Quickness is one of those qualities that often seems mysterious and harder to gauge than gains in strength, flexibility, or even balance. What is it that makes one person quick and another one slow? How much of it is genetics? Is it trainable? The purpose of this article is to educate students on some basics of quickness, particularly in the context of martial arts.
Believe it or not, the greatest contributor to quickness is decision-making skills, not any innate physical ability! Tania Spiteri and Jeremy Sheppard in the book “Developing Agility and Quickness” define decision making as, “the ability to accurately and rapidly identify task-relevant cues within the sporting environment, process the incoming information, and select the most appropriate response.”
In martial arts, an easy example of this would be an incoming punch. There is a plethora of data that comes with the punch that determines how best to respond to it. This makes a proper response a lot more difficult than it might seem at first glance. Just a few factors may include, the speed, range, and target of the punch, but may also extend to your, and your opponent’s, current body position, predicted next move, intent, and more. That’s a lot of information to compute within the second it takes for the person to hit you, which is why quickness training is vital.
So how do we improve our decision making in this context? Spiteri and Sheppard break it down into three parts, which we’ll review and contextualize here.
1. Task Constraints: “players on the court, player size, speed of movement execution, object manipulation, and presentation of stimulus”. These are fancy terms for the sorts of factors I listed above, though consideration of multiple attackers and their size are two more, very important factors!
2. Environmental Constraints: “the athletic environment in which the task occurs.” In terms of fighting, this could include whether you are in an open area, or a confined space. Is the floor slippery, sticky, hard, or soft? Is there a wall behind you, or maybe even another fighter? Research shows that decision-making time is influenced by familiarity with an environment. Unfortunately, we don’t often get to choose the arena for a fight, so it behooves us to train under different circumstances and under different simulated conditions.
3. Organismic Constraints: “the physical, technical, and perceptual cognitive qualities of an athlete and how these affect movement output.” Let’s break that down:
a. Physical Qualities: “general motor abilities, and strength and power capacity.” We build these qualities when we do things like plyometrics, or HIFT.
b. Technical Qualities: “an athlete’s ability to sequence the required muscle actions, coordinate force application, and adopt an appropriate body position to execute fast performance.” We build these qualities during form practice, and practicing the techniques from forms under various circumstances, and differing speeds.
c. Perceptual-Cognitive qualities: “the ability of an athlete…to identify relevant cues from the environment requiring effective visual scanning, anticipation, and decision-making to formulate a rapid and accurate response.” This last one requires prior knowledge and experience, which can arguably only be achieved through sparring. Particularly sparring a variety of opponents with different size, strength, and martial backgrounds.
I often tell students that speeding up is easy—you just speed up—it comes naturally after sufficient practice has taken place. Quickness is an accumulation of the various skills required above, and not its own, independent factor at the end of the day.
Spiteri and Sheppard put it like this, “From a training perspective, many experts believe simple reaction time is much harder to alter through training because it is primarily related to genetics and to the speed of the central nervous system. However, training and experience may significantly improve choice-reaction time.” Choice reaction time, which is often associated and even conflated with quickness due to their interdependence, ultimately comes down to how quickly you can choose an appropriate response to one or more unanticipated stimuli (like a punch).
The best way to respond quickly then, is to become very familiar with the best sorts of counterstrikes available based on task, environmental, and organismic constraints, so a decision can easily be made.
Anticipation also comes into play, and is indeed another trainable trait. “The primary goal in training anticipation should be to improve decision-making ability and response accuracy [a], before enhancing response speed [b], before training the ability to locate and identify correct cues from the environment [c], and before focusing on speed of identification [d].”
Thus, the way that I train students specifically in martial arts is as follows: introduce techniques at a slow speed and show students how to properly utilize them in a given scenario (a), build up to explosive usage of each technique (b), place students into slow, chess-style sparring (c), progressively accelerate sparring (d).
These same rules also capture the quickness element of “situation knowledge”. When building situation knowledge it is recommended athletes perform “closed, pre-programmed drills” (forms), and “as athletes perfect technique and gain greater experience…open, unplanned quickness drills” (sparring).
Finally, arousal plays a massive role in quickness. While low arousal levels may hinder performance, this is uncommon in fighting environments. However, high arousal levels are equally detrimental, and can cause tunnel-vision, which hinders the athlete’s ability to see and read cues (which, as previously discussed, is potentially the most important factor for determining quickness).
To alleviate this hyper-arousal in fighting, we utilize two training techniques. The first is to expose students to fighting situations via sparring, which help them gain confidence and become accustomed as to the sorts of attacks they might expect while fighting. Striking practice on pads can also help introduce students to the force they are likely to encounter when they are being attacked. The second is meditation—training students to be able to use their breathing and volition to ease their emotional state.
A final note that cannot be overemphasized: real-world fighting, and even competitive fighting often does not reflect optimal technique, but instead, the ability to coordinate movement in response to the opponent under the constraints of a faster performance. This is true of all sports and high-level competitions, so remember not to obsess over perfection of technique to the detriment of quickness training.
Spiteri and Sheppard sum this up nicely: “The overall goal of training should not be movement perfection; rather it should be to provide athletes with the opportunity to develop an adaptable movement solution to a wide variety of movement problems. This allows athletes to produce the optimal movement output when responding to various stimuli in competition.”
Which is exactly what we do here at the Fox’s Den!
1. Dawes, J. Developing Agility and Quickness. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2019.