Friday, 31 July 2009

Block or Flinch in martial arts?

In my karate classes I have been trained to respond to an incoming strike or kick with an evasion or block (or both simultaneously). The same principle applies in my kobudo training and in the very small amount of ju-jitsu that I have done. Evade and/or block seems to be a universal tactic in martial arts in response to an incoming attack.

To perform this tactic I need to perfect distancing and timing, and to make some quick judgements about what type of punch or kick is coming towards me so that I can choose the appropriate direction to evade and the correct block to use. That's a lot of information for my poor brain to process in a split second! If I get it wrong I will get hit! I have no idea whether I could successfully evade or block a strike in real life because no-one has ever tried to hit me for real.

However, what I do know is that if anyone did suddenly throw a surprise attack at me I would flinch very quickly to block the attack. I know this because the flinch response is hardwired into my brain - it's instinctive, I wouldn't be able to not do it! This is true for all of us.

So what exactly is the flinch response? The flinch response is an unconscious response to a perceived threat. Basically, when the human body perceives a threat, the body responds to ward off the threat through a series of reflex actions. The flinch response is not a true reflex which involves a reflex arc operating purely at the level of the spinal cord and bypassing the brain altogether e.g. the withdrawal reflex where your hand would automatically pull away if it touches a hot object like an iron. The flinch response involves a whole set of autonomic and somatic pathways that pass through the amygdala part of the brain. However it still bypasses the conscious part of the brain and thus occurs much more quickly than if we were consciously aware of it.

Apparently there are three different types of flinch:

1. Push away danger - You may have experienced this flinch as a front seat passenger in a car when you don't perceive the driver to be braking hard enough to prevent hitting the car in front!
2. Head Shield - The hands, forearms and elbows come up to protect the face and head, the shoulders rise, and head retracts.

3. Shield and Turn - This form of the flinch is associated with a threat that is picked up with the peripheral vision. This involves an arm, forearm and elbow shield that is raised to the side of threat with a circular/angular movement down and away from the line of the threat.

These three types of flinch have a few things in common: They generally lower and widen the centre of balance; the arms are placed into defensive positions that cover the mid line of the body and help defend vital points; the eyes focus intently on the threat; the breath is exhaled quickly which is a component of both absorbing shock from an incoming blow and delivering a blow with power, and the fingers are webbed and spread for additional coverage and protection.

The other important thing about the flinch response is that because it is a series of reflex actions that pass through the brain (rather than bypassing it) it can be consciously modified and therefore utilised by martial artists as part of their defense strategy. It occurs almost instantaneously in response to a threat even preceding the adrenaline induced fright/flight response.

So why don't we use it more in martial arts? Relying on our own genetically hardwired self-defense responses has got to be quicker and more effective than training to evade and block an attack in umpteen different ways and then hoping you've chosen the right one!

In fact there are some new and developing self-defense systems that are based around the flinch response. The person who has led the way in this is Tony Blauer who has conducted over 20 years of scientific and empirical research into the flinch response and then developed a new close quarter combat (CQC) system based on this research called SPEAR (Spontaneous Protection Enabling Accelerated Response). In the UK a Martial Arts school in Northumbria has developed a new self-defense system called DFM (Directional Fighting Method) which is also based on the flinch response. You can find out more about SPEAR and DFM by clicking on the links below.

Here's Tony Blauer talking about the flinch response:

So where do you stand on the use of the flinch response - do you utilise it in your martial arts practice?

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Dan Prager said...


I've heard of several approaches that build on natural reactions, of various degrees of antiquity.

For example: Feldenkrais in I think 1920s Palestine (this is all off the top of my head, so I suggest substantiating before repeating this)-- well before he learned Judo -- was self-taught in Jiu-Jitsu and taught a group who then got into fights and came off poorly. So he got them to go out and provoke fights and secretly filmed them, noted their initial reactions, and then built there revised training around where to go next after their instinctive reactions. After that, their skirmishes went much better.

Man of the West said...

Hmmmm. Evade or block? What about moving into your attacker?

John W. Zimmer said...

Assuming you are evading then I'd like to point out that what you say is probably true but if an attacker is already within your striking distance and started to throw a punch without telegraphing - a flinch or block will not be fast enough.

I would argue that it is better to train at keeping your distance until you are ready to attack (or be attacked) rather then work on reaction time (that is about the same for everyone).

Given a block or flinch - I would go for the flinch as it is closer to my preferred method - covering (while I am concentrating on striking - much like a boxer does).

Good explanation of you main points!

Sue C said...

Hi guys - thanks for your comments. It seems the flinch response has been researched and utilised in martial arts much earlier than I realised.

