Kata training and the flinch reflex

Reflexes can be a tricky term when discussing martial arts and fighting as a large number of martial artists do not distinguish between actions that are under their conscious control and actions that are not, or responses that are learned and responses that are not. A reflex action, also known as a reflex, is an involuntary and nearly instantaneous movement in response to a stimulus.  If we automatically use a trained response without thinking (such as a parry) in response to a stimuli we might describe it as reflexive, but a true reflex is a behaviour that is mediated via a reflex arc, a neural pathway that controls an action reflex.

 When you go to the doctor and have a medical and he/she taps your knee with a hammer and your leg twitches, that is an example of a somatic reflex arc (affecting muscles). When your tongue is depressed and you gag – that too is a reflex. You are not consciously controlling it and you cannot stop it. Do we have similar reflexes applicable to combat? The answer is yes.  A working knowledge of withdrawal reflexes and tendon reflexes can improve our combative ability.  I’d like to briefly look at something that is the combined result of a number of different withdrawal reflexes, the ‘flinch reflex’.

 The body has autonomic mechanisms to protect itself from injury and given the right stimuli, your flinch reflex will kick in. You eyes will shut briefly and your hands and forearms will attempt first to move to cover the head (or perceived area of vulnerability) and second to push away danger

 I use the term ‘right stimuli’ here because the body only flinches when the brain consciously or unconsciously perceives danger. You might note that after you have been training for a while you rarely flinch in sparring or hardly ever see flinching in the ring.   This is because your brain recognises the telegraphs of the techniques and moves into a trained response – it is when you don’t spot the telegraph in time for the brain to consciously or unconsciously activate a trained appropriate response that you are startled and as a result you flinch.  A simple  analogy is that most of us can catch a tennis ball with one or two hands: the more time we have to prepare for catching a ball coming towards us and can see its arc the more likely we are to catch it.  If however someone were to shout “look out” and on turning our head we were to see a ball flying straight for our face, depending upon our skill level, the speed of the incoming object, and our reaction time, we would do one of the following:

  • Scrunch our face up to brace for impact and shut our eyes
  • The above while turning the head away as much as we can
  • The above while covering the head with the hands and ducking away from the object
  • Turning slightly but also pushing out with nearest hand while the other covers the face
  • Intercepting the object with a previously trained skill

A person just off the line of flight of this bat with sufficient observation and reaction time to apparently access the complex motor skill of catching, but even he’s flinching.ImageDealing with attacks, whether in a competitive consensual fight, or a surprise attack or an escalated argument is no different.  If you do not spot the telegraphs then your reaction is likely to be at the top of the list above, the earlier you see and recognise the telegraphs (not necessarily on a conscious level) the further down that list your response will be, particularly if you already have your hands in front of your face or body.

 The less familiar you are with the telegraphs and the environment, the less likely you are to access a trained response.  If you are unused to dealing with verbal aggression or the stimulus of multiple people moving and not knowing which one is likely to attack, then your brain will be more occupied with this along with ‘fight/don’t fight’ questions.  As a result of this extra neural engagement you may be less likely to spot telegraphs that you would have identified with ease in a ‘cleaner’ competitive environment.  The net result is that you are more likely to flinch.

Hands coming up so fast he drops his drink… but can you spot which common ‘uke’ technique is instinctive?




 The good news is that you do not need to train the flinch – it is built in. The bad news is that if you are spending time working other more complicated methods of intercepting attacks then in the one instance when you will truly need them, when you are caught off guard by the ease of the attack (entry angle of attack, attitude of the attacker, speed of the attack and the environment in which the attack takes place), you’ve spent a large amount of your time honing a fairly redundant skill because you will flinch rather than perform that complex motor skill.

 Now if there are movements in Kata that mimic the flinch – will practicing them improve your ability to flinch? No. Practicing them will improve your ability to fight because following the ‘fake’ flinch in the Kata you move from that position into a combative application. Thus what Kata can do is help you make a transition from a natural protective movement into a trained combative movement so fast that it seems reflexive.

