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'It' Hits All By Itself

Most, if not everyone reading this blog has seen the film Enter the Dragon, and is familiar with one of the opening scenes in which Lee's character, while talking to the head Shaolin monk about fighting, raises his clenched fist and states, "And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit, 'it' hits all by itself.

This particular scene popped into my head while reading a book recently title, "Wait - The Art and Science of Delay." While the book itself has nothing to do with martial arts, I came across a very interesting section dealing with super-fast reactions in the world of sports which discussed what is referred to as "pre-conscious anticipation."

In the book, super-fast sports such as fencing, tennis, baseball, cricket, etc., are defined as being categorically different from merely fast ones sucha as football, soccer, etc., in that whereas football and soocer are played in seconds,; tennis, baseball, and cricket are played in milliseconds (I believe that the author is talking about such things as a tennis serve, a baseball pitch, and a fencer's lunge as opposed to the overall length of the game or match. This is a distinction with a difference. At super-fast speeds athletes have to rely exclusively on their hardwiring to react quickly and follow their decision-making framework without thinking.

In the book, the author, Framk Partnoy writes the following--

"Benjamin Libet, physiology professor at UC San Francisco for nearly 50 years, has thought about super-fast reactions more than just about anyone."

"According to Libet, the professional tennis serve is a special test at the boundary of pre-conscious human skill. It is designed for periods longer than the fastest visual reaction but shorter than the minimum conscious reaction time. The serve forces the returner to act within a set period, before the ball goes by, but it favors those who can wait the longest during this period. And it does all of this so fast that conscious thought is impossible."

"Returning serve in tennis takes place in 500 milliseconds (1/2 second). It is a paradoxical act in that on one hand it is a largely unconscious act, it has to be -- on the other hand, it involves a range of sophisticated and creative responses."

"The speed of a fencing bout is mind-boggling. To score a hit in epee you must hit your opponent 40 milliseconds before he hits you. A fencer's actions depend on pre-conscious anticipation."

Partnoy goes on to write --

"Libet's path-breaking experiments uncovered a strange phenomenon: a consistent half-second delay between a person's unconscious reaction to stimulus and his or her conscious awareness of the stimulus. Libet found that we don't become aware of a reaction - even our own reactions - for half a second."

This unconsciousness of our reaction seems to fit perfectly with the idea of "'It' hits all by itself." We are striking a split-second before we are even aware of the fact that we are striking. In other words, we react first, then become aware of our reactions after.

Lee also discussed the same idea of "It' hit all by itself," in Joe Hyams book, "Zen in the Martial Arts." When Hyams asks Lee what he means by 'it,' Lee tells him --

""'It' is when you act with unconscious awareness, you just act. When you throw a punch at me, I intercpet it and hit you back, but without thought. 'It' just happens."

In another book, "The Hour Between Dog and Wolf,", the author, John Coates writes --

"When fast reactions are demanded, the brain cuts out consciousness altogether and relies on reflexes, automatic behavior and what is called "pre-attentive processing" -- a type of perception, decision-making and movement initiation that occurs without any consultation with your conscious brain, and before it is even aware of what is going on."

Coates goes on to write --

"Good athletes are not in the habit of waiting around for a ball or fist to appear, or opponent's to make their move. Good athletes anticipate. A boxer, while moving and parrying jabs, will preconsciously scan his opponent's footwork and head movements, and look for the tell-tale setting of his stabilizer muscles as he plants himself for a klnockout blow. Such information allows the receiving athlete to bring on-line well-rehearsed motor programs and to prepare large muscle groups so that there is little to do while the fist is in the air but make subtle adjustments based on its flight path. Skilled anticipation is crucial to lowering reaction times throughout our physiology... In other words, we are, for the most part, on auto-pilot."

So the question becomes, is it possible to develop or improve our pre-conscious anticipation abilities, and if so, how do we do it? I believe the answer is, yes we can. It can be done through dedicated and purposeful training. With regard to training our skills, we move from conscious incompetence to conscious competence, and as we master our skills we arrive at the end-point of training, which is unconscious competence. When we reach that point, 'it' will indeed "hit all by itself."


(Wait - The Art and Science of Delay -- Partnoy, Frank -- 2012, Public Affairs)

(Zen in the Martial Arts -- Hyams, Joe - 1979, J.P. Tarcher, Inc. - p90)

(The Hour Bewteen Dog and Wolf -- Coates, John -- 2012, Penguin Press)