost of greater error but that’s normal. When speed is desirable the faster you perform the less accurate an action will be. Of course in a gunfight, speed is of the essence when drawing your six shooter, but you only have to be accurate enough to get the gun into a shooting position. Precision accuracy is not critical at this point.

The study itself is a nice piece of work which controls for social aspects (the findings remained when the opponent was a computer), type of movement (quicker movements were still present when the buttons were arranged differently) and when there were no movement cues (computers don‘t produce any). The difference in speed while small (20ms) equated to 10% which is useful in a life or death situation.

For the cowboy gunslinger to take out the bad guy 20 paces away, he’ll need a fast drawing action and good aim, but so long as he is operating purely reactively rather than from a deliberate intention to draw the gun, he can take advantage of the phenomena described in the study.

The authors suggest that different neural pathways govern these two types of movement initiation. That is reactive actions take a different neural route in the brain than intentionally driven actions, with their research shows that these are faster for reactive actions. It is possible that under pressure less conscious involvement is desirable, better to react instincively.

These findings have implications for martial arts, certainly self defence. If you are threatened the freeze flight or fight response will kick in and you become hyper activated. Then you may adopt either a reactive or intentional style of movement, i.e. an ‘observe and strike’ vs. “I’m gonna hit him” mode. Alternatively, you may be naturally predisposed toward one or the other mode. The study suggests that one has a 10% reaction time advantage over the other. A follow up post will take a further look at these implications for speed punching.

3 thoughts on “The Cowboy Gunslinger and Speed Punching

  1. With regards to action vs. reaction, it rather depends on how you train the volitional circuits. If you use the startle/withdrawal reflex phenomenon as your base, you can build up speed that I’ve personally found to be as fast as my reaction.

    Also, with regards to your reaction speed, when you are looking at your opponent you can use opportunistic cues as stimuli to react to. It’s a matter of training to see the opportunity and learning to react to it. That’s why you have to train your recognition and response networks in a very fast zone. And you have to ensure that your reactions are ones which are appropriate to the tactical context. Because if you’re just reacting, then you will always be one move behind the other guy if he’s a fast guy.

    When we look at the whole thing, anticipation is the key, because anticipation will not only allow you to react quicker to what’s coming because your recognition networks have been built, but also if you’re in the red zone you have no choice but to anticipate–that’s the nature of the red zone.

  2. Ash – thanks mate

    Steve – thanks for commenting. This post was just to describe the study really, the next one will expand. For me the most interesting aspect of this work is that different neural pathways are involved for reactive and intentional actions.

    You’ve preempted that post a bit with what you say. Cue’s as stimuli are of course key to reactions, which is why Roger Federer is quicker than a regular player or novice, as per your recent blog post – perceptual flexibility

    As for anticipation in the red zone, that has changed so much for my understanding of entering, which is one thing making it work effectively is another.

    Anyway there is more to follow this week.

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