 This could be one of the most important things that Kata gives us. There are clear differences between the movements in sparring and those in Kata, and the key to those differences is that both are reflections of differing scenario and attack specific skill sets. The environment of the sparring and sport arena make redundant the employment of natural movements that the body will use in a ‘real’ arena (and if you’ve pulled off your sport techniques in that arena then either you hit first or the other guy telegraphed his intentions so clearly or attacked so weakly the ease of the attack was incredibly familiar and did not stretch you out of your comfort zone). Kata by contrast often mimics (though now in stylised form) the flinch and then practices moving from that to a combative strike. If you look at the extended arm set up common in various versions of kata for all of Karate’s  receiving techniques – Age Uke, Shuto Uke, Uchi Uke, Gedan Barai and so forth you can see a protective motion  to ward away danger and in many cases a hand attempting to shield the head.

In Karate Do Kyohan Funakoshi said that Kakewake Uke could be done palms open or closed, hands facing towards you or away.  Does this look familiar?


 There is an intrinsic problem here that Kata gives us the drills and skill sets needed to move from a natural position in self defence while sparring improves our timing, hand eye coordination, reactions and conditioning, while failing to properly prepare us for what our body will do under an extra dojo/mat situation when someone attacks with none of the pre-contact cues that sparring provides. Kata’s weakness is that we are using it as a solo exercise rather than taking its movements into the paired area of training. Kata techniques do not work so well in sparring because the stimuli and attacks that they are often paired with are all wrong. Kata based ‘sparring’ should be against habitual acts of violence (HAOV). There is a truism in the joke that the Shotokan Kata Wankan is a solo recreation of movements that were originally intended to give a more productive experience as a two person exercise.

 If we are to make Kata a reflexive exercise then we need to be able to use its initiation point in reflex based techniques. As a result we need to mimic the flinch. To train the almost-reflexive movement from a flinch to a combative counter the Kata training needs to be paired. All the Kata drills I use initiate from either a flinch based movement against a habitual act of violence, a ‘failed’ Kata attacking/controlling movement following a flinch based movement, or a common mid fight redundancy position such as a clinch.  As a result back in 2004 with the Heian Flow System I created an extensive Kata based sparring repertoire where techniques fitted together like lego and students began to unconsciously shift between techniques and strategies according to stimuli.

 My current work on the Pinan and Heian Kata takes this a step further with the benefit of the experience of heavy contact scenario simulation training and hours of footage of watching how martial artists respond in such pressurised environments.   When you consider how much time you’ve spent drilling your Kata solo, you may find it’s time you did them justice by taking them to the next level by experiencing their use as two man training systems.   Paired Kata training might not look as beautiful as kumite or solo Kata, but it’s fun, it develops new skill sets, and it could prove to be the most useful element of your karate repertoire.


  1. I have always had some doubts about sticky hands drills as found in tai chi and wing chun mainly because those I have sparred with the skill didn’t do them much if any good and when pressed hard reacted as any others trained in other disciplines.

    1. An interesting observation. I think those skills have their place, and can be very effective, but you have to be able to access them. As a result the practitioner should practice pre-empting and then going into such drills, or imitating flinches against HAOV and then moving into such positions. To develop a skill at a high level requires slow good quality training, but to access a skill under pressure requires training under pressure.

  2. […] While flinching is a natural movement (and can to a degree biomechanically overlap with some of the examples given above) it differs from them in that it is an unconscious reflexive response. We all flinch, but we do so unconsciously when we do not have time to access a conscious response to protect ourselves. How we flinch will depend on how far away the stimuli is when we spot it, how fast it is, where it is headed, and the position of our hands and arms at the time. If you spot a punch heading towards your face at the last minute and your hands are down by your waist, they may begin to come up as if to cover the head, and the spinal reflex will kick in turning you down and away, and the face will scrunch and the eyes shut, but you will still get hit. If your hands were already in front of your face then your arms would probably have covered the head and you wouldn’t have been hit. If there were more time the arms (or the nearest arm) would have extended to push the threat away. If there were more time than that then you would most likely have accessed a conscious response and your unconscious brain would not have taken over. We cannot modify the flinch. We can reduce its likelihood through training and learning to spot and act on telegraphs earlier. We can also (if we’re sensible) practice recovering from flinch-like positions so that if we do flinch we are immediately able to respond rather than fall victim to follow up attacks. I’ve previously discussed how I view flinching and its relation to karate kata, sparring and techniques here. […]

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