I think one of the things that worries me about martial arts training is that it might actually train my innate protective responses ( like flinch response) out of me, rather than building my responses around it. If I rely on developing new motor skills and muscle memory then surely I'll be slower at responding to an attack than if I allow my reflex actions to respond first?

I'm thinking about this in relation to an unexpected street attack rather than an artificial sparring scenario.

Dan Prager said...

Hi Sue:

I think that it's a healthy concern, but don't panic!

How can you (safely) explore this issue?

Sue C said...

Hi Dan,
I don't know the answer to that question. I can read about the issues, discuss them and ruminate over them, and I can practice the most pertinant physical techniques such as striking vital points (though finding a male partner willing to be stuck in these tender places is difficult!).

However, at the end of the day you don't know what will really work until someone attacks you for real. Apparently martial artists don't have a good record at winning street fights - now why is that?

Dan Prager said...

Hi Sue

There are several methodological issues in self-defence training. The one that you opened up was augmenting existing reflexes.

Others include: How to train safely (for all involved parties), how to simulate the stress of an assault situation, how to reproduce the element of surprise.

Different approaches to training for self-defence make different trade-offs. There's no one answer. ;-)

Man of the West said...

Apparently martial artists don't have a good record at winning street fights...

Beg to differ, on two counts:

1) If what you're interested in is self-defense, quite often, "winning" doesn't really enter the picture. To be successful in self-defense requires only that you leave the area alive and unharmed. The old saying is that the attacker must vanquish; the defender need only survive.

2) God knows it's been years since I've been in any "street fights," but on those rare occasions, literally every single one of them ended quickly with me delivering a more-or-less uncontested shot to the solar plexus. Quick, easy, very effective, so my personal experience certainly wouldn't indicate that martial artists have trouble winning these things.

In my opinion, most of the stories you hear about martial artists losing fights have more to do with people who've trained in more modern martial sports than in the older systems, or with people who, for some reason, abandoned basic common sense.

Just my opinion, worth what you paid for it. :)

Sue C said...

Dan, your comments really help me put things into a bit more perspective. I clearly have a lot to learn! I'm still working out what questions I should be asking. Thanks for your input.

Man of the West. I entirely take on board your comment about surviving rather than winning.

Funakoshi's advice to women (from Karate-do Kyohan) states "The comparative weakness of a woman in protecting herself from a more powerful opponent must be offset by her quick and especially accurate techniques in attacking the vital points."

I think he's basically saying that you only get one shot so get it right. Clearly for you a strike to the solar plexus was a winning move. I don't think this would work for me (my fist is probably half the size of yours) - I need to work out what my winning shot will be. Thanks for sharing your experiences and insights with me - it all adds to my understanding.

Indomitable Spirit said...

Hi Sue

I've trained in an 'eclectic' system which chose to utilise and adapt the human flinch response for defence. It certainly worked for me! Mind you, we spent a lot of time pressure testing self-defence - we found that all the 'pretty' and complex techniques went right out the window.

Krav maga also utilises the flinch response.



Sue C said...

Hi Avril. Since I wrote this post I have found out that the flinch response is more utilised in martial arts than I had previously realised.

I agree that all the pretty and complex stuff is probably no good in real situation but this krav Maga stuff sounds pretty interesting if you're serious about learning effective self-defence. I'm starting to hear a lot more about it.

Mark said...

Sub Level 4 Kenpo uses the flinch response, as well as the body's natural CORRECT alignments and movements . You cannot overcome a flinch response, and trying is just a waste of training time. Instead use it as part of your intial response to an attack.

Sue C said...

Hi Mark, thanks for joining in the discussion. I've heard a lot more about the flinch response since I wrote this post and you're right - we need to learn to work with it rather than try to overcome it.

Do you have a blog?

fishface said...

hi again.

you think too much.

flinch response is a natural reaction to protect the body so dont worry about loosing it.

in terms of applied karate this will occur if needed but its the point after this when your karate reactions apply simply by closing the attacker , retaliating or escaping.
flinch is built in and taken for granted if you look at your kata bunkai enrtries you will find it you can train it to produce BAR body alarm reaction.
i am sure your instructor from recent blogs will explain it to you but to be honest it sounds like you overthink everything :)

Sue C said...

Hi fishface, I confess - I'm a thinker! I don't particularly think about these things whilst I'm actually training, it's just when I'm reflecting on things afterwards.

It's more than a year since I wrote this post and my training has progressed a bit since then. My understanding of bunkai and how to approach it has improved and things seem a little more intuitive than they used to - which means I am learning to respond without too much thinking first!

Thanks for commenting.


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